Eric Foner Discusses Lincoln’s Faith

It was “social opportunity,” not religion, which drove Lincoln, according to the author.
  • Transcript


Question: Was faith a driving factor in Lincoln’s agenda?

Foner:    I don’t think Lincoln could be a very good candidate for president nowadays.  He was very unreligious.  He never was a member of a church in his entire life.  I don’t think he can run for president nowadays and with that on your resume.  He didn’t, you know, he came to use religious language during the Civil War.  He knew that this was a very religious country, but he explicitly said over and over again, we do not know God’s will.  God may have his own purposes.  You know, we’ve got to do the best we can.  Of course, we’ve gone much further today.  Everybody knows God’s will today.  Every politician has a direct pipeline to God who tells them, “Build a pipeline in Alaska or drill offshore,” you know.  Lincoln didn’t use that kind of rhetoric, so it wasn’t religion that was driving Lincoln.  I think what was really driving him was a very deep belief in democracy and in, you might call it social opportunity.  He, himself, had been born, you know, in very modest circumstances and he believed that everybody ought to have this opportunity to rise in the social spectrum including blacks.  He didn’t believe in equality in a modern sense.  For most of his life, he said, “You know, I don’t think black people should have the right to vote, hold office, marry white people, no.”  But on this one basic right which he called the right to the fruits of your labor, the right to work and benefit from your own work and to save and to advance, he thought black people were equal to whites in that respect.  They should have the same opportunity and that’s why slavery was wrong.  Lincoln talked about slavery as a form of theft.  It was stealing somebody’s labor and letting someone else appropriate it.  And all the way through his life, he talked it.  In his great second inaugural address in 1865 when he’s inaugurated for a second term, he talks about the 250 years of unrequited toil, [i.e.] unpaid labor.  That’s what slavery was, unpaid labor.  And he thought that was completely illegitimate.  So, that’s really what’s driving him.  Now, of course, that doesn’t tell you how to get rid of slavery especially if you believe in the Union, you believe in the Constitution.  You know, the abolitionists said, “Let’s just abolish slavery,” but there was no legal mechanism for doing that before the Civil War.  Slavery was an institution for the States.  It required cooperation by slave owners if you’re going to get rid of slavery.  That’s why people like Lincoln [spoke] about paying them for their slaves.  You know, the abolitionists said, “Pay them?  This is illegitimate.  This is not real property, human beings.  If you pay them, you are sort of accepting the legitimacy of their right of property.”  But, if you’re going to need the cooperation of slave owners, you’re going to have to give them something to, you know, for them to cooperate.  So, you know, it’s one thing.  Lincoln hated slavery, and yet as a person fully embedded in the political system, he had to work within that system to think about ways of getting rid of slavery.

Question: Was his decision to abolish slavery a moral or political decision?

Foner:    I don’t think you can separate political, moral, economic, ideological, military.  The emancipation of the slaves as we say in the academic jargon was overdetermined.  In other words, there were so many causes for it that you can’t just single out one.  Lincoln always said it was a military measure.  In other words, the war was not going well.  Slavery was the foundation of the Southern economy.  You attack the foundation in order to try to make it impossible for the South to continue fighting.  Also, by the middle of the Civil War, he realized they needed black soldiers.  You know, one of the things about the emancipation of the slaves was to welcome them into the Union Army.  And by the end of the war, there were like 200,000 black men had served in the Union Army and Navy.  That’s about 10% of all those who served.  So that was a significant, you know, portion.  So, that’s a military reason.  But, nonetheless, Lincoln understood that there are moral considerations, political considerations.  As he said, it was an act of justice as well as an act of military necessity.  So, therefore, you know, you can balance these things out, but all these factors come into play in the middle of the Civil War when he decides to move toward emancipation.

Question: Could Lincoln have done more to normalize race relations?

Foner:    It’s after the war that the country has to come to terms with the legacy of slavery.  What is going to be the status of these 4 million people who had been freed?  Are they going to be members of society?  Are they going to be equal?  Are they going to have the right to vote?  Are they going to have civil equality, economic equality or they are going to be a separate [class], you know, unequal, second-class citizens?  That was the fundamental problem of reconstruction.  Lincoln didn’t live to face that problem.  In his second inaugural, as I said, he kind of put the problem on the agenda when he talks about the 250 years of slavery.  He’s telling the country we’ve got to come to terms of what the consequences of these are.  And an interesting thing about that speech, he didn’t call it Southern slavery, he called it American slavery.  In other words, this was a responsibility of the entire country.  He didn’t point his finger at the South and say, “You are responsible for slavery.”  He said, “We are all responsible.  We have all benefited from slavery in one way or another.”  So, you know, the Reconstruction Period, Lincoln did not live into that period.  It’s a great tragedy because the president who succeeded him, Andrew Johnson, was the opposite of Lincoln.  He was stubborn.  He was racist.  He was unwilling and unable to work with Congress.  He had no regard for the rights of black people whatsoever, and I think he stymied a lot of the positive efforts toward equality that could have been taken at that point.  So, you know, in the Civil War, Lincoln’s interest is winning the war.  But at the end of his life, he’s beginning to think about the consequences of slavery, but his life is cut short before he really has an opportunity to, you know, take any real action on that regard.