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Eric Foner on Lincoln and Slavery

By Gordon Berg 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: May 20, 2011 
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The evolution of Father Abraham
Respected historian Eric Foner's new book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, examines what the president truly believed about human bondage

Author Eric Foner. Courtesy of Eric Foner.
Author Eric Foner. Courtesy of Eric Foner.

Q Why another book on Lincoln?
A Even though there's a voluminous literature on Lincoln, this particular angle is looking at Lincoln and slavery throughout his entire life—his relationship to slavery, his changing attitudes towards slavery, his relationship to other parts of the anti-slavery movement, abolitionists, more conservative anti-slavery people, how his views changed over the course of his life. When I started on this book, I felt that this was an area that had not been sufficiently analyzed.

Q What enabled him to evolve into an emancipator?
A That's a very good question. To some extent Lincoln's greatness rests on traits of character: open-mindedness, compassion for slaves and a deep belief in the basic values of American society. But I also think one has to place Lincoln in his historical context: the pressures upon him during the Civil War from Radical Repub­licans, abolitionists, from the military situation, the diplomatic situation. Lincoln is a person I think who is always open-minded, always curious, always open to change.

Q Why did race become the focus of your investigations?
A I came of age at the height of the civil rights revolution, when this question of race was dividing American society in fundamental ways, and it led a generation of historians to examine the origins of this, the history of slavery, the history of the anti-slavery movement, which was my doctoral dissertation, the question of race relations through American history, where did this crisis come from that American society was going through in the 1960s.

Q Can you compare antebellum politics to our current political polarization?
A I would be reluctant, because I think the division at the time of the Civil War rested on the existence of two fundamentally different social orders within the United States, so the political animosity reflected deep social division. I don't think that's entirely true today. We don't have two kinds of society within the United States. I think it's more purely ideological. That doesn't make it any more pleasant or capable of resolution, but I hope we're not headed toward another Civil War; that would be an unfortunate end result.

Q What differed in how Northerners and Southerners understood "freedom"?
A I think North­erners understood the word within the context of free labor, that is, the ability to compete in the marketplace and rise in the social scale. They came to believe that free labor was superior to slave labor. It was more effective, more just. I think South­erners saw freedom as a very individualistic set of entitlements limited to white people. To most white Southerners, owning a slave was not a contradiction to the idea of freedom, indeed rather the opposite: Owning slaves made a person more free; it enabled you to achieve the economic independence that all Americans thought was very important to freedom.


For more information on the life of Abraham Lincoln including pictures, facts, quotes, family life, and accomplishments like the Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation, please see our Abraham Lincoln theme page.


10 Responses to “Eric Foner on Lincoln and Slavery”


  1. 1
    Robert Batchelor says:

    How do you explain child labor in the North? You make it sound as if workers in the North could move up the social ladder. They only made the owners of the industries rich. The free labor in the North also turned people onto the streets to fend for themselves. Slaves on the otherhand always had a place as long as his owner had a place to live. I don't believe slavery was a good thing, but seems to me some conditions for workers in the North was much worse. Lincoln, from his own words, did not care about the Negro population, he wanted the money from the South. This war should never have happened, Lincoln killed over 600,000 people and left the South in ruins for many years.

    • 1.1
      Joseph says:

      Incredible. You are advocating that a black slave was better off than a free white laborer. So that means if you lived in the 19th century and you had to choose between these two situations, you would prefer the status of a black slave. I don't think so. However, bad child labor conditions were, and definitely in need of redressing, those conditions were not even close to the horror of slavery.

      To wit: Your family could be sold and separated at the will of the owner, your children one way, your wife another; whippings and beatings at will; no self esteem; no chance for advancement, no education; not allowed to develop God given skills; can't move about freely without permission; not even considered fully human…

      "Lincoln, from his own words, did not care about the Negro population, he wanted the money from the South"

      What words were those? This statement is about as void of truth as the following.

      "This war should never have happened. Lincoln killed over 600,000 people and left the South in ruins for years."

      Correct, this war should never have happened. The evil of slavery was at the root of the Civil War and it should have been abolished during the days of the founders.The fire eaters, greedy slave holders, and violent secessionists are responsible for those deaths , not Abraham Lincoln.

      "… In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it…" A. Lincoln, first Inaugural address

  2. 2
    Paul Mantle Jr says:

    How come the 'great' emancipator only freed the slaves
    in the south and not the north?
    "The proclamation declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free."

    He was making policy in a seperate nation. And enlarging the pool
    form which to draw more men for the army and navy.

    And why is Juneteenth celebrated in any state other than Texas…Minnesota now claims it as a state holiday….

    • 2.1
      Joseph says:

      He did this out of necessary political and military wisdom. The border states, as they were called, were of extreme strategic importance. Setting the slaves free in those states would have caused severe divisions, so he had to use common sense and allow those liberations to wait until after the war, which is exactly what happened.

  3. 3
    Pierre Corbeil says:

    Lincoln was not an ideologue. His basic premise was simply that slavery and democracy were incompatible (…half-slave and half-free…). His actions implemented the choice of democracy, as the defining element of the United States, what made it different from other countries, e.g., the statement in the Gettysburg address.
    There is no defence of slavery possible in a free country. The secessionist states were motivated by a desire to keep slavery, and to make war to keep it. The US could not accept such a challenge and remain the US.
    It is strange to consider that it still possible to read defences of slavery, of the variety, it was not so bad. The record of flight, rebellion, and resistance shows that it was a blight, and nothing else, for the slaves.

  4. 4
    Robert Batchelor says:

    Lincoln's conduct leading up to the war wasn't praiseworthy either, in my opinion. Regardless of how one feels about secession, the Southern states withdrew from the Union in a peaceful, democratic manner–in fact they did so in a manner that closely resembled the process by which the U.S. Constitution was ratified. And, once formed, the Confederacy sought peaceful relations with the North. Indeed, the Confederacy offered to pay the South's share of the national debt, offered to pay compensation for all federal installations in the South, offered to honor federal mail deliveries to the Confederate postal service, sought to make trade agreements with the North, and offered the North free navigation of the Mississippi River. The Confederacy sent peace commissioners to Washington, D.C., in an attempt to establish peaceful relations, but Lincoln wouldn't meet with them, not even informally. Even after the Fort Sumter incident, which Lincoln later indicated he provoked, the Confederacy expressed its desire for peace. It's worth noting that it was the North that invaded the South. That's why nearly all the battles were fought on Southern soil.

    Instead of accepting the South's offer for peaceful relations, Lincoln illegally called up 75,000 troops and ordered a blockade of Southern ports–without Congressional authorization. This was an unprecedented usurpation of power. Even during the Nullification Crisis between the federal government and South Carolina in 1832, none other than the great federalist Daniel Webster said the president did NOT have the authority to blockade South Carolina's ports. Also, in his final message to Congress, Lincoln's predecessor, President James Buchanan, said the federal government did NOT have the authority to use force against the seceded states. Lincoln's unlawful demand for 75,000 troops led four more states to join the Confederacy.

    • 4.1
      Matthew in Wisconsin says:

      So Robert… ya get out much? Sounds like you have an axe to grind. Remember that you need to sharpen both sides of the blade. Just pointing out that you sound a bit one sided and strongly set in your opinions.

      • 4.1.1
        Robert Batchelor says:

        Damn right I feel strongly that the South was right and the North invaded the South. Worship Lincoln if you wish, but this country would be much better off today if Lincoln had never been President.

    • 4.2
      Joseph says:

      Your statements are lacking in any kind of historical veracity. The CSA basically ordered the federal government to get out, and began attacking installations post haste before Lincoln was even inaugurated.

      The secessionists took action merely because of an election result, before any policies were even considered, let alone set in motion. Southern paranoia and its unholy economic dependence on slavery is what precipitated secession; hence, the civil war.

      The supreme court upheld the blockade decision, and suspension of habeas corpus where domestic insurrections were occurring. Congress passed the habeas corpus act in 1863

      Andrew Jackson, darling of the South, defied the constitution at will. He sent federal troops against South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis, and could care less what anyone said in objection. Charleston caved, and the matter was resolved for the time. No one may doubt that Jackson, a southerner, would have done whatever was necessary to bring South Carolina into submission.

      The 75,000 troops were legally called up to defend Washington. They surrounded the capital in such a deployment as to prevent cannonade fire, which unavoidably placed them on Virginia soil. Hardly an invasion.

      • 4.2.1
        Bill Smith says:

        Joseph and I have been at minor odds on another part of the forum, but I've gotta support him here. There's plenty of blame to go around as to who started the war… The south thought they owned some stuff (Fort Sumter comes to mind) and the north thought it owned the same stuff. When it came down to shooting, however, the South fired the first shot… (by Lt. Henry S. Farley at 4:30 am on April 12, 1861)
        As presidents go, I've got a tremendous amount of respect for Lincoln – and while Jeff Davis was no slouch, I'm not all that impressed… I'd be hard pressed to think of any significant reason how our country would be better off without Lincoln. Indeed, most folks seem to think that a big part of our problems immediately after the war came about because his assassination prevented the completion of his original plans.
        Finally, I think Joseph's description of the problems faced by Southern Slaves vs. Northern laborers is very well written and makes a number of excellent points. I support his observations 100%. The recent dedication of the Martin Luther King memorial in DC is something I'm glad has finally come. Dr. King had his faults, as do we all, but his labors in the cause of civil rights are frankly phenomenal. While I disagree nearly 100% with our current president, I know it has been a watershed to the black community to finally have had a black president. May this country continue to progress to the point where all of us can be judged by the content of our character rather than by the color of our skin!



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