Eric Foner explains why he wrote about Lincoln

Historians in the News
tags: Lincoln, Eric Foner



Eric Foner is one of a handful of historians who have won the Bancroft and Pulitzer prizes within the same year. His widely acclaimed 2011 study The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery also earned the Lincoln Prize. At the beginning of our conversation in his office at Columbia University, where Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, I commented on his wall of awards, including a sword and a handsome bust of Abraham Lincoln. Foner laughed and said: “My wife has put her foot down: She doesn’t want any more busts of Lincoln. I have a bust in my office, another in our apartment and one more in our country house, but she has declared, ‘No more!’” When I joked that all Lincoln biographers must wish they could share his problem, Foner quickly reminded me that The Fiery Trial is not really a biography—it’s actually about the 16th president’s political rather than personal life.

Was your book inspired by the Lincoln Bicentennial bandwagon?

Quite the contrary, I tried to avoid it. I did not want to be lost in the shuffle of what some call the “Lincoln industrial complex.” We see political scientists, literary scholars, professional biographers, lawyers all contributing to the literature on Lincoln. Too much of this work reflects a fundamental weakness, that many of these writers do not have any deep sense of history. There is no real appreciation of historiography, or how our understanding of 19th-century America has changed in recent years. So although Lincoln may be illuminated, there is often no sense of Lincoln’s world. Good scholarship merges Lincoln into an updated picture of Lincoln and his world, Lincoln and race, and the political structure of the era.

Did you come at this project with some preconceived notions?

I had always been influenced by the view that emphasized Lincoln’s prejudices and slowness, especially in comparison with Radical Republicans. But when I examined carefully the topic of Lincoln and race, I concluded this was a flawed way to look at these issues—Lincoln was not Martin Luther King Jr., he was a man of his time. The first thing to realize is that he thought of slavery not exclusively as a matter of race. We can look at slavery in the 19th century as a political system, as an economic system, as an embarrassment to the international reputation of the U.S. There are many ways of talking about slavery within the 19thcentury context; race is only one of them.

What about Lincoln’s relationship to African Americans?

I decided that I would count up all of Lincoln’s contacts with African Americans. Lincoln was the first president to meet with African-American political figures—he met up with churchmen and delegates, treating them as constituents. I discovered that Lincoln’s ideas about blacks developed over time. I read the CD of his law career: over 5,000 cases, and only 34 of these had to do with black persons. But Lincoln grew and changed and eventually came to see blacks as part of American society. It’s so hard for us today to realize how truly significant this was for most white Americans in 1861. ...





comments powered by Disqus