I had almost finished reading The Fiery Trial when I learned it has won the Pulitzer Prize, and I thought, how right. I was not in the least surprised that it won as history, not as biography, despite the subtitle, "Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery."
Eric Foner clearly states his thesis at the start of the book:
"My intent is to return Lincoln to his historical setting, tracing the evolution of his ideas in the context of the broad antislavery impulse and the unprecedented crisis the United States confronted during his adult life . . . My aim then is to take Lincoln whole, incorporating his strengths and shortcomings, his insights and misjudgments. I want to show Lincoln in motion, tracking the development of his ideas and beliefs, his political abilities and strategies, as they engaged the issues of slavery and emancipation, the most critical in our nation's history" (pp xxvii, xxi).This, then, would be no hagiography of Lincoln, not just the story of the Great Emancipator.
Reading this book made me realize that I have fallen a bit into hagiography myself (I do have a statue of Lincoln in my home, as well as a picture of him on display, above the shelves of Lincoln books). It was a salutary shock to be reminded that while Lincoln spoke against slavery from the earliest days of his polical career, he promoted the removal of freed slaves to Africa or Central America (colonization) from those same early days, continuing to do so until well into the Civil War; he did not advocate social or full political equality for African Americans until almost the end of his life; he used racist language and humor; and he once represented a slaveowner trying to force a mother and her four children back into slavery. Lincoln personally knew very few African Americans before he became president, so his knowledge of African Americans and of slavery was abstract. It was only as president that he came in contact with people like Frederick Douglass, Martin Delaney, and Elizabeth Keckley, and then his views began to change.
One of the keys to Lincoln's greatness is that he could change, change his mind, his position, his policies. Foner charts these changes, from the 1830s on, as the slavery issue came to dominate American politics, and as many Americans, including Lincoln, moved from a dislike of abolitionists as social and political nuisances to share their convinction of the wrongs of slavery. Though Lincoln believed that the Constitution protected slavery where it existed, like most Republicans he came to believe it could and must be kept from spreading into the territories. "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men" became their rallying cry (and the title of Foner's influential first book). When the war broke out, Lincoln believed that he had to placate loyalists in the upper south and the border states, so he resisted the calls of more Radical Republicans for action against slavery, until the necessities of war led him to the Emancipation Proclamation. He believed that African Americans could never find a home in America, until the bravery and patriotism of black soldiers convinced him otherwise.
I learned so much from this book, not just about Lincoln, but about the abolition and anti-slavery movements, about the rise of the Republican Party and the Radical wing of it. For much of the past week I was absorbed in 19th century America, and it was disorienting at times to return to 2011.