B After The Fact

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Book Review -- The Fiery Trial -- Abraham Lincoln & American Slavery -- by Eric Foner

"I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky” – Abraham Lincoln.

Eric Foner is noted for his scholarship on the origins of the Republican Party, and the causes of the Civil War, on the one hand, and on Reconstruction on the other hand. In this book, he focuses on an issue concerning the Civil War itself – how did Lincoln really feel about slavery, and what did Lincoln do about slavery.

Foner is a leading scholar for the proposition that even those Americans who abhorred slavery hated it more for what it meant for white people --- competition for jobs with slaves who were working for free, the difficulty of being a free non-slaveholder in place where slavery was permitted, and the hypocrisy of being both the world’s leading beacon for freedom and its leading proponent of slavery. Few whites, including many prominent abolitionists, had much use for black people, or any real desire to live amongst them, or see them as Americans. Foner presents us with a Lincoln who is very much a man of his time.

Lincoln was born in a slave state, Kentucky, he moved as a boy to the Southern part of Indiana, which, although a free state, had a heavy Southern population, and in times to come would be the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. Then as a young man Lincoln moved to Illinois, another state, which although free, was basically settled South to North. Like many other states, Illinois had a strong Black Code designed to keep blacks out of the state, and severely limiting their ability to make a living on the off-chance the state could not get individual blacks out. Foner shows that Lincoln was comfortable living in this world, and that he respected the people that came out of this world.

Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, was from a slaveholding family in Kentucky.

Lincoln’s political hero was Henry Clay, Senator from Kentucky, a slaveholder who tried to find an answer for the evil of slavery. Clay’s answer was the gradual emancipation of slaves, followed by their relocation to Africa (or anywhere that wasn’t the United States). Lincoln held onto this theory of gradual emancipation and “colonization”, sometimes compensated (for the slaveholder that is, not for the decades of free labor by the slave), until just about the time that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Foner shows that as a legislator, both in Illinois and during the short time he was in Washington, Lincoln was willing to take certain anti-slavery positions. Both in Springfield in 1837, and during his one term in Congress (the second half of Polk’s term – 1847-1849), he aligned himself with those few people opposed to slavery in Washington, D.C., However, it was never the most important part of his agenda. Conversely, as a lawyer, he took at least one case where he sought the return of a fugitive slave into slavery.

Lincoln rose to prominence in the Republican Party as the proponent of the position that the Union must be preserved, and immediate abolition was no way to preserve the Union. Lincoln preferred the containment of slavery to existing areas until it could be gradually abolished. Lincoln thought that this process could take decades.

Even after secession, Lincoln was concerned about anything, including emancipation, that would drive the Border States – Delaware, Maryland, Missouri and his native Kentucky -- out of the Union. Foner shows how Lincoln came around to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and more.

One of the biggest factors for Lincoln was the insistence and persistence of those black people who wanted to serve in the Army. Certain generals were more tolerant of slaves who came behind Union lines seeking freedom. Other generals were more eager to use former slaves in the Army. A handful, such as Fremont and David Hunter, issued emancipation edicts that had to be rescinded. However, the presence of black soldiers did not appear to disturb the white soldiers as much as originally feared. Moreover, as black soldiers’ responsibility increased from support positions to the occasional combat role, Lincoln realized that he could not ask soldiers to fight and die in a war, and then send them back to slavery. Lincoln realized that he could not ask black soldiers to sacrifice without extending the right to emancipation to the soldiers’ families as well. The idea that slaves had families that a white person was bound to respect was almost as radical in the North as it was in the South. Foner shows how a general policy evolved from one when the fugitive slave laws were being enforced (even during the early months of the war) to one against returning slaves to Southerners, to active confiscation acts. Practically speaking, if a slave could find his or her way behind Union lines, they were free.

Another factor was that although Lincoln was happy to extend gradual, compensated emancipation to the slaveholders in the border states, he could not find any bargaining partners. This remained true even as the political climate changed in favor of emancipation. It remained true even as Lincoln began warning people that Lincoln felt that in delaying emancipation, he was fighting the war with an important hand tied behind his back. Border State politicians were simply not in a position to compromise. Lincoln, even in the Emancipation Proclamation itself, did not free the slaves in the Border States (everyone agreed that would require a constitutional amendment). However, the Emancipation Proclamation did not contain any provisions for gradual or compensated emancipation. This was a rather late, and perhaps startling, development, because in preliminary drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation, including one made public in September 1862, Lincoln seemed to favor some sort of compensation. He must have Kentucky, but it seemed that the cost of keeping it was getting lower.

Another factor for Lincoln was the refusal of the black elite that was already free, and those first coming to freedom, to consider themselves as less than Americans. They built this country and lived here for centuries. They were not going to leave. Of course, in any large group, there are exceptions, and Foner describes a failed attempt to actually colonize slaves that was mired in graft, and eventually had to be suspended.

Lincoln continued to believe in colonization because he believed, as a practical matter, that racial equality was against human nature. Lincoln’s private conversations, including his well-known “stories,” were that of a man of his time, full of racial epithets. His public speeches seem disappointing to the 21st century ear. However, it is important to remember that we tend to read Lincoln in a vacuum. Since we are only interested in what Lincoln had to say, we tend to ignore what other important people of the time were thinking and saying, which was almost always far worse. Lincoln was a professional politician who was not in the business of insulting his constituents. Moreover, if you parse his public statements, you realize that Lincoln never said that black people were inferior, even during the Lincoln-Douglas debates in Southern Illinois. What Lincoln did say was that since the two races could not live together as equals, he, like anyone, would prefer to be the dominant race. Not that white people deserved to be, but simply that someone had to be.

Foner traces the evolution of this position into one that was open not only to emancipation, but was open to the legal equality for all people that undergirds the 14th and 15th Amendment. It is unclear if Lincoln had changed his mind on human nature. What is clear is that Lincoln realized that the former slaves were insistent on making a new life here in America, and that America would have to find a way to accommodate that.

Foner does not focus directly on the greatest, most tragic error of Lincoln’s Presidency – his acquiescence, and perhaps his open support, of Andrew Johnson as his Vice President in 1864 Andrew Johnson was the only Senator from a seceding state, Tennessee, who refused to secede with his state. Later, Lincoln appointed Johnson to be military governor of Tennessee. There are a fair number of exchanges between Lincoln and Johnson that are recounted in Foner’s book, more than I have seen in any other book of this nature. Unlike Lincoln’s first Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin from Maine, a man Lincoln literally did not know at all, Lincoln knew something about Johnson. So it is even more tragic that Lincoln allowed the convention to pick Johnson, and thereby thrust a vengeful, spiteful, racist man, into the middle of Reconstruction. Then again, until Sherman marched through Georgia, the conventional wisdom, including Lincoln’s, was that the Republicans would lose the Election of 1864. By the time it became obvious that Lincoln did not need Johnson (or anyone) on his ticket in order to win, it was too late to change. Not that anyone thought about it.

Foner does not go easy on Lincoln. He appreciates Lincoln’s ability to change in the public eye, a trait that was probably as in short supply then as it is now. Foner shows how important the actions of the slaves themselves were in forcing the issue of their emancipation. You get the sense that Foner wants to be one of those people who say that Lincoln would have never done anything for the slaves if left to his own devices. However, the facts are more complicated than that. What makes A Fiery Trial such an interesting book is that Foner, like Lincoln, faces the facts as he finds him, and allows the facts to change his point of view.