As promised in my last post, I have returned to reading history, specifically to the book by Eric Foner entitled The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (Norton), which won the Pulitzer Prize for history this year. Although the topic obviously comes up in much of the literature on Lincoln, this is apparently the first study devoted exclusively to Lincoln's attitude to slavery.
One learns in reading the book that in the years before his Presidency Lincoln was by no means a "Radical" or an "Abolitionist". Although he seems always to have regarded slavery as a great evil, he was profoundly committed to the preservation of the United States as a union and therefore felt that he had to acknowledge and accept the nasty compromise, enshrined in the Constitution, that permitted its continuance in the Southern states. The issue in those days was not so much abolition of slavery where it stood as whether it should be extended to new territories which were then becoming part of the country.
What had he imagined until then? Incredible as it might now seem, he appears to have believed in the notion of "colonization", that is sending the freed slaves back to Africa or to some other location, perhaps in Central or South America, perps in the Caribbean. Although I had read of various colonization movements, small bands of Europeans who dreamed to going to an exotic location to purify themselves from the drudgery of early industrial society, this idea for the slaves was not a wacky fringe but a serious movement in the mainstream of political discourse. As late as 1862, during the worst days of the Civil War, Lincoln met with a delegation of prominent blacks in what became "one of the most controversial moments of his entire career." Although he gave a "powerful indictment of slavery" he said that blacks "could never be placed on an equality with the white race"...and urged them "to sacrifice something of your present comfort" by emigrating; indeed, refusing to do so would be "extremely selfish". He even went so far as to say: "But for your race among us there could not be war." In a predictably furious response Frederick Douglass said that Lincoln "'assumes the language and arguments of an itinerant colonization lecturer, shows all his inconsistencies,...his contempt for Negroes and canting hypocrisy'. Douglass pointed out that blacks had not caused the way; slavery had."
Lincoln as President actually sent representatives to Guatemala and Honduras to try to negotiate the purchase of land for the proposed colony, but neither country was interested. It should be noted, however, that he always believed that no one should be forced to emigrate (and as it turned out, the few efforts at emigration on a volunteer basis were dismal failures). He also believed that emancipation, when it came, should be on some gradual basis and would be accompanied by compensation to the slave holders (there was evidently little talk of compensation to the slaves themselves).
Obviously a great deal changed in the course of the War. Lincoln finally was able to make contact with freed blacks (including Douglass), which certainly played a part, but there was also the telling fact that large numbers of slaves were escaping and attaching themselves to the Union army, and that many actually became soldiers in that army, known for their diligence and bravery. Eventually came the Emancipation Proclamation, actually an executive order issued by the President as Commander-in-Chief of the Army (this was eventually ratified as the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution) and the Lincoln that we know and revere had fully emerged. Although he survived the end of the War his assassination prevented his involvement with Reconstruction, which became such a shambles under his successor.
This is a major work by a major historian, who also has the gift for writing lucidly. He explains a great deal about the background of our continuing issues of race in this country, and I must say that the Pulitzer has never been given to a more worthy recipient. This is vital reading.
— Jeremy Nussbaum