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Abraham Lincoln in Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial

Written by Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial is a historical nonfiction book with a major focus on the African Americans in the United States during the Civil War period. The author spans his story around Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the US, and his life at the height of racism and slavery in American history. Right from the foreword, the author outlines his main focus by reliving Lincoln’s life history in the book instead of writing about his biography. Although many Americans know much about him, Foner comes out to show the readers the early life of Lincoln and how the experience he went through shaped his opinion about slavery. Further, he examines the President’s attitudes and thoughts on slavery during his teenage life, the Emancipation proclamation period, and thereafter. Foner asserts that “ever since his death that took place a century ago, he provided an insight for us Americans to re-examine ourselves,” (Foner 13). Besides, the book highlights Lincoln’s public life, career, anecdotes, and speeches on slavery during his lifetime.

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Moreover, the author looks at the main character’s early life by narrating about his childhood life in Kentucky and how the Southern states at that time viewed slavery. Further, he describes how growing in that environment shaped Lincoln’s views later in his adult life. Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 in Kentucky, where slavery was practiced. At the age of seven years, his father took him to Indiana, a southwestern state which was famous for racism but did not entrench slavery. Similarly, they moved to Illinois – a state that was against slavery but practiced racial prejudice with the state Black Laws. He later married a woman who was born and brought up by a slave owner in Kentucky. However, while denouncing slavery, Lincoln said that “I am anti-slavery. If it is not a wrong thing, then, nothing is wrong…” (Foner 22). Here, he was against the vice and disassociated himself with it by arguing that there was no given time he did not think that slavery was wrong. As noted by the author, traversing through different phases of life shaped Lincoln’s views about racial prejudice and slavery.

Coupled with the above challenges, Lincoln encountered tough political choices. His services in a political party that had different factions from various parts of the country brought unimaginable challenges. He was in a dilemma since the Whig Party had Southern plantation owners who advocated for slavery while, at the same time, there were representatives from New England who advocated for the eradication of slavery. Also, his wife was from a slaveholder family in addition to his political godfather from Kentucky who owned slaves even though he advocated for their emancipation. Besides, Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd were anti-slavery campaigners who never saw eye-to-eye with the southern politicians. The two crusaders were outraged and advocated for the secession of the country to the north and south if slavery was not abolished in the south. Lincoln realized that the party policies provided opportunities for him to advance his political and economic career. Foner wrote, “To Lincoln, the Whig party policies offered a leeway for the creation of economic opportunities…” (Foner 35). As well as voicing his sentiments, he entered into debates and advocated for the end of the expansion of slavery into new territories and terming it illegal.

Although he was a loyal party member, he found the Whig party obsolete of new policies, and, therefore, in 1850, he started aligning himself with the progressive Republicans. Coupled with his charismatic nature, Lincoln rose to the new party, and in 1860, he became their leader and was nominated as their presidential flag bearer because of his moderate views on slavery. However, the writer takes a critical look at some of his actions during the time. For example, he took part in the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act even though he was against slavery. As ridicule, the writer highlights that “earlier, during his carrier, he called slavery unjust, however, he never termed it a monstrous injustice,” (Foner 86). Again, as a lawyer, he represented a southern slave master in a case where he wanted to repossess his runaway slaves in Illinois. So, he opposed political rights for blacks and advocated for their deportation to Africa. In addition, Lincoln remarked that he conducted the war for the preservation of the Union and not to end slavery while, at the same time, he accused blacks to be the cause of the war.

In conclusion, although he grew in a society practicing slavery and married a woman from a slaveowners’ family, his encounter with anti-slavery crusaders inculcated in him the value of freedom. In his letter to the Attorney General in 1864, Lincoln laments that events have controlled him – this was reminiscent of the conflicting decisions he made. Early in his career, he supported slavery through the Fugitive slave law, yet he later outlawed it through emancipation. Lastly, Foner takes the readers through Lincoln’s life history and the experiences he underwent; they are important events since they shaped Lincoln’s ideologies and values that played a crucial role later in his political life.

Work Cited

Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

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