Eric Foner

The Great Emancipator

VTR Date: January 22, 2010

Eric Foner discusses his new book on Abraham Lincoln.


GUEST: Eric Foner
AIR DATE: 01/22/2011

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And about today’s distinguished guest’s newest book – W. W. Norton’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and Slavery – a New York Times reviewer recently asked, “Do we need yet another book on Lincoln, especially in the wake of all the Lincoln volumes that appeared last year in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of his birth?…and then as wisely answered…”Well, yes, we do – if the book is by so richly informed a commentator as Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia” … my Open Mind guest today.

“Foner”, the Times review continued, “tackles what would seem to be an obvious topic, Lincoln and slavery, and yet manages to cast new light on it.”

And so I would begin by asking Eric Foner today how he would describe the new light his splendid new volume now sheds on the Great Emancipator … reminding him first that we played that game together in 1988 when we talked here about his prize-winning book Reconstruction – America’s Unfinished Revolution. And again in 1999, when we talked here about his The Story of American Freedom. And so, Eric, it’s 11 more years …

FONER: Well …

HEFFNER: … what’s new about it?

FONER: … it’s, it’s great to be back. Of course, Richard and I always enjoy talking about books here. You know, I think … what’s new in this book I think is, you know, many of the details or specific, you know, the trajectory of Lincoln’s life is well known.

There’s nothing … we’re not going to find a box of documents somewhere that … written by Lincoln … that no one’s ever seen.

But I think what I try to do in this book, which is a little different than many of the books that have come out lately is to put Lincoln fully in the context of his time and the context of the broad anti-slavery movement, which ranged, you might say, on the Left from abolitionists who demanded, you know, the immediate abolition of slavery and equal rights for Black Americans, to much more moderate and conservative people down the road … but still anti-slavery.

And I think too much of the recent literature about Lincoln has been, you might say, self-referential, that is they abstract Lincoln from the historical context.

In other words, to study Lincoln all you need to know is Lincoln. You want to know why he did something as President, you look at his law career. You want to know why he held some view about slavery, you look at what some people describe, I think inaccurately, as his belief in “natural” law.

The wider world kind of slips from view. And here I’m trying to put him fully back in the context of his time and see the influences upon him, and how he influenced events as well.

HEFFNER: And what do you find?

FONER: I find a complicated story, a story of growth, of change … and a story that is not a straight line. Another problem with much literature is you have Lincoln … we know what happened. I mean that’s the great problem for historians. It’s very easy to draw a straight line through Lincoln’s career up to the Emancipation Proclamation and then beyond.

But people at the time did not know what the future would hold. And there … in this story there are detours, there are side paths that Lincoln takes. He doesn’t know that he’s going to become the great Emancipator. And I think it’s much more interesting to track him forward, you might say. And to see how his ideas developed and changed then to just see it as a pre-determined trajectory toward a goal that everybody knew was, was on the horizon.

HEFFNER: But it’s interesting when, when I was young and a young student of history … there were always those very critical persons who would say, “Oh, your Lincoln, your hero. But Lincoln after all was connected in this way to slavery and that way to slavery …

FONER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … was a Colonialist. Was not kindly disposed toward Black people.

FONER: Well, of course, the further you push Lincoln up on his pedestal, which many, many scholars do … the more likely it is that someone’s going to come along and try to knock him down.

And so there are books that exalt Lincoln and there are books that are sort of prosecution briefs against Lincoln. And certainly this point of believing in colonization … that is that part of the end of slavery should include encouraging Black people to leave the country for some other place … Africa or Central America or Haiti. That’s part of Lincoln’s belief system … at least for ten years.

He first advocated it publicly in 1852 and he advocated it many times up through the Emancipation Proclamation. So, admirers of Lincoln tend to ignore that all together. Prosecutors say “this is the essential Lincoln.”

My point is there is no single essential Lincoln. Lincoln changes enormously during the course of his life. You can’t pick out one quote, one statement, one policy and say “This is Lincoln”.

At the end of his life he occupied a very, very different position with regard to slavery, race, the future of American society than he had earlier in his life.

And that’s what I think makes the story interesting … tracking out the changes in Lincoln and the influences that made him change.

HEFFNER: Of course, one critic found that to be a cop-out on your part. The notion of change and of growth.

FONER: Well, there are those … critics have a perfect right to review a book and say whatever they want. But there are those in what a colleague of mine calls the “Lincoln Industrial Complex” who have, what they feel is a hold on that world. They don’t like outsiders … you know, and I’ve never written a book on Lincoln before … I edited a collection of essays about him.

I’m an outsider, really, to the Lincoln industry and there are people who don’t like interlopers coming into that little world and, you know, it’s much more satisfying to say, “No, Lincoln never changed. He held the same views throughout his whole life.”

Well, if that’s true, it’s not very interesting. What kind of person never changes his views during his entire life, especially in the monumental crisis that the United States went through.

So if people want to project Lincoln as being born with a pen in his hand ready to sign the Emancipation Proclamation that a … you know, that’s, that’s a position that is out there.

I don’t happen to agree with it. But, you know, let a hundred flowers bloom … as someone once said.

HEFFNER: But Eric, what about that approach? What does it say, do you think, about the historian who finds his character on a pedestal or just the opposite and never sees a change?

FONER: Well, you know, Lincoln … people are always trying to claim Lincoln … Lincoln represents something bigger to Americans than just himself and his career.

Every political tendency from Communist to Conservatives, from Egalitarians to Segregationists, has claimed Lincoln. And you can find a quote from Lincoln to justify, you know, almost any position, as with the Bible or many other documents.

Every religious group, well I guess Protestant … you can’t claim him as a Catholic, I suppose, but every Protestant denomination has claimed “Well, Lincoln really believed in our particular point of view”.

In other words, people want Lincoln on their side because he represents something kind of quintessential about American society and therefore to admit that he may have had flaws, to admit that perhaps he didn’t have everything figured out at the beginning … some people feel well that is somehow a critique of American society.

On the other hand, if you want to critique American society, a good way to begin is by tearing down Lincoln. If you can tear down Lincoln, you have sort of undermined some basic premises about American society. At least those historians think that.

You can show how deeply racist America is if you can show that Lincoln was a racist. If Lincoln was a racist, well what hope is there for racial harmony in this country?

So I, I think a lot of these books are being written with one eye, or maybe both eyes on the present, really.

HEFFNER: What about Lincoln and racism then? That’s not an unfair question.

FONER: Oh, it’s a totally … it’s a, it’s a very fair question, of course. Although I would say that even posing the question that way in a sense exaggerates the importance of racism in Lincoln’s thinking.

We are much more attuned to race than Lincoln was. I mean Lincoln made statements, especially in 1858, during … when he was accused of believing in Negro equality, which was the nuclear weapon of politics at that time.

He made racist statements, no question. He said Black people should not have the right to vote. They should not have to marry with White people. He, he … at that point in his career, he didn’t see Blacks as really an intrinsic part of American society. That’s why he believed in this colonization, encouraging them to go somewhere else where they could enjoy full rights. He saw them as an alien group.

Now by the end of the Civil War he had changed his mind completely. He’s advocating the right to vote for some Blacks. He had put them in the Union Army. He, he urged them to go to work … in the South, not somewhere else … as free people for reasonable wages.

So by the end of the war he’s thinking of America as a bi-racial society which is a very complicated thing in the mid-19th century.

So as I say, you can’t say “Was Lincoln a racist or wasn’t he?” You have to say “When was Lincoln a racist and when did he move beyond his earlier racial views into a much more egalitarian sense of American life?”

HEFFNER: Well, what was the crucible? Was it the war?

FONER: Well, the war of course is the crucible for everybody. You know, I think it was Wendell Phillips who said “Would we live a century in a year now”. You know, the, the war accelerated change and forced people to, you know, think to the edge and then beyond the edge of what they had conceived of as possible before the war.

In my mind it’s first of all the service of Black soldiers. You know in the Emancipation Proclamation he opens the Army to Union … to Black soldiers. 200,000 Black men serve in the Union Army and Navy by the end of the war and Lincoln comes to believe that they have staked a claim to citizenship by fighting and dying for the Union, they have proved that they are entitled to citizenship in the post-War world and rights.

At the end of the war he’s saying these former soldiers ought to have the right to vote. Now you may say, “Well, look, that’s not complete equality”, but that’s at a moment where only five Northern states allow any Black people to vote.

Illinois, where he came from, didn’t allow Black people to vote, Ohio didn’t allow Black people, Pennsylvania … New York allowed Blacks to vote if they held $250 worth of property, which most of them didn’t.

So you know, I think the service of Black soldiers and then just encountering Black people. You know, in Illinois he barely knew any Black people. Yeah, there was a barber he befriended. But it was as President that he became acquainted with people like Frederick Douglass and, and Sojourner Truth and Black delegations came to the White House, churchmen, people petitioning for the right to vote. He met a whole range of talented, articulate, you know, Black men and women. And I think that opens his mind. And, and you know, he encounters things that he never had encountered in Illinois, and that’s … you know, that’s Lincoln’s greatness … his, his open mindedness, his capacity for change and so he grows enormously, I think, during the Civil War.

HEFFNER: That you say about Lincoln. What about the historians? Change on their own part? Do we find that frequently?

FONER: Oh, well, of course we find change all the time. You know, fifty years ago, many historians saw the Civil War as a needless conflict, a blundering generation … slavery really had nothing to do with it, and therefore Lincoln is seen as a kind of a Conservative who really didn’t care about slavery, the Union was the only issue to him and what should be remembered was he held the nation together.

Since the Civil Rights revolution two generations of historians have come to see the centrality of slavery in American life, in American history and they see, as Lincoln himself said in his Second Inaugural … you know, let’s get serious, folks, slavery is the cause of this war.

You know, everybody at the time understood that. It took historians a long time to catch up with that point. And so today, as in my book, we focus much more on slavery as the key issue in Lincoln’s career and emancipation as a critical outcome of the Civil War.

And nobody today thinks that slavery was sort of dying out and, you know, would have just disappeared without this war.

I mean war is a horrible thing, no matter … under any circumstances. But it’s, it’s hard now to say that the Civil War was unnecessary. And that that puts … that view puts Lincoln in a somewhat different light as the man who preserves the union and creates a free nation … or helps to create a free nation where it had been a slave nation before hand.

HEFFNER: Eric, as one of this nation’s most prominent and eminent historians, tell me about your own possible shifts, changes of mind over the years.

FONER: Well, as I said, if you don’t change your mind, you’re probably not thinking very carefully about almost anything.

I mean when it comes to Lincoln I have, in the course of my work and research on this, I actually came to admire Lincoln more deeply than I had before, probably because I had never really written directly on Lincoln that much.

I, I came to see that he had a deep moral hatred of slavery. I came to see him as a man who is sort of enmeshed in a political system where action against slavery is very difficult.

I don’t blame him in a sense, although I don’t want to in any way denigrate the abolitionists who called for much more drastic action against slavery than Lincoln was willing or able to take, to take part in as a member of the political system.

And so, Lincoln is trying to think through … what do … and this is, you know, this is a perennial question, it probably goes back to Herodotus, you know, what do you do when you’re enmeshed in an evil system?

You know, how do you combat it when the system itself has barriers erected. The Constitution protects slavery. If you’re a politician, you’re working within a Constitutional system.

Well you can be like William Lloyd Garrison and burn the Constitution, that’s a moral principle … that’s a moral stance.

But Lincoln couldn’t quite do that and therefore he’s trying to figure out ways of, you know, getting around the Constitutional prohibitions attacking slavery on the edges, but nobody really knew what they could do about slavery until the war takes place, at which point the war power of the President makes action possible that wasn’t possible before the war.

So, you know, as I say, I … my view of Lincoln has, has evolved, just as Lincoln himself (laugh), you know, evolved over the course of the research and my thinking about this era.

HEFFNER: Well, that, you’re, you’re pointing out here that you saw changes in Lincoln …

FONER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and I’m talking about changes in Foner.

FONER: Well, as I say … I, I come out of this book admiring Lincoln more deeply than I had in the past. I … he’s not on a pedestal … Lincoln was a man with flaws … I think there’s some … at one part of his career I said he did things which are absolutely inexcusable.

When he was a lawyer in the 1840’s, he represented a slave owner who was trying to get possession of a slave family that had … really had … was entitled to its freedom … in Illinois, he had brought them to Illinois and they claimed their freedom, which they were entitled to by being on Illinois soil and Lincoln represented the slave owner trying to get them back into slavery.

I said there’s no way this can be excused, you know. So, it’s not like I’m trying to just exalt Lincoln. But I think my view of Lincoln has changed over time as I study him more deeply and I think the main point is I see him as a man with this constant moral compass throughout his career in a way I didn’t quite appreciate maybe in some of my earlier writings.

HEFFNER: Well, I was surprised, I admit when I read again your feeling about the inexcusable representation of that family.

I was puzzled by that because I would have thought this is a lawyer’s obligation.

FONER: Absolutely. I’m sure there are many … by the way I’ve said this at law schools, lecturing and they all say, ‘No, no, everybody deserves a lawyer”.

No question about it, everybody deserves a lawyer. But not every lawyer is obligated to take every case that comes before him.

Lincoln was not ordered by a court to take this case. He chose to take it. He was not a fledgling lawyer needing the fee, he, he had just been elected to Congress. He was about to go off and, and take a seat in Congress.

So, what does this prove? It proves that at that point in his career, in the mid-1840’s, Lincoln separated his view of slavery from, you know, from his professional practice as a lawyer.

Now what’s interesting is in the next decade, his attack on Steven A. Douglas, his great rival, is that Douglas separates politics and morality. He says the problem with Douglas and his willingness to let slavery spread into the Territories is “He doesn’t care whether slavery is voted up or down. And I do care”.

Well, that’s a little different than when he went to court and said, “Well, I’m just a lawyer, I don’t care if these people get put back into slavery or not. I’m just here representing a client”.

And I think, you know, it shows that his sense of the importance of slavery had not matured as much at that point, in the mid-1840’s as it would later on in his career.

HEFFNER: I’d again ask about Foner …

FONER: Okay.

HEFFNER: … given the, the, the wonderful …

FONER: (laugh)

HEFFNER: … advantage of hindsight and given the sense that you’re, you’ve matured in the position, or at least you’ve grown older … you were mature …

FONER: I definitely have grown older.

HEFFNER: … you were mature before. If you look at Phillip … at Phillip … forgive me … although there’s nothing to forgive about …

FONER: My uncle, Phillip Foner, an excellent historian … yes …

HEFFNER: And I think of all the Foners who have been involved in the historical trade …

FONER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … when fifty years from now we look back at this Foner …

FONER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and see a movement … what … what would that movement be?

FONER: Well, you know, it’s … you know, historians tend to be a rather un-introspective group. You know, we’re not used to … you know, like people in English Departments are always writing their autobiographies. Anthropologists are now studying themselves because … if they go out and study other people, they’re oppressing them … or something like that.

Historians rarely write autobiographies and when they do they’re somewhat dull. I don’t know if you read Arthur Schlesinger’s, Jr.’s autobiography …


FONER: … memoir. You know, Arthur was a great historian, but I don’t think his memoir was a brilliant work. It was interesting … but … you know, we don’t think about … so, so, it’s hard to analyze yourself.

But I think … if looking back over the trajectory of my career … my first book was published 40 years ago now … hard to believe … you know I think I have … I started out as a Columbia historian.

I was trained at Columbia and in the 1960’s … I was trained by Richard Hofstadter and I studied politics writ large … politics and ideas, that’s what we studied. You know, political culture, political ideology and over time I think my approach to history has expanded … I became influenced by the new social history of the 1970s, British scholars like A. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawn.

I moved beyond the, you know, the, the political world to the larger social world in writing. By the time I was writing about Reconstruction, I was writing about former slaves and their activities on plantations and many things way beyond what I had studied as a graduate student.

I’ve also been strongly influenced by the feminist movement and by … when I wrote The Story of American Freedom … I put a lot of emphasis on how demands by women for greater freedom at various times in our history have really affected the definition of freedom for all Americans.

So, you know, I would just say I have tried to keep an open mind about new approaches to history, trying to absorb the kinds of knew approaches that have developed over the course of my career … attentiveness to language, as I say … to culture. And so, you know, I, I think we’re always learning.

And I, I feel … I’m trying to always learn, you know. And I’m, I’m always trying to make the history I write better and more inclusive.

HEFFNER: What accounts, in your estimation, for the great interest in Hofstadter these days?

FONER: Well, you know, people seem to be able … we, we live in a strange time, politically, as you well know. And, I think people go back and rediscover Hofstadter’s brilliant essays, writings on, well, you know, the paranoid style … (laugh) that seems to be a phrase which, unfortunately, is always relevant in American history and it certainly is relevant today.

I mean people who believe the President is a Muslim, the President is a Kenyan, the President is not … you know, is in league with terrorists. There are people who believe that in this country … a considerable number of them apparently.

And, and so we go back to Hofstadter to explain. Hofstadter was very interested in these upsurges of irrationality in the history of American politics.

Whether the paranoid style is a phrase that can apply to every single one of them, I don’t know.

But I think we go back to Hofstadter to try to think about where … what is it in American politics that seems to give rise to these very strange outbursts like we’re seeing in some parts of the country today?

HEFFNER: Had Dick lived longer, and he died so young …

FONER: He died at the age of 54 … it’s, it’s hard to believe considering the, you know, incredibly important work that he produced.

HEFFNER: So you studied with him in the sixties. I studied with him the forties …

FONER: Okay.


FONER: Well you were among his first students and I was probably his last. I mean when I defended my dissertation in ’69, he was in the hospital. And he died, you know, a few months later. So, it was a sad moment, of course.

HEFFNER: The movement from his particular interest in politics and political history …

FONER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … the American political tradition and the men who made it … which continued … was the impact of statistical analysis being felt at that time?

FONER: I think that came a little later. Hofstadter himself had no interest in statistical analysis, because the kinds of issues he was interested in … political language, political culture, political movements, didn’t really lend themselves to this kind of quantitative analysis.

It was in the seventies, really, after Hofstadter’s death, that the so-called “clio-matricians” came to the fore, briefly and with a messianic, you know, impulse that they were going to settle all the questions because they could give numerical answers to historical questions.

Now, you know, I actually started out in college as an astronomy and math major. I took calculus and physics and all this for two years before, I guess, going into something easier … history. So, I’m not afraid of numbers … many historians are enumerate … so they’re totally intimidated by charts, numbers, formulas … I’m not. And I think it’s very important for historians to understand that when they are making numerical statements they ought to have some numerical basis.

Even when you say “most” of something, which we do … well, do we really know it’s “most”. How do we know? Have we counted that up?

But I think, as I say, most of the large … statistical analysis is good at answering small questions. It’s not very good at the large questions. What were the causes of the Civil War? You know, why did emancipation come to the fore? You know how did race relations change?

You know maybe there’s some little statistical element in there. But I don’t think that kind of analysis can give you very good answers to those questions.

HEFFNER: Are those what you call the “clio-matricians” still around?

FONER: Well, I’m sure there are and there are people doing good work analyzing large masses of data, of course.

Social historians. Students of social mobility, things like that. But I think the messianic impulse has faded. It’s now one among many possible methodologies that historians can utilize to answer questions. It’s not the future of historical study as we were told it was in the 1970’s.

HEFFNER: And as one who couldn’t …

FONER: (laugh)

HEFFNER: … study astronomy and mathematics as you did, I’m happy to note that.

FONER: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: Eric Foner I’m so glad you were willing to come today to talk about The Fiery Trial … your book on Lincoln and American Slavery. But I do want to ask you to stay and do another program … perhaps more about historians.

FONER: I’d be more than happy to do so, Richard.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Eric.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind website at

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.