Eric Foner on Writing about Lincoln
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: What inspired you to write “Our Lincoln”?
Foner: This book was inspired, you might say, by the recognition that we are coming up in February 2009 to the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth and there we can expect even greater interest in Lincoln than normal. And perhaps, hoopla, there would be a Steven Spielberg movie about Lincoln. I’m not one of those who tend to think all that highly of Hollywood history. There’s a lot of things coming out about Lincoln which are, I’d say from a scholarly point of view not very rigorous or valuable. The point of this book was to get some very distinguished scholars, some of whom have never really written about Lincoln before but are scholars of the 19th century to try to put Lincoln into the context of his time, and in so doing, to really get away from what I think as tendency nowadays to just study Lincoln. People who study Lincoln just look at Lincoln. Lincoln psychology explains Lincoln’s actions. Lincoln’s career as a lawyer explains the stands he took on slavery. Lincoln’s, you know, experience with his wife explains certain things he did. In other words, to understand Lincoln, you only have to know Lincoln according to a lot of literature that is out there now. And we don’t really, as historians we don’t really feel that is an adequate way of looking at Lincoln. Lincoln is a man of his time. Lincoln is influenced by people in his time. His relationship with abolitionists, with African-Americans, with Members of Congress, these are all affecting Lincoln’s view, so you’ve got to step out from Lincoln to look at the broad picture of 19th century America, and that’s what we try to in this book. Lincoln is still central but it’s Lincoln as a man of his era, not just Lincoln pulled out of context as some kind of, you know, icon without history.
Question: How did you select which scholars to feature?
Foner: I chose people for this book some of whom as I say have never written about Lincoln. Sean Wilentz, for example, who’s a scholar at Princeton, who wrote a very [fine] book a couple of years ago on the rise of American democracy. Lincoln comes in at the end, but he wrote an essay for this about Lincoln and democracy. You can’t understand him until you… You know, you can’t write about that unless you think about the whole trend of democratic expansion and democratic exclusion in the 19th century. Or, again, James McPherson, who has written a lot about the Civil War, very, very fine scholar of the Civil War, he wrote about Lincoln and his role as Commander in Chief of the Army. But, again, you know, and by the way, of course, very relevant today, what is the role of the president in setting military strategy in trying to, you know, relate to members of the Army, you know, leaders of the Army. Does the president just [defer] to them? Does he try to give them strategic insight, etc.? My own essay is actually about Lincoln and his plan which he held to for much of his life to try to, in the phrase of the 19th century, colonize emancipated slaves, that is, send them out of the country to somewhere else. For most of his life, Lincoln could not really think of this as a biracial society. He thought of black people as alien, as somehow not really assimilable. He felt racism was deeply embedded in American life. He thought the best thing for emancipated slaves will be to send them somewhere else, whether Africa, Central America where they can have their own national identity. And that’s not something most writers about Lincoln emphasize, but that was an important feature of his outlook for a long, long time. And, again, to understand that, you have to understand how widely shared this view of colonizing blacks or separating the races was in that period.
The author shares how he went about writing Lincoln’s narrative.
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