Prominent Historian Analyzes Lincoln in Chapel Lecture

Columbia University Professor and author Eric Foner spoke to a full house in the Colgate Memorial Chapel on November 14 as part of the Douglas K. Reading Lecture. Discussing Abraham Lincoln, slavery and the Civil War, Foner spoke about his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.”

 Considered to be one of the most prominent historians today, Foner has a very distinguished and well-established academic record. He has written over 20 books, countless articles and is one of only two people to serve as president of three major professional organizations including Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association and the Society of American Historians.

Foner was introduced by Professor of History and Africana and Latin American Studies Graham Hodges, who also organized the lecture. Hodges, who has been working to get Foner to visit Colgate for over a year and a half, was a past student of Foner’s at City University in New York. He said he has the highest respect for his former professor.”Foner is the pre-eminent historian today because what he does influences scholarly perceptions. He has reshaped many people’s views on Reconstruction and slavery and these are very impressive achievements,” Hodges said. “He really cemented a change of consciousness and he has a message, a very powerful message, which is going to last a long time.”

Foner has helped change people’s perspective of Lincoln by contextualizing the President’s decisions and opinions within the time period he lived, which he focused on in his lecture.

 “My book is not a biography but a study of Lincoln’s relationship with slavery, his ideas about slavery and his policies about slavery over the course of his life,” Foner said in the lecture. “I began to feel as other books kept pouring out that these books were too referential…the wider context was slipping out of view. My book is about putting Lincoln back into the time he lived.”

 Tracing Lincoln’s evolving ideas about slavery and race relations, Foner managed to convey the complexity of the issue for the President who struggled to balance his own hatred for slavery with his desire to preserve the Union and uphold the Constituion, which, at the time, allowed the practice.

Foner compared the views of abolitionists with those of Lincoln, citing several differences between them. While abolitionists advocated emancipation and full equality for slaves, Lincoln at first believed racism was too deep-seated in America and that African-Americans should leave the United States and colonize another area.

“We often forget how widespread this belief in colonization was before the Civil War. Jefferson and Henry Clay were strong advocates for colonization. Lincoln believed racism was so deeply ingrained in American society that black people would never gain equality here and that they would never be able to enjoy their rights in American society,” Foner said.

In order to trace Lincoln’s evolving ideas, Foner focused on several key speeches and orders that Lincoln made during his Presidency. One of these was the Emancipation Proclamation which Foner called “the most misunderstood document in American history.” Not actually freeing all the slaves in the U.S., the Proclamation was a military measure and only applied to states which were under the control of the Confederacy and excluded border states and some states already under Union control.

“For Lincoln, the Proclamation marked a dramatic change in outlook. It is markedly different from his previous policies and ideas. It is not gradual and it says nothing about colonization,” Foner said.

Concluding his lecture by focusing on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, Foner called this speech one of the greatest in American history.

  “In the Second Inaugural, Lincoln calls on the nation to confront the legacy of slavery. It is remarkable that Lincoln posed these questions about slavery and race relations in the first place,” Foner said. “He did not provide the answers in the address and did not live to provide an answer but 150 years after the Civil War, we are still deviled by some of questions Lincoln raised in the Second Inaugural.”

After the lecture, there was a question and answer session and then a book signing with a reception following. Attending all three events was a group of students from an American History class at New Hartford High School.

“Putting Lincoln into context is a very difficult task but one that yields a lot of insight into his decisions as President. Foner was an engaging speaker and extremely knowledgeable. He used some humor which made him seem approachable and that made the information he gave stick out to me more,” New Hartford High School Senior Xinyuan Chen said.

Colgate first-year Alex Tiktinsky also attended the lecture and had positive things to say.

“I liked hearing about the progression of the last two years of Lincoln’s life even if that wasn’t news because of the detail Foner brought to that,” Tiktinsky said. “He was very impressive and he gave an interesting lecture.”

Contact Sarah Chandler at [email protected]