Abe’s Evolution

How Lincoln went from frontier lawyer to Great Emancipator


The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, by Eric Foner, Norton, 448 pp., $29.95

Few historians have written as exten­sively about mid-19th-century America as Eric Foner. His latest book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, explores the evolution—from frontier lawyer to Great Eman­cipator—of Lincoln’s thought about and response to slavery. The book, which seems  an al­most inevitable undertaking, showcases Foner’s en­gaging style and insight, while keeping a tight focus on Lincoln in his own historical con­text. The Fiery Trial explains how a man who was more skilled politician than reformer came to issue one of the most sweeping, consequential edicts in American history. “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me,” Lincoln remarked of the process. Foner relates how abolitionism, once marginalized, grew in appeal not only to Lincoln but to many of his countrymen, an illustrative story of the fits-and-starts relationship between progressive thought and political courage.

The Fiery Trial is in one sense a response to a debate regarding Lincoln’s racial policies and attitudes that has simmered at least since the 1960s, when there appeared provocatively titled articles such as, “Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?” (Ebony) and “Was Lincoln Just a Honkie?” (The New York Times Magazine). Ebony editor Lerone Bennett Jr.’s claim that Lincoln “was the very essence of a white supremacist with good intentions,” bespoke a concern arising from sixties’ racial politics that, in the country’s collective memory of the process that led to the end of slavery, Old Abe had gotten off easy.

Of course Lincoln himself heard worse criticism. “The Slave-Hound of Illinois” abolitionist Wendell Phillips called him after he floated possible compromises with the slave South during the presidential campaign of 1860. “The problem [of slavery] is too mighty for me,” Lincoln was once heard to complain, but as Foner suggests, the “hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness was his capacity for growth”; and the folksy politician did grow steadily in his thinking about slavery and race as the country drifted toward the unprecedented crisis of disunion and civil war.

The author adheres closely to what might be called “Lincoln’s progress.” Fond of minstrel shows and Negro jokes, Lincoln, like many in the 1830s, saw abolitionists as a threat to order and was inclined to respect the constitutional sanctity of slavery. He later married into a slave-­owning family. But the rhetoric of proslavery zealots disturbed him. A tipping point came in 1837 with the mob murder of abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy in downstate Illinois, which prompted Lincoln to caution that slavery contributed to lawlessness and anarchy. His concern deepened with the growth of the cotton export market and the potential westward advance of slavery—and with legislation like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the 1857 Supreme Court ruling in Scott v. Sandford, the Dred Scott case, which stated that African-Americans, slave or free, could not enjoy the protections of the Constitution; that they could never be citizens; and that slavery could not be prohibited in federal territories.

Lincoln thought that the Dred Scott decision was a terrible mistake, noting that the Declaration of Independence “did not in­tend to declare all men equal in all respects . . . [but] equal in ‘certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of hap­­piness.’” He believed the founders saw freedom as an ever-expanding ideal, one that should be “familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence.”

In 1858 Lincoln, seeking the U.S. Senate appointment from Illinois, engaged in a series of debates up and down the state with political rival Stephen A. Douglas. The chief issue was sla­­very, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates were closely watched by the public and often quoted at length in newspapers. As parts of Illinois were deeply sympathetic to slavery, Lincoln would adjust his message per locale, a strategy that offended some abolitionists, but overall he offered, as historian George M. Fredrickson has written, “moral opposition to slavery, acceptance of the basic humanity of blacks, and a conservative position on the prospects for racial equality in the United States.” The tone for the debates was set at the state Republican convention in Springfield on June 16, 1858, where Lincoln aligned himself with a party platform that denounced Dred Scott and demanded slavery not be extended into the West:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.

The “House Divided” speech held some of Lincoln’s most forceful language about slavery. It lured abolitionists deeper into the Re­publican camp and solidified the desire to end slavery as a Republican issue. But the solution remained intangible to Lincoln and anti-slavery advocates. Was the aim of abolition total emancipation? Would it include equal rights for blacks? Would the freed slaves become citizens? “Social rights” for blacks proved a divisive idea for its suggestion of mis­­cegenation and race-­blurring, but Lincoln saw “Negro equality” as a phony issue. “I do not understand,” he ob­served, “that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife.” He reminded listeners that the real question was whether the slave economy would expand.


Lincoln lost the Senate appointment to Douglas, but the debates established him as a national figure and potential presidential candidate. His subsequent victory in the presidential election of 1860 demonstrated that the North had gained sufficient unity to act on slavery, which alarmed those states whose leaders viewed him as no better than an abolitionist. In his inaugural address he offered concessionary language to the South, while insisting that the United States had been created to endure; states could not dissociate from the union. “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land,” he declared, “will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” But Lincoln’s eloquence failed to quell the secessionist cause.

After the Civil War began, Lincoln’s efforts to defuse the slavery issue proved futile. His plan for slave owners to be compensated in exchange for gradual emancipation, which he pitched to the border states with the promise that change “would come gently as the dews of heaven,” seemed to fall on deaf ears. He also promoted the colonization of freed slaves to foreign nations in an attempt to reassure anxious Northern whites about the prospect of emancipation. The latter scheme had been championed, with li­mited results, since the 1816 founding of the American Colonization Society by, among others, Lincoln’s political idol, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. Like Thomas Jefferson before him, Lincoln thought colonization essential, because he could not countenance an America that would be a biracial society, fearing that whites would not stand for it. But the administration’s exploratory efforts regarding so massive an out-migration proved both impractical and unpopular among its intended subjects.

African Americans instead seemed intent on helping to steer presidential policy toward emancipation. Slaves liberated by the advance of federal troops into the South had been entering Union lines since the war’s beginning. In March 1862 Lincoln signed legislation forbidding U.S. military officers from returning fugitive slaves, but the issue grew more complex when Union Generals John C. Frémont and David Hunter began declaring them free and sought to arm them for military service. Lincoln at first was furious, declaring, “No commanding general shall do such a thing upon my responsibility without consulting me.”

Increasingly the need for an order of emancipation became clear. Freeing the slaves still held in bondage in the Confederate states would solidify support for the war from abolitionists and radical Republicans in Congress; it would, by making slavery the war’s moral cause, head off the South’s effort to lure England into the fight; it would weaken the Southern economy and make possible the broader enlistment of black soldiers, which Lincoln eventually acceded to in response to the North’s discouraging military outlook. “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history,” Lincoln told the nation in December 1862, on the eve of emancipation. “[We] . . . will be remembered in spite of ourselves. . . . The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”

It cannot be known for certain what Lincoln’s Reconstruction policies would have been. He had long opposed slavery, but had never believed in black political equality, al­though shortly before his death he attempted to make the franchise available to some blacks in Louisiana, one of the first Southern states to enter Reconstruction. Given the growth of Lincoln’s thinking on race, it isn’t hard to imagine that he would have come to understand the need for the inclusive citizenship of the freedmen. Certainly by then he had, like many others, come to respect the long-held conviction of the abolitionists. “I have been only an instrument,” he confided at war’s end to Daniel Cham­berlain, the future Reconstruction governor of South Carolina. “The logic and moral power of [William Lloyd] Garrison and the anti-slavery people of the country and the army have done it all.”

Foner describes Lincoln as “a lens through which we Americans examine ourselves” and depicts the development of Lincoln’s beliefs on slavery and race as an experience shared by much of the nation between 1830 and 1865. Initially inclined against any frontal assault on slavery, unsure what role emancipated African Americans would play in society, Lincoln came to hold a core faith in slavery’s demise and, in steps large and small, helped guide the country to that historic goal.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Philip Dray is the author of At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. His most recent book is There is Power in Union: The Epic Story of American Labor.


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