Skip to content Skip to footer

Historian Eric Foner on the Perennial Relevance of Abraham Lincoln

Historian Eric Foner has just published The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (W.W. Norton),in which he explores Lincoln’s role in the ending of slavery in the United States. The book is not just a recapitulation of the massive record of Lincoln and slavery but, in characteristic Foner style, recasts the scope for assessing this vital part of history. In early September I met with Professor Foner in his office at Columbia University to discuss the book.

Historian Eric Foner has just published The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (W.W. Norton),in which he explores Lincoln’s role in the ending of slavery in the United States. The book is not just a recapitulation of the massive record of Lincoln and slavery but, in characteristic Foner style, recasts the scope for assessing this vital part of history. In early September I met with Professor Foner in his office at Columbia University to discuss the book.

Aaron Leonard: Lincoln did not enter the Civil War as someone who wanted to abolish slavery, yet he ended up doing just that. One gets a sense in this book of very large forces framing the choices people like Lincoln had. What were the larger economic and political forces pushing at the United States in the mid-nineteenth century?

Eric Foner: As they say in academic lingo, the destruction of slavery was over-determined. In other words there were numerous forces pushing in that direction. You can start with Lincoln himself. You’re right that Lincoln comes into office not expecting to be the Great Emancipator. Nonetheless, he was deeply antislavery and had spoken many times before the Civil War of the ultimate extinction of slavery. He had refused in the secession crisis to compromise on the issue of the westward expansion of slavery even though that might have possibly avoided war.

Lincoln was committed to some future abolition of slavery, although he was not an abolitionist, he was not an immediatist. A different man might have responded differently to the pressures that were brought to bear on Lincoln.

Those pressures start from the beginning of the war. They start with the abolitionists, they start with radical Republicans in Congress. They start with slaves who begin to run away from plantations and force the question upon the Union Army and Union government. What is going to be their status? By military failure—by 1862 the failure of winning the war as a conventional war as army against army—strengthens the hand of those who are saying we must attack the infrastructure of Southern society, which is slavery. [And the North also needs] more soldiers. Lincoln begins to think of the black manpower that can be brought into the army. [So] there are many factors leading up to the decision for emancipation. No single one is absolutely determinative. I think the greatness of Lincoln was his ability to see what the logic of the situation is and to abandon positions and policies when they weren’t working.

Leonard: What about free labor? The North is industrializing, the South is locked into this agrarian society…

Foner: My first book, (of forty years ago!) was called Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Man and I wrote there about this free labor ideology which Lincoln both believed deeply in and, in a way, exemplified. The idea that Northern society, a society based on free labor rather than slave, offered remarkable opportunities to people of humble origins like Lincoln himself, remarkable opportunities to improve your condition in life. Lincoln was a modernizer, so to speak. He believed in economic development. As a Whig before the war he favored what we would call infrastructure spending, government appropriation for canals, railroads, river and harbor improvements, and a tariff to protect industry. He believed in this market revolution that was sweeping across Northern society. He himself benefited from it in his own life. You’re absolutely right, Lincoln sees slavery in some ways as a theft of labor. A slave is a laborer who is being denied the fruits of his labor, he says that in his second inaugural… “two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil”—stolen labor. That’s one of the key differences between free and slave society to Lincoln. The opportunity offered to everybody. Whatever his racial views, which are not totally modern and egalitarian in many ways, he believes blacks should have this natural right to improve their condition in life and slavery denies that to them.

Leonard: You write, “John Sherman, the moderate from Ohio, told the Senate that while he respected ‘the rights of the Southern people,’ it had become imperative to confiscate the slave and other property of ‘the disloyal’ and mobilize the full power off the nation to ‘enter into the war in earnest.’” It occurred to me in reading this that the South was caught in a paradox, the more they succeeded on the battlefield, the greater the compulsion was for this war to lead to their absolute undoing. Is that accurate?

Foner: That’s a good point. If the war had ended in three months, as many people thought it would, [after] one big battle [with] the rebels [running] away or something like that, slavery would have remained intact, no question about it. It is the persistence of the war, the failure of the military methods of the first year of the war to achieve victory, that pushes people like Sherman, who is a very moderate guy [with regards to slavery]—not an abolitionist at all. When he says we must fight in earnest—this is in 1862—he’s reflecting a growing dissatisfaction [in] the North with the failure to achieve military victory and a feeling the Lincoln administration is being too reluctant to attack slavery. When a man like Sherman says this, and Lincoln realizes this, it indicates a seismic shift in Northern public opinion. It’s not Wendell Phillips, it’s not Frederick Douglas [abolitionists], it’s an absolute mainstream moderate Republican. Lincoln talking about abolishing slavery and confiscating property of the rebels is a sign that further action is going to be demanded by the Northern public.

Leonard: I didn’t realize this issue of colonization was so hotly debated at the time, yet today it seems written out of history. What was colonization and why did the idea disappear?

Foner: Colonization was the idea that once slavery ended African-Americans should be encouraged—or required, in some people’s view—required to leave the country. It’s part of an attitude toward the abolition of slavery which says America should not be a slave society, but it can never be a multiracial society. You can never have free black and white people living together. Thomas Jefferson says this. Henry Clay says this. This is not a fringe idea. This is a mainstream idea in the political system of the fifty-odd years before the Civil War. Lincoln adheres to colonization at least from 1852, where he delivers his eulogy on Henry Clay, and he endorses Clay’s colonization all the way up through the middle of the Civil War. Lincoln is a member of the Board of Managers of the Illinois Colonization Society in 1858 when he’s running for the Senate against [Stephen] Douglas.

I think unfortunately this has been written out of history, and it has been written out of Lincoln’s biography in many cases—not all, but many. You pick up very well-known books on Lincoln [and] you will find almost no reference to his long-term belief in colonization. Why? Because it doesn’t fit the image of the Great Emancipator. It doesn’t fit the retrospective view we want to have of Lincoln as the man who was the moralist in politics, who came into office committed to ending slavery and waited to sign this document. I admire Lincoln enormously and I think what’s interesting about Lincoln is how he changes, it’s not that he held the same view throughout his life. By the end of his life he’s abandoned this view of colonization. He’s accepted America as a biracial society. He’s talking about giving at least some black men the right to vote. In the Emancipation Proclamation he advises some blacks to labor faithfully for reasonable wages, here in the United States. He doesn’t say anything about them leaving the country. He puts black men in the army. That is a whole different vision than simply saying “let’s have them go out of the country.” I think what’s interesting is the change in Lincoln’s view, but one must realize that he did adhere to this idea of colonization for many years.

Leonard: A lot of people’s senses of Lincoln are frozen on a certain quote or moment. Your book tells a different story, that of someone who was intellectually curious and open to rethinking his own views—in striking contrast to what you see in the U.S. political realm today. Who was Lincoln vis-à-vis slavery in the 1840s and who was Lincoln just before his assassination?

Foner: When Lincoln died he was a very different man intellectually, politically, even emotionally, than he was at an earlier time in his career. It’s not that surprising, I suppose, given the monumental crisis he and the nation had gone through. In the 1840s Lincoln was a member of the Whig party. He hated slavery. There is absolutely no question in my mind that Lincoln hated slavery, but it was not a priority to him at that time. He was certainly not an abolitionist. He was opposed to the westward expansion of slavery, but he saw no way within the national political system that a politician like himself could actually do anything about slavery. It was a state institution. The Constitution did not give Congress any power over slavery in the states where it existed. Moreover, he saw it as a disruptive issue. He saw it as a threat to the stability of the Union.

By the 1850s he’s changed. This issue of the westward expansion of slavery has now become the number one question in American politics and he now sees the expansion of slavery as the disruptive question threatening the Union. He comes to the position in eloquent, brilliant speeches that the nation must resolve to stop the expansion of slavery and to place slavery in what he called on the course of ultimate extinction. How you get there, he didn’t know. No one knew in the 1850s. But he has this vision of America one day being free of slavery.

During the Civil War he has to act on slavery, not just talk about it. He moves quite rapidly, I think, toward realizing that slavery must become a target of the war effort. Within six or seven months [after] beginning of the war he’s talking to Delaware about a plan for gradual emancipation. There was no reason he had to do that, the war had hardly any battles at that time, but he wants to get this movement going toward what he calls gradual compensated emancipation. He proposes this to the border states in 1862. But he’s constantly, always, rethinking. And of course we get the Emancipation Proclamation (which is a long story) and after that he accepts the logic of it. Again, he is not a member of the abolitionist movement at all. But there’s a logic to the Emancipation Proclamation and putting black men in the army. That logic is that black people are going to become citizens of the United States and Lincoln accepts that. By the end of his life he’s talking about at least some black men, especially the former soldiers, having the right to vote in a reconstructed South. So he’s moved a long, long way from his earlier point of view.

Leonard: Lincoln seemed to have a particularly contentious, yet important relationship with the abolitionists. I was just looking back at the section of your book where he meets with a delegation of black men and effectively says “look, if it hadn’t been for your race we wouldn’t be in this war.” To which Frederick Douglas later responded, “we didn’t cause the war, slavery did.” To what degree did the abolitionist contribute to Lincoln becoming the person we know today?

Foner: Lincoln’s relationship to the abolitionists and the radical Republicans—who you might say are the abolitionists in politics and people like Garrison, Phillips and Douglas, the people outside the realm of party politics pretty much—is very controversial and very complicated and I think many historians have not quite fathomed it properly. There are those who view the abolitionists as just maniacs, apolitical fanatics who helped to cause the war, and Lincoln is the model of responsible statesmanship. I think that is a misconception, the idea that Lincoln knows what’s possible and the abolitionists don’t. In a democratic society, as Max Weber said, what is possible is only possible because some people have demanded the impossible. In other words the abolitionists helped to create a public discourse in which men like Lincoln become possible. That doesn’t mean Lincoln is an abolitionist. It means there is a public opinion out there which is being influenced by antislavery sentiment. Lincoln sees himself as being part of a broader antislavery enterprise, which includes abolitionists as well as many more conservative people. Once he talked about Wilberforce and Sharp, the leaders of the movement to abolish the slave trade in Britain, and he said “who today remembers those who opposed them?” That was the in the 1790s. In other words Lincoln, an ambitious man, sees the antislavery movement as a long struggle which he is part of and that is how you make your mark on history. Who will remember the proslavery people, asks Lincoln? Nobody.

Lincoln listens to abolitionists, he meets with them during the war, he listens to conservatives, too. It’s not that he is just taking action because they tell him to. He listens to the logic of their arguments. Every single measure that we associate with Lincoln during the war—immediate abolition, enrolling black troops in the Union Army, a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, giving some black men the right to vote—was first put forward by abolitionists, and Lincoln did not favor them, but he came to that position. It’s this open mindedness, this willingness to listen to criticism and to rethink when your current policies are not working that gives abolitionists an influence on Lincoln. It’s not that he’s an abolitionist, but he is open to being influenced by abolitionist ideas and sensibilities.

Leonard: What was the effect on the Emancipation Proclamation on the war, particularly on the enlistment of black troops have on the Union cause?

Foner: Karl Marx, who was writing for the New York Tribune from around that time in London, said with the Emancipation Proclamation “the constitutional war is over. The revolutionary war has now begun.” In other words, the war had changed from one of army against army to a war to fundamentally transform Southern society. Slavery was the foundation of Southern society.

If you are going to abolish slavery, that opens up all these other questions: what system of labor is going to replace slave labor? What system of race relations is going to replace the race relations of slavery? Who is going to have power in the post-war South? The Emancipation Proclamation doesn’t answer that question, but it throws [it] open.

As we all know, it did not free all the slaves. There are people who say it freed hardly any slaves on the day it was issued, but it made the Union Army henceforth an agent of emancipation. Wherever the Union Army went, it was now part of its task to guarantee the freedom of these slaves.

In addition, it announced the enrollment of black men in the Union Army. There’d been some small experiments before that, but the massive enrollment of black men in the Union Army began because of the Emancipation Proclamation.

It really transforms the character of the Civil War in fundamental ways. It is really the turning point of the war, and Lincoln understands that. Whenever you think of Lincoln as a historian, in his own mind, he becomes the Great Emancipator. This is his role in history henceforth. He was an ambitious man who wanted to make an impact on history, and this is how he did it.

Leonard: Why is the role of someone like Abraham Lincoln important to understand today?

Foner: I don’t [even] know the number of books on Abraham Lincoln. Ten thousand, twelve thousand? I have seen various numbers. It seems like every generation is always trying to come to terms with Lincoln. Lincoln is such an iconic figure in American history. He seems to reflect so many elements of American culture that we consider essential, whether it’s the self-made man, the frontier hero, the politician who tries to act in a moral way as well as in a political way, Honest Abe. His career raises these questions that are still with us, the power of the federal government vis-à-vis the states, the question of race in American life, can we be a society of equals? There are so many issues central to Lincoln’s career that are still part of our society one hundred and fifty years later. In some ways people feel Lincoln is our contemporary. Obviously he’s not, it’s pointless to ask something like “what would Lincoln have thought of abortion rights?” That is obviously not a historic question. We look to Lincoln when thinking of ways our society has dealt with these perennial issues to our national existence.

Aaron Leonard is a writer and freelance journalist and regular contributor to the History News Network. His writings can be found at