The Fiery Trial both traces the evolution of Lincoln’s ideas and polices about slavery and that of the nation’s from the 1830s through the end of the Civil War. As usual what I thought I knew about Lincoln, slavery, and abolition turned out to be a bit simplistic. Reality is always more nuanced and complicated.
Foner provides a detailed walkthrough of the politics, history, and views about slavery from Lincoln’s time in Illinois through the remainder of his life. At times it did feel like I was trying to drink from a firehose. Foner patiently lays out the details, walking the reader through the ideas percolating in the nation and swirling around Lincoln. The details can be overwhelming and feel ploddingly tedious. But he is laying out an argument based on letters, speeches, and newspaper articles to show how Lincoln did not start out as the Great Emancipator. Far from it.
The picture painted of Lincoln is of a man with little interaction with blacks—slave or free. He just didn’t have opportunity to interact with them or give slavery much more than a passing thought until he moved into the presidency. Yes, he expressed that he personally was opposed to slavery, but fighting slavery was not his concern.
Lincoln was a product of his time and place. His time was one of slavery, the view that whites were superior, and that the Constitution protected slavery and states’ rights. In contrast, he was a firm believer in the Union and protecting it at all costs.
This book disabused me of many ideas. Nothing was black and white, so to speak. Rather than the war being about North vs. South, abolitionists vs. slaveowners, Foner shows a very nuanced political and social country. Democrats existed in the North. Some Democrats, like the future vice president and president Andrew Johnson, were Unionists, who sided with the North despite being racists, slaveowners, or supporters of slavery.
Not all Republicans were against slavery, or at least not strongly. Conservative, modern, radical. Lincoln fought to keep all stripes of Republicans united, not necessarily an easy task. He leaned to the conservative side, it seems, though led anyone who met him to walk away thinking that Lincoln believed what he himself believed.
Those who were against slavery varied too. I thought the US was divided between abolitionists and those who supported slavery. Ah, but that is too simplistic. The abolitionists were the radicals, the fringe element it seems in the North. Not all of those opposed to slavery were abolitionists, who wanted immediate, complete freedom of the slaves. Many advocated for gradual emancipation, where slaves would be freed over decades and generations—in one case slavery would die out by 1907!
And those supporting emancipation (not necessarily the same as being an abolitionist) didn’t always agree. Some advocated for compensated emancipation. In the modern era, compensation and slavery mentioned together refers to compensation paid to descendants of slaves for their labor. Nothing could have been further from this during the mid-1800s. Discussions, deals, and proposed laws covered how much to compensate slaveowners for their emancipated slaves. (In 1833, Britain abolished slavery and compensated slaveowners.)
Even if Americans believed in abolition or emancipation, they mostly did not want blacks to remain in the US. Blacks and white living in the same society was simply inconceivable to most Americans. The American Colonization Society was formed in 1817 and was going strong through Lincoln’s life. Lincoln himself was a strong proponent, unable to envision a non-white society. It wasn’t until near the end of the Civil War, after alternative lands to ship blacks to failed to be viable, that he quietly dropped the push for colonization. Of course, throughout all of this time very few blacks had any interest in emigrating. They saw themselves as Americans and wanted birthright citizenship and equality before the law in the US rather than colonization elsewhere.
I also had assumptions about emancipation, that freedom was tied to rights. But that was far from the truth. For Americans at the time, emancipation did not naturally lead to rights. Rights itself was a loaded term. Which rights? Most Americans who believed in emancipation or abolition agreed that blacks had the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Blacks were allowed to be free laborers. (At least in theory. In practice, things were a bit different.)
Few Americans wanted blacks to enjoy equality before the law or be citizens. And social equality? That was beyond anything that most Americans could handle. For blacks to be considered or treated as equals with whites was unthinkable to most.
The ways that rights were divided (economic, political, or social) and supported or not supported rather surprised me. I realized that I assumed that abolitionists were pro-black rights in my modern-day sensibilities. And yet the nuances make sense.
Despite Americans being opposed to slavery, they were still very racist. Racism was rampant whether in the South or the North, in abolitionist circles or colonization circles. This legacy haunts us today.
Lincoln, on the whole, comes out looking pretty darn conservation. He did not want a social or political revolution. He wasn’t looking to free the slaves or not free the slaves. For most of the time, abolishing slavery seemed irrelevant to him. He wasn’t necessarily more enlightened than his fellow countrymen. In fact, he seemed very cognizant of not getting ahead of public opinion. Abolitionist views slowly pushed him along, eventually dragging him to their views from decades earlier.
He really did what was expedient in a particular time and place. He let generals accept runaway slaves in some cases, turned a blind eye elsewhere, or removed them when they went too far by granting freedom. He weighed everything, I dare say, against what would have the best chance of keeping the Union together.
He did seem to carefully consider things and his thoughts did evolve with time—he eventually allowed blacks to serve in combat. But he did cling to ideas long past when he should have, such as the olive branch he extended to the border states for years to try to lure them into voluntary, gradual emancipation.
Often I wonder what post-Civil War America would have been like, what Reconstruction would have been like had Lincoln not been assassinated. Andrew Johnson, the racist Democrat from Tennessee who ascended to the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination, seemed to undo the promises of emancipation and the abolition of slavery. But after reading The Fiery Trial, I am not so sure that Reconstruction under Lincoln would have been the utopia I would have wished for. I suspect Lincoln would have been a lot more cautious, a lot more conservative than the myth of the Great Emancipator that arose after his death.