Eric Foner To Speak on Lincoln's "Fiery Trial"



As NPR's Morning Edition reported this past Monday, President's Day, the second-most written about man in history, behind Jesus Christ, is Abraham Lincoln, and to illustrate the mountain of books about Lincoln, the recently opened Ford's Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington, D.C., has made that mountain into a column — a spiraling column of Lincoln-related "books" made out of aluminum but with jackets from the real books printed on them. The stack climbs 34 feet and measures eight feet around.

Morning Edition quoted Paul Tetreault, director of Ford's Theatre:

"There are books here for people of all ages. There's young people's books, there's an Abraham Lincoln stickers book, there's an Abraham Lincoln coloring book. And then of course there's all of the bestsellers: David Herbert Donald's great book about Lincoln [Lincoln], Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals — all of these major scholars who've written about Abraham Lincoln, they're all contained in this stack."


Tetreault doesn't mention him, but surely in that three-and-a-half-story stack of books by Lincoln scholars there's room for preeminent Civil War and Reconstruction historian Eric Foner and especially for Foner's The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. That book appeared in 2010. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, along with the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize. And it's now available in paperback. Foner himself is now set to deliver a lecture on Lincoln's "fiery trial" at the University of Memphis on Thursday, February 23rd.

Foner, of Columbia University, is guest of the U of M's Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities and will be delivering the Belle McWilliams Lecture in American History. The event takes place in the school's University Center Theater, with a reception for the author at 6 p.m. and the lecture at 6:30 p.m. A booksigning will follow. It's all free and open to the public. For more information, visit or contact Professor Aram Goudsouzian, interim director of the Orr Center, at 678-2520.

According to its mission statement, the Orr Center was established to bridge the academic world to the broader Memphis community through thought-provoking programming. And there's no time like the present to fulfill that mission: Foner's "Fiery Trial" lecture at the University of Memphis coincides with this year's 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

How did Lincoln arrive at that proclamation? Slowly, according to Foner, who traces Lincoln from early antislavery proponent (but no abolitionist) to "colonizationist" to gradual emancipationist, and, after Lincoln witnessed the more than 100,000 black soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War, to "immediatist" calling for full emancipation and guaranteed equal rights for the country's slave population by the close of the Civil War.

If the terminology here sounds too specialized for nonspecialists, I defer to Princeton historian James M. McPherson, who wrote about The Fiery Trial and who outlined Lincoln's attitudes toward slavery in The New York Review of Books back in 2010: "No one has written about this trajectory of change with such balance, fairness, depth of analysis, and lucid precision of language as Foner has done in The Fiery Trial."

Look for Eric Foner's lecture at the University of Memphis on Thursday to be every bit as skilled.

And if you're in Washington, D.C., look for The Fiery Trial in the stack of Lincoln titles featured at the Ford's Theatre Center for Education and Leadership. But give yourself some time. You'll be searching close to 7,000 titles out of the roughly 15,000 books written about our 16th president.

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