Best books on slavery and race relations

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Author: Ira Berlin
Date: Summer 2011
From: The Wilson Quarterly(Vol. 35, Issue 3)
Publisher: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,588 words
Lexile Measure: 1500L

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HISTORY IS ABOUT ARGUMENTS, ARGUMENTS that we have about the past. The best history tells us something about ourselves as well as something about bygone times. This is particularly true of the new history of the American Civil War that has emerged--and is emerging-with the sesquicentennial of the great conflict.

During the past generation, one matter--slavery--has transformed the history of the Civil War. Once thought a minor aspect of a contest that was rooted in a dispute about the locus of political power (that is, the issue of states' rights), or, at best, a subterfuge for evading the real issues of sectional differences respecting banks, railroads, tariffs, and land policy, slavery has emerged as the central cause of the war, as well as the primary determinant of its course and the terms of its settlement. Although the general public still seems fixed on the matter of states' rights--nearly half of Americans, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, believe it was the reason the war was fought-the focus on slavery has inspired a raft of new scholarship. That, in turn, tells us something about the American people at the beginning of the 21st century.

With this emphasis on slavery has come a new interest in the question of race, a focus no doubt reinforced by the election of America's first black president. The meanings of both whiteness and blackness have come under scrutiny as historians have investigated the causes of the war, the transformation of the conflict from a war to maintain national unity into a war of liberation, and the nature of Reconstruction, the postwar arrangement that eventually affirmed the demise of slavery but preserved and enhanced the doctrine of white racial supremacy.

Perhaps nowhere do the new history of the Civil War and the renewed interest in the history of race come together better than in Eric Foner's Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010). Foner, whose histories of the origin of the Republican Party and Reconstruction have informed American political history for more than a generation, traces Lincoln's evolution from a small-town racist--that is, a believer in the inferiority of people of African descent--to the Emancipator : who, in the last year of the war, signaled a willingness to extend suffrage to black men.

Among the achievements of The Fiend Trial is that it provides a sense of...

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