Columbia University historian, professor and author Eric Foner began his lecture at Hamilton College by wishing his audience well in what he called a “Season of Lincoln.”
In addition to a recent spate of Hollywood productions featuring the 16th president of the United States, a visit last week of an original copy of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to Utica’s Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute has brought Lincoln back to the forefront of our collective memories.
This renewed focus, argues Foner, is well deserved as Lincoln is one of the most renowned figures in our nation’s history and perhaps the quintessential American. In an ideal world, according to Foner, every season should be Lincoln Season by some measurement.
The body of Foner’s lecture focused on his prize-winning book, The Fiery Trial, in which Lincoln’s life is examined within the context of the broader question of slavery. Foner was quick to separate his book from the mountain of literature on Lincoln by explaining how his approach does not try to explain Lincoln’s choices and actions by solely doing an analysis of Lincoln as a person but instead tries to explain Lincoln in the larger context of the time in which he lived. As Foner said, there is no single moment or single quote that can represent Lincoln’s evolving position on slavery, instead Lincoln’s greatness was his capacity for growth as the nation wrestled with its original sin.
Going further, Foner explained how despite being known as the Great Emancipator, Lincoln did not always align himself with all anti-slavery parties in the United States. In particular, he at first stood at odds with abolitionism, willing to confer with abolitionist leaders but unwilling to count himself among their membership. Foner put this into the larger context of what it meant to oppose slavery prior to the Civil War. While abolitionists focused on civil rights and eventual equality for all races, Lincoln represented an argument against slavery that was instead based on natural rights and the U.S. Constitution with the idea that the races didn’t need to be equal but that slavery violated the natural right for a person to pursue happiness and to reap the fruits of their own labor. In the beginning, argues Foner, Lincoln was opposed to slavery not on the grounds of moral, political, or religious impetuous, but rather because he saw slave labor as theft in violation of the Nation’s founding creed.
This early position by Lincoln would evolve after his ascension to the presidency as the secession of 11 states from the Union and the outbreak of the Civil War would change the nature of the debate over slavery. Lincoln became committed to the ultimate eradication of slavery and when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he tied the survival of the Union to the death of slavery. This was a turning point in the nation’s history and this is the Lincoln we often celebrate and remember. Foner’s work serves to remind us of the larger story and this helps attain a larger appreciation for Lincoln as a man who grew to have such an enormous impact upon our nation’s history.