Becoming Lincoln

A victory of better angels amid an evolving world view, riddled with inconsistencies on race and slavery

By David M. Shribman
Globe Correspondent / October 10, 2010

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In one of the most enduring speeches in American history, Abraham Lincoln spoke of a “new birth of freedom’’ and asserted that the United States had been “conceived in liberty’’ and “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’’

Today these words from the Gettysburg Address may seem like patriotic boilerplate on parchment. But in 1863 their meaning was new, stunning — and unmistakably clear. Lincoln was saying that the new birth of freedom belonged to enslaved Americans. He was arguing that national policy was set by the Declaration of Independence, which preceded the Constitution by more than a decade. He was contending that equality for all was a traditional American idea, not a new one forged in the 19th century. And he made clear that the Civil War was being fought for freedom.

For decades historians and commentators have plucked quotes from Lincoln’s speeches, informal remarks, and letters for their own purposes, some to show his ambivalence toward slavery, others to display his opposition to slavery, some to underline his skepticism of the natural abilities of blacks, others to highlight his contention that blacks deserved the rights of all.

Now Eric Foner, perhaps the preeminent historian of the Civil War era, has produced a masterwork that examines Lincoln’s passage to Gettysburg and beyond, and his movement as a historical figure to the status of symbol if not secular saint.

“The Gettysburg Address offered a powerful definition of the reborn nation that was left to emerge from the Civil War as a land of both liberty and equality,’’ Foner writes in “The Fiery Trial.’’ “Left unanswered was the question of how fully blacks would share in that promise in a nation where they had never known it, and whether they would finally be recognized as part of ‘the people’ on whom, Lincoln’s concluding words declared, the government rested.’’

Some of this territory — what Lincoln thought, when he thought it, how contradictory it was, how it fit into Lincoln’s world view, and how that world view changed — has been covered before, but never so comprehensively as Foner does, never with the historical sweep that Foner sets out, never with the historiographical finality that Foner will very likely be judged to have achieved.

There have always been many Lincolns. Foner portrays one Lincoln, but one who changed and evolved from a man who reflected the prejudices and assumptions of his time to one who reflected the better angels and new assumptions of an American future that even now has not been fully achieved.

For much of his political life he had an abiding set of views, evident in his eulogy of his hero Henry Clay almost nine years before the Civil War began: the convictions, as Foner deftly summarizes them, that “blacks were entitled to the basic human rights outlined in the Declaration of Independence, [that] slavery should be ended gradually and with the consent of slaveholders, and [that] abolition should be accompanied by colonization.’’

Lincoln remained intrigued by colonization almost to the very end, but by the time the Civil War was underway he understood that the conflict itself would resolve the slave issue.

Many factors contributed to Lincoln’s views about blacks and slaves: His outlook was formed without substantial contact with blacks and certainly without contact with accomplished blacks. One of his wife’s uncles had bought and sold slaves. As a House member, he repeatedly voted for the Wilmot Proviso, which would have prohibited slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico. But Foner argues that Lincoln viewed blacks “as a people who had been violently and unnaturally removed from their homeland, not as part of American society.’’

Plus there were the contradictions that, like the Bible, allow people to find in Lincoln what they want. He could be quoted saying slavery was a “monstrous injustice’’ or a “vast moral evil.’’ Then again he could be quoted saying that “there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.’’ He may have used the N-word but he will be remembered for the E-word (emancipation).

Any examination of Lincoln and race must begin with an examination of ourselves and race — and here Foner offers us a lesson we should apply to the way we examine this president and the purposes of the war he prosecuted. “Efforts to assess Lincoln’s own racial outlook run the danger of exaggerating the importance of race in his thinking,’’ Foner says. “Race is our obsession, not Lincoln’s.’’

Even so, we are left with this question: How to understand all the complexities and contradictions in Lincoln’s views?

Perhaps by considering Lincoln a man of vision and values, but preeminently as a man of politics. Before the war, he was wary of upending the sectional balance. During the war, he was wary of alienating the border states. He practiced politics as the art of the possible — until he bent history by expanding the definition of what was possible.

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at

THE FIERY TRIAL: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
By Eric Foner
Norton, 426 pp., illustrated, $29.95