The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln

The central theme of The Fiery Trial is Lincoln’s “capacity for growth” in his “views and policies regarding slavery and race.” Foner does not doubt the sincerity of his statement in 1858 that he had “always hated slavery.” By the time of Lincoln’s death, however, “he occupied a very different position with regard to slavery and the place of blacks in American society than earlier in his life.” In 1837 Lincoln described slavery as an injustice; by 1854 it was a monstrous injustice; in 1862 he told a delegation of five black men he had invited to the White House that “your race are suffering in my judgment the greatest wrong inflicted on any people.” This was good abolitionist rhetoric. But Lincoln’s purpose at this meeting in 1862 was to publicize his program for government assistance to blacks who volunteered to emigrate. Like his political heroes Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay, Lincoln could not yet in 1862 imagine a future of interracial equity in the United States. “Even when you cease to be slaves,” he told the five delegates, “you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race.”

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