Review- Foner, “The Fiery Trial”


Eric Foner, “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” (2010) – H.L. Mencken once said “there are four kinds of books that seldom, if ever, lose money in the United States: first, murder stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly overcome by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism and other such claptrap; and fourthly, books on Lincoln.” Mencken said that in an essay meant to denigrate the 16th president by way of his usual target, the silly sanctimonious bourgeoisie of early 20th century America (and by talking up George Washington- back then, the code was lefties, up to and including communists, liked Lincoln, where righties, up to and including fascists, liked Washington). Mencken was an asshole, whatever else he was.

But he had a real point- what more does anyone really need to say about Lincoln (or Washington, or given how much faster the myth machine works, Obama, at least until some of his records are declassified)?

Well, context counts for a lot, and it makes sense that major cultural touchstones are going to get recontextualized every so often. That’s what Eric Foner — probably the most prominent living American historian — proposed to do for Lincoln in the Obama era. Two aspects of that specific period (the book appeared in 2010) were stand out as Lincoln-adjacent. The first was the question of the relationship between politicians, movements, and highly divisive political/social questions. The second is that of Lincoln’s feelings and attitudes regarding slavery and race. Perhaps this is my own projection on the text, but having dealt with Lincoln-haters from both the right and the left who’ve thrown “well Lincoln was a RACIST!” in my face for various reasons as though that’s some winning card, I think discussing the relationship between personal attitudes and political actions can be worthwhile.

I’m probably talking this much about the context because the content doesn’t have a ton to criticize. Foner does his usual seamless job constructing nuanced but forceful arguments. His main thesis is that Lincoln was, in fact, imperfect. He was a politician, not an abolitionist, and he had retrograde attitudes about race- not uncommon at the time but not ones we should overlook (among other things, he was a proponent of shipping free blacks to Liberia or Central America astonishingly late in the game). His vision from the beginning revolved around American growth and prosperity and the promulgation of an individualistic free labor capitalist system (before the contradictions there in were fully apparent). He didn’t like slavery because it competed with free labor and threatened national unity. But so too, he thought, did abolitionist agitation and even the presence of blacks in America.

But he was a thoughtful and complicated politician, who answered both to changes in his own conscience (he, like many of his soldiers, became much more aware of how bad slavery was as the war wore on) but more importantly to organized pressure from outside. He was disinclined to side with abolitionists or the Radical Republicans on most issues, but found himself going in their direction time after time anyway. Sometimes, this was because the radicals read public opinion better than he did (like when he was scared treating slaves as contraband to be seized and freed would be unpopular in the North- it was anything but). Often, this was because they offered the only clear, consistent plans of action, against the muddle of half-measures proposed by more moderate figures (leaving aside how many respectable, conservative figures were in cahoots with disunionists). More than anything, Lincoln was open to changing his mind. This has led to the charge of him being weak or vacillating- he certainly doesn’t appear the former in Foner, but maybe that’s just because he typically moved in directions I approve of.

For contemporary radicals, Foner’s work is useful even if he isn’t necessarily 100 percent onside with all of our demands. Like Lincoln (perhaps influenced by a lifetime studying the early Republican Party!), Foner’s historical work has a couple of different sides. On the one hand, he has always emphasized the importance of movements pushing from outside the political mainstream to make radical change happen. On the other, he does not stint on depictions of how incapable the radicals — at least in the American historical contexts he writes — would be capable of effecting that change alone. He strongly implies the job couldn’t have been done by Radical Republican favorites Salmon Chase (too brittle) or William Seward (too flighty), and other figures contemporaries would identify with — Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips — never even came close to political power. Basically, Foner says you need politicians- people who can balance interests and make difficult decisions in divided communities.

I’m not sure that’s right in the sense of bourgeois politics. But I think in terms of an overarching art of politics ranging from at least the Ancient Greek polis to our own day, he’s right that attention to the art, beyond the rightness or wrongness of a given cause or the dogma associated with it, is necessary to success. Maybe our goal should be to see to it that every cook can debate Stephen Douglas and manage the Army of the Potomac… ****’

Review- Foner, “The Fiery Trial”

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