Eric Foner is one of America’s most outstanding historians. His authority in the subject has been recognized by the three major professional historical organizations and he is one of those rare authors who have been awarded both the Bancroft and Pulitzer Prizes in the same year. You can read more about one of his books in our The Fiery Trial book review.
The Fiery Trial book has won many literary prizes, including the Pulitzer for History, and has been reviewed with admiration and respect. This is because it is not only a well-researched historical record for students, but this gripping tale can also be enjoyed by the layman with an interest in the civil war. We have no other option than to include it in our best civil war books for students.
The Fiery Trial book deals with Abraham Lincoln’s controversial attitudes and private thoughts about slavery and race, as well as attempting to explain how they changed and evolved over time and at different stages of his life. Foner cleverly sidesteps giving other historian’s opinions of Lincoln’s motivations and thoughts and lets his research speak for itself, and in that way, allows Lincoln to do so through him.
Many recent books on Lincoln have suggested that he was homosexual, prone to depression and fierce temper tantrums when things did not go his way. All of this is hearsay given that no new diaries or evidence about Lincoln have been discovered.
The only accurate way to create a picture of a famous person like Lincoln is to study their interactions with others and reactions to events within their particular historical setting. In The Fiery Trial, Foner wisely examines Lincoln within the context of his political background and reveals him not just as a man, but as the politician that he was to the core.
Against the backdrop of the 19th-century slave trade, we can view Lincoln’s attitude to slavery and black people in general. He was known as The Great Emancipator but, in contrast, revealed a distinctive racism in the way he spoke about and related to the very same people.
He spoke persuasively about the injustices of slavery but did not take any action against it nor do anything to alleviate the extreme suffering of the American slaves. Instead, Lincoln tried to steer a middle path through the intense politics of the day and was eventually credited with bringing about the abolition of slavery in America.
Lincoln’s ability to be almost chameleon-like in his political stance does not mean that he was perfect in any way. The Fiery Trial contains many dark moments in Lincoln’s political career, especially concerning some of his beliefs such as blaming the black slaves for causing the American Civil War just by their very presence in America. In The Fiery Trial, Lincoln’s distasteful beliefs are not hidden but wrapped in the interesting package of historical perspective.
The Fiery Trial is regarded as Foner’s greatest feat in that he was able to focus on Lincoln’s ability to change his mind and attitudes according to the changing situation. It is well documented that he was quite offensive in his opinion about the capabilities of black people at one time in his life and then became the first president to take the required action to bring about the emancipation of the slaves.
Whether Lincoln was a great manipulator or whether his opinions were fashioned by events around him, he had the capacity to change and that eventually was what determined his greatness.