Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University, is the author of numerous works on American history, including Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War; Tom Paine and Revolutionary America; and The Story of American Freedom, and Our Lincoln. He has served as president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association, and has been named Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities.
Question: Where did Lincoln fall on the slavery issue?
Foner: Lincoln didn’t exist in a historical vacuum, obviously. And he’s part of a spectrum of thinking on slavery in that era. At one end of the spectrum are the people we know as abolitionists, the Frederick Douglass, the William Lloyd Garrisons, the Wendell Phillips. These were people who demanded the immediate abolition of slavery and the incorporation of blacks as equal members of American society. Now, their role was very important in abolishing slavery. They were not a very large number but they helped to change the public discourse about slavery, which is critical. On the other end, of course, people like John C. Calhoun and others who just thought slavery was the best kind of system and should be permanent. But even within the anti-slavery spectrum, you had these abolitionists in one end, and on the other end, you had people who believed who wanted to get rid of slavery but thought it will be a long, long process. Lincoln once said it will take 100 years to get rid of slavery, and they couldn’t really conceive blacks being members of American society. They talked of gradual emancipation of paying the owners for their slaves, and very often of colonizing them outside of the country. Lincoln starts out at that end of the spectrum, but during his life, in particular in Civil War, he moves toward the abolitionists’ position. By the end of the Civil War, he’s obviously presiding over the immediate abolition of slavery with no compensation, no payment to slave owners even though slaves legally a property. And at the very end of his life, he’s talking for the first time publicly of giving the right to vote to at least some African-Americans in the South, so that’s a whole different picture than sending them out of the country. Now, they’re going to be there as part of the political system. So, what’s interesting to me about Lincoln is how he moves along that spectrum. Too many people take one moment in Lincoln’s career or one letter or one speech and they say, “There is Lincoln,” but you can’t pin him down at one spot. That’s part of his greatness. He grows. He changes. In a period of radical change, he himself is able to, you know, rethink his ideas. And many presidents, including some recent ones, aren’t able to rethink even when, you know, events seem to suggest they may be on the wrong track.