Eric Foner is a great American historian. His book on Reconstruction remains the standard and definitive work. This volume is the definitive study of Lincoln's evolving attitude toward slavery.
Foner sets out the story in chronological order. He strikes a fine balance between the competing demands of completeness and concision and does so with both sound scholarship and narrative flair. To say this book reads well is an understatement.
Of course we read that Lincoln grew up in border areas and had limited and somewhat ambivalent dealings with blacks. He talked about blacks in language that makes us cringe. He could be patronizing and yet he was increasingly aware. And his initial stance on slavery, which originally owed much to his "beau ideal," Henry Clay, seems in retrospect hopelessly naive. For many years, he favored a combination of gradual emancipation rather than outright abolition, compensation of slave-owners, and colonization of slaves in another nation rather than integration here. Bizarre as colonization seems to us now, among opponents of slavery it was for decades considered the only realistic option once slaves were emancipated. Even in the North, it was all but unthinkable that blacks could be integrated and enjoy social, legal and political equality.
It is widely understood that Lincoln's attitude toward blacks and slavery evolved, as did his insight into how to govern a divided nation in the midst of a war that almost daily threatened to arrive at his very doorstep. No president has ever had to respond so quickly to such immense domestic crises or to maintain his footing as he tried to win a war, keep states in the union, maintain the long view with respect to eventual reunification, preserve relations with foreign powers, contend with a nest of rivals in his own cabinet, address military advances and concomitant political changes, and through it all, develop a nuanced and principled position on slavery and the role of black people in society as well as in the Union army.
Lincoln could be startlingly candid. One of the most famous instances of his candor is the observation that he had not controlled events: events had controlled him. But his responses to the constantly shifting course of events and to the manifold ramifications of every development were almost unerring. We who already know the script may be inclined to discount how tricky and complex this process was for Lincoln. But Foner will not let us be complacent. Revealing how deftly Lincoln met each change of circumstance, and not merely explaining Lincoln's evolving perspective on slavery, is the real contribution of Foner's superb volume.
As the war progressed, it became clear to those who saw slavery up close for the first time that it was far more abhorrent than they had ever imagined. And as slaves rushed to Union lines, Union commanders often improvised to find ways to deal with their arrival and their status. For an agonizingly long time, Lincoln officially supported the laws that permitted slavery. At least in the earlier phases of the war, he revoked unauthorized actions taken by his subordinates against slavery, as when he relieved John C. Fremont of duty for ostentatiously ordering that slaves in Missouri be freed. But increasingly Lincoln also looked the other way when his officers assisted slaves who had fled their masters and appeared at Union army camps seeking sanctuary. General Benjamin Butler, a mediocre general but a shrewd lawyer, solved the problem neatly by declaring that such slaves were "contraband." While the term seems demeaning, it was adopted with delight by those whose freedom it protected.
Among northern opponents of slavery, Lincoln was often regarded as dithering. They even tried to nominate Fremont to oppose him in 1864. Nevertheless, events ultimately worked in Lincoln's favor. He succeeded in keeping border states in the union. And the success of federal arms in reasserting control over contested land and the eventual recognition that the army needed black soldiers (together with the courage and valor black troops displayed in combat) did much to convince Lincoln and other Americans that slavery was simply going to be ended without the need to compensate slave-owners, that blacks deserved their freedom, and that they truly wanted to remain in the United States, as it was their home. Gradualism, compensation, and colonization thus became "a creed outworn."
The North's military momentum gave reconstruction a highly progressive cast early on. As Union victory became inevitable, the permanently altered view of blacks and slavery made it plain that no state could be reunited unless it abandoned slavery. Moreover, some of the southern and border states that were adopting new governments not only embraced emancipation but also public education, minimum wages on federal projects, a progressive income tax, and the end of debtors' prisons. From the ashes of slavery arose nascent progressivism.
It is one of the great tragedies of history that this pragmatic yet principled president was murdered just as the war ended, since his approach to reconstruction would certainly have been far more intelligent and competent than that of his singularly inept and rebarbative successor. Lincoln knew there were profound challenges ahead, but in the few days he lived following Lee's surrender, he knew the adulation of black people whose freedom he had won and even enjoyed a few moments of real happiness. His generous spirit emerges in the account of how he asked that a band in a crowd outside the White House play "Dixie" because he felt it was one of our best tunes, and the North had captured it fairly.
Many histories of the Civil War are compelling reading. But the account of Lincoln's development in this crucial area is an amazing one and demands not only our admiration of this remarkable man, but also of the historian who has so keenly perceived and superbly told his true story.