The new issue of The Blue and White appears on campus this weekend. Today, Hannah Lepow reviews the latest book by History Professor Eric Foner.
The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
by Eric Foner
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
October 4, 2010 / $29.95
Eric Foner, distinguished Civil War and Reconstruction historian, Dewitt Clinton Professor of History, and Columbia lifer (CC ’63, GSAS ’69) prefaces his new book by admitting that there is no shortage of Lincoln biographies on bookshelves today. (A few notable ones even bear his name on their spines.) Nevertheless, come October, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery will join the weighted shelves of Lincoln history. Breaking the recent trend of sensationalized biographies, Foner is not interested in Lincoln’s relationship with his wife or children or his medical or mental health. Instead, he gives a close reading of the president’s policy on American slavery by evaluating Lincoln’s words and actions. The Great Emancipator emerges from Foner’s analysis a dynamic, intellectually curious leader, a man willing to fundamentally change his perspective on the South’s peculiar institution. It is in this sense that The Fiery Trial stands out from its peers.
It is important to note that The Fiery Trial is no primer. Foner has written a Lincoln book for Lincoln lovers, and dense chapters on the political makeup of the 1850s offer little explanation for those who do not already know something about the Know-Nothing party. And while Foner pays due deference to Lincoln’s rhetorical highlights, the book does not focus its close reading on the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural. The strength of The Fiery Trial is in its research—quotes from major historical figures such as Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and columnists from the New York Times join the voices of letter-writing citizens and small, abolitionist presses to support Foner’s conclusions, painting a fuller picture of the struggles within antebellum America than simply focusing on Lincoln’s most famous words would. While this meticulous detail can at times read abstrusely, the tightly-packed narrative is informative and forward-moving. It is not necessarily a quick read, but it is a propelling one.
While Foner does not move his narrative beyond Lincoln’s words and actions (only in the epilogue does he dedicate a few pages to criticism of the president’s successor, Andrew Johnson), his analysis centers on issues remarkably similar to our own. The first abolitionists were Christian evangelicals — a group now less beloved by liberals, but still ideological radicals highly visible in the public square. And change was, and still is, the catchword of the day. Foner quotes Senator Timothy O. Howe of Wisconsin advising his nephew: “…Don’t anchor yourself to any policy. Don’t tie up to any platform. The very foundations of the government are cracking… No mere policy or platform can outlast this storm.”
As the widening divisions between left and right once again shake American politics, it is Foner’s emphasis on Lincoln’s pragmatism — a quality that President Obama often cites as a key source of inspiration — that most clearly resonates with the reader. Rather than aligning himself with any particular party or ideology, Lincoln’s “firmness in the right,” as he said in his Second Inaugural, guided his actions. The Fiery Trial’s release is timed to the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s election in 1860, and even the title — from one of Lincoln’s messages to Congress, urging its members to realize how their actions would affect history and be remembered by it — serves as a fulcrum between past and present, emphasizing Lincoln’s continued relevance.
Illustration by Abigail Santner