TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Although one of the things Abraham Lincoln is celebrated for is the Emancipation Proclamation, which he issued in 1863, he didn't always believe that all slaves should be freed or that they should be granted citizenship after they were freed.
There was a period when he found it impossible to envision a biracial society, and he thought that former slaves should leave America and return to Africa.
The evolution of Lincoln's ideas about slavery is the subject of the new book "The Fiery Trial" by my guest Eric Foner. He's a professor of history at Columbia University and has written many books about the Civil War period. He's past president of the American Historical Association and the Society of American Historians.
Eric Foner, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Did Lincoln always see slavery as unjust?
Mr. ERIC FONER (Author, "The Fiery Trial"; Professor of History, Columbia University): Lincoln said during the Civil War that he had always seen slavery as unjust. He said he couldn't remember when he didn't think that way, and there's no reason to doubt the accuracy or sincerity of that statement.
And even early in his political career, when he was in the Illinois legislature, he went out on a political limb considerably to issue a statement saying that slavery was unjust.
The problem arises when - with the next question: What do you do about slavery, given that it's unjust? And Lincoln, like many, many other Americans, took a long time to try to to figure out exactly what steps ought to be taken given that you thought it was unjust.
GROSS: I want you to read a statement that he made in the speech in Peoria in 1854. And just, like, let's start with the significance of this speech.
Prof. FONER: Well, 1854 is when his great rival, Stephen A. Douglas, forces through Congress the Kansas-Nebraska bill, which opens up a considerable portion of the Trans-Mississippi West to the possible expansion of slavery.
And Lincoln, like many other Northerners, was quite outraged by this, and he comes back into public prominence as a leading spokesman against the westward expansion of slavery.
In doing so, he talks about the evil of slavery in and of itself, not just its westward expansion but why he considers slavery fundamentally unjust.
GROSS: There's a paragraph in which he describes that, in which he lays that out that I'd like you to read.
Prof. FONER: Right. He this is Lincoln's words at Peoria, referring to Douglas' willingness to see slavery spread into the West. Lincoln says:
(Reading) This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert, real zeal, for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world, enables the enemies of free institutions with plausibility to taunt us as hypocrites, causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men among ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty, criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.
You know, that little paragraph somehow condenses so much of Lincoln's thinking about slavery. Slavery is a monstrous injustice. You know, that's the language of abolitionists, not of politicians. It's a very extreme statement against the institution.
But then he goes on to other, you might say, more practical issues. It makes the United States look ridiculous in the world. We claim, ever since the American Revolution, to be the exemplar of freedom and justice in the world, and yet we have this giant slave system, and it enables the enemies of democracy to say, well, these Americans are just hypocrites. They don't really believe in their own founding principles.
GROSS: So hearing this, you might think, well, so Lincoln wanted to abolish slavery. But he wasn't, as you pointed out, he wasn't then an abolitionist. And in another paragraph from the same speech, he says some things that I think will surprise many Americans, surprised me.
Prof. FONER: Right, well, he goes on to say, well, okay, slavery is wrong. What should we do about it? And here he candidly admits that he doesn't have the answer to that question.
If all the earthly power were given to me...
GROSS: You're going to read another excerpt from the speech here?
Prof. FONER: Yeah, right. This is from the Peoria Speech again. By the way, the Peoria Speech is the longest speech Lincoln ever gave. Many of his speeches, like the Gettysburg Address, are models of succinctness. I think the Gettysburg Address took two minutes. The Peoria Speech took a couple of hours. And Lincoln is kind of thinking through his own position on slavery here. And this is what he said:
(Reading) If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves and send them to Liberia, to their own native land. But a moment's reflection would convince me, that whatever of high hope, as I think there is, there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible.
What then, free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? Free them and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.
Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethrens of the South.
Again, here are some remarkable comments by Lincoln which really epitomize his views into the Civil War. Slavery ought to be abolished, but he doesn't really know how to do it. He's not an abolitionist who criticizes Southerners. He says: I'm not going to judge these Southerners for not taking action.
His first impulse, he said, is to free them and send them back to Liberia. At this point, Lincoln does not really see black people as an intrinsic part of American society. They are a kind of an alien group who have been uprooted from their own society and unjustly brought across the ocean. Send them back to Africa, he says. And this was not an unusual position at that time.
GROSS: Yeah, let me stop you here. We'll get more into this idea of colonization a little bit later. Now you mentioned that Stephen Douglas, who was Lincoln's adversary, interpreted the Declaration of Independence as applying to white people. Even though it didn't explicitly say that, that's what the Founding Fathers meant. That's what Jefferson meant.
But I'm wondering how Lincoln interpreted the Declaration of Independence when it said all men are created equal. Did he think it meant all white men?
Prof. FONER: No, Lincoln always insisted that that phrase meant everybody. The question is: what does it mean when you say they're created equal?
And during the great Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas constantly is badgering Lincoln, saying Lincoln is a believer in Negro equality. That was like the nuclear weapon of politics back then.
And Lincoln had to deny it, and he did deny it. The statements that most disturb Lincoln's admirers come out of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, where he explicitly denies believing in blacks having the right to vote, right to serve on juries, right to intermarriage with white people.
Well, what, then, did equality mean? Lincoln says he's very specific about it. Equality means the right to improve your condition in life, as he had, of course, growing up from very modest circumstances.
Black people, he always insists, should have the right to the fruits of their labor, the right to improve their condition in society. That's why slavery is wrong, and on that ground, he said, they are equal to everybody.
But these other rights, political rights, civil rights, are conventional rights, which the majority of society, you know, has a right to regulate. So women, for example, do not have the right to vote, but that doesn't mean they should be slaves.
Now, so Lincoln makes that distinction. To us, it sounds like an untenable distinction, really. How can you improve your condition in life if you lack all legal rights, as blacks in Illinois basically did? And Lincoln had not yet thought that through. It's not until well into the Civil War that Lincoln really begins thinking seriously about the future role of black people in American society.
But on this question of black equality, he's walking a tightrope between his belief in a basic equality of all people and, on the other hand, his unwillingness to challenge the racist views of his state, which was a deeply racist state, Illinois at that time.
You know, it was illegal for black people to enter the state of Illinois in the 1850s. The white population of Illinois did not want any blacks around, slave or free.
GROSS: Before the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was a supporter of colonization. Why don't you explain the concept of colonization for former slaves.
Prof. FONER: Colonization was the belief that former slaves should become free. It's an anti-slavery position. It's a way of abolishing slavery. Slaves should be freed and, depending on who you are, either encouraged or required to leave the United States. They should be sent to Africa, to Central America, to Haiti.
Lincoln did not believe in involuntary deportation, but he certainly advocated policies which envisioned the large majority of the black population leaving for some other place. And from about 1852, when he first publicly advocated this, until the Emancipation Proclamation, over 10 years later, Lincoln consistently made clear his belief in this colonization policy.
Colonization, you might say, was a way of envisioning the end of slavery without confronting the question of America as a biracial society. In other words, you would eliminate the black population, and therefore, you didn't have to think about what their status would be once slavery ended.
And Lincoln's two great political heroes Henry Clay and Thomas Jefferson were strong advocates of colonization. Clay and Jefferson were both anti-slavery slave owners. They owned slaves, they hated slavery, they came up with this scheme, which doesn't seem very realistic to us, obviously, that slavery could be gradually abolished with the colonization of the freed slaves. And Lincoln adopts that policy as the 1850s goes on.
GROSS: So with colonization, was the idea that African-Americans in the North, who weren't slaves, would also be expected to leave for Liberia or South America or the Caribbean?
Prof. FONER: Well, yes. In the hands of many people, and Lincoln urged free black people to leave also, absolutely. Lincoln was a member of the Illinois Colonization Society. In fact, he was on its board of managers. And that urged black people in Illinois, who were free people, to go to Liberia in the 1850s.
Now, what's interesting about Lincoln's colonization and I am not trying to defend this. As I say, it's basically just a way of escaping the whole question of race and race relations is that some colonizationists, like Henry Clary, refer said the reason blacks should leave is they're a dangerous group, they're criminally inclined, or they're just not up to being citizens in the United States.
Lincoln never referred to them that way. Lincoln said the reason they should leave is white people are so racist that blacks will never be accorded equality in this country. They are entitled to these natural rights of mankind, but they should go somewhere where they can actually enjoy them.
So Lincoln did not use colonization in order to, you know, denounce black people, to say they were somehow less capable than white people. His belief in colonization, at least publicly, stemmed from this idea that you could not have racial equality in the United States.
This is not to excuse his belief in colonization. And, of course, the problem was most black people did not want to leave the United States. They thought of themselves as Americans, and their demand was for equal rights here in the land of their birth. So that was the, you know, the obstacle against which all plans of colonization eventually came up.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is historian Eric Foner, and we're talking about his new book, "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're talking about Abraham Lincoln and his views of slavery in America and how those views evolved before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. My guest is historian Eric Foner. His new book about this is called "The Fiery Trial."
We talked a little bit about how Abraham Lincoln, before signing the Emancipation, believed in colonization, that all African-Americans in the United States, including freed slaves, should be sent to Africa or South America or the Caribbean because whites in America weren't ready to accept African-Americans as equals.
Lincoln also believed in gradual emancipation. What was his idea of gradual emancipation? And this was, again, before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Prof. FONER: Well, you know, gradual emancipation was the way emancipation generally happened in the 19th century. That's how it had been abolished in the Northern states, very gradually, over decades.
You know, in New York state, the law for emancipation was passed I think in 1799, and slavery didn't really totally end until 1827. That's almost 30 years of emancipation.
In many Latin American countries, after the wars for independence there, these gradual emancipation laws were passed. In other words, the immediate emancipation of large numbers of slaves was seen by many people as something that would be so disruptive to society and the economy that it would be very dangerous and counterproductive.
So before the Emancipation Proclamation, that was also Lincoln's idea, that gradual emancipation meant that basically the children of slaves would become free after a certain date, maybe 20 years in the future or something like that.
Now, the thing we have to remember about emancipation, you know, we think of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, but before that, there was no way to emancipate the slaves of the United States without the consent of slave owners. Slavery was protected by the Constitution. It was protected by state law. The federal government couldn't just say okay, the slaves are freed. To get the consent of slave owners, people like Lincoln thought you had to, A, do it gradually, B, pay them compensation, monetary compensation for the...
GROSS: Pay the slave owners.
Prof. FONER: To the owner, not the slave, the owner for the loss of his property right in his slaves. The British had done that when they abolished slavery in the West Indies. And colonization is also part of that. In other words, you assure these slave owners that they won't have a large, free, black population around, which most of them didn't want to have.
So that's Lincoln's position, and it's Henry Clay's position, and it's the position of many people up to the Emancipation Proclamation. What's interesting about the Emancipation Proclamation is it completely repudiates all of those previous ideas. It's a new departure for Lincoln. It's immediate, not gradual. There is no mention of compensation. The slave owners are not going to get any money anymore. And there is nothing in it about colonization. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln says nothing publicly anymore about colonization.
He does think, well, yeah, if people want to leave voluntarily, that's up to them, and maybe as a kind of safety valve, yeah, let them go somewhere. But it's no longer a government policy that he is promoting.
So the Emancipation Proclamation represents a complete reversal of Lincoln's previous views about how to get rid of slavery.
GROSS: So what led to that reversal in his ideas about how to get rid of slavery?
Prof. FONER: Well, that's what my whole book is about: many, many things. Many, many things. I think the failure of his previous plan. You know, the problem was he presented his previous plan to the border slave states, the four slave states that remained in the Union: Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware and Maryland. And they said no, absolutely not.
For two years, he tried to get them to adopt this gradual plan, and they said no, Lincoln, you don't understand. We don't want to get rid of slavery. We want to keep our slaves. So we're not interested in any plan that envisions the end of slavery.
Moreover, black people, as I said, by and large did not want to leave the country. So in other words, this plan the people who were to be involved in this plan, both slave owners and slaves, said no, we don't like this idea of Lincoln's.
Second of all, slavery was already disintegrating in the South. No matter what Lincoln said, as soon as the Union Army went into the South, slaves began running away from plantations to Union lines. And this forced the question of slavery onto the national agenda.
Almost from the very beginning of the Civil War, the federal government had to start making policy, and quickly they said: Well, we're going to treat these people as free. We're not going to send them back into the slave-holding regions. So a policy is sort of getting out of control because of events.
And finally, very important, as the war goes on, Lincoln begins to realize that they need more and more manpower. And one of the things about the Emancipation Proclamation is it opens the Army to the enlistment of black men for the first time, really.
And by the end of the Civil War, 200,000 black men have served in the Union Army and Navy. And envisioning blacks as soldiers fighting for the Union is a very, very different vision of their future role in American society than saying, well, you should leave the country. And it's the black soldiers and their role which I think really begins as the stimulus to Lincoln's change in racial attitudes and in attitudes towards America as an interracial society in the last two years of his life.
GROSS: Because they fought so well, they did such a good job, yeah...
Prof. FONER: Yeah, fighting for the nation gives you a stake in citizenship. Lincoln comes to believe that, as many, many Northerners do. The role of black soldiers is critical in changing attitudes about what their status is going to be after the war is over.
GROSS: So are you saying that it was a kind of like ulterior motive, in a way, to the Emancipation, to be enabled to enlist African-Americans in the Union Army?
Prof. FONER: Well, that's part of it. Lincoln always says, you know, why should they enlist unless we give them the promise of freedom? You know, and then later on, when people are urging Lincoln to rescind the proclamation, Lincoln says: How can I do that? We have promised these men in the Army freedom. How can we go back on that now that they have risked their lives and fought and died for the Union?
So it's not exactly an ulterior motive. It's a motive. It's pretty straightforward. It's not ulterior at all. The Emancipation Proclamation was a recognition that the previous way of fighting the war had failed, the previous policy on dealing with slavery had failed, and if there's one element of greatness in Lincoln, it's this willingness to change, this ability to grow, this not being, you know, wedded to a policy once it is proven to have failed.
And Lincoln has this tremendous open-mindedness, this willingness to listen to criticism and this, you know, ability to change his course when he sees that the old policy is just not working.
GROSS: Eric Foner will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery." Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross back with Eric Foner, author of the new book The Fiery Trial, which is about the evolution of Abraham Lincolns ideas about slavery and how he came to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in 1863 during the Civil War. Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University and the author of many books about the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction.
Were there constitutional questions that were raised by Lincolns opponents about freeing the slaves? Wasnt the Constitution seen as supporting slavery?
Prof. FONER: Well, slavery is in the Constitution. The word slavery is not there until the 13th Amendment, which abolishes it. But it certainly - I mean the fugitive slave clause says slaves have to be sent back if they escape, the three-fifths clause gives the South added representation for part of its slave population. There's no question that as a state institution, slavery is protected by the Constitution. And so what gives Lincoln the authority to issue this order freeing most - not every single one - but most of the slaves in the South and, of course, it is issued as a military order. Lincoln issues it as commander-in-chief, in other words, it's to promote the military success of the Union Army. And Lincoln says that what gives me the authority to take military measures and emancipating the slaves is a military measure to undermine the ability of the Confederacy to fight this war.
There were those, including Lincoln himself, at some points, who say that maybe the Supreme Court might even overturn this in the future. In fact, that's why eventually they abolished slavery through the 13th Amendment, a Constitutional amendment which is, you know, beyond reproach as a way of getting rid of the institution of slavery. But in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln's position is, I have the ability, as commander and chief of the armies, to take any step that is necessary to ensure military victory, and this is one of them.
GROSS: A lot of people think that President Lincoln freed all the slaves in the United States with the stroke of a pen - all the slaves in the United States and the Confederacy with a stroke of a pen. But you say it really wasnt quite that way, that it didnt free all the slaves.
Prof. FONER: No, hardly. Lincoln hardly freed all the slaves. It didnt apply to the border states, and it didnt...
GROSS: Why not?
Prof. FONER: Because they were still in the Union. In other words, this is a military measure aimed at winning the war. The border states are not at war with the United States, right? They are members of the Union, so therefore, they still preserve the constitutional protections of slavery. Then Lincoln exempted a few areas of the Confederacy, the whole state of Tennessee, a couple of other areas. That was mostly to try to win over support from white southerners who might come back to the Union, he felt, if they might keep their slaves. So if you look at, there were three 3.9 million slaves at this time, in the U.S. The Proclamation applies to about 3.1 million of them. So there's 800,000 who just are not declared free at all.
Then, of course, its hard to implement the Proclamation at the time it is issued because it's the Union Army that has to enforce it and the Union Army is not present in much of the South. But what the key to the Proclamation is, it makes this a - now a responsibility of the Union Army. Wherever the Union Army ventures, part of their job now is to protect the freedom of the former slaves. So it makes abolition an aim of the Civil War, which it had not been up to the issuing of the Proclamation.
GROSS: What power did Lincoln even have over the South and over slave owners and slaves? Because these states had seceded. They weren't...
Prof. FONER: Well...
GROSS: They didnt see themselves as part of the United States anymore.
Prof. FONER: Lincoln, of course, denies that these states have legally seceded. Succession is not legal, he says. They are part of the United States, he argues. But, of course, he's also waging war against them as a belligerent power. So ultimately, the power is military. You know, that's it. If the Union wins the war the nation will be preserved and the slaves will be free. If the Confederacy wins the war, which is certainly not impossible, the nation will be severed and slavery will continue to exist. There's absolutely no question that had the Confederacy won, slavery, despite all the pressures it was under, would've continued to exist for a long, long time. You know, so this was really a, you know, in the balance, as the Civil War was being fought.
GROSS: You wrote a whole book on Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War and after the end of slavery in the United States. You must spend so much time wondering how Reconstruction would've been different had Lincoln not been assassinated. And I'm wondering if you could just speculate a little bit, how you think America might have been different?
Prof. FONER: Well, of course, whenever I lecture on Lincoln I'm asked that question, which is totally understandable. And, indeed, even though many historians, including myself, are skeptical of what we call counterfactual history like this, in this book I actually gave in and ended with some speculations about what might have happened - they're setoff, they're speculations.
I think the tragedy is Lincoln was seceded by a man who was perhaps the worst president in all of American history, Andrew Johnson. He lacked all the qualities, that Lincoln had, of greatness. Johnson was deeply racist, was unwilling to change, stubborn. He was out of touch with Northern public opinion, out of touch with the political majority in Congress. Lincoln was a savvy politician, he knew where public opinion was, and over the course of the war, he had developed I think, a genuine compassion for the former slaves. He hadn't become an abolitionist, but he had moved very far toward envisioning America as a society with some modicum of racial equality.
It's impossible to imagine Lincoln getting into the fix that Andrew Johnson did. You know, just breaking with Congress, vetoing every measure that they passed and getting himself impeached and almost removed from office.
I think what would've happened would've been what happened during the Civil War. There would've been a lot of disagreement between Congress and Lincoln and they would've worked out an agreement. They would've worked out a policy that all Republicans could support. And it probably would've looked something like what was passed in 1866, the Civil Rights Act, which gave basic civil rights to the former slaves; the 14th Amendment, which put that principle of equal citizenship into the Constitution, maybe limited black suffrage.
You know, at the end of his life, Lincoln publicly called for giving the right to vote to some blacks in the South, particularly the former soldiers. And this wouldnt have been as radical as the way Reconstruction eventually developed with full black suffrage, but maybe it would've stuck longer. You know, maybe a united Republican Party, a united North, with Lincoln and Congress promoting this policy, would've discouraged the violent resistance that took place in the South, you know, the Ku Klux Klan.
I mean Andrew Johnson was - spent his presidency encouraging violent resistance to the law in the South, which is not what the president is supposed to do. So, you know, this is pure speculation and who knows what would've happened, but I think you would not have seen the disastrous presidency that Andrew Johnson had if Lincoln had lived out his second term.
GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is historian Eric Foner. His new book is called "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery."
I want to talk a little bit about the present, after we take a short break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is historian Eric Foner. His new book is called "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery."
Now one of the things that happened as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation was the 14th Amendment. And just sum up for us what the 14th Amendment says. Because the 14th Amendment has become very controversial in this election - in 2010.
Prof. FONER: Yes. Yes. As a historian, I'm quite surprised that the 14th Amendment is sort of back on our agenda almost 150 years after it was ratified. The 14th Amendment was passed by Congress in 1866 and then ratified by the states in order to A: establish the citizenship of black people - the former slaves. You know, the Dred Scott decision before the Civil War had said no black person could be a citizen of the United States. Whether they're free, slave, it doesnt matter, citizenship is only for white people. The 14th Amendment puts in our Constitution this principle of citizenship for all. Not just - it doesnt mention blacks. It says anybody born in the United States, with one or two little exceptions, is a citizen of the United States. And then puts in this principle of equal protection. All those citizens, regardless of their race or background are to enjoy the equal protection of the laws. You can no longer have one set of laws for black people and one set of laws for white people, as they did in virtually every state before the Civil War.
Then there were many other parts of the 14th Amendment which are irrelevant today, certain white Southerners are barred from holding office and it bans paying the confederate debt and things like that that. But it also ends with a very important clause, giving Congress the power to enforce the amendment. In other words, it exerts the power of Congress over the states. If states violate the rights of citizens, the federal government can intervene in order to protect those citizens. So it shifts the power in our federal system, very strongly, toward the national government, away from the states. So its citizenship, equality and national power to protect those principles are the basic purposes of the 14th Amendment.
GROSS: So talk to us a little about the 14th Amendment, which after Civil War extended citizenship to freed slaves, to everybody born in the United States. There is a movement, now, to repeal or to change the 14th Amendment. Congressman John Boehner, who might become the majority leader of the House, said that repealing it is worth considering. Senator Lindsey Graham said he'd consider changing the Constitution so it doesnt automatically give citizenship to everyone born here.
Looking at the history of the period of the 14th Amendment, what's your reaction to seeing this movement, including our elected leaders, this movement to change or to repeal the 14th Amendment?
Prof. FONER: Well, I'm appalled, frankly. I think that these statements are a repudiation of one of the basic principles of American society which comes out of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and that we take great pride in today; which is that anybody can be a good American citizen. You dont have to be a particular religion, you dont have to be a particular race, you dont have to be a particular ethnic group. And, you know, that notion of birthright citizenship sets us apart from most of the other countries in the world. You could be born in Germany, if your parents are Turkish immigrants, youre not automatically a German citizen, for example.
But I think this notion of openness, of willingness to accept anybody as a citizen of the United States is part of what we are as a multiracial, multicultural society. And that's what the people who wrote the 14th Amendment intended. It was mainly intended to give the citizenship to blacks, but not entirely. They knew, and they said explicitly, that, for example, Chinese on the West Coast, who were quite despised then, their children - they could not become naturalized citizens then - but children born in the United States would be citizens of the United States. And it was that general principle of birthright citizenship that Congress, in 1866, wanted to put into the Constitution. And I think that starting to fiddle around with the 14th Amendment, which is a critical part of the Constitution, really just is a serious, serious mistake.
GROSS: Now, we're also in a time, historically, when several of the Supreme Court justices believe in originalism - and this includes Justice Scalia, Clarence Thomas - which means that the Constitution should be interpreted as literally as possible, and as much - as closely as the founding fathers originally intended.
Now, as a scholar of history, who studies the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction, knowing that the Constitution actually had clauses supporting slavery, how does that affect your opinion of the originalist interpretation of the Constitution?
Prof. FONER: Well, you know, it's interesting. The originalists try to go back to the original Constitution, but they have little to say about the Civil War amendments, 13th, 14th and 15th, which actually fundamentally changed the Constitution by wrenching slavery out of the Constitution and trying to put this principle of equality in it. Many recent Supreme Court decisions by these so-called originalists completely misunderstand the original purposes of the 14th Amendment. Theyve adopted a very cramped view of it.
As I said, the Congress at that time was looking toward a broad principle of equality. But to these originalists what the 14th Amendment means to them is color blindness, which is not at all what the Congress intended back in 1866. So, in fact, the Supreme Court has been much more solicitous of the claims of white people who claim to be discriminated against by Affirmative Action or things like that, than African-American seeking greater social justice, which is what the 14th Amendment was intended to do. The greatest non-originalist point of view, which we see now, a lot in the Supreme Court, is this idea that corporations are entitled to the protections of the 14th Amendment.
We just saw this in the case about, you know, corporations being allowed to contribute as much money as they want to political campaigns because they enjoy the freedom of speech of individuals, et cetera. There's no evidence, whatsoever, that the Congress in 1866 was thinking of corporations. That idea was tacked on 20 years later, to the 14th Amendment. If you really are an originalists, let's get rid of the idea of corporations being protected by the 14th Amendment. But I dont expect Scalia and these others to do that at any time soon.
GROSS: Are there still things in Lincoln's views of slavery that you just can't reconcile with the Emancipation Proclamation?
Prof. FONER: You know, I think the key about Lincoln is not to see his career as simply leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation. You know, we know that, but he didnt know that. And I think Lincoln before the Civil War is like many, many people who simply can't quite figure out a way of dealing with the institution of slavery within the existing political and Constitutional system.
If youre an abolitionist like William Lloyd Garrison, you dont care about the existing system. Garrison burned the Constitution because of its clause of protecting slavery. Well, Lincoln is a politician, a lawyer. He actually reveres the Constitution. So what do you do if youre trapped in a political system which protects what you think is an unjust system? You look for other ways to get around it, like this gradual emancipation, colonization.
But, you know, we should not see Lincoln's career as a straight line heading toward the Emancipation Proclamation. That's the problem with a lot of the literature on Lincoln. It kind of reads everything backwards. In this book I try to read it forwards, with Lincoln not knowing what is going to happen next. So there are detours and there are false paths, and there are these efforts to promote colonization, which strike us as really reprehensible, as they were, really. But, you know, Lincoln didnt know he was going to be the Great Emancipator until it actually happened.
GROSS: Eric Foner, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR. It's always a pleasure to talk with you.
Prof. FONER: I'm always delighted to be here, Terry.
GROSS: Eric Foner is the author of the new book "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, we remember soul singer Solomon Burke and listen back to a 1986 interview with him. He died yesterday at the age of 70.
This is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.