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Historian discusses President Lincoln’s role in ending slavery

By Katie Rice '13 on November 19, 2012

Eric Foner, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, visited campus last week to talk about the U.S. president that America can’t seem to get enough of — Abraham Lincoln.

Though his Nov. 14 lecture was on historical events, it could not have been more timely. With the comparisons being drawn between President Obama and Lincoln, and Hollywood’s renewed interest in the president through Steven Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, the nation’s 16th president is alive in the American imagination right now.

In his lecture at Memorial Chapel, Foner spoke about Lincoln’s role in the emancipation of slaves during the Civil War. He recently published a book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, that won the Pulitzer Prize, Lincoln Prize, and the Bancroft Prize.

He said he wrote the book about Lincoln because the “literature on Lincoln was becoming too self-referential — to find out about why Lincoln signed a bill, you study Lincoln’s law career …. I wanted to put Lincoln back in the time he lived.”

Foner commented about Lincoln’s second inaugural address, in which he addressed the Civil War and the issue of slavery.

“Lincoln is asking the nation to confront the legacy of slavery. What is necessary to enable the slaves to enjoy the pursuit of happiness? He did not live to provide answers and in some ways, one hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, we are still bedeviled in this country by the questions Lincoln raised in the second inaugural.”

Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, is widely considered to be the pre-eminent historian of the Civil War era.

His lecture was sponsored by several academic departments and was part of the Douglas K. Reading Lecture Series, named after the history professor who taught at Colgate from 1938 to 1980. A book signing and reception at 110 Broad St. followed the lecture and was attended by a range of students, faculty and area residents.


1 Comment

  • Jason Kammerdiener '10 said:

    This lecture was terrific! Professor Foner delivered a well-paced lesson that brought the subject of Lincoln and his stance/relationship to slavery back down to earth.

    I was very impressed by Foner’s dedication to building a “real” perspective on Lincoln. Oftentimes an academic effort to humanize a historically hallowed figure turns into little more than an attempt to demonize or assassinate that figure’s character. In this case, Foner eloquently expressed that while Lincoln’s political statements and actions weren’t always what one would expect of a “Great Emancipator,” he did very obviously allow his views to evolve over time as he shifted more in the direction of the idealized version of Lincoln we’re familiar with today.