Sarah Tryphena Phillips Lecture in American Literature and History, delivered by Professor Eric Foner FBA, on 5 November 2003.
Abraham Lincoln occupies a special place in American historical memory as the Great Emancipator. Lately, however, he has been accused of racism and lack of commitment to the abolition of slavery. This lecture will examine the evolution of Lincoln's views on slavery and race, from the outset of his political career to his death in 1865. It will explore his relationship to the abolitionist movement, his role in antislavery politics, and his conduct as president. It will examine what beliefs remained fixed throughout his career, and how his views changed under the impact of the crisis of the Civil War. It will devote particular attention to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, perhaps the most misunderstood important document in American history, explaining both its strengths and its limitations, and how it represented a transformation in Lincoln's own views and in the character of the Civil War. It will end by suggesting where Lincoln's beliefs stood at the time of his assassination. Throughout, it will attempt to place Lincoln within the context of the momentous events of his era, rather than seeing him, as is too often the case, as an icon standing outside of historical development.