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Publisher's Summary

Pulitzer Prize, History, 2011

In this landmark work of deep scholarship and insight, Eric Foner gives us the definitive history of Abraham Lincoln and the end of slavery in America. Foner begins with Lincoln's youth in Indiana and Illinois and follows the trajectory of his career across an increasingly tense and shifting political terrain from Illinois to Washington, D.C.

Although "naturally anti-slavery" for as long as he can remember, Lincoln scrupulously holds to the position that the Constitution protects the institution in the original slave states. But the political landscape is transformed in 1854 when the Kansas-Nebraska Act makes the expansion of slavery a national issue.

A man of considered words and deliberate actions, Lincoln navigates the dynamic politics deftly, taking measured steps, often along a path forged by abolitionists and radicals in his party. Lincoln rises to leadership in the new Republican Party by calibrating his politics to the broadest possible antislavery coalition. As president of a divided nation and commander in chief at war, displaying a similar compound of pragmatism and principle, Lincoln finally embraces what he calls the Civil War's "fundamental and astounding" result: the immediate, uncompensated abolition of slavery and recognition of blacks as American citizens. Foner's Lincoln emerges as a leader, one whose greatness lies in his capacity for moral and political growth through real engagement with allies and critics alike. This powerful work will transform our understanding of the nation's greatest president and the issue that mattered most.

©2010 Eric Foner (P)2010 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"[A] searching portrait." (Publishers Weekly)

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  • Overall

great book about slavery and lincoln

You would be justified if you thought there are too many books about the Civil War & about Lincoln. I believe there are more books about Lincoln than there are about any figure in the western canon. So I looked askance at yet another one. Since I had read 2 other excellent volumes by Foner, including one I highly recommend about reconstruction, I took the dive.

Foner has produced something unique here. He has followed the line of the history of antebellum racism and thought about slavery, in general, and Lincoln's thoughts and actions about it in particular. There may not be anything 100% new in the book, but the way it is all put in one place, chronologically and with ample evidence, is what makes it a valuable addition to history.

Lincoln was both a man of his time and a professional politician. That has to be the starting point for any discussion of his views and actions about slavery in the United States. As Foner makes clear, Lincoln always had an abhorrence of slavery and unpaid servitude in general. Which does not mean he was not a racist by our 21st century standards. Lincoln was not the most anti-slavery man, or politician of his time ... had he been so, we would not know his name today, because he never could have become so prominent in politics nor become president.

Foner's accomplishment is to show how Lincoln's views changed over his career. From someone not terribly concern about slavery (in the 1840s, for instance) but still against it, to someone increasing concerned about it (in the 1850s) but mainly in the context of territorial expansion, to someone who gradually recognized it as the central cause of the war between the states. Along the way, Lincoln did drag along some of his cherished (and now repudiated) ideas, like the idea of colonization (which he held until late in his presidency in some fashion). And a habit of demeaning blacks in his manner of talking (like using the n-word and telling jokes). Highly recommended.

29 of 29 people found this review helpful

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  • Gary
  • Las Cruces, NM, United States
  • 04-06-15

Context is everything, growth is a strength

Politics is the art of the possible. A perfect piece of art is the one in which no item could be added or subtracted from the canvas without making the picture less perfect. The author of this book has made the development of Lincoln's understanding of slavery like a perfect painting.

Lincoln is always ready to grow and revise his understanding of the 'peculiar institution'. He realizes that he can't get too far ahead of the people or the politics without marginalizing his ultimate objectives. For example, Lincoln fully believes the border states are vital for the success of the Union, and realizes their importance, "We want God on our side, but we must have Kentucky". He'll make political compromises in order to secure the border states while at the same time refining how he sees the moving parts that make up the issues of the time.

I just recently read the book, "What Had God Wrought", a history of America 1815-1848. From the book, it's clear that Slavery is the main character for American History during that time period. I wanted a book that filled in the period from after 1848 through the Civil War. This book, "Fiery Trial", does that superbly by showing how one man handled the question and how he led the change for the country as a whole and was always willing to grow and learn as the times would permit.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Cynthia
  • Monrovia, California, United States
  • 07-29-13

Great Book about a Monstrous Injustice

When my son was in third grade, the class project was either George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. My son chose Lincoln, and we read the Emancipation Proclamation together. He was surprised that the January 1, 1863 Executive Order didn't actually free all slaves - it only freed those in Confederate states and territories. Almost a million slaves in the border states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri) were still in bondage.

At the same age, I had imagined that Lincoln had freed the slaves all at once; and that on that very Happy New Year's Day, slaves left the kitchens and fields and went to live on 40 acres given to them by the government, plowing fields with a mule they received on the same day; and that they all voted in the next election. In my eight year old imagination, women voted too. I didn't learn for another year that women weren't guaranteed the right to vote until the 1920.

I explained, as we rolled newspapers into logs, stuck them onto a shoe box, and painted them with brown tempura paint to make a one room log cabin, that Lincoln did not want to have the border states secede. My son, at 8, was satisfied with the explanation. I wanted to learn more, though, and I am really glad that I found Eric Foner's "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery" (2010) and took the time to listen.

Lincoln described himself as always antislavery, but until nearly the end of his life, he did not believe Blacks and Whites were equal. However, he was an ardent supporter of the constitution, and decided that the phrase in the preamble that "all men are created equal" did not mean all men were the same (people have different abilities, look different, and so on), but rather, all men were equal because all were given the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Slavery denied those rights.

Foner thoroughly discusses the federal and state laws on slavery, and how Lincoln strategized to use those laws and his presidential power to achieve total abolition of slavery, posthumously, when the 13th Amendment was adopted 8 months after his assassination. Lincoln's political and legal strategy began as a gradual, compensated freeing of slaves. The federal government freed slaves in the District of Columbia in 1862, paying owners about $400 a slave. Public opinion on slavery changed so rapidly by the end of the Civil War in 1865, the vast majority of the Union supported abolition; and owners were not compensated when it happened. Lincoln also addressed other concerns, including the important issue of what to do with the freed people. He initially supported deportation to Liberia or South America, but abandoned that position because Lincoln's understanding of Blacks grew to encompass totally equality.


I can't help but wonder what would have happened if he had lived through his second term - or if the Republican Party had selected a competent and moral Vice President instead of Andrew Johnson. Instead, Johnson was the first president to be impeached.

As to the 40 acres and a mule, it wasn't a myth - but the slaves entitled to that were freed from the Indian Nations.

This is the third Audible book on Lincoln I've listened to. The first was Delores Kearns Goodwins' "Team of Rivals" (2005) followed by Joshua Wolf Shenk's "Lincoln's Melancholy" (2005). Both are quite good, and they do address the issue of slavery - but not in the legal and cultural context that "The Fiery Trial" does. This book is a fresh study of Lincoln, not a compilation of old research.

[If you found this review helpful please let me know by clicking the helpful button. Thanks!]

38 of 47 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Outstanding Portrait of Lincoln's Struggle

The author not only traces the significant historical events surrounding Lincoln and slavery, but he deftly provides historical perspective to help the reader understand Lincoln's struggle. The issue of slavery is so easy for us to condemn today, but Lincoln had to deal with the issue in the context of a civil war, the racism of his day, and his own developing ideas on slavery and race. Tracing Lincoln's struggle helps us trace America's struggle with this cruel practice that nearly tore the nation apart. It is a very good book.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Candid, fair, and sympathetic

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

I recommend this title to history teachers, history fans, civil rights advocates and lawmakers. This is a candid account of how brilliant people with good intentions struggle to implement liberty in an imperfect world.

What did you like about the performance? What did you dislike?

There were some awkward pronunciations. I was distracted by the narrator's pronunciation of the

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

At 18 hours, there was no way I could listen to this in one sitting. As a high school History teacher, it was helpful to take breaks and reflect on the content.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Adam
  • IRVING, TX, United States
  • 09-29-11

Very good

This is a very good book, written with an elegant prose. The basic facts of this topic aren't much of a mystery, but there is a nuance to Lincoln's views that developed over the course of his life. It is this that helps shed light on what made Lincoln great. It is also a window into a particular aspect of the decades that ended in the Civil War that is not easy to find elsewhere. My only complaint is that some of the details seem to be repeated several times, which makes the book a little longer than it needs to be.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Not an easy read but worth it

This is not an easy read but I'm really glad I stuck with it . I learned so much about Lincoln and his journey through the events leading up to the emancipation of the slaves and his conclusion that all men are created equal. What seems obvious to us was not obvious to people in the 1850s. Lincoln did a lot of growing, something that made him so dear to so many people. Listening to this book not only gave me great insight into the problems of the time and their arrempted solution that still affects our country today, but it also made me love Abe Lincoln more than I already did.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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How Lincoln Grew

What did you love best about The Fiery Trial?

Its depiction of the development of Lincoln's opinion of slavery and its victims.

Who was your favorite character and why?

Lincoln.

Which character – as performed by Norman Dietz – was your favorite?

Lincoln.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

Nope, too long for that.

Any additional comments?

Reading and listening to this book made me want to learn more about the causes of the war. The narrator is excellent.

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Lincoln's Path to Liberty

This is a brilliant exploration of Lincoln's thinking about slavery, emancipation, and civil liberties. A triumph of outstanding historical research and interpretation. And the narration by Norman Dietz was perfect!

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Reality of the war!

This story explains the difference of the two political parties and the complete distortion of facts in the democrat deception of the black race. To hear the facts questions the dishonesty in the democrat party and they're captivity of the black vote even today. All Americans should be made aware of the times in the civil war era and how the Democratic Party suppressed the blacks!

0 of 3 people found this review helpful