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The emancipation of Honest Abe

Friday, November 26, 2010; B05

THE FIERY TRIAL

Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

By Eric Foner

Norton. 426 pp. $29.95

The value of Eric Foner's "The Fiery Trial" lies in its comprehensive review of mostly familiar material; in its sensible evaluation of the full range of information already available about Abraham Lincoln and slavery; and in the deft thoroughness of its scholarship. "The Fiery Trial" does well what has already been done before "but ne'er so well expressed." It's an advantage, though, to have the record, and its uses and misuses, all in one place, and this will now be the book of first convenience to go to on the subject. Not surprisingly, its greatest strength is in context, not foreground. This follows from Foner's belief that "the private Lincoln will forever remain elusive."

As Foner and most Lincoln scholars recognize, Lincoln's moral position was clear from the start: He detested slavery. He had, though, a deep respect and absolute fealty to the Constitution, under which slavery was legal. He never changed his view that pro-slavery state laws must be respected until forces beyond his control gave him the opportunity that he had done everything possible to avoid. From the start of his political career and up until about late 1862, he wanted only to prevent the spread of slavery, to look toward eventual emancipation through a change in public opinion, to solve the "Negro problem" by colonization (sponsoring emigration back to Africa) and to avoid bloodshed.

What gives the book its major spurt of energy and freshness is its account of the complicated political and social context in which Lincoln's views on slavery were formed and the large number of people and movements that helped create the dominant attitudes toward slavery in early and mid-19th-century America. The book "is intended to be both less and more than another biography," Foner claims in his preface. Actually, it's not a biography at all. It is different from a biography, and consequently neither "less" nor "more."

What "The Fiery Trial" does have in common with biography is that it is a chronological account of Lincoln and slavery. This has the advantage of giving it some forward pace but the disadvantages of repeating what has already been done by numbers of estimable biographers in less limited narratives of Lincoln's life, and of discouraging intellectual history and analysis. The book functions almost entirely as a narrative of Lincoln's attitudes toward slavery as a politician, providing more surface than depth. Foner's approach, though, is probably essential to his thesis: that "Lincoln's career was a process of moral and political education and deepening anti-slavery conviction . . . that the hallmark of Lincoln's greatness was his capacity for growth." True?

Probably not. Foner's justification for "The Fiery Trial" is that "there is value in tracing Lincoln's growth, as it were, forward." "As it were" reveals a nice hesitancy or qualification that the book as a whole doesn't maintain. Foner's basic claim is at least an exaggeration, if not wrong. A stronger argument can be made that Lincoln hardly "grew" at all on the issue of slavery, that he responded to changing circumstances that he did not create and that brought him into a public role in which he could not avoid taking the positions that led to the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. But Foner's narrative almost requires that his main character develop morally.

"The Fiery Trial" maintains this thesis despite the facts that it narrates. And it may be that the paradigm of moral growth and its importance to Foner (and, of course, to others) precedes an examination of the record. To give credit to Lincoln for moral progression seems beyond the facts and unnecessary for our appreciation of this arguably greatest of all American presidents.

"The Fiery Trial" gives brief attention to Rep. John Quincy Adams's prescription in the 1840s for overcoming the constitutional obstacle to legal emancipation. Adams believed that, since it would be impossible to attain the legislative votes for altering the Constitution, only the exercise of the president's war powers, granted by the Constitution, could eliminate slavery. Adams predicted that would happen. Did Lincoln, who was on the House floor in 1848 when Adams collapsed and who was appointed to the funeral committee, read or even know of Adams's speeches before they were brought to his attention in 1861? It was, in effect, not Lincoln but the Confederate South that initiated emancipation, as Adams anticipated. It did so by seceding, which Lincoln calculatingly labeled "rebellion." That activated his war powers as president. The rest is history, "as it were."

Fred Kaplan is the author, most recently, of "Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer."

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