Eric Foner’s study of the downfall of slavery in America, The Fiery Trial, is an outstanding contribution to the evolution of Abraham Lincoln’s thinking toward the black man in America. Mr. Foner shows the early simple racism of Lincoln, one not conceiving of an American future for Black Americans yet all the time believing slavery to be an absolute wrong. Lincoln grows as his experience brings him in contact with very impressive people like Frederick Douglass and learns ultimately that colonization is not an option and black suffrage the serious possibility.
Abraham Lincoln is lionized in American history as the great emancipator. What is little known is that he is also a product of his environment which meant prejudice against non-white people. He is known to tell “darky” jokes even in the midst of wanting to see the destruction of slavery. Lincoln is on record saying that he does not believe that the races are equal and sees Whites superior. Lincoln is an avid supporter of colonizing blacks voluntarily to Africa as a follow up to the destruction of the institution of slavery even after the famed proclamation is published because he does not see a positive future for Black Americans. The idea of integration seems an anathema to him.
The constant sharp criticism of the great abolitionists (people Lincoln never identified with) and the obvious facts on the ground of massive slaves escaping and fleeing to Union forces who claimed America legitimately their homeland, not Africa changed Lincoln’s thinking about his own racism. He is the first to call them citizens and advocates suffrage to “at least the most intelligent”.
What was clear from this study is that a 19th century understanding of being against slavery dis not necessarily imply racial equality! The social fabric of 19th century America was very much racist across the North and the South and that the real problem was not the destruction of Slavery but rather what to do with an unwanted free work force. Had Lincoln continued to deal with reconstruction, Mr. Foner leaves the possibility open that we would have had a different outcome, one much more positive than what transpired. Unfortunately, Lincoln’s successor, Johnson was an avid racist and put forth reconstruction policies that negated the existence of Black Americans.
Most movies, even Steven Spielberg’s impressive production about Lincoln portray him simplistically liberal. However, Professor Foner delivers a much more accurate, complex picture of a man in slow social transition. Not only does he evolve socially but also Mr. Foner shows how Mr. Lincoln evolves religiously from at first being a self-professing skeptic into a believer thinking that God is behind the profound human events surrounding the Civil War.
In learning about Mr. Lincoln, choose this book over any movie!