Saturday, April 9, 2011

Book Review: The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

Eric Foner
copyright 2010
W.W. Norton & Company

Eric Foner's most recent book, a look at the development of Abraham Lincoln's views, attitudes and actions about slavery during his lifetime was the winner of the 2011 Lincoln Prize, awarded by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and Gettysburg College.

After having read this book, I can understand why it received such an award. It is a very good and thorough review of how Abraham Lincoln viewed slavery and slaves during his life, and how his attitude and beliefs developed and changed over time. It also at times discusses his views of race and African-Americans, and how these beliefs compared to his attitude towards slavery.

I enjoyed how the book stayed true to its title, focusing on Lincoln's dealings with slavery; at times other issues were mentioned when necessary, such as the actual Civil War, but Forner managed to keep Lincoln and slavery at the forefront of the story, with those other issues adding perspective at times.

This was not merely another book to praise all things Lincoln. Dr. Foner does provide criticism of some of Lincoln's ideas, decisions or indecision and his racial attitudes at times.

He also points out, though, how Lincoln's attitudes were not static and did change over time as Lincoln dealt with new problems and had new experiences, such as meeting prominent African-Americans like Frederick Douglass. Dr. Foner pointed out that meeting such people was something the pre-Presidential Lincoln had not done.

The Fiery Trial is a very good book that I am happy to recommend to others interested in Lincoln, slavery and/or the Civil War. Dr. Foner's work provides a wonderful perspective of how Lincoln's understanding of and thoughts on slavery developed over time and how this development affected the way the Federal government conducted the Civil War.


  1. I enjoyed Foner's book as well and appreciate that he challenged conventional wisdom about Lincoln. However he also missed the mark completely on colonization by arguing that Lincoln evolved beyond it. The evidence is quite strong actually that Lincoln was still planning on colonizing the blacks abroad at his death.

    These are the conclusions of my other current Civil War read, "Colonization After Emancipation" --

    "The upshot of the evidence is that colonization remained on the table well beyond the Emancipation Prcalamation and its persistence until the end of Lincoln’s presidency ought not to be readily dismissed."

    "If his views on race were still evolving, or even revolving, at the time of his death they cannot be expected to satisfy a rigid demand for consistency or an unrealistic desire for concluseiveness. Like his presidency they ended an unfinished accident beyond his control or the country’s wishes. That circumstance merits neither the disparagement nor the wishful veneer that some have hastily attached to Lincoln’s colonization record."

  2. Thank you for the well-thought out comment. I will try to re-look at Forner's book again sometimes and will keep your thoughts in mind for consideration in my future reading as well.


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