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Lincoln's Evolving Thoughts on Slavery, And Freedom
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
Eric Foner, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Did Lincoln always see slavery as
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 â 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 â 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
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
(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
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 â 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
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
GROSS: Before the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was a supporter of
colonization. Why don't you explain the concept of colonization for former
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 â Henry Clay and Thomas Jefferson â
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 â 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 â is that some colonizationists, like Henry Clary,
refer â 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
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
(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
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
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
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
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
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
Moreover, black people, as I said, by and large did not want to leave the
country. So in other words, this plan â the people who were to be involved in
this plan, both slave owners and slaves, said no, we don't like this idea of
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
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
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
(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross back with Eric Foner, author of the new book
âThe Fiery Trial,â which is about the evolution of Abraham Lincolnâs 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 Lincolnâs opponents
about freeing the slaves? Wasnât 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 wasnât quite
that way, that it didnât free all the slaves.
Prof. FONER: No, hardly. Lincoln hardly freed all the slaves. It didnât apply
to the border states, and it didnât...
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, itâs 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 didnât 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
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
wouldnât 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 youâre 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 doesnât matter, citizenship is only for white people. The 14th
Amendment puts in our Constitution this principle of citizenship for all. Not
just - it doesnât 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 itâs
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 doesnât 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 donât have to be a
particular religion, you donât have to be a particular race, you donât 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, youâre 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
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
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. Theyâve 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 donât expect Scalia and these others to do that at any
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 didnât 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 youâre an abolitionist like William Lloyd Garrison, you donât 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 youâre 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 didnât 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,
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.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Fresh Air Remembers Soul Singer Solomon Burke
(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
Soul singer Solomon Burke died yesterday at the age of 70. In the 1960s he was
known as the King of Rock and Soul. He played that title to a hilt, performing
in a jeweled crown and a robe, carrying a scepter. Burke is one of the singers
who led the rise of soul music in the '60s. In fact, Peter Guralnick's book,
âSweet Soul Music," attributes Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, as saying that
Burke's hits, like "Just Out of Reach" and "The Price," helped keep Atlantic
alive from 1961 to '64.
Burke was a preacher long before he became a soul music star. He grew up in
Philadelphia, where he started preaching at age seven and conducted a radio
ministry at age 12. In the 1970s, after his string of hits, when he was
disillusioned with the music industry, Burke founded his own church and
recorded only gospel music.
I spoke with Solomon Burke in 1986 after he had returned to soul music and was
trying to make a comeback. Hereâs his 1963 recording, "You Can Make It If You
(Soundbite of song, "You Can Make It If You Try")
Mr. SOLOMON BURKE (Soul singer): (Singing) You can make it if you try. You
going to make it if you try. You going to make it if you try. Oh, yeah. Yeah.
You going to make it if you try.
Sometimes you had to fall. So tell me sometimes you just want to cry. It make
you feel so bad sometimes, you feel like want to lay down and die. Yeah. Yeah.
You going to make it if you try. Ummm.
GROSS: In 1986 I asked Solomon Burke about another song, his 1964 recording,
You recorded something called "The Price" for Atlantic Records.
Mr. BURKE: Classic.
GROSS: It's a great record.
Mr. BURKE: Classic.
GROSS: And you really sound like a preacher on it. I mean the beginning sounds
to me like youâre preaching.
Mr. BURKE: I am a preacher.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So it made me think that yeah, there really was a connection between
what you were doing as a preacher and what you were doing as a singer.
Mr. BURKE: Well, it certainly is. The connection is that my ministry never
stops and I have taken my songs and put it into my ministry and I have taken my
ministry and put it into my songs.
GROSS: Do you want to say anything about the day you recorded this or your
memories of this session?
Mr. BURKE: The day "The Price" was made it was recorded first live on the stage
of the Apollo Theater. And the band had no idea of what we were doing so I told
them to keep repeating what they were playing and donât stop. And I personally
had had some personal problems with my life and I came on stage and I was very
furious, and I just went on almost in a rage, and I started singing this song.
And I realized that I had given up so much for the love of one woman and my
love life was being crushed at that point. That was a day a lady fell out of
the balcony after listening to this song. And the guy back stage, Mr. Henry,
came back and says God, you should record that song. I never heard it on any of
your recordings. And we went and recorded the song two days later. "The Price"
is such a true song because if youâve ever been in love and youâve ever been
hurt by love, you realize the price you pay.
GROSS: Let's hear it.
(Soundbite of song, "The Price")
Mr. BURKE: (Singing) After I hung up my heart for you, darling and I said, if
you ever need me all you had to do was call. I stood up and I told the whole
wide world that you were good for me, baby. Yes, then you laughed and you
called me your personal clown in front of all your friends.
(Soundbite of laughter)
You walked away and you left me standing up like a fool. I couldn't even go to
my friends or my relations. All I could do was stand up and hang my head in
shame. You see what you cost me.
You cost my mother, the love of my father, sister, oh, my brother too. Oh, yes,
you did. You see now what you've cost and I know just what I lost. And I know
what the price I paid, I paid, I paid for loving someone like you. Oh, oh.
All I can hear my friends saying, I told you. I told you. And I can hear my
mother say fool, I told you. See what you lost. Oh, yes you do. You back and
you wonder sometimes. No, no, no, no, no. And I see the price I paid, I paid
for loving someone, someone, someone, someone like you. Baby.
GROSS: There was actually a coronation ceremony for you where you were
coroneted the King of Rock and Soul, right?
Mr. BURKE: Yes, weâve had three of them, but the original one was in Baltimore.
Rockin' Robin brought me into Baltimore - to the Royal Theater - and on that
show it was the first performance, which is really history and every time Diana
Ross sees me she mentions it. It was her first performance, her first show, and
we had the Marvelettes and the Supremes - a new group called the Supremes. And
we were crowned the King of Rock and Soul.
GROSS: Did you actually dress in kingly garments for your performances?
Mr. BURKE: Still do. Still do.
GROSS: What do you wear?
Mr. BURKE: Well, we have maybe 10 or 15 different robes, royal regal robes.
Some are probably too expensive to even wear on stage. The insurance companies
won't allow us to wear two or three of them anymore. And then the crown was
made up in England. And...
GROSS: Was it a jewel-studded crown?
Mr. BURKE: Oh yes, absolutely. You can't do a crown any other way, you know, it
has to be right. And it was right. It was a copy from the royal crown, King
Henry VIII's crown. And it was fun, it was really fun. We'd put it on, it would
come in a crown case and we had a case, an old wig was all converted and lined
with velvet. And we'd have a little midget who use to travel with me, sings
like Sam Cooke, and he would walk behind me and when I would throw the robe
off, he would walk off the stage and you can actually see the robe moving by
itself, you know, right off the stage.
GROSS: So you still wear things like that now?
Mr. BURKE: We still wear the robe and we bring it out for certain occasions,
special occasions, because people long to see that. People say, did you ever
see Solomon with the robe and the crown ,and did you ever see him when he
rolled out the carpet and the whole thing? And they come to see that. They
actually want to see that.
GROSS: Solomon Burke, recorded in 1986. He died yesterday in Amsterdam, where
he had just arrived to perform a sold-out concert. He was 70.
You can download Podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.