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The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

4.1 of 5 stars 4.10  ·  rating details  ·  2,656 ratings  ·  182 reviews
In this landmark work of deep scholarship and insight, Eric Foner gives us the definitive history of Abraham Lincoln and the end of slavery in America. Foner begins with Lincoln's youth in Indiana and Illinois and follows the trajectory of his career across an increasingly tense and shifting political terrain from Illinois to Washington, D.C. Although "naturally anti-slave ...more
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Published October 12th 2010 by Tantor Media (first published September 29th 2010)
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Clif Hostetler
This book is a study of American slavery and the political events that shaped Lincoln's attitude toward it. Conventional wisdom would indicate that Abraham Lincoln, known as the Great Emancipator, would also be an advocate of equal rights and racial integration. It turns out that the historical reality is a bit more complicated than that. The journey from the antebellum years, through the Civil War and into the Reconstruction era witnessed a long slow shift of public opinion in the midst of a wi ...more
Antebellum America has a certain dystopian fascination. Colorblind civic nationality and a multiracial citizenry weren’t unfulfilled promises—they weren’t even promised. With his characteristic command of the era’s ideological texture, Foner transports readers of The Fiery Trial back to the 1850s, where some senators think the Declaration of Independence a subversive document. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court declares that blacks have no rights a white man is bound to respect. Northerners ...more
Frank Stein

Much like before starting and loving Garry Wills's "Lincoln at Gettysburg," I stated before that I had permanently sworn off all future Lincoln books. Yet once again I couldn't resist, and again I was more than pleasantly surprised. I keep thinking there couldn't be anymore to say on the topic, and then someone goes and proves me wrong.

This book may seem even more redundant on first glance, because what else has defined Lincoln more than his battle against slavery? Strangely enough, though, no o
Nov 09, 2010 Donna rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Lincoln enthusiasts
When you've read 20 Lincoln biographies one has to ask why read another, but this book actually has a unifying principle different from the rest. Foner looks only at Lincoln's statements and evolving beliefs about slavery. While I've read many of the primary documents before, it is nice to have these particular ones gathered together so you can see the development of Lincoln's abolitionism--but more than that, his understanding of African Americans as "citizens" of this nation who deserved not o ...more
Juanita Rice
Put this on your reading list even if, like me, you are not especially a fan of biographies, the Civil War, or most American history books. It steers a careful path between "the mists. . . of hagiography and the muck of denigration" as Sean Wilentz, another Civil War scholar, wrote. Historian Eric Foner wrote this Pulitzer-winning book to track down evidence about Abraham Lincoln's evolving views on race and slavery. And the evidence of those changes and what caused them is something all people ...more
Matthew Linton
Of all the great historical figures in American history, few (if any) have had as much ink spilled analyzing their accomplishments as Abraham Lincoln. He has been psychologically cross-examined, his every political decision has been scrutinized, and his personal relationships have been discussed ad nauseum in an attempt to understand Lincoln and the choices he made as President of the United States during the Civil War. With so much scholarship to contend with it is puzzling that acclaimed Civil ...more
In this helpful and informative volume, Foner does a great job dismantling many of the myths that make up Lincoln’s image as “The Great Emancipator.” His presentation is clear and straightforward.

As his views evolved regarding slavery (and perhaps race), Lincoln's actions revealed that he was indeed, as he once said, changed by events more than he changed them himself. At the same time, while Foner shows us that Abe was indeed no radical, in hindsight we see that his wartime decisions set the na
For some time I have been interested in attitudes towards slavery in the United States in the antebellum period. I've read about Southerners like Robert E. Lee, wondering how they could own slaves, not to mention fight for the right. Northerners, I thought, were either Democrats, who favored the South, or abolitionists, neither of which seemed that interesting. It hadn't occurred to me that Lincoln's attitudes towards slavery were not only of great importance, but also extremely interesting unti ...more
Politics is the art of the possible. A perfect piece of art is the one in which no item could be added or subtracted from the canvas without making the picture less perfect. The author of this book has made the development of Lincoln's understanding of slavery like a perfect painting.

Lincoln is always ready to grow and revise his understanding of the 'peculiar institution'. He realizes that he can't get too far ahead of the people or the politics without marginalizing his ultimate objectives. Fo
Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial traces the development of Lincoln's attitudes towards slavery, emancipation, and civil rights from his time as a lawyer in Springfield, IL, to the end of his presidency. Historical documentation suggests that Lincoln was never comfortable with slavery--he believed each man should enjoy "the fruits of his labor." Lincoln did not initially ally himself with the radical abolitionists; he believed in gradual, compensated emancipation, and he also believed that the freed ...more
Robert Owen
“The Fiery Trial”, historian Eric Foner’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Abraham Lincoln, is a lucid, well written exploration of a man compelled by circumstances and his own natural inclinations to grow. In exploring Lincoln Foner adopts a minimalist approach that limits his narrative arc to the tight confines of Lincoln’s thinking on the issue of slavery and how this thinking evolved over his lifetime. Lincoln, whose life in Foner’s hands is stripped of all but it’s most essential element ...more

Eric Foner’s “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” was published in 2010 and received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for history. It was also awarded both the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize. Foner is a respected historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction era, a prolific author and is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University.

In its preface, Foner states that the book is intended to be “both less and more than anothe
Mike Hankins
Few figures have generated as much historiographical discussion as Abraham Lincoln. Despite this crowded field, Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial has added an important element to the study of “the great emancipator.” Much of the previous Lincoln historiography focuses on Lincoln as a man, on his life, or on his politics. Foner's quasi-biography does not attempt to retread this ground, but instead seeks to place Lincoln within a particular historical context and examine his relationship to the politi ...more
***Dave Hill
Apr 30, 2013 ***Dave Hill rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Those with an interest in American History, the Civil War, Black History, Labor History, Presidents
This is a fine, deeply interesting book about Abraham Lincoln's thoughts, writings, speeches, and actions on the subject of slavery and, by extension, the role of the black population in the United States.

While Lincoln is known to history as the Great Emancipator, and the leader of the Union in the Civil War to defeat free the slaves, the reality is much more complex. As with the American population as a whole, and even those people who belonged to the new Republican Party, Lincoln's attitudes o
Dennis Fischman
Feb 09, 2013 Dennis Fischman rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who saw the movie Lincoln and want to know more
Recommended to Dennis by: Nina Mayer
Shelves: nonfiction
By tracing the evolution of Lincoln's thinking about slavery, Foner shows us a lot about our country that we have forgotten. How many of us know or remember that tariffs (taxes on imports, meant to encourage the growth of home-grown industry) were a much bigger issue in the early 1800's than slavery? Or that opposition to slavery was once grounded in the desire to ensure an economy of capitalists employing free, white working men (which the slaveholders and the labor movement both denounced, wit ...more
David Johnson
Scholarly, insightful etc. I've always felt a person should be judged according to their times.*
President Lincoln like most whites in the 1860's was rather unabashedly racist by modern standards. However as the war progressed and more bercame known about the conditions of the slaves in the south and also as the northern black soldiers displayed bravery equal to whites Lincoln's views and goals changed. It was always a war to save the union, but became a war to end slavery and Lincoln deserves al
Josh Liller
My previous experience with Eric Foner consists of two assigned books for a university Civil War & Reconstruction class: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War with a New Introductory Essay and A Short History of Reconstruction. I consider both insightful yet difficult to read.

With this book, Foner turns his scholarly skills to a historical analysis of Lincoln's views on slavery. Casual readers may be unaware just how much those views grew
Audrey Babkirk Wellons
While I really enjoyed this book, I'll admit it's probably not everyone's cup of tea. There is a lot about the inner workings of 19th-century American politics--you'll learn a great deal about radical abolitionists, Whigs, and the stances of early Republicans and Democrats (MUCH different from today).

The main thrust of the book involves deconstructing the myth of Lincoln as a moral beacon whose main mission in life was to eradicate slavery. The picture of Lincoln here is far more interesting, c
For The Fiery Trial, Foner narrows his historical lenses to get to the heart of the controversy over Lincoln’s stand on slavery: was he pulled along by northern radicals, or did he step out in front of them? Was his endless procrastination intentional for political reasons? Was he, in the final analysis, a racist?

Eric Foner knows how to tell this history in the gripping manner it deserves, without any conjecturing, speculating, axe-grinding, tediousness or other practices that characterize lesse
"The Fiery Trial" is not a history of the civil war, or of slavery or abolition, nor is it a Lincoln biography. Foner mentions only the details of Lincoln's world, life events, politics and war events necessary to guide the reader through Lincoln's evolving perceptions and understanding of slavery,and as president, his growing realization of the urgent need to end it. Again, not a history of the civil war, but a clear telling of this very essential piece of history that is otherwise obscured in ...more
Jim Gallen
“Fiery Trial” is the tale of Abraham Lincoln’s evolving stand on slavery. Beginning as a young man who knew few, if any, Negroes, Lincoln passed through the phase of opposing the extension of slavery to favoring its abolition with emigration to eventual openness to the admission of Freed Negroes to American society.

Lincoln’s development occurred in the body politic in which he lived. That body affected Lincoln and was shaped by him. Author Eric Foner delves into evidence of the reasons for the
Angela Platt
A brilliant history of Lincoln's political career, emphasizing the acumen of Lincoln as he progressed politically and developed his anti-slavery views. Lincoln, who is well known for his emancipation proclamation, was actually a political moderate, whose anti-slavery views were grounded in his belief that all have the basic human right of liberty, according to the constitution...but likewise believed blacks were due neither social nor civil rights. He favoured colonization (sending them outside ...more
I like to get my history in biographies, and this is definitely not a biography of Lincoln. its a very focused analysis of his dealing with the slavery issue from his youth until his death. I thought it was terrifically interesting, and new even if you hav read lots about Lincoln. His heart was not into abolitionism the very end (he was a long-time proponent until almost just before he issued the Proclamation)of encouraging the slaves to go to Liberia, (which would have worked out nicely for the ...more
I don't think there is a historian with a better understanding of the political context of the Civil War than Eric Foner. His analysis of Abraham Lincoln's evolving views of slavery, the abolitionist movement, emancipation and race relations makes for fascinating and informative reading. His graceful prose style is an added bonus.
James Kayler
Not an easy read by a long shot but in light of the state of current racial attitudes this is a necessary and important book. We are still living through constitutional decisions and compromises dating back to the founding fathers.
Rob Mentzer
*Listened to audiobook. This is the big question about Lincoln: How did he think about race? Very complicated question and this is probably as good an answer as there is. Lincoln is a big melange of genuine moral righteousness, political calculation of the sort that is probably admirable and some that is less than admirable, and, sure, certainly some 19th century prejudice. All those things are in there. Great book for trying to disentangle them and trace the changes in his political calculation ...more
Ben Daghir
Shout out to Dr. Foner on writing a complete work on Lincoln. I say complete because his argument, regarding Lincoln's personal life in relation to the political atmosphere in which he rose to presidency, must be understood in relation to one another. Lincoln wasn't always "abolition." He was always curious to learn and his lawyer-like practice helped him strive for justice. He yearned for what was right, just as we are all called to do. He grew, and Foner explains that growth in a unique, perso ...more
Foner is reliably regarded as the best of the best, it seems, on Civil War topics. This one is brilliant in its portrayal, of President Lincoln's growth into abolitionism. The key line of the whole book, to me, comes on p. 208 when Foner writes that James Garfield as a Northern commander operating in Tennessee "reported that he found 'the rank and file of the army steadily and surely becoming imbued with sympathy for the slaves and hatred for slavery.'" This is the very real and very human exper ...more
Eric Smith
By focusing on Lincoln's thoughts about slavery and their evolution over time, Foner brings into clear view the many tangled issues and tormented arguments about slavery during the 30 years before and during the Civil War..

I never understood why Lincoln was considered a "moderate" on the subject of slavery, given that he freed the slaves. But after having read this book it is remarkably clear why he is considered a moderate. His views on slavery evolved dramatically, especially once the Civil W
It's nice to read a beautifully written and researched book about Lincoln that's not quite as throne-sniffy as others, but the basic premise of the thing seems completely implausible to me. The notion that Lincoln grew personally, rather than in terms of what he thought he could practically achieve politically without sinking the boat, with regard to his view of slavery isn't believable. He might have gradually accepted blacks folks' equal capacity for intelligence (along with the apparently rad ...more
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Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, where he earned his B.A. and Ph.D. In his teaching and scholarship, Foner focuses on the Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery, and nineteenth-century America. His Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, won the Bancroft, Parkman, and Los Angeles Times Book prizes and remains the standard history of the p ...more
More about Eric Foner...
Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 A Short History of Reconstruction Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War The Story of American Freedom Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction

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“The problem is that we tend too often to read Lincoln's growth backward, as an unproblematic trajectory toward a predetermined end. This enables scholars to ignore or downplay aspects of Lincoln's beliefs with which they are uncomfortable.” 3 likes
“Alvan Stewart, a prolific writer and speaker against slavery from New York, developed the argument that the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, which barred depriving any person of “life, liberty, or property” without due process of law, made slavery unconstitutional. Slaves, said Stewart, should go to court and obtain writs of habeas corpus ordering their release from bondage.” 1 likes
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