Interviewer: In your own work, including The Fiery Trial and Give Me Liberty, you seem interested in always finding the proper historical balance between political power and broad social movements. Would you comment on that in regard to Lincoln and emancipation?
Eric Foner: I think that if one were looking for a theme in my writings, and there is probably more than one, whether it’s a textbook like Give Me Liberty or a scholarly work like The Fiery Trial, I’m interested in how and why change happens. That seems pretty simple but it’s a perennial issue among historians. Is it the great man? Is it leadership? Do you need to have the right people at the helm to bring about significant change? Or is it from below (social movements) or, in the case of Lincoln and slavery, the abolitionist movements? Or slaves themselves running away from slavery during the Civil War to serve in the Union Army? And I think, of course, it’s neither one nor the other.
What interests me is this intersection between political leadership, which is important, and popular movements, because without popular movements, political leadership finds it hard to achieve anything. At each point in our history the balance between political leadership and social movements changes.
In the case of Lincoln and the Civil War, it is an unusual combination because for thirty years before the Civil War, the abolitionist movement had tried to create public sentiment in the North demanding action against slavery. They were a small group, often despised in many parts of the North, but they did help to change public opinion and put this question on the national political agenda. Slaves themselves, by running away from slavery—even fugitive slaves who got to the North before the war—personalized the issue of slavery. They brought it into northern communities in a way that presented real, live people, not just an abstract issue.
Then, of course, you had people like Lincoln. Lincoln is a politician, not a political agitator, so to speak. He had deep hostility toward slavery but he wanted to work within the political system, within the constitutional system. And so in Lincoln you see this balance between a moral commitment and respect for law; even respect for some of the compromises in the constitution that protected the institution of slavery.
Once the Civil War breaks out, Lincoln is pressured by abolitionists, black and white, and by others to take direct action against slavery. And he does. I think Lincoln grows and changes in his views during the war, and you have to have the ability to do that. Not every president put into a situation of crisis is capable of rising to the occasion. To see the importance of political leadership just compare Lincoln with his successor, Andrew Johnson, who came into the presidency after Lincoln was assassinated. Johnson was completely the opposite of Lincoln. He lacked intellectual curiosity. He was totally stubborn. Once he took a position he would never change it. He did not listen to critics. He had no sense of public opinion. He was deeply racist, also. Johnson was unable to rise to the challenge that was presented by Reconstruction.
This is what we always have to try to figure out: the balance between individual leadership and large social movements, both of which contributed to the end of slavery in the United States.