[Marxism] James McPherson reviews Foner book on Lincoln

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 8 15:48:57 MST 2010

(McPherson has given a number of interviews to wsws.org)

The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln
November 25, 2010
James M. McPherson

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
by Eric Foner
Norton, 426 pp., $29.95

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United 
States Constitution abolished slavery and barred states from 
abridging the equal civil and political rights of American 
citizens, including former slaves. Abraham Lincoln’s native state 
of Kentucky was the only state that refused to ratify all three 
amendments. The region of southern Indiana where Lincoln had lived 
from the age of seven to twenty-one (1816–1830) was among the most 
proslavery and anti-black areas in the free states during those 
years. Its representative in Congress also voted against the 
Thirteenth Amendment. So did the congressman from central 
Illinois, where Lincoln had lived for three decades. Lincoln 
himself had represented this district in the state legislature for 
eight years and in the United States Congress for one term in the 
1830s and 1840s. And in 1842 he married a woman from a prominent 
Kentucky slaveholding family.

One might therefore expect that the cultural influences 
surrounding Lincoln during the first half-century of his life 
would shape his convictions about slavery and race in the same 
mold that characterized most politicians of his time and place. 
But instead, he was one of only two representatives in the 
Illinois legislature who presented a public “protest” against a 
resolution passed in 1837 by their colleagues that condemned 
abolitionist doctrines of freedom and civil equality and affirmed 
the right of property in slaves as “sacred to the slave-holding 
states.” Lincoln’s protest acknowledged that the Constitution did 
indeed sanction slavery in those states but declared that 
nevertheless “the institution of slavery is founded on both 
injustice and bad policy.”

In 1854 Lincoln made an even stronger protest, this time in the 
form of eloquent speeches against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. 
Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s longtime political 
rival, had rammed this law through a divided Congress. It repealed 
the earlier ban on the expansion of slavery into territories 
carved out of the Louisiana Purchase north of latitude 36º 30'. 
Douglas’s actions opened these territories to slavery and sparked 
the formation of the new “anti-Nebraska” Republican Party, which 
would nominate Lincoln for president six years later. Douglas had 
said that if the white people who moved to Kansas wanted slavery 
there, they should be allowed to have it. “This declared 
indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread 
of slavery, I can not but hate,” said Lincoln in 1854, “because of 
the monstrous injustice of slavery itself” and also “because it 
deprives our republican example of its just influence in the 
world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, 
to taunt us as hypocrites.”

When he ran for the Senate in the famous contest with Douglas in 
1858, Lincoln declared: “I have always hated slavery I think as 
much as any Abolitionist.” Six years later he said with feeling: 
“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember 
when I did not so think, and feel.” As Eric Foner makes clear in 
The Fiery Trial, however, Lincoln was antislavery but not an 
abolitionist. That is, he considered slavery a violation of the 
natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness 
enunciated in America’s founding charter (written by an 
antislavery slaveowner). Like Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln expected 
slavery eventually to die out in America. Preventing its spread 
into the territories was the first step, said Lincoln in 1858, 
toward putting it “in course of ultimate extinction.” But unlike 
the abolitionists, Lincoln and most Republicans in the 1850s did 
not call for the immediate abolition of slavery and the granting 
of equal citizenship to freed slaves.

Having grown up in Kentucky and the border regions of Indiana and 
Illinois, Lincoln also felt a degree of empathy with the South 
that was not shared by abolitionists of Yankee heritage. Although 
he hated slavery, he did not hate slaveowners. “I think I have no 
prejudice against the Southern people,” he said at Peoria, 
Illinois, in 1854. “When southern people tell us they are no more 
responsible for the origin of slavery, than we; I acknowledge the 
fact.” Lincoln also said he could “understand and appreciate” how 
“very difficult” it would be “to get rid of” slavery “in any 
satisfactory way…. If all earthly power were given me, I should 
not know what to do” about the institution where it then existed. 
“My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them 
to Liberia. But a moment’s reflection would convince me” that even 
if such a project was feasible in the long run, “its sudden 
execution” was impossible. “What then? Free them all, and keep 
them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters 
their condition?”

What about the abolitionist proposal to “free them, and make them 
politically and socially our equals?” Lincoln confessed that

     my own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we 
well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. 
Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is 
not the sole question…. A universal feeling, whether well or 
ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded.

The abolitionist program of immediate freedom was therefore 
unrealistic. “It does seem to me that systems of gradual 
emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I 
will not undertake to judge our brethren of the south.” Lincoln 
could not “blame them for not doing what I should not know how to 
do myself.”

Proslavery Southern whites did not reciprocate Lincoln’s 
expressions of empathy. To many of them, especially the radical 
disunionists known as fire-eaters, the divergence between 
“antislavery” and “abolitionist” was a distinction without a 
difference. In their view, anyone who considered slavery a 
monstrous injustice and spoke of placing it in the course of 
ultimate extinction was as dangerous as those who demanded its 
immediate extinction. When the “Black Republican” Lincoln was 
elected president in 1860, they led their states out of the Union 
to prevent the feared extinction of their peculiar institution. 
This preemptive action put in train a course of events that by 
1864 brought about precisely what they feared.

By that time the nation was facing, as imminent realities, the 
same alternatives Lincoln had outlined as abstract possibilities 
in his famous Peoria speech ten years earlier: (1) free all the 
slaves and send them to Liberia (or elsewhere); (2) free them and 
keep them as “underlings” in the United States; or (3) free them 
and make them the political and social equals of white people 
(civil equality in modern terms). In 1864 Lincoln had a much more 
definite idea of “what to do” and a great deal more “earthly 
power” to do it than in 1854. His “brethren of the south” were now 
“rebels” whose war against the United States had given him that 
power as commander in chief of an army of a million men, one 
hundred thousand of them former slaves of those rebels.

Lincoln had tried a version of the first alternative (free slaves 
and send them abroad), but few wanted to go, and now that they 
were fighting so “gallantly in our ranks” their commander in chief 
no longer wanted them to go. By 1864 Lincoln therefore rejected 
that alternative and was looking beyond the second one of freeing 
them only to “keep them among us as underlings.” In 1862 the 
President had proposed gradual emancipation during which most 
black people would indeed have remained as underlings for an 
indefinite period. But he was now moving toward a belief in 
immediate abolition and equal rights for all citizens. According 
to Foner, Lincoln “began during the last two years of the war to 
imagine an interracial future for the United States.”

When he was sworn in for his second term on March 4, 1865, writes 

     For the first time in American history companies of black 
soldiers marched in the inaugural parade. According to one 
estimate, half the audience that heard Lincoln’s address was 
black, as were many of the visitors who paid their respects at the 
White House reception that day.

For “Lincoln opened the White House to black guests as no 
president had before.”

The central theme of The Fiery Trial is Lincoln’s “capacity for 
growth” in his “views and policies regarding slavery and race.” 
Foner does not doubt the sincerity of his statement in 1858 that 
he had “always hated slavery.” By the time of Lincoln’s death, 
however, “he occupied a very different position with regard to 
slavery and the place of blacks in American society than earlier 
in his life.” In 1837 Lincoln described slavery as an injustice; 
by 1854 it was a monstrous injustice; in 1862 he told a delegation 
of five black men he had invited to the White House that “your 
race are suffering in my judgment the greatest wrong inflicted on 
any people.” This was good abolitionist rhetoric. But Lincoln’s 
purpose at this meeting in 1862 was to publicize his program for 
government assistance to blacks who volunteered to emigrate. Like 
his political heroes Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay, Lincoln 
could not yet in 1862 imagine a future of interracial equity in 
the United States. “Even when you cease to be slaves,” he told the 
five delegates, “you are yet far removed from being placed on an 
equality with the white race.” Moreover,

     there is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as 
it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us…. I do 
not propose to discuss this, but to present it as a fact with 
which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I would…. It is better 
for us both, therefore, to be separated.

Despite overtones of empathy with the plight of blacks in a racist 
society, the condescension shown by these presidential remarks 
provoked widespread condemnation from abolitionists both black and 
white. “Pray tell us, is our right to a home in this country less 
than your own?” wrote one black man to the President. “Are you an 
American? So are we.” Few blacks offered to emigrate, and the one 
pilot project supported by the Lincoln administration to colonize 
several hundred black volunteers on a Haitian island was a 
failure. A good many Northern Republicans agreed with a fellow 
Republican who branded Lincoln’s “scheme” of colonization as 
“simply absurd” and “disgraceful to the administration.”

Lincoln came to see the “scheme” of colonization as unjust and 
impractical, though perhaps not disgraceful to his administration. 
As Foner points out, after the President issued the Emancipation 
Proclamation and committed the government to the recruitment of 
black soldiers into the Union army, Lincoln “abandoned the idea of 
colonization.” He could scarcely ask black men to fight for their 
country and then tell them they should leave it. “Black soldiers 
played a crucial role not only in winning the Civil War but also 
in defining its consequences,” writes Foner, by putting “the 
question of postwar rights squarely on the national agenda.” 
Because of Lincoln’s admiration for the courage of black soldiers 
and their contribution to Union victories, his “racial views 
seemed to change” and his “sense of blacks’ relationship to the 
nation also began to change.” Their military service “implied a 
very different vision of their future place in American society 
than plans for settling them overseas.”

Foner is right on the mark here. Indeed, perhaps he could have 
emphasized even more the timing as well as the importance of 
Lincoln’s praise for black soldiers. In August 1863 the President 
wrote one of his forceful public letters that served a purpose 
similar to a modern president’s prime-time televised speech or 
news conference. This letter appeared in print just one year after 
Lincoln’s colonization speech to blacks in the White House, and a 
month after white anti-draft rioters in New York City lynched 
black men at almost the same moment black soldiers were dying in 
the attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina (dramatized in the 
movie Glory). Figuratively looking those anti-draft rioters in the 
eye, Lincoln declared: “You say you will not fight to free 
negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you.” When the war 
was won, Lincoln continued,

     there will be some black men who can remember that, with 
silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised 
bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; 
while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget 
that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove 
to hinder it.

A year later that “great consummation” seemed more distant than 
ever, as military stalemates on all fronts, after enormous 
casualties that summer, caused Northern morale to plummet to its 
lowest point yet. Lincoln came under intense pressure to retreat 
from the abolition of slavery as one of his publicly stated prior 
conditions for negotiations to end the war. He refused. To back 
away from the promise of freedom would be an egregious breach of 
faith, declared Lincoln. “Could such treachery by any possibility, 
escape the curses of Heaven”? More than 100,000 black soldiers 
were then fighting for the Union. Lincoln expressed contempt for 
those who

     have proposed to me to return to slavery [these] black 
warriors… to conciliate the South. I should be damned in time & in 
eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my 
faith to friends & enemies, come what will…. Why should they give 
their lives for us, with full notice of our purpose to betray them?

What Lincoln and everyone else believed would come of this 
principled stand was his defeat for reelection in 1864. Two years 
after he had told African-Americans that they should leave the 
country for the good of both races, he now staked his career and 
reputation on defending the freedom they had earned by fighting 
for their country. As Eric Foner might have said, in echo of 
Winston Churchill, this was Lincoln’s finest hour.

Northern battlefield victories in the fall of 1864 turned around 
both the military and political situation by 180 degrees. Instead 
of being “badly beaten” at the polls in November, as he had 
expected in August, Lincoln was decisively reelected. In his 
inaugural address to the interracial crowd of thousands on March 
4, 1865, he promised that this war he had insisted three years 
earlier was being fought solely for union would now go on until it 
assured the nation a new birth of freedom:

     Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty 
scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it 
continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred 
and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every 
drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn 
with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it 
must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous 

Five weeks later the swords were sheathed at Appomattox and the 
bloodshed came to an end. Two days after that consummation, in a 
speech to an interracial crowd on the White House lawn, Lincoln 
looked toward the future problem of reconstructing the war-torn 
South. At a time when black men could not vote even in most 
Northern states, the President expressed his preference for 
enfranchising literate blacks and all black Union military 
veterans in the new South. “This was a remarkable statement,” 
Foner rightly asserts. “No American president had publicly 
endorsed even limited black suffrage.”

Lincoln’s secretary of the interior considered this endorsement 
the opening wedge toward full and equal citizenship for all 
blacks. So did John Wilkes Booth, who on April 11 was in the crowd 
that heard Lincoln’s words. “That means nigger citizenship,” 
muttered Booth. “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the 
last speech he will ever make.”

Three days later Booth fulfilled his dark oath. Lincoln did not 
get the chance to continue the trajectory that had propelled him 
from the gradualist and colonizationist limitations of his 
antislavery convictions of earlier years toward the immediatist 
and egalitarian policies he was approaching by 1865. “Lincoln had 
changed enormously during the Civil War,” Foner concludes. Most 
strikingly, “he had developed a deep sense of compassion for the 
slaves he had helped to liberate, and a concern for their fate.”

No one has written about this trajectory of change with such 
balance, fairness, depth of analysis, and lucid precision of 
language as Foner has done in The Fiery Trial. The minefield of 
Lincoln studies is filled with partisan and polemical writings 
through which Foner has carefully made his way and emerged without 
a scratch. “Given the size of the Lincoln literature, differences 
of interpretation exist on almost every issue discussed in this 
book,” he acknowledges with masterful understatement. 
Nevertheless, “I have generally chosen to tell the story as I see 
it without engaging in debates with other historians.” Fair enough.

But perhaps some readers might have wanted him to take on those 
historians who declaim from a libertarian or neo-Confederate 
platform that Lincoln was a tyrant who hijacked the Constitution 
in the process of Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, to cite 
the title of one of their books. And some readers would doubtless 
like to know Foner’s opinion of historians on the left who insist 
that Lincoln was Forced Into Glory by the imperatives of war, to 
abandon his White Dream of a nation purged of African-Americans—to 
paraphrase the title of a book at that end of the ideological 
spectrum.1 But perhaps Foner is wise to avoid such debates, even 
in his endnotes, which might, as he explains, “result in a much 
longer, and extremely tedious, narrative.” His book is anything 
but tedious, and the skill of his pen carries the reader along in 
this narrative of America’s most important and dramatic 
achievement presided over by its greatest president.

    1.  Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free 
Men: A History of the American Civil War (Open Court, 1996); 
Lerone Bennett Jr., Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White 
Dream (Johnson, 2000). ↩

More information about the Marxism mailing list