Distinguished Professor of History Visits Temple to Talk Lincoln
By Kime Lawson, Assistant Editor
On October 24th, one of America's most prominent historians visited Temple University to deliver the latest lecture for the College of Liberal Arts' Leonard Mellman Visiting Scholar Series. Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, described the evolution of Abraham Lincoln's political and moral position on American slavery and race between his early career during the 1840s and his famous Proclamation of1863 in a lively talk entitled "The Emancipation of Abraham Lincoln." Well over 200 attendees, the majority of whom were huddling masses of undergraduates, crowded Kiva Auditorium so that many were piling on the floor or standing abreast at the back of the room. A respectable number of faculty, administrators, and graduate students also filed in to hear one of the leading authorities on the Civil War and Reconstruction Era speak.
With this year marking the 150th anniversary of the two most famous actions of arguably America's most influential President, much attention has been directed to Abraham Lincoln in print and in film during the past couple of years. Stephen Spielberg's blockbuster epic Lincoln grossed easily over $200 million and even the more farcical Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter made nearly $50 million, while a number of titles about Lincoln by historians and pundits alike have surfed the New York Times Bestseller List since 2010. Foner playfully admitted Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was his favorite interpretation while taking humorous jabs at historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, on whose work Spielberg had based his film. Insisting that most of these recent treatments had rendered "ahistorical character studies" of Lincoln, Foner challenged common misperceptions that cast an uncomplicated Lincoln either as a racist for his views on African colonization or as an anti-racist hero often referred to as "the Great Emancipator." The source of his lecture was his latest work The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (W.W. Norton & Co., 2010), for which Foner won the Bancroft Prize, the Pulitzer Prize for History, and the Lincoln Prize in 2011.
Foner's mentor, American consensus historian Richard Hofstadter, admonished us throughout his body of work that successful politicians must be constantly shifting creatures of circumstance and opportunity to stay in power. Foner invited his audience to view Lincoln's evolving position on Emancipation during the two decades prior to the Proclamation in that light. During the 1840s Lincoln had shied away from Abolitionism even though he hated slavery and perceived it as theft of labor, and he had to publicly deny he wanted equality between whites and blacks out of consideration for his ambitions. In the 1850s Lincoln had supported African colonization as an alternative to Emancipation for African American slaves, and this fact is often cited by those insisting that Lincoln was racist. Foner noted, however, that Lincoln had never been recorded as saying anything that endorsed a viewpoint embracing black inferiority. Rather, Congressman Lincoln feared that America was too polarized to ever treat blacks fairly so he thought emigration would be a better alternative. After his election and the start of the Civil War, President Lincoln attempted to work out a compromise with slave border states remaining in the Union, such as Delaware, to free slaves and compensate former owners over a twenty-year period. Lincoln's effort to compromise failed, and he advised black leaders to emigrate. By 1862, practical war considerations and strategy pushed Lincoln gradually toward Emancipation. Lincoln came to believe that African American soldiers had earned their citizenship. Foner argued that at the end of the war, Lincoln had freed himself from old ideas such as compromise and colonization and had begun to imagine America as a biracial nation that needed to address the injustices of slavery's legacy.
Although Lincoln’s evolving position on slavery and race has been a familiar topic to professional American historians, seeing a master historian at work disseminating that knowledge to undergraduates reminded me what a pleasant atmosphere of collegiality our university can foster between renown scholars and our Temple diamonds.
In other Eric Foner-related news, he has also recently co-edited a compilation of eighteen historiographical essays for the American Historical Association with historian Lisa McGirr, written by influential scholars to highlight the current contours and leading debates within the field of American History. This newly-released volume, American History Now, is available through our own Temple University Press.•