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Shriber Lecture

Acclaimed historian discusses Lincoln and slavery

By Eric Coker

Foner on 'Lincoln' the movie:

Historian Eric Foner saw Steven Spielberg's film "Lincoln" twice and said it got two things right.

No. 1: The movie showed that Abraham Lincoln hated slavery.

No. 2: It also showed that Lincoln did have to play an important role in getting the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment in January 1865.

"Other than that, there is nothing in the movie that is correct," Foner said.

The "fundamental dramatic premise" of the movie is false, he said.

"It is a great dramatic premise: Lincoln had the dilemma of having to choose between two goods—abolishing slavery or ending The Civil War," Foner said. "But that is completely false. There was no chance of ending the war without ending slavery. Lincoln made that clear."

Emancipation was a "process and not a moment," said Foner, who added that it is "utterly misleading" of the movie to suggest that slavery ended because white lawmakers in Washington, D.C., passed an amendment.

"The emancipation of slaves was a great historical process with many, many actors including blacks—who were pretty much eliminated from the film," he said.

Spielberg's "Lincoln" is essentially "historical fiction," Foner told the audience.

"That's fine; it's a great genre," he said. "There is Shakespeare and Julius Caesar. So what's the problem? Well, the problem is that Shakespeare did not go around saying that this is real history and he didn't say 'I've got a DVD of Caesar and I'm going to send it to every school in the country!

"I don't mind if Spielberg sends (the movie) to schools. I just don't want it shown in history classes," Foner said to a roar of laughter from the audience.

Ultimately, "Lincoln" lacks historical context and there is no sense of change from the president over time, Foner said.

"I hate to be a killjoy," he said. "It is better than most of the (movies) that come out of Hollywood. As a movie, it is fine. But my advice is: See the movie—and then read a book."

To Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner, Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist. Instead, the 16th president was a politician whose views on slavery evolved during the Civil War.

"Many books give the impression that Lincoln was born with a pen in his hand ready to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, but he couldn't do so until the right time," Foner said. "That was not the case."

Foner, one of the nation's pre-eminent Civil War-era historians, spoke to a standing-room-only audience in March at the 2013 Harvey and Elizabeth Prior Shriber Lecture, presented by the History Department. Foner, whose 2011 book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery won the Pulitzer Prize in History, the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize, discussed Lincoln for about 50 minutes before taking questions from the students, faculty members and administrators in attendance.

The subject of thousands of books and even movies such as the 2012 Steven Spielberg epic, Lincoln "seems to embody the core values and experiences of American life," Foner said. So why did the historian decide to add his "two cents" about Lincoln?

"I began to feel like the literature on Lincoln was becoming too introverted or too self-referential," he said. "The wider world seemed to slip out of view. . . . I wanted to put Lincoln back into the historical context of his life and times.

"The basic point I am trying to make (in the book) is that the hallmark of Lincoln's greatness is his capacity for growth. It is fruitless to try to identify a single quotation or letter or speech and say 'This is the essential Lincoln.'"

A prominent example of Lincoln's capacity for growth is his views toward slavery. In Illinois, Lincoln was a moderate, northern, anti-slavery politician in a country in which abolitionists were a small and often unpopular group.

Lincoln did not emerge as an anti-slavery spokesman until the 1850s, when he became a leading Republican in his home "swing state," Foner said.

"Lincoln's speeches condemned slavery as a basic violation of the founding principles of the Declaration of Independence," Foner said. "It was the affirmation that all men are created equal and entitled to the basic natural rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. . . . The natural right to enjoy the fruits of your labor is the baseline of equality in Lincoln's view."

As a politician and lawyer who revered the Constitution, Lincoln believed that the United States had a mission to exemplify and promote democracy to others in the world, Foner said. But Lincoln faced a dilemma: He knew that slavery was an obstacle to fulfilling the democratic mission, but "the unity of the nation must be maintained."

"If the nation breaks up, the democratic mission is dead," Foner said.

In 1860, Lincoln became president and said that blacks were "entitled to the natural rights of man" but not the right to vote or hold office. He then followed the ideas of two of his political heroes (Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay) and advocated the "colonization" of blacks—sending them out of the United States to other parts of the world. Lincoln's reasoning was that blacks would never be able to enjoy their rights, Foner said, as racism was so embedded in society.

Anti-slavery proponents saw colonization as a way to convince slave owners to end the practice. A plan touted by Lincoln and others proposed gradual emancipation, monetary compensation to slave owners and colonization of blacks, Foner said.

"Here was a man who was envisioning a future without slavery," Foner said of Lincoln. "It was a moderate anti-slavery politician—Lincoln—who triggered the secession of the South and the Civil War. Southerners did not think the future of slavery was safe under the rule of a person committed to its eventual extinction."

As the Civil War began, Lincoln finally had to act on slavery instead of simply discussing it. The slavery issue starts to dominate the national agenda, so in November 1861, Lincoln took his emancipation-compensation-colonization plan to the Union border states as a starting point. It was rejected by the states and others—including black leaders invited to the White House—throughout 1862.

"Lincoln's plan is rejected by everybody: black, white, North and South," Foner said.

With the Civil War at a stalemate and enthusiasm for enlistment dwindling, many leaders believed that the battle needed to shift from army vs. army to society vs. society. Lincoln decided to tell his cabinet members that he was planning to declare all slaves free. On Jan. 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

The proclamation did not free all slaves, but it did let 3.1 million go. It also marked "the turning point" in a long process that led to the abolition of slavery, Foner said.

"What I think is important is how difficult it is from all of Lincoln's previous pronouncements on slavery," he said. "It is immediate, not gradual. It says nothing about monetary compensation to slaveholders. And there is nothing about colonization. In fact, in the proclamation, he addresses slaves and says: 'I urge you to go work for reasonable wages in the United States.'"

More than 200,000 black men would serve in the Union army by the end of the Civil War. This led Lincoln to begin thinking about America as "a bi-racial society," Foner said. Lincoln even suggested that black veterans should have the right to vote.

Lincoln's evolution on the issue during the last two years of his life was "remarkable," Foner said. That was proven during his second inaugural address in 1865, as Lincoln discussed how the violence of the Civil War had been preceded by 250 years of the violence of slavery.

"In essence, Lincoln was asking the country to confront the legacy of slavery—something difficult to do," Foner said. "What are the requirements of justice in the face of this reality? What is the nation's obligation for those 250 years? What would be necessary to enable the former slaves, their children and their grandchildren to enjoy the pursuit of happiness?

"Lincoln does not answer those questions in the second inaugural. Within a month and a half, he is dead. And in a certain sense, these questions continue to bedevil American society 150 years after the Civil War."

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Last Updated: 3/1/17