The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

Pulitzer-winning author promotes book on Lincoln

By Kenney Kost/reporter

Contrary to popular belief, Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist, a SE Campus audience was told March 1.

“Over the last four or five years, I began to feel that the literature on Lincoln was becoming too introverted,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eric Foner. “That is to say that the focus was narrowing too much. I wanted to put Lincoln back into his historical context, into the very complicated world of the mid-19th century.”

Foner said that his book, The Fiery Trial, is not a biography but rather deals with Lincoln and slavery, tracing over the course of his career his attitude toward and policies on slavery and the way these changed over time.

“I want to position Lincoln in what Charles Sumner called the ‘anti-slavery enterprise,’” Foner said. “I like that term because an enterprise is not a tightly knit group. It was more of a broad spectrum of people who shared a hostility toward slavery but differed among themselves on what to do about it.”

Within this enterprise, Foner said, there were people on different ends of the spectrum. The radical abolitionists of the North wanted the immediate end of slavery and the granting of equal rights as U.S. citizens to former slaves.

There were also those, Foner said, who were against only the westward expansion of slavery, and there were still others who thought that slave owners should be compensated and the freed slaves should be colonized in places such as Africa or the Caribbean islands.

“Lincoln occupied different positions on this spectrum at different points in his life,” Foner said. “In fact, the argument of my book in a nutshell is that the hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness is his capacity for growth, that his views and policies changed enormously over the course of his life.

“It is fruitless to take one quotation, one speech or one moment from his life and say this is the essential Lincoln and he never changed. Lincoln did evolve, and in time of great crisis, he came to realize that old views were no longer relevant and new approaches to slavery needed to be developed.”

At the beginning of the Civil War, Foner said, Lincoln would have favored colonizing freed slaves, but by the end of the war, he had a completely different outlook.

“Lincoln was not a religious man in a modern sense. He believed in sort of a remote god who created the world but doesn’t really intervene that often. He never joined a church in his entire life,” Foner said. “By the end of the war, he was quoted as saying, ‘This war may be a punishment by God upon the nation, not just the South for the evil of slavery, that though we may want the war to end, God may want the war to continue until all the wealth created by 250 years of unrequited toil is paid back.’ So, you see, his views change entirely by the end of the war.”

This was very different for Lincoln, Foner said, because he normally spoke of slavery as an abstraction or a question of principle. “But here he is talking about the physical brutality of slavery,” he said.

Foner said that in Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he was asking the country to “confront the legacy of slavery” by asking themselves what was required to enable former slaves and their descendants to enjoy the pursuit of happiness Lincoln had always said was their baseline right. Within a month of the speech, Lincoln was assassinated and never lived to provide an answer to these questions, Foner said.

“In some ways, we are still grappling with these very questions 150 years after the end of the Civil War,” he said.

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