Reviews for Fiery Trial : Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

Book News Reviews
The author of many books on U.S. history, Foner (History, Columbia University) traces the evolution of Abraham Lincoln's ideas and policies on slavery from his early career to his presidency, placing Lincoln within the broad spectrum on antislavery thought. The author suggests that it's a mistake to seize on any particular single quotation or speech as representing the "real" Lincoln: Lincoln's thinking evolved over time, Foner shows, and he argues that the hallmark of Lincoln's greatness was his capacity for growth. Showing Lincoln at his best and worst, and outlining his successes and failures, Foner's book gives readers a new way of looking at the man who was arguably our greatest president. This is an essential addition to any library or collection. Annotation ©2011 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Choice Reviews 2011 March
As a historical subject, Abraham Lincoln has attracted thousands of books and articles; just the books on his Emancipation Proclamation alone would fill many a library shelf, yet more books on Lincoln appear every year. Foner (Columbia) adds his own interpretation of Lincoln's political career, with an especially careful look at the process of abolishing slavery. Instead of a modern interpretation of Lincoln's actions, Foner places the emancipation discussion in the context of contemporary politics, with Lincoln as only one of a number of players in the debate. Foner describes the various implications and nuances of freeing the slaves, including the contentious issues of colonization, African American military service, and the future rights of former slaves in the war's aftermath. The pace of the adeptly written book does not exceed the vast amount of information presented, leaving readers with a complete yet understandable narrative of momentous historical events. The result is a highly readable and comprehensive view with some information that advanced readers might already know, but that is presented in a different viewpoint. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. Copyright 2011 American Library Association.

Kirkus Reviews 2010 July #2

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.

Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2010 May #2
One of our leading historians focuses on Lincoln's relationship to slavery, just in time for the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's election. Essential for history collections; with a five-city tour. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Reviews 2010 August #1

Foner (DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, Columbia Univ.; Reconstruction), our most distinguished scholar assaying the meaning of American freedom, ventures boldly into the tangled study of Lincoln's relationship with slavery and race to produce an original and compelling argument. Based on a close rereading of Lincoln documents and careful consideration of the changing contexts in which Lincoln thought and acted, Foner shows that Lincoln's relationship to slavery was sometimes contradictory in the details but persistent in his belief that slavery must somehow die so that the nation might live. Foner argues that Lincoln was sometimes conflicted on race but that antislavery sentiments shaped his policies as much as wartime demands for party unity, border-state loyalty, and public support affected his move toward emancipation and arming blacks. To Foner Lincoln both operated within and transcended the politics of slavery in his day. His capacity for growth was the lodestar of his greatness as an instrument for freedom. VERDICT In the vast library on Lincoln, Foner's book stands out as the most sensitive and sensible reading of Lincoln's lifetime involvement with slavery and the most insightful assessment of Lincoln's--and indeed America's--imperative to move toward freedom lest it be lost. An essential work for all Americans.--Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia

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Library Journal Reviews 2015 January #1

Foner's nuanced account contends that Lincoln unwaveringly opposed slavery throughout his life and moved in a consistent, calculated antislavery direction during his presidency. Race emerged as a focal point when it became necessary to convey how enlisting African Americans was vital to saving the Union. (LJ 8/10)

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2010 August #1

A mixture of visionary progressivism and repugnant racism, Abraham Lincoln's attitude toward slavery is the most troubling aspect of his public life, one that gets a probing assessment in this study. Columbia historian and Bancroft Prize winner Foner (Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men) traces the complexities of Lincoln's evolving ideas about slavery and African-Americans: while he detested slavery, he also publicly rejected political and social equality for blacks, dragged his feet (critics charged) on emancipating slaves and accepting black recruits into the Union army, and floated schemes for "colonizing" freedmen overseas almost to war's end. Foner situates this record within a lucid, nuanced discussion of the era's turbulent racial politics; in his account Lincoln is a canny operator, cautiously navigating the racist attitudes of Northern whites, prodded--and sometimes willing to be prodded--by abolitionists and racial egalitarians pressing faster reforms. But as Foner tells it, Lincoln also embodies a society-wide transformation in consciousness, as the war's upheavals and the dynamic new roles played by African-Americans made previously unthinkable claims of freedom and equality seem inevitable. Lincoln is no paragon in Foner's searching portrait, but something more essential--a politician with an open mind and a restless conscience. 16 pages of illus., 3 maps. (Oct.)

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