Saturday, May 19, 2012

Just Finished Reading

This book, the Pulitzer Prize winner for history in 2011 is yet another fantastic read from Columbia University professor Eric Foner. I have enjoyed every Foner book I have read; with his Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War and Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution being especially outstanding. The Fiery Trial follows his previous works well.

As we all know, just about every facet of Lincoln's life and legacy has been covered by historians. Certainly other books have previously appeared that examined Lincoln's views on slavery and race. And, these works have taken just about every perspective, from those that purport Lincoln's unrealistic benevolence to works like Lerone Bennett's Forced into Glory, which takes Lincoln to task for not doing more sooner for African Americans. The Fiery Trial seems to be a much more balanced approach than most of these previous works covering Lincoln on slavery and race.

I think our nation's current politicians could lean a lesson from Lincoln.  It seems that it is unpopular to change one's ideas on issues. It seems that to evolve in one's understanding, a hopefully natural process as one learns and experiences is disdained.  It seems that one must stand in the same position on political issues or it is seen as a great weakness. To me this is a shame. I am personally glad that I have developed a better understanding of history as I have read, studied and learned, and as I have, my ideas on historical events have changed. Foner attempts to show that Lincoln, like almost all men of his era had certain racial prejudices that were difficult to shake off, but that he grew and evolved throughout his lifetime to quite an enlightened position on race by the time of his assassination.

Lincoln found himself in the unenviable position of being a moderate in a rather new political party.  The radicals of the Republican Party wanted him to do more to rid the country of slavery while the conservatives of the party thought he was moving too quickly. Additionally, Unionist conservatives - mainly Democrats, many in the border states - but also those in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey made life difficult for Lincoln to push through war-time race-related legislation that he believed would help end the war and reunite the nation. When Lincoln attempted to end slavery in the border states, he started with tiny Delaware, but was promptly rebuffed. This Delaware failure factored into his not including the border states in his later Emancipation Proclamation. Kentucky and the other border states come in for their fair share of coverage in The Fiery Trial. Kentucky, even gets named in the chapter six title; "'I Must Have Kentucky': The Border Strategy."

Foner's second to last paragraph of the book sums up this work well. "Lincoln did not enter the White House expecting to preside over the destruction of slavery. A powerful combination of events, as we have seen, propelled him down the road to emancipation and then to reconsideration of the place blacks would occupy in a post-slavery America. Of course, the unprecedented crisis in which, as one member of Congress put it, 'the events of an entire century transpire in a year,' made change the order of the day. Yet as the presidency of his successor demonstrated, not all men placed in a similar situation possessed the capacity for growth, the essence of Lincoln's greatness. 'I think we have reason to thank God of Abraham Lincoln,' the abolitionist Lydia Maria Child wrote one week before his death. 'With all his deficiencies, it must be admitted that he had grown continuously; and considering how slavery had weakened and perverted the moral sense of the whole country, it was great good luck to have the people elect a man who was willing to grow.'"

On a scale of 1 to 5, I give A Fiery Trial a 4.75.

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