Renowned scholar Foner (History/Columbia Univ.; Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction, 2005, etc.) adroitly traces how personal conviction and force of circumstance guided Abraham Lincoln toward the radical step of emancipation.
The author’s observation that Lincoln was slow “to begin to glimpse the possibility of racial equality in America” will come as no surprise to academics, but this impressionist portrait of the president vividly details an unexpected aspect of this famous life—how Lincoln pursued his destiny within the larger antislavery movement, a broad-based network of pressure groups that encompassed everything from abolitionists, who insisted on social and political equality, to racists, who loathed the presence of blacks as a social and economic threat. In the 1850s, Lincoln re-entered politics by identifying containment of the “peculiar institution’s” westward expansion as “the lowest common denominator of antislavery sentiment.” Foner is particularly impressive in explaining the hesitations, backward steps and trial balloons—including placating slaveholding border states and proposing colonizing blacks outside the United States—that preceded his embrace of emancipation. While many key events in the legendary career are examined—e.g., the debates with Stephen A. Douglas—other formerly unnoticed aspects appear in unexpected bold relief—e.g., a thriving Illinois legal practice in which only 34 cases out of 5,000 involved African-Americans. Lincoln’s assassination left unanswered how he would have integrated freed slaves into American society. But Foner’s summary of his qualities—“intellectually curious, willing to listen to criticism, attuned to the currents of northern public opinion, and desirous of getting along with Congress”—leaves little doubt that he would have managed Reconstruction better than his haplessly stubborn successor, Andrew Johnson.
Look elsewhere for an understanding of the president as person, but linger here for an indispensable analysis of Lincoln navigating through the treacherous political currents of his times.