Frank Stein's Reviews > The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

The Fiery Trial by Eric Foner
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May 07, 2012

it was amazing
Read in April, 2012


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 one else has built a whole book around this obvious topic, and Foner uses this expansive view to show Lincoln's myriad nuances on the issue in a new light.

The first part of the book gives important background on the world of slavery in Lincoln's Indiana and Illinois, both of which were nominally free states. Yet the right to move slaves through the states often translated into retaining them for extended periods while there. As late as 1840, the census counted at least 331 slaves in Illinois. Antislavery forces had to battle a change in the constitution to make slavery completely legal in the state. They won, barely, but by 1853 Illinois had succeeded in banning all free blacks from even entering Illinois. Foner shows that the "free" states where Lincoln strove against slavery were at best only half-free, and that, if anything, they were becoming more slavery-dominated as time went on.

The most important part of the book, however, is Foner's demonstration of slavery's impact on Lincoln's conduct of the Civil War. Even people who know a fair amount about slavery and the war may have heard only about the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, but Foner shows the debate over slavery was constant. From liberating slaves in the territories, to enacting compensated emancipation in DC in 1862, to freeing the wives of former slave soldiers in 1865, every year brought fresh battles over how to bring about gradual or total emancipation. Foner shows Lincoln's hand in all of this, as well as his surprising and continuing belief in colonization (as late as 1863 he tried to buy a Carribean island for emancipated slaves, and also discusses plans for colonizing Panama with all of them).

So there is much surprising here even for well-read fans of Lincoln and for students of the Civil War. This book's Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes prove that the topic is far from being exhausted.
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