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PORTSIDE  February 2011, Week 2

PORTSIDE February 2011, Week 2

Subject:

Discovering Equality (Book Review)

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Discovering Equality

Steven Hahn
January 13, 2011
http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/81377/lincoln-slavery-fiery-trial-review

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.
By Eric Foner. (W.W. Norton, 426 pp., $29.95)

As we begin a raft of sesquicentennials that will carry us
through at least the next half-decade-the secession of
Southern states, the formation of the Confederacy, the Civil
War, the Emancipation Proclamation, Appomattox, and so on-I
confess to feeling a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
These are all signal events in our history, the roadblocks
and thoroughfares in the making of modern America, and at a
time of general crisis they are especially important to
revisit. But the political atmosphere in this country is now
so poisonous, the misinformation so widespread and easily
passed, the temptation to haul out any version of the past
for contemporary purposes so great, that I fear the
sesquicentennials may embitter, rather than salve, already
raw political nerves.

One of the first of the sesquicentennials, now just past, is
that of the presidential election of 1860. It surely was an
election to be remembered. It drew the largest turnout of
eligible voters-more than 80 percent-in our history. It
pitted four serious candidates against each other, one of
whom (Abraham Lincoln) was not even on the ballot in most of
the Southern states, and two of whom (John C. Breckinridge
and John Bell) won only a handful of votes in the Northern
states. It saw the two major parties, the Democrats and the
Republicans, vie to use the powers of the federal government
either to advance or to halt the spread of slavery into the
trans-Mississippi West. It gave the victory to a candidate
who won far less than a majority of the popular vote (about
40 percent) though unquestionably a majority of the electoral
vote. To top it all, within a month and a half the election
initiated a process of rebellion and disunion that resulted
in the formation of a new country, the Confederate States of
America, and quickly thereafter in a bitter and bloody war.

The publication of Eric Foner's splendid book is timed to
coincide with this sesquicentennial, and it certainly takes a
brave and determined soul to enter the fray in this way. We
have just come through the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth in
1809, and a veritable avalanche of popular and scholarly
biographies has been added to a base of Lincolniana so deep
that it could probably bury the nation's capital. Haven't we
had enough? Shouldn't we start to dig out? What could there
possibly be left to add?

Remarkably, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American
Slavery serves as an excellent introduction to the new set of
commemorations, because Foner not only illuminates Lincoln's
developing views on the question of slavery, but also places
him in the broad context of America's most divisive and
consequential political conflict. Although Foner clearly
admires Lincoln, he does not obscure Lincoln's many
complicities with the status quo or his zest for the main
chance. He shows us a man who, for most of his life, embodied
the limited political visions and social prejudices of many
Americans who lived north of the Ohio River. Rather than
appearing as "destined" for greatness, the Lincoln of this
book comes to us as an ambitious-though for the most part
small-time-politician and lawyer, devoted to the Whig Party
and struggling to reconcile his moral objections to slavery
with his commitment to constitutionalism and social peace.

But there is also a much larger canvas. We come to
understand, in Foner's telling, the extent of slavery's
dominion in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the
enormous obstacles that slavery's enemies would face. Slavery
was not in decline, nor were slaveholders becoming a
disempowered minority. Slavery was deeply embedded in all
corners of the United States (fortified by the racism that
accompanied it), and slaveholders controlled most branches of
the federal government. The "anti-slavery enterprise," as
Charles Sumner called it, battled against great odds, often
in tense relation to men of the Lower North such as Lincoln,
who were regarded as unreliable and too eager for compromise.
And so we come to see how Lincoln grew into a role and a
stature that could not have been predicted: into a voice for
the "nation," a determined commander-in- chief, a leader who
would sign off on one of the most radical emancipations in
the history of the modern world and glimpse, however
haltingly, a multi-racial future for the United States.
Lincoln would be as much transformed by history's
opportunities as he would help to transform history itself.
It is an inspiring story, but a sobering one, too.

___________________________________________

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