The Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities hosted another event that packed the University Center Theater to capacity, proving once again its ability to stage events that bridge the academy and the community.
Dr. Eric Foner, Dewitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, delivered the Belle McWilliams Lecture for 2011-2012 on February 23. In connection with the 150th anniversary of the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation, he discussed his latest book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, exploring the complex evolution of Lincoln’s views about slavery from his Kentucky roots through his presidential vision for post-Civil War America.
Among those who walked away impressed were students Juan Roncal and Chimene Okere. “His oration skills matched the content of his lecture,” said Roncal. Okere added that he appreciated Foner’s “different perspective on Lincoln,” stating that he was inspired to buy and read a copy of The Fiery Trial.
Dr. Foner began by noting that many recent books about Lincoln are introspective and self-referential, not considering or at least slighting the outside world. He intended his book to “put Lincoln back into history,” specifically the history of the American slavery issue.
What Charles Sumner called the “anti-slavery enterprise” ranged from gradualists and colonizers on the more conservative wing to radical abolitionists on the other. Lincoln occupied different positions on this spectrum at different times, showing his capacity for growth. (Dr. Foner observed that while Lincoln’s position changed, at any given time everything in his position was consistent.) Lincoln was not an abolitionist, Dr. Foner said, but rather a politician virtually all his life. While he was a member of the Whig Party, slavery was not an issue for him because of his concern that a debate about slavery would destroy the party as a national entity. It was only in the 1850s, when the Whigs did disintegrate and Lincoln joined the Republican Party that he began to speak about slavery. Even then, he denied being a believer in “Negro equality,” basing his opposition to slavery on its violation of the Declaration of Independence’s principles of liberty and pursuit of happiness. He believed that all persons had the right to enjoy the fruits of their labors, and therefore slavery was theft.
Lincoln said he always hated slavery. Why, Dr. Foner asked, was he not an abolitionist? Politically, Lincoln could not afford to be an abolitionist. There were few in Illinois and they were sometimes were lynched. Lincoln’s guiding principle was always his reverence for the Constitution and his firm belief in self-government. He did not believe in Manifest Destiny, however, maintaining that America should lead by example instead of forcing itself upon other peoples.
Lincoln’s original views were that slaves should be freed but that they should then be colonized in other parts of the world so that there would be no social or economic problems resulting from their freedom. While Henry Clay had argued for colonization on the grounds that freed slaves in America would be dangerous, even criminal, Lincoln believed that American racism would always prevent freedmen from advancing themselves, so their only hope was colonization.
Lincoln’s initial efforts proved fruitless. When he urged Delaware, which had only 1800 slaves, to take the lead in working toward abolition, he was soundly rebuffed. Similarly, when he presented the proposal to the other slave-holding border states, which had more slaves, he had no success. When he urged blacks in the District of Columbia to work for colonization, once more his appeal was rejected. Lincoln had to come up with something new. Lincoln did not think the Civil War was originally intended to abolish slavery, but abolitionists pressed the issue. His first movement in that direction was to permit the slaves who flocked to Union forts to be regarded as “contraband of war” — which meant that he regarded them as Confederate property being used illegally against the Union. As the war dragged on, Congress was moving more and more toward abolition: the war was not being won and many urged an attack on slavery as being the only way to destroy the Confederacy’s power; enthusiasm for enlistement was waning and there were calls for letting blacks fight; and slavery itself was disintegrating as thousands of refugees continued to flock to the Union forts.
The result was the Emancipation Proclamation, which Dr. Foner called the most misunderstood document in American history. While it did not apply to the border states or the areas of the Confederacy under Union occupation, which had about 750,000 slaves, it proclaimed immediate freedom for 3,200,000, the largest emancipation in history. Because it applied to areas under Confederate control at the moment it was issued, the proclamation is said by some to have freed no slaves. But it committed the Union armies to protecting those declared free as those armies moved into the affected areas.
What gave the president the right to issue such a proclamation? The Constitution does not convey such a right, but Lincoln issued the proclamation as commander-in-chief, using the concept of “war powers” that have routinely been asserted by American presidents. The emancipation was based on military necessity and all but the concluding sentence were strictly military. Bowing to the insistence of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln agreed to add the words “sincerely believed to be an act of justice.”
The Emancipation Proclamation differed radically from Lincoln’s earlier beliefs about slavery. Emancipation was immediate. There was no compensation to slave-holders. There was nothing about colonization; instead freedmen were urged to work in America for “reasonable” wages, that is, wages that they bargained for on their own terms. Lincoln was then faced with considering the place of blacks in America, but he was assassinated before he could finish the process.
Dr Foner said that, as Lincoln put it in his second inaugural address, “All knew that this interest [slavery] was somehow the cause of the war,” although many other issues, such as disagreements over tariff policies, have been advanced: “Six hundred thousand people don’t kill themselves over tariffs.” He pointed out that his book title says “American slavery,” not “southern slavery.” The North was complicitous in maintaining slavery. In his second inaugural address, before his famous statement about “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” Lincoln expressed the fervent hope that the war would soon cease: “Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
Among the responses to questions that were asked after the lecture, Dr Foner spoke to several additional points:
He said that race was not an important issue for Lincoln at any time. He received numerous blacks at the White House, always on equal terms (Frederick Douglass remarked that Lincoln treated him like a man). Slavery, not race, was the important category for Lincoln.
Delaware, with only 1800 slaves, rejected Lincoln’s proposal for compensated emancipation. The end of slavery in Delaware came only with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which Delaware had voted against. The slaveholders simply wanted to keep their slaves. Was there any change that Mississippi, or any other southern state, would have voluntarily ended slavery?
Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln as president, lacked every quality Lincoln had. He was stubborn, unable to get along with Congress, racist and determined to keep blacks down. What would have happened if Lincoln had lived? Dr. Foner noted that the question involved counterfactual history, which he said was easy because no one could prove his conjectures were wrong. He speculated that Lincoln and Congress could have worked out an acceptable plan for Reconstruction, because Lincoln nearly always accepted bills proposed by Congress (he voted only four bills overall, the only important one being the Wade-Davis Bill, which called for a harsh program for Reconstruction).
Dr. Foner has won almost every major prize in his profession. Foner has served as president of three historical and professional organizations (Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians), curated prizewinning museum exhibitions, and won numerous teaching awards at Columbia. He has also written in popular venues such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. He also has appeared on programs such as Charlie Rose, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report.
The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery won the Pulitzer Prize for History, the Bancroft Prize, and the Lincoln Prize, and it was named by the New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book of the Year.