A painting from 1863, reproduced in historian Eric Foner’s latest book, depicts a benevolent Abraham Lincoln conferring freedom on a female slave. The image suggests that even before his death, Lincoln was already being mythologized as the Great Emancipator.
“Lincoln generally is put up on a pedestal,” Foner says. “He is a great man, but he grew into greatness. I don’t think he was born with a pen in his hand, ready to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. He was a human being; he had great qualities, he had certain faults, but the key is change over time. That’s what the study of history is, and too often that gets lost in the portraits of Lincoln as either a consummate hero or as some kind of villain.”
Foner seeks to counter that frozen-in-time image in “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” which focuses wholly on his thoughts and reactions to slavery over the course of his lifetime. What emerges is not a single perspective but an evolution of thought, balanced by a political pragmatism and a disinclination toward extremists on either side of the issue.
While hesitant to draw parallels between present and past, Foner does say there are lessons in Lincoln’s leadership for modern politicians. “Lincoln never surrenders his hatred of slavery, but he’s willing to be flexible in terms of policy and to rethink policies when they’re patently not working. He has this capacity for growth, and by the end of his life he’s grown enormously. I think any political leader could benefit from this capacity to expand your horizons and to change your point of view when necessary.”