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Written by the American historian Eric Foner, the book “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” provides a detailed biographical portrait of Abraham Lincoln and his stance on slavery. Foner states that his purpose of writing the book was to examine what was Abraham Lincoln’s thought about slavery1.
The author focused on Lincoln’s public life and the speeches he made in regards to slavery and his position during the Civil War. In particular, Foner avoids engaging or referring to the previous works by historians. Instead, he focuses on the speeches and writings by Lincoln.
In this book, Foner states that the book is important in history classes as well as creating knowledge for the Americans about their history, especially by appreciating the important role that Abraham Lincoln played during the abolishment of slavery and the civil war.
The Author states that the American people have a reason to thank God for Abraham Lincoln, despite the deficiencies that the president had, because he was willing to grow. It is worth noting that the book has been written in a scholarly approach, suggesting that it was meant for scholarly work.
By the time of the book’s publication in 2010, Eric Foner was a professor of History at the Columbia University. He specializes in the American History, especially in the social, economic and political aspects of the country during the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras2.
The author’s main argument is based on his review of Lincoln’s speeches and writings as well as his biography. By digging deep into Lincoln’s history, times, speeches and writings, Foner has attempted to examine the President’s stance on slavery in the United States and his reaction to the issue that greatly affected the American society and economy.
From these sources, Foner’s general argument (thesis) is that Abraham Lincoln had a moderate approach to the issue of slavery and expressed the willingness to ‘grow’, which changed his attitudes with time. Foner further argues that Lincoln’s hope was to see the slave-holding states choose preservation of the States’ union rather than defending slavery.
Foner argues that Lincoln’s speeches and writings indicate that he initially supported the idea of colonizing the freed slaves back to Africa, but eventually abandoned the idea and supported the new idea of ending slavery and recognizing the black people as equal citizens of the US. In particular, Foner supports his thesis by showing how desperate Lincoln was to win the Civil War against the southern states by ending slavery.
Thus, he argues that the president’s ability to learn and take the right stance during the period not only ended the Civil War and Slavery, but also contributed to the preservation of the union of states.
In summary, Foner starts by tracing the evolution of President Abraham Lincoln’s ideas about the issue of slavery. The author starts with a biography of Lincoln. He analyzes the president’s early career in the Illinois legislature in the 1830s, his term in Congress during the 1840s and his career as the leader of the Republican Party in the 1850s.
In addition, a deep examination of Lincoln’s presidency during the Civil war has been developed. There is a clear focus on what Lincoln said in public and his writings. The author focuses on issues that Lincoln mentioned in his speeches. For instance, he examines Lincoln’s first experience with the problem of slavery when growing up in Kentucky.
When in Illinois, Lincoln was dealing with issues related to slavery because he was practicing law in the state. Then, Lincoln’s political career has received a lot of focus in the book. Foner shows how Lincoln’s stance on slavery changed significantly as his political career changed and his capacity faced serious problems associated with slavery, the civil war and the threat to the union.
Although he was a republican, he changed from his support of the idea of repatriating the freed slaves to the African continent and started supporting the idea of making the black people a part of the American population.
As stated above, Foner’s main source of evidence is the writings and speeches that Abraham Lincoln made in his public career, from his days in the legal practice up to the time of his assassination. For instance, Foner states that his intention was to use these sources to examine the evolution of Abraham Lincoln’s ideas, stance and policies about slavery from his early life in Kentucky to his career in politics (Foner XVII).
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Foner states that Lincoln’s ability to grow was based on his early encounter with issues relating to slavery as well as marriage to a daughter of a slave owner. For instance, Foner indicates that Lincoln, when serving as a lawyer representing slave owner, said, “I am a natural antislavery individual. If the act of slavery is not wrong, then I do not believe there is any wrong action”.
However, Foner also states that Lincoln used such words as “nigger” and “dark” in his writings and speeches. Foner also cites cases in which Lincoln expressed his support of the idea that the black people were physically different from the whites3.
However, Lincoln states that Lincoln’s entry into politics and party affairs of the Whig party changed his perceptions towards slavery and the black communities in the US. Foner states that Lincoln steered a “middle course”. For instance, Foner states that Lincoln thought that slavery was violating the basic principles of the American constitution. According to Foner, Lincoln “remained devoted to the federal constitution of the US”.
Noteworthy, Foner’s work is based on an in-depth analysis of the speeches and writings Lincoln made in public. In addition, he examines Lincoln’s upbringing, including the issues that faced him when growing up in Kentucky and during his stay in Illinois.
It also examines the social, economic and political issues that took place when Lincoln entered active party politics. An in-depth examination of the private life of Lincoln, including his marriage, has been done.
Nevertheless, Foner’s methodology is biased because he refuses to engage or refer to other historian’s work, especially those who focused on Lincoln and his presidency.
Therefore, it is possible to develop counterarguments, especially by claiming that Lincoln hardly grew, especially on the issue of slavery because he was only responding to the changing circumstances in the American politics rather than being part of the change.
Foner’s work proves that Lincoln experienced dramatic change in his life, especially in terms of his thought about slavery. This is demonstrated in the author’s ability to trace Lincoln’s perception of slavery from his early days in Kentucky to his presidency. Thus, this book contributes to the existing knowledge about Lincoln’s role in ending the civil war and slavery and preservation of the union of states.
Foner, Eric, and Lisa McGirr. American history now. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2011.
Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010.
VanderMey, Randall Verne Meyer, John Van Rys, and Patrick Sebranek. The College Writer: A Guide to Thinking, Writing, and Researching. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning, 2014.
1 Randall VanderMey, Verne Meyer, John Van Rys, and Patrick Sebranek, The College Writer: A Guide to Thinking, Writing, and Researching (Mason, OH: Cengage Learning, 2014), 222.
2 Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), i-446.
3 Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr, American history now (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2011), 18-64.