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Posts Tagged ‘Eric Foner’

Eric Foner es uno de los grandes historiadores estadounidenses. Profesor de Columbia University y ganador de premios tan prestigiosos como el Lincoln, Bancroft y  Pulitzer, Foner ha dedicado su  carrera al estudio del Partido Republicano,  la esclavitud, la guerra civil y, sobre todo, la Reconstrucción. Es a este periodo posterior a la guerra civil que Foner dedica su último libro, Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution (Norton, 2019). Enfocado en el significado de las tres enmiendas constitucionales aprobadas entre 1865 y 1870 (XIII, XIV y XV), Foner plantea que la Reconstrucción cambió radicalmente el ordenamiento político estadounidense. Al acabar con la esclavitud, definir la ciudadanía y garantizar el derecho al voto, tales enmiendas, propone Foner, conllevaron un renacer de la nación estadounidense.

Comparto con mis lectores la transcripción de una entrevista que el  historiador Ed Ayers, del podcasts Backstory, le hiciera a Foner sobre su último libro y otros temas. La entrevista se puede escuchar aquí

February 18, 1865 Harper’s Weekly cartoon depicting celebration in the House of Representatives after adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment. Source: Internet Archive.

HOW RECONSTRUCTION TRANSFORMED THE CONSTITUTION

A FEATURE CONVERSATION WITH PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING HISTORIAN ERIC FONER

If you turn on the news, you’re likely to find a heated debate about big issues, from citizenship to voting rights. For Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner, these issues are at the heart of what are often called the “Reconstruction Amendments”: the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution. They were passed in 1865, 1868 and 1870, respectively. And if you ask Eric, they’ve been misinterpreted and overlooked for generations.

On this episode, Ed sits down with Eric Foner, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, to talk about public perceptions of Reconstruction, the landmark amendments to the Constitution and how they have the power to change the country today. Foner’s new book is The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.

 

TRANSCRIPT

Download a pdf of the full transcript here.

Speaker 1: Major funding for Backstory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for The Humanities and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial foundation.

Ed Ayers: From Virginia Humanities, this is Backstory. This is Backstory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Ed Ayers. If you’re new to the podcast, my colleagues, Joanne Freeman, Brian Balogh, Nathan Connolly, and myself are all historians and each week we explore the history of one topic that’s been in the news.

Speaker 3: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for a crime shall exist within the United States or any place subject to [crosstalk 00:00:48]-

Speaker 4: All persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein [crosstalk 00:00:58]-

Ed Ayers: What you’re hearing are portions of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US constitution.

Speaker 4: Which shall outweigh the privileges or [crosstalk 00:01:02]-

Speaker 3: No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.

Speaker 5: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Ed Ayers: They’re known as the Reconstruction Amendments passed in 1865, 1868 and 1870 respectively. And if you ask Pulitzer Prize winning historian Eric Foner, they make up a second founding of the United States of America. The amendments are so important, Eric has made them the subject of his brand new book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. He says they have the power to bring progressive change on deep seated issues from citizenship to voting rights if only we’d give them their due. So today on Backstory, we’re bringing you a feature interview I did with Eric about his new book. It joins a host of others he’s written including Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, and The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. We talked about many things from public perceptions of Reconstruction to what Eric and I learned about the period when we were in elementary school. But I started our conversation by asking Eric why he felt we needed a book about the Reconstruction Amendments right now.

Foner

Eric Foner

Eric Foner: Two things; one the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, I argue and I think many scholars would agree, really transformed the constitution and are essential to understanding the Civil War era and indeed our current situation today, and yet they are not widely known or understood. Even though they really are central documents of American history, they don’t occupy the same place in our historical imagination as other key documents such as the Declaration of Independence or the Emancipation Proclamation. Your man or woman in the street has probably never heard of the people who wrote these amendments, people like John Bingham and James Ashley and Henry Wilson. They’re not part of the Pantheon of key figures in American history. I just wanted to draw attention to why they’re important, why those people are important, why the amendments are important.

Eric Foner: But secondly, as I said, I lecture a lot, as you do, to all sorts of audiences within the university, outside, or people who are just interested in history and I’ve found that there’s very little understanding of what these amendments were attempting to accomplish. Even in law schools, I hate to say it, I’m not a lawyer or a law scholar, I find that there’s a lot of misconception and even, dare I say it, on the halls of the Supreme Court. One of my arguments is that there’s a long history of what I can think of as misconceived Supreme Court decisions that are still embedded in our jurisprudence. If my book can help nudge the nine members of the Supreme Court toward a more expansive vision of these amendments, then I think that would be all to the good.

Ed Ayers: Yeah, that would be quite a return on your investment here. So you talk about being out in the world talking about Reconstruction, and I find that people don’t even claim to know anything about Reconstruction. My joke is that Reconstruction happens over the winter break and between volume one and volume two, and that it-

Eric Foner: They don’t reach it in the first semester if you’re teaching the survey of American history or if it’s the beginning of the second. They scoot right through it because there’s a heck of a lot of history coming along afterwards, but that’s a step forward Ed. You and I know that not that long ago when you mentioned Reconstruction, people knew “about it.” What they knew was that it was a period of misgovernment, corruption, the lowest point in the saga of American democracy. And that the reason for that was one, vindictive Northern radicals who wanted to fasten their power on the South, but also the former slaves who were just incapable of exercising democratic rights. They were manipulated by whites. They were childlike, and that giving them the right to vote was a disastrous mistake.

71DfIQ9brpL._SY741_Eric Foner: That played an important part in the ideological edifice of the Jim Crow era. The supposed horrors of Reconstruction were part of the justification for taking the right to vote away from black men in the late 19th, early 20th Century. That people no longer generally hold that view and actually know little is better. That at least now if people are interested, they can go at it with a fresh, a clean slate rather than having to disabuse themselves of a lot of mythologies.

Ed Ayers: That’s a very optimistic interpretation. I like that. Now it’s my sense that a lot of people still take their general idea about Reconstruction from Gone with the Wind, in which we have this great saga of that in which the victim is a slave holding white woman from the South. We’re sympathetic with her and it creates the impression that Reconstruction began immediately after the end of the war and the devastation there. Is this your experience? Do you think that people are still filtering this through … What do they think they know about Reconstruction? Where does it come from?

Eric Foner: Yeah. Well certainly Gone with the Wind or if you want to push back further Birth of a Nation, which of course is even much more pernicious because it’s a direct defense and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, Gone with the Wind is probably the most popular American movie ever made and it’s constantly being shown on Turner movie channels. Look, people don’t watch Gone with the Wind for a history lesson on Reconstruction. They watch so they can trace out Scarlet O’Hara’s ups and downs. But yes, the Klan is in there, the whole idea that black people were just ignorant and incapable of taking part of democracy is in there. Whether it’s that or just what you learned in school.

Eric Foner: I’m old enough to have learned in high school, and this was in Long Island, the suburbs of New York. I learned the old Dunning School view that Reconstruction was the worst period in all of American history. I think today most scholars see Reconstruction, or at least I’ve tried to argue, as a important moment in the history of democracy, the first effort to really make the United States an interracial democracy, which it had never been before the Civil War and then would not be again that until our own era. The tragedy of Reconstruction is not that it was attempted, but that it failed, and that left to subsequent generations, including our own, this question of racial justice in America.

Ed Ayers: Yeah. I should say in full disclosure, you learned about Reconstruction on Long Island in New York. I learned about it at Andrew Johnson Elementary School in East Tennessee, and I’m not kidding. There’s only two in the United States, and I was at one of them, but I had my students and for a class here at the University of Richmond go online and say, “What do we think about Reconstruction? What’s the general sense that you get?” And they came back with one word; failure. That’s a word that you used, a description right now. And so what’s the consequences of thinking of Reconstruction as failure? It’s been a great continuity, as you’re saying that people who hated Reconstruction defined it as a failure and people who admire it defined it as a failure. Does that have any cost?

9781912128228Eric Foner: I think that’s a great question and I will withdraw my word failure. You’re absolutely right. It is so embedded. That idea is so embedded that it’s just impossible to avoid. The problem with declaring Reconstruction a failure is that then it makes the question at hand why did it fail, rather than what it seek to accomplish and how much of that was accomplished? If you define Reconstruction as the effort to create a utopian society, it failed. We haven’t had one yet, and certainly if you go a little less expansive than that and just say the effort to put into the laws and constitution and to enforce them, the basic rights of citizens for all Americans, including African-Americans, well it’s not exactly that it failed, but it didn’t become secure enough that later on these rights couldn’t be taken away.

Eric Foner: But of course Reconstruction was many, many things and not all of them were a failure. Reconstruction saw the creation of the black church as really a major, major institution throughout the country. That’s still here and as you well know, the black church has been the springboard for all sorts of activism among African Americans. Schooling, which was denied to almost all black people before the Civil War, this is when the public school systems of the South were created. This was when the black colleges were created. Those survived and so the black family, which had been it really disrupted in many ways by slavery now is consolidated and becomes the foundation of black communities. That didn’t go away when Reconstruction ended.

Eric Foner: So yeah, we should amend failure at least to say, well, in what realms did it fail and in what realms did it succeed? Because my definition of Reconstruction is not a specific time period, let’s say 1865 to 1877 or other people have other dates, but as a historical process. How does the United States deal with the end of slavery?

Ed Ayers: As we’re thinking really about the place of Reconstruction in the current American imagination, we have seen signs of awakened acknowledgement and interest in it. You and I both were fortunate to be in the Henry Louis Gates series on the Reconstruction on PBS, and people seem to really engage with that. So where do you think this interest is coming from?

Eric Foner: Well, I, like your students, I look around and say, “Well, how is …” I look particularly at how Reconstruction is referred to in the press by journalists almost offhandedly. It’s not that long ago. I remember in the 1990s, a distinguished, I’m not going to name any names, but a pretty distinguished journalist for the New York Times wrote a little article about the Bosnian Civil War. And he said, “Well, I hope that after the Bosnian Civil War is over that the victorious side just doesn’t wreak vengeance on the losers as happened in the United States in Reconstruction.” And I, as a complainer, I send him a note. And I said, “You’re not writing about Reconstruction really, but I think it’s important to know that that’s not how historians view it anymore. You’re reinforcing the idea that giving rights to black people is an act of vengeance against white people, which is a really dangerous idea.”

920x920Eric Foner: He wrote back and said, “You’re absolutely right. I shouldn’t have said that, but my wife is from South Carolina,” and I’ve heard this all the time. And I said to myself, “That’s a funny way of running journalism.” You put in your article what your wife told you over breakfast. But be that as it may, you don’t see that anymore. I think what now, if Reconstruction pops up is Tim Scott is the first black Senator from South Carolina and the first ones were in Reconstruction. I think Reconstruction is being seen as a time when positive things happened even though negative things happened as well. So I think it’s good. And of course the Gates series was very important as you well know, that there’s now a national park site being developed in Beaufort, South Carolina to highlight the history of Reconstruction. So I think Reconstruction is, people are encountering it in all sorts of venues and I think in a more modern form than the old what we call Dunning School approach.

Ed Ayers: Well you were modest before in walking away from the word failure, but in many ways you came up with the right word back in 1988 with your great book on Reconstruction; unfinished revolution. Are you willing to stand by that phrase still?

Eric Foner: Yeah, I am. That was the very last words of the Gates series, if you may remember. Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw got the very last word in Reconstruction was an Unfinished Revolution. So I said, “Oh, look at that. That’s nice. My phrase still reverberating out there.” The funny thing is that that wasn’t the title of the book. The title of book was just Reconstruction, and the day before it finally went to the printer, my editor called me and said, “People here don’t think anyone’s going to buy that book. It needs a good subtitle. By tomorrow morning, give us a subtitle.” And I thought, “Gee whiz.” And I thought and thought and thought and suddenly this popped into my head, The Unfinished Revolution and I told it to him. So it wasn’t something that had shaped the way I wrote the book or anything like that.

Eric Foner: But anyway, yeah, it’s unfinished, and particularly, when you talk about the legal and constitutional aspects, yes. The Reconstruction put forward a whole set of ideals, a whole set of principles for our society and they weren’t fully accomplished, certainly. I want to give the impression of something that’s still ongoing, that Reconstruction is not just the dead past. It’s still happening in the sense that the issues of Reconstruction; who should be a citizen? Who should have the right to vote? How do we deal with terrorism and others? These are on our agenda today. So that debate is still unfinished.

Ed Ayers: Your new book, let’s talk about the title of it. The Second Founding. So why did United States need a second founding? What was it about the first founding that was inadequate?

Eric Foner: Well, as you well know, there’s a lot of debate among historians about exactly what the relationship between the constitution and slavery was. I don’t want to get into that right here. The abolitionist movement debated that forever, but I think we would all have to say that slavery in some form was embedded in the original constitution. We had the Fugitive Slave Clause, which required the return of those who managed to escape to freedom. We had the Three-Fifths Clause, which gave the slave South added representation in the House of Representatives by counting part of their slave population. So we needed a second founding to cleanse the constitution of slavery and to clarify issues which the constitution had left undecided.

Eric Foner: Number one, who is a citizen of the United States? One of the funny things is the constitution refers to citizens all over the place, but it never defines who is a citizen. What do you need to be to be a citizen? My view of Reconstruction, I use this phrase, a modern phrase, I didn’t use it back then, is this is regime change that’s going on. A pro-slavery regime is being replaced with what? With some kind of antislavery regime and you’ve got to rewrite the constitution in order to cleanse it of the remnants of the pro-slavery regime.

Ed Ayers: And that regime wasn’t just in the South. The whole nation was a regime based on slavery.

Eric Foner: Absolutely. That’s why Lincoln in his second inaugural address referred to it as American slavery, not Southern slavery. Lincoln always said that, that we are complicitous in the North. We don’t own slaves right now, but we are complicitous. We profit from slavery.

Ed Ayers: So as you know from out giving talks, people think that the Civil War itself ended slavery and that the 13th Amendment was just a codification of something that had already happened with the Emancipation Proclamation and so forth. So I thought that was one thing that was interesting about the Lincoln movie focusing on the 13th Amendment. So why did we need the 13th Amendment if the Civil War ended slavery?

GatewayEric Foner: Well there were still slaves on the ground when the Civil War ended, quite a few of them. People who had gotten to Union lines or where the Union Army had come and established control, yeah. Part of their job, part of the Union Army’s job once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, was to protect the freedom that Lincoln had announced. But legally speaking, emancipation and abolition are not quite the same thing. Slavery is created by state law, not federal law, state law. States can abolish slavery as the Northern states did soon after the American Revolution, but freeing individuals does not abrogate the state laws that create slavery. That’s why Lincoln’s, even though you wouldn’t quite see this in the movie. That’s fine. It’s not a historical treatise. Lincoln’s preferred route to the end of slavery during the war was state by state abolition.

Eric Foner: Even after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he was pressing Southern states. If any of them wanted to come back in the union, they would have to abolish slavery. That’s how you get rid of slavery on the ground, by having the state laws abrogated. But that couldn’t really happen in the Civil War very much, and so by 1864, many people particularly abolitionists are saying the simpler way is just to have this constitutional amendment. That will completely abrogate slavery everywhere in the country. We won’t have to go state by state and let’s do it that way. Lincoln got onboard of course, and as the movie shows, twisted a lot of arms in January, 1865 to get some people in the House of Representatives to vote for the 13th Amendment, so to completely get rid of slavery. It’s certainly true. The war disrupted slavery. Many people fled. Some states like Maryland, a border state and Louisiana where Lincoln was trying to push a Reconstruction plan, they abolished slavery on the state level, but there were plenty of places slavery was still existing when the Civil War ended.

Ed Ayers: Well, why would Lincoln have to twist so many arms if the United States awakened to the great injustice of slavery during the war and mobilized 200000 African American men to be soldiers and sailors? Why was there still resistance to it as late as 1864 and early 1865?

Eric Foner: Yeah, well, of course the first time they tried, the 13th Amendment failed in the House of Representatives. Remember, it needs two-thirds vote in the Congress, which is often not that easy to get. The Democratic Party was still there. It was still, if not pro-slavery, it was still resistant to abolition. The border slave states, the people there were quite adamant that they didn’t, Kentucky, Maryland said they didn’t want this constitutional amendment. They were still in the union, but it took arm twisting because the 13th Amendment gets lost in the shuffle in a way. We talk about the 14th and 15th much more for complicated reasons, but the 13th Amendment was really a constitutional revolution in and of itself.

Eric Foner: Never before had the constitution been written or amended to just abrogate a whole type of property. Some of the people in Congress said, “Wait a minute. If we’re going to say this kind of property is gone, next year there’ll be demanding that we confiscate the factories of New England.” It also completely reversed the position and that was traditional, but from the constitution arm, with the ratification of the constitution arm, that this was a state matter. Now it’s a, “Forget it. I don’t care what the states want. No slavery anymore in this country, do supersede.” That is a fundamental shift of power from the states to the federal government. And then the second clause. The first clause, abolition of slavery. The second clause, Congress shall have the power to enforce this amendment. A lot of southerners, once the war is over and Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction plan is moving along, a lot of white Southerners say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Yeah, slavery is dead. We understand that. We’re not going to have slavery back, but this second clause seems to give Congress the right to legislate about anything they want.”

Eric Foner: How do you enforce the abolition of slavery? Do you give black people the right to vote? Yeah. People said that’s what they need if they’re going to be free. Do you give them land? That’s what African Americans wanted. In other words, it’s very open-ended. Enforcing the abolition of slavery is a very complicated idea. Unfortunately, for very complex legal reasons, it has never really been implemented. The Supreme court has barely ever used the 13th Amendment as a weapon against the racial inequality that is, of course, tied up in slavery.

Ed Ayers: Yeah, so the 13th Amendment, it’s a breakthrough in thinking about what the nation is as well as ending slavery right?

Eric Foner: Right.

Ed Ayers: Does that help explain why the 14th Amendment comes so quickly after the 13th after there have been decades, really, without constitutional change?

WhoEric Foner: Yeah. The 14th Amendment, I would say, is working out the consequences of the 13th Amendment as well as the consequences of the Civil War. I see the 14th Amendment as putting the Northern Republicans understanding of what they had achieved in the Civil War into the constitution. Some of it has something to do with race or slavery, for example, that Confederate bonds are never going to be repaid. If you patriotically loaned money to the Confederacy, forget it. You’re never getting that back. It has to do with various other things related to the war. But the first section, which is the key one, is really henceforth because of the abolition of slavery, everybody born in the United States is a citizen of the United States.

Eric Foner: You needed that because the status of citizenship was still very uncertain and then more important, all those citizens are going to enjoy the equal protection of the law. The original constitution said nothing about equality among Americans, nothing. It’s the 14th Amendment that makes the constitution as it has been in our own time, a vehicle through which all sorts of people can claim greater equality. The gay marriage decision a few years ago was a 14th Amendment decision. They weren’t thinking of gay marriage when they were writing the 14th Amendment, but they were thinking of how do you make people equal before the law?

Ed Ayers: The last amendment you talk about of course, is the 15th, which I think often tends to be seen as a footnote to the 14th but was that also a hard fought battle to create that?

Eric Foner: That was very hard fought because the principle that the states controlled the right to vote was deeply embedded North and South. There were plenty of Northern states that were nervous. In Congress, they were those who said, “We want an amendment that just says every male citizen age 21 has the right to vote.” If they had gotten that through, just think of all the trouble that would have been avoided. Even today when we’re debating voter IDs and all that, a positive statement. Now they weren’t willing to give women the right to vote and the women’s movement was very outraged by that. But Northern states, the Chinese couldn’t vote in California. Immigrants couldn’t vote on the same basis as a native born in Rhode Island. Massachusetts had a literacy test for voting. They didn’t want to give up their control of the rights. So instead of a positive amendment, it’s what you might call a negative amendment; that no state can deny anyone the right to vote because of race.

Ed Ayers: Well, it’s a work-around in a way, right? It’s-

Eric Foner: It’s a work-around and it has a serious flaw, which is any other limit on the right to vote is not prohibited right? You can have a literacy test. You can have a poll tax. When the Southern states, as you well know, took away the right to vote, they didn’t do it by saying, “Hey, black people can’t vote anymore,” because that would’ve violated the 15th Amendment. What they did was put all these other qualifications and then understanding clauses. You’ve got to prove to the registrar that you understand the state constitution, but the Supreme Court allowed this to happen. They said, “Well, look, they’re not talking about race actually. This law says nothing about race so it doesn’t violate the 15th Amendment.”

Ed Ayers: Well and there’s other parts of these amendments that have come back to haunt us in some ways. Perhaps you could talk a little bit about the clause about involuntary servitude and the 13th Amendment?

Eric Foner: That’s been highlighted a few years ago by the documentary of, the Hollywood documentary, 13th. 13th Amendment, the language is taken just about directly from the Northwest Ordinance of Thomas Jefferson, and it says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime, can exist in the United States.” That criminal exemption. Now this is not a conspiracy as some people think, “Oh look. They were looking ahead to mass incarceration, to convict labor, to the exploitation of the labor.” They were hardly any prisons in 1865. There was a little bit of a history of convict labor to help pay the cost of prisons, but it wasn’t a mass system. But this little, this exemption, which was not even debated in Congress, nobody even mentioned it except Charles Sumner, the abolitionist Senator from Massachusetts. It wasn’t debated in the press. I looked through the newspapers. Nobody mentions it.

Eric Foner: It’s just boilerplate language really. But nonetheless, inadvertently, it created this loophole through which the Southern states particularly drove this Mack truck in the late 19th century of massive convict labor, either within prisons or leasing out of convicts to work in mines and plantations and on roadwork and stuff like this, under terribly oppressive conditions. The courts have persistently ruled that the 13th Amendment allows the requirement, the involuntary labor of people convicted of a crime. And then after Reconstruction, Southern states began making almost anything a felony. You steal a chicken, it’s a felony, and you’re eight years in jail and you are sent out pretty soon to labor on some guy’s plantation who has rented the labor of the prisoners from the federal government. So it’s disastrous really in Southern history later on, but it was inadvertent almost. What it shows you is people talk a lot about the original intention. Sometimes unintended consequences can be just as important as the intended consequences of an amendment.

Ed Ayers: You talked before, Eric, about the way that even though women played such a crucial role in bringing about these amendments; petitioning Congress during the war and afterwards, that they were excluded from this. How about the place of American Indians in all this? Who’s been born in this country more than American Indians? So why is that a blind spot in these laws of the post Civil War era?

Eric Foner: The legal status of Native Americans was murky, to say the least. You still had the remnants of the idea that they were not Americans. They were members of their own tribal sovereignties. People talked about the Cherokee Nation, the Choctaw Nation. You are not a citizen of the United States. You were a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Now, of course, by this time, the power of the Indian nations in most places had been broken, and it wasn’t as if you had the United States government dealing with equal nations on the other side. But the people who wrote the [inaudible 00:29:15] did not, their aim was not to make Native Americans citizens. The exemption in the 14th Amendment says, “Anybody born in the United States or naturalized coming from abroad except and subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.” And the idea, well Native Americans are not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. They’re subject to the laws of their own national sovereignties.

ForeverEric Foner: So Indians were not citizens and it’s not until 1924 that Congress enacts a law making all Native Americans, regardless of where they are living, regardless of what tribe they in, citizens of the United States. So yeah. These amendments had exemptions, they had loopholes, they had serious flaws. Women, as you said, certainly objected to the 15th Amendment, which didn’t give them the right to vote, and the second clause of the 14th Amendment, which introduces the word male for the first time into the constitution. These measures were compromises. They were worked out after long debate and amendments and ups and downs in Congress. There’s no single mind behind the 13th, 14th or 15th Amendments. They were the result of all sorts of negotiation and controversy. Nonetheless, the basic principles are pretty clear. The abolition of slavery, the establishment of a universal notion of citizenship, despite without the native Americans and of equality among those citizens and the vast expansion of the right to vote.

Ed Ayers: And they are alive in today’s political and legal culture. What do you see as the issues that are most salient right now on either being contested or helping drive forward some kind of change?

Eric Foner: Well, sadly, yeah. Many of these issues are still unresolved and I’d have to say sadly, our Supreme Court has adopted an increasingly narrow definition of the implications of these amendments. The most notable was a few years ago in the Shelby County decision, which overturned a very important part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That’s a law passed under the 15th Amendment. It was passed with virtual unanimity in Congress, forcing jurisdictions in the South that had a long history of discrimination and voting to get prior approval from the federal government before they changed the voting rules. Supreme Court a few years ago said, “Well that’s a violation of federalism. It treats some states more harshly than other states.” Well, these are states that had slavery and not every state did. And also these are states that had consciously removed the right to vote over many years.

Eric Foner: But anyway, so their narrowing the 15th Amendment. Who should have the right to vote is a hot issue in our politics as you well know, with gerrymandering, with various ID and other voter suppression laws. Citizenship, how relevant can you be on our border today? This is being debated all the time. Who has the right to be an American citizen? For example, does the child born in the United States of a undocumented immigrant, is that child automatically an American citizen? Well, language of the 14th Amendment is pretty clear. Yes. Any person born in the United States. Your parents can be bank robbers. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be a citizen of the United States. But President Trump, among other things, has said that he feels he has the right as president to abrogate the first sentence of the 14th Amendment, the birthright citizenship sentence for the children of undocumented immigrants.

Eric Foner: I don’t personally think the president can all by himself eradicate part of the constitution, but some people have tried to do that. So these issues are certainly on our political agenda today and I think an understanding of how the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were enacted, what they were intended to accomplish, can help us think through the implications of that today.

Ed Ayers: Eric Foner is professor emeritus of history at Columbia University. His latest book is The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. That’s going to do it for us today, but you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your questions about history. You’ll find this at backstoryradio.org or send an email to backstory@Virginia.edu. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter at Backstory Radio. Special thanks this week to Jerry [inaudible 00:34:10] and Katie Gary.

Ed Ayers: Backstory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial foundation, the Johns Hopkins University and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent those that the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.

Speaker 6: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is professor of the humanities and president emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams associate professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University. Backstory was created by Andrew Wyndham for Virginia Humanities.

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Acaba de ser publicado un nuevo número de la revista Huellas de Estados Unidos. Este excelente proyecto de los colegas de la Cátedra de Estados Unidos  (UBA) ya suma catorce números, todos dedicados a promover un análisis latinoamericano de la historia estadounidense. Este número incluye ensayos sobre temas muy variados: la Guerra contra la Pobreza de Lyndon B. Johnson y el movimiento negro, los afiches (posters) del famoso Wild West de Buffalo Bill  y el asesinato “moral, intelectual e ideológico” de Martin Luther King. Este número también contiene ensayos sobre temas de gran actualidad, como el endeudamiento de los  estudiantes universitarios y la recién aprobada reforma tributaria impulsada por Donald Trump. Además de una sección de reseñas y ensayos bibliográficos, este número también incluye una conferencia dictada por el gran historiador estadounidense Eric Foner titulada La historia de la libertad en el “Siglo Estadounidense” (Museo Histórico Nacional del Cabildo y de la Revolución de Mayo, Buenos Aires, Argentina. 28 de septiembre de 2017).  Vayan, nuevamente, nuestras felicitaciones y agradecimientos al equipo editorial de Huellas de Estados Unidos.

Norberto Barreto Velázquez

29 de abril de 2018

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Struggle and Progress

Eric Foner on the abolitionists, Reconstruction, and winning “freedom” from the Right.

W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois

No living historian has done more to shape our understanding of the American Civil War era than Eric Foner. A rare scholar who is both prominent outside the historical community and esteemed within it, over the course of a fifty-year career Foner has acquired virtually every award, tribute, and professional honor available to a historian in the United States.

Yet the true measure of his legacy lies not in accolades but influence. Foner’s most important books have transformed the way we see — and the way we teach — the origins of the Civil War, the significance of slave emancipation, and the politics of postwar Reconstruction.

Foner grew up in a New York family equally devoted to historical scholarship and left-wing politics. His father, Jack, and his uncle, Philip, both taught history at City College before they were dismissed and blacklisted as Communists.

For the elder Foners, a radical approach to US history involved placing the black freedom struggle at center stage. “In the 1930s,” Eric later wrote, “the Communist party was the only predominantly white organization to make fighting racism central to its political program.” It was no coincidence that the family was friendly with W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, or that Philip Foner’s five-volume selection of Frederick Douglass’s writings and speeches, which he completed while on the blacklist, was the first collected edition of its kind.

Foner’s family background has produced occasional clumsy efforts at red-baiting, including a 2002 National Review essay which denounced him as a Soviet sympathizer and “left-wing polemicist.” In reality, Foner’s own contemporary political interventions have generally remained within the American liberal mainstream. Yet it would not be unfair to credit his Old Left upbringing with a major influence on his scholarly career.

Foner’s first book, Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men (1970), which remains the standard work on the rise of the Republican Party, showed how antebellum Republicans were not merely critics of slavery, but exponents of a powerful political-economic ideology of their own. His most celebrated book, Reconstruction (1988), provided a synthesis that decisively rejected the racist folklore that had informed popular and scholarly treatments of the post–Civil War period for much of the twentieth century.

In these and other works, a central theme in Foner’s scholarship has been the contested terrain of freedom in American history. (This is no less true of his most recent book, Gateway to Freedom, on the antebellum underground railroad.) The Civil War era, in his view, represented a revolutionary clash of political ideas and forces — a period that unmade and then remade American society. The revolution, of course, remained unfinished — but it was a revolution nonetheless.

Three Jacobin contributors sat down with Foner to discuss the achievements and failures of Reconstruction, how to reclaim the idea of freedom from the Right, whether the antislavery movement has any lessons for the contemporary left, and why Karl Rove is one of his biggest fans.

So what’s this story we’ve heard about an argument you had with your eighth-grade history teacher about Reconstruction?

This was a long time ago, probably 1957 or ’58 — it was tenth or eleventh grade. And yeah, it was American History class, in Long Beach, Long Island, and the teacher was basically giving us the old, traditional Birth of a Nation view of Reconstruction. She said theReconstruction Act of 1867, which gave the right to vote to black men in the South, was the worst law in all American history.

So I raised my hand and I said, “I don’t agree with you, Mrs. Berryman, I think the Alien and Sedition Acts were worse.” I don’t know where I got that from. And she said, “Alright, Eric, if you don’t like the way I’m teaching, you come in tomorrow and you give a lecture on Reconstruction.” Which I did — my father was a historian, Du Bois was a friend of the family, we had Black Reconstruction at home. So we used that.

I came in and I gave my presentation, and at the end of the class the teacher says, “All right, we’re now going to have a vote as to who’s right: me or Eric.” Well, she won by a landslide, let’s put it that way.

When would you say high school students started learning a new way of seeing Reconstruction?

Maybe the 1970s, or even after that. Of course, Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction had been out there since 1935, but it was ignored in the mainstream [white] universities. It was taught in the black colleges. In the black colleges you had a different view of Reconstruction, but that was totally sealed off from the larger academic world.

But I think a real turning point was in 1965, when Kenneth Stampp published this book called The Era of Reconstruction, which was not a very detailed research book but it gave a more positive view of Reconstruction. And because of the civil rights revolution, people wanted a different history. People were talking about the “New Abolitionists,” the “Second Reconstruction.” Little by little people started chipping away.

So in the seventies there was a lot of scholarship being done, but exactly when it got into the high schools I don’t know. Maybe the eighties. You’d have to look at the textbooks for that.

Today I think all the textbooks are good, but I still find, wherever I talk about this, that there are plenty of people — and not just the older ones — who say, “All I know about Reconstruction is corruption, carpetbaggers.”

The main thing is that people know next to nothing about Reconstruction. And what they do know is just not correct. I mean, just basic myths. People say, “They gave the right to vote to blacks but they disenfranchised all the whites.” Well, that’s completely untrue, they did not disenfranchise all whites. But people think that’s a known fact.

What percentage were actually disenfranchised?

A tiny percent. The people disenfranchised were people who held during office before the Civil War. Nobody knows how many that was. It might have been 8,000, 10,000, nobody knows, but it was not all whites. Your average Confederate veteran was not disenfranchised.

Oh, and the idea that all the blacks in office were illiterate and ignorant, also a total myth — we could go on about this but the point is, there are still a lot of misconceptions. I’m hoping that with the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction coming up there will be a little more interest.

There’s a 2011 Pew Poll showing that Americans still don’t even agree on the cause of the Civil War. There’s a plurality saying it was “states’ rights,” rather than slavery — and it’s not a North-South divide, either.

Yes, I see that all the time. It isn’t regional. The thing is, it’s an index of cynicism about political life. Which is totally understandable. The idea that anyone could do anything for an idealistic reason, or that you can believe anything that politicians say . . .

You look at our own world, with politics today, it’s easy to say, “Hey, it must have been just a bunch of Northern capitalists trying to control the South,” or “It was just states’ rights.” Whenever I lecture, someone raises the issue of states’ rights, and the thing I like to say is: “Yes, you’re right, the South believed in states’ rights. And the right they were interested in was the right to own slaves.” And that was a right created by state law, so naturally they wanted to protect states’ rights.

And then I say, if that was really the issue, then explain the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 to me — which was a federal law, probably the most powerful federal law before the Civil War in terms of overriding local judicial procedures, overriding local law enforcement. Federal troops, federal marshals, going into states, you think that’s a reflection of states’ rights? No.

When it came to vigorous federal action in defense of slavery, the South was perfectly happy to go that route. So they did not dogmatically believe in states’ rights . . .

Just look at the Mississippi Declaration of Secession. Or Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech.” One thing I admire about these guys is that they didn’t beat about the bush. They were very candid. “We are seceding because the future of slavery is in danger.”

After the war, the myth developed that everybody had already agreed that slavery needed to go.

Yes, slavery got washed out of the writing on the war. But it didn’t happen in a straight line. When it comes to the Civil War, what historians write is a reflection of the world they are living in at the moment.

During World War II there was an upsurge in people seeing the Civil War through its lens, through the fight against fascism and the knowledge that entrenched evil is not going to go away without violence. So in that period they saw slavery as the root of it.

But later you get a post-Vietnam thing, which was a little more cynical. I think even today we’re in a post-Iraq moment, where the idea is basically, “War is hell and politicians justify it with all this rhetoric which has no meaning, so how can you believe anything anyone says?”

My view on this is Du Bois’s, actually. Sometimes the “neo-abolitionist” historians get a little too gung-ho for war, the glorifying of the war. I agree with Du Bois, who says that war is murder, chaos, anarchy. But sometimes good comes out of it. I don’t think it’s a good thing that all these people got killed in the Civil War. I’m not glorifying it and waving the flag for it. But what I’m saying is that I’ve never seen a peaceful scenario for the abolition of slavery in this country.

Now, a lot of people say it would have died out as a result of being uneconomical. How do you know that? When would it have died out? It was plenty economical before the Civil War, why would it suddenly die out?

People say, “Oh, well Brazil abolished slavery.” Brazil abolished slavery partially because we abolished slavery. Do you think Brazil would have abolished slavery if we hadn’t? I think political economy is very important here. The clash of two fundamentally different societies with two fundamentally different labor systems is what’s going on, in my opinion.

Do you think it makes sense to talk about the Civil War and Reconstruction as a “bourgeois revolution”?

I tend not to use terminology like that, which I feel is an insider terminology. I try to write as clearly and accessibly as possible. So I understand what it means to call it a bourgeois revolution, and there are a lot of ways one could say it is. But I don’t think you would find that phrase in my writings.

But I do call it a revolution. I call the Civil War the Second American Revolution, as historian Charles Beard did, and as abolitionist Wendell Phillips did. But the Revolution is the destruction of slavery, that’s the revolutionary quality. That’s Du Bois’s point.

Jacobin-Series-3bdd91b95cfc219305403acaa1630163

I call it a capitalist revolution. I don’t know if that’s the same thing as a bourgeois revolution. It destroys a system that is both capitalist and non-capitalist in ways that are quite difficult to explain, but the consequence of the Civil War is capitalist hegemony throughout the entire United States.

But that’s not the cause of the Civil War, because the capitalists were perfectly happy with the slave South. They made a lot of money off the slave South and there was no reason for them to go to war. But theconsequence of the war was certainly the hegemony of Northern industry and finance throughout the entire country.

American Jacobins

I wanted to talk about Karl Rove, who is apparently a big fan of your book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, on antebellum Republican ideology.

He said he learned how to build a political coalition from that book.

A student came up to me one year and said, “You might not approve of this, but I’ve got an internship in the White House working for Karl Rove this summer.” I said I don’t disapprove, they need all the help they can get down there. He said, “I’m glad you feel that way,” and he whipped out his copy of my Reconstruction book and said, “Mr Rove asked if I could get you to sign this for him.”

I think this kind of thing scares off the young contemporary left, because they see the legacy of antislavery being claimed by this vicious capitalist force.

Anything can be claimed by anyone! I mean, Glenn Beck held his civil rights rally a little while ago.

The National Review does something on Frederick Douglass from time to time.

We shouldn’t allow them to take possession of these struggles. By the way, Obama absorbs all of this into his narrative of American history, obviously, and what’s objectionable about all this — from Obama’s vision of American history to Karl Rove’s — is that they see all these things as struggles within a stable system, so to speak.

Instead of denying, like the Right used to, that we’ve ever had inequality in this country, the Right says, “Well of course slavery was horrible, but we abolished it. We abolished slavery.” We! We! Who’s this “we,” you know?

And then they say, “Jim Crow, it was terrible.” No one’s defending Jim Crow anymore. We had a great civil rights struggle, Martin Luther King is a hero to everybody left, right and center, but it’s a defanged Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King is the guy who gets up at the Lincoln Memorial and, you know, says one sentence — I want my children to be judged by the content of their character — and that’s Martin Luther King. You don’t get the King who spoke out against the Vietnam War, or the Poor People’s Campaign King.

King was a radical guy. King said that the Civil Rights Movement was a fundamental challenge to American values. The people who absorb it into a feel-good thing now say it was an expression of basic American values. In other words, there is a stable thing called Americanism which all these struggles are just improving all the time.

So I can see how people can be cynical about the appropriation of that, but I don’t think we should let it be appropriated. I wrote a book about the history of the idea of freedom, and then shortly thereafter George W. Bush took control of the idea of freedom for the War in Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom — freedom, freedom, freedom, that’s all it was. It turned a lot of people off the idea of freedom.

Obama doesn’t even talk about freedom much, except when he’s going to war. Freedom is the last refuge when they want to go to war.

I don’t think we should cede freedom to the Right. Absolutely not. We should not concede the common sense idea of freedom. In my book there are many other concepts of freedom equally embedded in the American tradition, which have a lot more to do with equality and economic rights, which we should insist on. It’s not just owning a gun and getting the government off your back.

So yes, I can understand that people look back at the abolitionist movement and say, first, “Well, the whites were racist.” Well some of them were racist, no question about it. But hey, they were willing to put themselves on the line to end slavery, so what else do you want?

This is a pseudo-politics, a psycho-politics, that says people ought to be loving each other. That’s not what politics is, people loving each other. It’s people acting together, even if they don’t love each other, for a common purpose. If you’re going out to a labor picket line, are they all loving each other, the people on that picket line? Probably not. But they have a common self-interest that they’re pursuing.

Then they say, “It didn’t succeed. They abolished slavery, but racism is permanent, and another form of slavery came in.” Of course, terrible injustice came in. But it wasn’t slavery. I think that’s a very cynical view of social change — that if you don’t get utopia nothing has happened.

There’s a related myth that emancipation happened, but immediately it was replaced by Jim Crow. But in reality there was a long period between Reconstruction and complete black disenfranchisement, and across the late nineteenth century there were all these struggles in the South, with whites and blacks acting together.

You’re absolutely right, it didn’t just end in 1877. There was Radical Reconstruction, which I think was a very idealistic effort to, as Du Bois said, create democracy. Du Bois’s subtitle talks about “the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America.” It’s not about black people, it’s about democracy — are we going to have a democracy in this country or not?

But then there was a generation at least which was kind of inchoate, as you say. There was a tendency towards more and more racism, but there were also struggles like the Readjusters in Virginia, the Populists of course, and other things. It’s not until around 1900 that Jim Crow, which is a shorthand for comprehensive white supremacy in the South, comes in.

The struggle is the story. I don’t think we should romanticize it, but the idea that racism is permanent and there’s nothing you can say or do and that’s it — that’s a totally unhistorical way of thinking about it.

Among other things, it’s a story of attempts at interracial cooperation from below, which ultimately failed by 1900. It’s sometimes argued that the political failure of Reconstruction in the South was due to the fact that Republican support among Unionist whites, which was significant at the beginning, seemed to have disappeared or diminished by 1877. Why do you think that happened?

That’s one of the reasons for the failure of Reconstruction — it’s one reason. Of course, there were some states where they never had any white support, like South Carolina and maybe a couple of other places. Louisiana had very, very little.

The problem of getting poor white support was very difficult and was exacerbated by the difference between the Northern Republican Party and the Southern Republican Party. In some of these states, like North Carolina or Georgia, there were poor whites, Unionists, and so on, who were interested in supporting the Republicans for economic advantages like debtor’s relief.

But the Northern Republican Party was not interested in supporting them. They rejected Georgia’s Constitution because it suspended the collection of debts, and they said, “Hey, I’m sorry, you guys have got to pay your debts.” It’s like Greece, they were acting like Angela Merkel.

I actually think the failure of Reconstruction was not solely or even primarily on that basis. Rather, you have to go to the federal level and look at what was basically a failure to enforce the law. There were these constitutional amendments — the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth — but you get a withdrawal from enforcement after a while, and that reflected changes in Northern society — political, economic, and intellectual. And without a willingness to enforce the law, the power structure in the South — the economic power structure — is going to take over eventually.

It’s possible to imagine continued federal intervention — not, you know, military intervention for forty years, but enough to make it clear that these laws will be enforced. Like what happened in the Civil Rights Movement. There was a social movement, but there was also the National Guard, federal courts, other things just making it clear to people, not that they have to love each other, but that they have to act in certain ways and they can’t act in other ways. That if people act in ways that are in violation of federal law, they will be punished. And if that becomes clear, then people eventually abide by the law.

This is the point where Karl Rove’s attempt at appropriation fails, because when you’re looking at that moment, where Northern support dries up and people are beginning to doubt the effort to enforce the law, they have exactly the same kinds of concerns that Karl Rove has, that the Republican Party today has.

Yes, exactly. Rove would probably say this was an outside imposition on the South and therefore whites were never going to accept it. Maybe there’s some truth to that. But as you said, there were the Populists, the Readjusters, there were grounds for white militancy in the South all through this period, which occasionally come to the fore and helped work out things with blacks. But they were usually overturned by violence.

So you go back to the question: are you going to allow political violence to determine elections and political power in this country? If you are, that’s what’s going to happen. And if not, you’re going to need federal intervention to prevent it. I think the national story of Reconstruction and its failure is very important, not just the local story.

Of course, there’s an old argument about corruption in the Reconstruction state governments, but newer scholarship has looked more closely at the problem of state government revenue, and the new property taxes imposed after the war.

Yes, these state governments faced a real Catch‑22. Before the war, state revenue was basically from the tax on slaves, not on landed property. Planters could accumulate large tracts of property and not be taxed on it, but be taxed on their slaves instead. And this left the poorer whites not paying taxes on their land. Most people owned land, but they didn’t pay taxes.

This was a weird fiscal system, where it’s the tax on slaves that’s supporting the government, but it does allow a lot of fiscal autonomy to poorer areas. After the Civil War, there are no more slaves, so no more tax! It becomes a general property tax. That’s bad for the planters, but it’s also bad for the poorer whites, who are now paying a tax on their land they didn’t have to before.

So that becomes a big problem. These governments are setting up school systems, and they’re now serving a doubled citizenry where blacks are now suddenly getting benefits from the government as well as whites, but the fiscal resources are very, very weak. And that’s why they were issuing bonds that were deteriorating in value. And you get corruption out of that.

But even the way you posed the question, which pops up in a lot of this literature, shows the hold of modern day politics: corruption and taxation are thrown into the same bag. But taxation is not corruption! This notion that levying taxes is bad is part of this critique of Reconstruction.

But surely if these are poor farmers who want schools, and you raise taxes to build these school systems and stuff — if it had been done well, wouldn’t they ultimately have benefited from it?

The immediate problem was that they couldn’t get debtor’s relief. They were all in debt. The Republican Party was divided, because a lot of Republicans — including black Republicans — thought they shouldn’t alienate planters too much. They wanted to get the planters into the Republican Party.

So it was very hard to have a radical party, to have a populist party, because the local parties were dependent on the Northern Republican Party, which more and more was the party of industry and sound finance. It was a political coalition that was very difficult to maintain. It was a coalition between the poorest people in the country and the richest people in the country!

And then there was the need for cotton. That’s one of the reasons they didn’t distribute land to the former slaves: because they thought they’d have to grow cotton. The problem is, there was actually an overproduction of cotton after the war, because the British had encouraged cotton in India and Egypt during the war. There’s a lot more supply in the world than there had been before because the Civil War had cut it off.

The thing is, the agricultural system in the South was not a racial system. It affected blacks more severely but there were more white sharecroppers than black in every census. The crop lien system (which left indebted farmers dependent on cash crops) forced people to grow cotton. So yes, the expansion of cotton production was in the white areas, and that was very detrimental to them because the price was falling throughout this whole period. There was overproduction, so growing cotton was a losing game.

So here you get into total counterfactual fantasy: if they had changed the whole credit system — if, if, if! That’s what the Populists called for [in the 1890s]. Get out of dependence on merchants and banks. Let the government be the one who loans the money to the farmers. It didn’t happen, of course. (Now it happens, but that’s with agribusiness, that’s a different story.) So there are a million problems.

I don’t think Reconstruction in its utopian phase could have succeeded, but I don’t think it’s crazy to imagine more modest kinds of success which would have made the shift over to Jim Crow more difficult.

What do you think about land redistribution, as a counterfactual?

Well, in an agricultural society it’s a lot better to have land than to not have land. Would it have been a panacea for everything? No. The credit system, you’d have had to change that too, because land is not the only scarce resource. It certainly would have given blacks more bargaining power in the system, but it was not the end-all, be-all answer. Most white farmers owned land after the war, but they were losing it through this whole period.

To me, the key thing wouldn’t necessarily have been the direct benefits to African Americans, which were significant but still limited. I’m thinking of the political dynamic. Because that’s the divide that arose later on, the poor whites who owned land and poor blacks who owned nothing. Steven Hahn called them the “propertyless poor.”

Though a lot of whites are losing their property too.

But you know, you can take that even farther. To Thaddeus Stevens, the biggest thing this would have accomplished was to destroy the planter class. Take away their land and they’re gone, and that would have changed the whole political configuration of the South.

I mean, he wanted to sell it to Northerners too.

Forty acres to the blacks and then sell the rest. Then you’ve got a whole different society. That’s a great counterfactual. Blacks would have ended up at the bottom of the economic ladder anyway because they lacked resources, but the whole system would have looked very different.

Okay, let’s do counterfactuals. But let’s say in 1867 blacks get the right to vote, and there’s a general white uprising in the South and you have to send the Army back in. Then people might have said, fuck these guys! This is impossible, we’re gonna take their land away again. Crisis creates that kind of radicalism.

In the dominant discourse, the American Revolution was very moderate, it was legalistic, and that’s good because it was relatively peaceful, unlike the French Revolution. Yet it left slavery in place. And then even the Second American Revolution ended up so moderate and legalistic that it prevented them from doing a lot of radical things — the kind of things you’d imagine the French Jacobins doing had they been in the United States.

Well you know, Georges Clemenceau was here after the war and he was reporting for a French newspaper. He called Thaddeus Stevens the Robespierre of the Second American Revolution. So he saw what was going on.

But on the other hand, the abolition of slavery seems so normal and inevitable in retrospect, yet it was an incredibly radical act. Especially the uncompensated abolition of slavery, the liquidation of what was by far the largest concentration of property in the country — slaves. No compensation was a pretty radical thing. I guess you’re right, it wasn’t radical enough, but it was certainly pretty radical for the nineteenth century.

Lessons for Today’s Radicals

What if some young socialist came up to you and asked, “Is there anything here, in antislavery and Reconstruction, that’s useful for an anti-capitalist, socialist project?”

Yes! First of all though — the abolitionist movement was not an anticapitalist movement.

But it was a radical movement.

Yes, it was a radical movement. The abolitionists show you that a very small group of people can accomplish a lot by changing the discourse of the country. After the Civil War, everybody claimed to have been an abolitionist. But they weren’t!

There weren’t a whole lot of abolitionists before the war. There were a few beleaguered individuals scattered about, in upstate New York, for example. There were only a couple dozen abolitionists in New York City!

Now, there was a free black community, they were very militant, and you could say they were abolitionists, but I’m talking about the organized abolitionist movement. That was very small. Nonetheless, they managed to actually accomplish quite a bit. They pioneered the use of the media of that time — the steam press, the telegraph, the petitions, the traveling speakers — to change public discourse. If you want to learn something from the abolitionists, that’s what you learn. The first thing to do is intervene in public discourse.

And the Occupy movement — success, failure, gone, still around, whatever you want to think about it — it changed the public discourse. It put this question of the 1 percent and the 99 percent, inequality, on the national agenda. That doesn’t mean they’re going to do much about it in Washington, but it is now part of our consciousness, just as by 1840 the abolitionist movement put the issue of slavery on the agenda in a way it had not been. Now, it took twenty years for anything to happen, but I think that’s something to learn from them, how they managed to do that.

Here’s the point. I am a believer in the abolitionist concept — that the role of radicals is to stand outside of the political system. The abolitionists said, “I am not putting forward a plan for abolition, because if I put forward a plan, people are just going to be debating my plan. ‘Oh, it’s going to be two years, five years, seven years.’ No: I’m putting forward the moral imperative of dealing with slavery.” And if people are convinced of that, then politicians will come up with a plan to do it. That means politicians are eventually going to pick up those ideas and use them in other ways and turn them into political strategies.

A guy like Lincoln was not a radical abolitionist by any stretch of the imagination. He was a moderate. And yet by the 1850s Lincoln understood that abolitionists were part of — to use a Karl Rove term — his “base.” Lincoln understood that you don’t win by just appealing to your base, but no politician is going to kick his base out and say “I don’t want to deal with these guys.”

So yes, there are some radical guys in the party, like Joshua Giddings, like Salmon P. Chase. But you know, Giddings represented one very unique district. He was like Bernie Sanders. Not too many Giddingses are going to get elected.

Then how do you interpret the debate among abolitionists, like the split that eventually happened between William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass?

You know, this is where I differ from the tradition I grew up in. I don’t believe there is one true party line that every movement has to have. The Maoist view is better: let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred tactics bloom. Let some people go into politics and other people not go into politics, let some people work above ground and others not. You know, you have the Underground Railroad, you have people working illegally, but you also have people working totally legally and openly. There’s no one correct tactic. The more different tactics you have, the better.

I totally agree with that, but in some ways, Garrison was making the argument that you started out with just now: let’s just stand out and say what’s right. And Douglass said, look, at a certain point, you have to intervene.

But Douglass’s concept of politics is still politics as agitation. He doesn’t support the Republican Party. He supports the Radical Abolition party which gets twenty votes! But the point of that is just to get the idea out there. Politics is another venue for getting your idea out there.

But the idea is out there! In your most recent book, you quote Charles Sumner talking about the “anti-slavery enterprise” as an inclusive movement. Isn’t the striking thing about this moment in American politics the fact that even though they’re at each other’s throats, they’re working towards a common goal? Even though Douglass is trashing Lincoln in his editorials, fundamentally they still build through the Republican Party. This is the real radical moment, in the mid 1850s — when the Republican Party, the antislavery party, wins control of the North. Just a few years earlier that was unimaginable.

No, you’re right. Yes, I make this argument, but I think one should not homogenize things. Douglass and Wendell Phillips are trying to get rid of Lincoln in 1864! They nominate John C. Frémont to run instead. Lincoln and the abolitionists have this odd, interesting relationship. It’s partly symbiotic, it’s partly antagonistic, but these guys are not holding Lincoln’s coat by any means.

Very good historians make very big mistakes talking about this because they look at Douglass’s speeches about Lincoln. But Douglass is a very shrewd guy. He understands you’ve got to get Lincoln on your side, especially after the Civil War. So suddenly Lincoln is the guy who we were all really wrong to criticize, and he was actually a believer in racial justice. By the 1870s he’s trying to invoke Lincoln to get people’s support for Reconstruction.

But as you said, this is politics, right? It’s not about loving each other — it’s about changing the world.

Absolutely. But even though there’s an antislavery enterprise, I still think there’s a fundamental difference between abolitionists and the politicians. I mean, I hope that people on the Left do not just throw up their hands and say, “Well, there’s nobody you can trust.” It’s politics! You make deals. But I also believe that this is the luxury of an intellectual with a full-time job, so I don’t have to worry about it.

But I think radicals shouldn’t be involved in the day to day business of politics. I’m on the board of the Nation, which is not as radical asJacobin, but in our current political climate it’s to the left of the mainstream, let’s put it that way. A lot of our editorial board meetings are about: “Oh God, should we support Hillary? Should we support Obama?” and I say, “Hell no, that’s not even what we should be talking about! We should not be getting involved in Democratic Party internal battles. That’s not what our job is.”

Our job is to put out new ideas, different ideas, pressure people, and I don’t care fundamentally if Obama or Hillary gets the nomination in 2008. Sure I have an opinion about it but I don’t think that’s our job to worry about it. All of this maneuvering, “Oh, what do we do in this or that election.” We are not politicians. Politicians do it better.

In 1864 Lincoln absolutely outmaneuvered these guys, because they weren’t politicians. I mean they put up John C. Frémont. Who the hell is that? Lincoln controlled the machinery.

But there had to be a point at which people with abolitionist views decided that they were going to involve themselves in the process — even if it was the [1848–54] Free Soil Party, or something like that. There was a process of coalition-building in which people who didn’t like each other, who thought they were too radical, or not radical enough, worked together on a common project. It was anti-sectarian, or non-sectarian.

I agree with you. On the other hand, Douglass welcomed the Free Soil Party because its politicians were moving toward antislavery. He didnot welcome the [1840–44] Liberty Party — even though it was more radical than Free Soil — because that was abolitionists moving towards politics. He thought that was a deterioration of the abolitionist statement.

I’m giving you a rigid kind of view of what radicalism is, when what I actually believe is that people should be doing everything at the same time. There is no one correct way. If people want to work in the Democratic Party, let ’em. There are good people in the party, in some places, running.

I’m certainly happy de Blasio was elected here. De Blasio is not Thad Stevens but he’s certainly an improvement on what we’ve had. And I think that’s great. But I don’t think the role of radicals is to just jump on board and say de Blasio’s our man.

Maybe a good example is Thaddeus Stevens. He’s a party man, he’s a politician, but he’s certainly as much an abolitionist as anybody, and more of a racial egalitarian than a lot of people on the Left then.

Even than a lot of Underground Railroad types.

Absolutely. But Thaddeus Stevens is central in the political system. He doesn’t control the Congress, but he’s important. He’s almost like John Boehner today. He’s a key guy in the House of Representatives. So Stevens is another way of looking at it. He’s an abolitionist using a position of power in the political system.

But Stevens also knows how to compromise. He sees what you can get and he takes it. On the Fourteenth Amendment, Charles Sumner initially says he won’t accept it because it recognizes the power of the state to disenfranchise people — it punishes states in terms of numbers of their members in Congress if they don’t allow blacks to vote, but it still allows the possibility of doing it.

Stevens says, “Hey, this is a step toward what we want and we have to do it. It’s imperfect, but we’ve got to take it.”

Same thing with Frederick Douglass on the Emancipation Proclamation: “This is one step.”

One of my numerous differences with President Obama is that a few years ago he went to a college and he was chatting with some students, and he was complaining about liberals criticizing him, and he said, if these guys were around when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, they would have said it’s no good. And I said, wait a minute, the abolitionists didn’t say it was no good! They said it was great, but you’ve got to do more!

I guess why we’re so interested in this juncture between abolitionists and Republicans is just that we’re wondering about the process. You have a situation where Wendell Phillips is invited to the White House in 1862. Thinking about it, that’s like, what, the equivalent of Noam Chomsky being invited to the White House by Obama? That would never happen — it seems impossible for Obama even to say anything about the 99 percent.

I wrote my book about Lincoln, and I wouldn’t say it was written for Obama but I had hoped Obama would read it. Because it’s about exactly how a political figure and a social movement can somehow, not exactly coordinate with each other, but influence one another.

I would like to see Obama inviting the equivalent of Frederick Douglass today, whoever that is, to the White House and listening to him and talking to him about things, asking his advice about things. Lincoln didn’t care when these guys came in and criticized him, he was perfectly happy to learn something from them.

Obama isn’t like that. He’s very thin-skinned. He doesn’t like differences of opinion within his own party. I think that’s a serious flaw. I think for Jacobin — and I say this to the Nation — the number one thing is to put out a different worldview than the dominant one today.

I think the financial crisis has cracked open the old consensus. I read two newspapers in the morning, over breakfast, the New York Timesand the Financial Times. I don’t read them online, I get them delivered to my door, the old-fashioned way. The Financial Times is more radical than the New York Times! You read the Financial Timeson the fiscal crisis, the financial system, they’re up in arms that no banker has gone to jail, about the austerity program. The Financial Times tells you what’s actually happening, it’s amazing.

My point is that the consensus has cracked open, and therefore publications like Jacobin have to put forward an alternative point of view, and worldview, an alternative vision.

The problem is the abolitionists had a vision. It was a society without slavery and with equality for all. And that’s what they put out, but I don’t think they had any concept of what abolition would mean economically, what would be the implications for the country. Yes, they wanted the South to be like the North — more farms, little towns.

But the funny thing is, in New England the factory system was very powerful in the 1840s and the abolitionists didn’t look in their own backyard and say, “What about Irish laborers in the factories?” That’s why I say their vision was basically a moral one.

So let’s talk a little about the vision of the Republican Party. The early GOP brought together both ex-Whigs and ex-Democrats, but the majority had been lifelong Whigs. It was almost sort of an offshoot of the Whigs. The traditional view is that the Whigs were basically elitists. But in the context of the time wasn’t there something historically progressive about their kind of bourgeois liberalism?

You’re right. Of course the Whigs were very skeptical of democracy. In the 1830s, you have the Jacksonians who seem to represent a popular politics of democracy, and yet they’re anti-Indian, they’re racist. Then you have the Whigs who seem to be more forward-looking, but they’re capitalists.

But the guys who come to the fore are the ones who combine things. Lincoln and Seward are more small-d democratic Whigs who see that you can’t run in this country in the 1830s in favor of the elite and say, “Vote for me, I’m for the elite.” Although some Whigs tried. So you get these democratic Whigs who have this forward-looking economic view, but also have a mass politics, which many Whigs are not that comfortable with.

Lincoln’s got the economic progress, free-labor notion, but not the kind of elite finance capitalist thing. Going into Reconstruction, Thaddeus Stevens is actually into inflation, greenbacks. Guys like him have this vision of uplifting everybody through money and credit, low-interest rates. Every man his own capitalist, but without big capitalists out there.

Seward is a very interesting guy, because he tries to get the Whig party to appeal to immigrants. But the Whigs were very nativist, and that’s part of the reason he didn’t get the nomination in 1860. The Know-Nothings didn’t like Seward because when he was governor twenty years before he’d tried to get public money for Catholic schools.

What I meant by the question about the Whigs is that, the way I see it, the Democrats, in addition to their racism, represented a very agrarian, decentralized, yet small-d democratic vision that was opposed to improvement of society through collective means. That’s a very American thing in the sense that Europe, where the suffrage was restricted, really had no equivalent of the Democratic Party.

You’re right. Because in Europe the Industrial Revolution happened before democracy came in. People were excluded as a class and that encouraged class consciousness because people were excluded from the political system as a class. The labor struggle and the political struggle were interconnected with each other. That’s the point ofE. P. Thompson’s book on the English working class. That book is about politics as much as labor, it’s about the struggle for the vote for working-class people.

I think the fundamental thing is that in the US in the nineteenth century, the mainstream of radicalism is based on individual autonomy, equality, and small property. Whether it’s a homestead thing, or even the Knights of Labor later. That’s what the Socialist Party breaks with — the idea that small property will solve capitalism. They say you’ve got to find a more collective solution to this.

Eventually the free labor ideology dies out. But in the nineteenth century the free-labor ideology was the source of much of American radicalism, and there’s no point in going back and saying, “Hey, they shouldn’t have thought that, they should have been socialists.”

That’s the peculiarity of this 1850s moment, isn’t it? This free-labor vision develops that bequeaths industrial capitalism and laissez faire, but at the same time it’s inchoate, it’s undetermined, and labor struggles can come out of it too. And that’s how Lincoln in the 1850s could say nobody should remain a wage earner for life.

But there is no real connection between that and socialism, and indeed there were plenty of socialists then and later, who said, “This is retrograde, this idea of small property being the essence of freedom. It’s a barrier against a collective view of society.” To say that today, however, is unhistorical anyway, because socialism was not on the agenda in 1850.

One thing about free labor is that when it emerges in the fifties, conservative elites in the South had no hesitancy finding anticapitalism in antislavery. They talked about Red Republicans and Black Republicans. They thought the way the antislavery people fundamentally challenged property was dangerous, that it cracked the egg.

The abolitionists always insisted they were not attacking property. They were attacking property in man as an illegitimate thing. Of course, others picked this up, and radical laborites called themselves the new abolitionists later on. When Thaddeus Stevens was proposing confiscating land in the South, there were Northern Republicans who said, “Wait a minute! The Irish are going to start talking about confiscating factories.” Even then they said, slavery was different, it was not legitimate property.

Let’s put it this way: after the Civil War, the free-labor vision becomes the essence of a radical labor critique of the Industrial Revolution.

Yet it also becomes the seed of right-wing laissez-faire . . .

Yes, free labor cracks up on class lines. The labor movement in the twentieth century — it’s not just rhetoric when they said, “We’re the new abolitionists.” Because the free-labor ideal was now under assault.

What we should be talking about is maybe the old Socialist Party, before World War I, Debsian socialism. Because what they had, which the abolitionists didn’t quite have, was an umbrella under which all sorts of groups could find a common ground, whether it’s birth control advocates, labor activists, anti-monopolists, and socialists, people like Debs who had a vision of socialism.

The idea of socialism they had was kind of a vague one, and of course the great historical fallacy is to view it back through the lens of World War I and the Russian Revolution. But before that, this was a large umbrella radical movement, with all sorts of people with very specific aims who could get together.

Today one of our problems is we have a lot of movements going on and they’re sympathetic to one another but they don’t seem to connect with one another. Whether it’s antiracist movements, gay movements, environmentalist — they all seem kind of fragmented. Whereas the Socialist Party, they all came together. You had Emma Goldman in there, you had Debs, you had municipal reformers, Jane Addams, progressives — it was part of the political dynamic of the country.

Even though in 1912 Debs got his million votes — 6 percent, that’s not a hell of a lot — but we’d take it now. But I think that’s a different model than the abolitionist model.

Maybe part of the reason they were able to have this unity with all these different causes was that it was a socialist party, which meant that even though their ideas were vague, what gave form to them was this idea of a different kind of society. People could invest their hopes in that.

Whereas today, with all the various struggles, we don’t have that, there’s no clear alternative.

Well, maybe we need a new word. Socialism unfortunately has gotten a bad name in this country.

It’s pretty popular with our generation, if you believe polls.

Good! If people are willing to talk about socialism, I think that’s gre

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La Universidad de Columbia acaba de dar acceso gratuito a los cursos “online” (MOOC) del historiador norteamericano Eric Foner. Autor de obras imprescindibles como Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877  (1988) y The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2011), Foner es uno de los grandes analistas de la guerra civil norteamericana y del periodo de la Reconstrucción.

Columbia University Releases Eric Foner’s Civil War MOOCs. It’s Free! 

HNN  September 17, 2014

Free history courses to reach educators and students worldwide, expanding Columbia’s online teaching initiatives

NEW YORK, New York, September 11, 2014 — Columbia University’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) today announced the release of three new online courses on edX: The Civil War and Reconstruction. Eric Foner, Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian and Columbia University’s DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, teaches this three-part massive open online course (MOOC). On Wednesday, September 17, the first course launches – the series is free and accessible to anyone anywhere with an Internet connection, including K-12 educators and students.

The new history series, the first humanities course offering by Columbia on edX, is an open learning experience spread out over weeks of stimulating lectures, interactive assignments, and community discussions. The entire series is 27 weeks long and challenges students to examine the politics of history and investigate themes that are still very present in our national dialogue – the balance of power between local and national authority, the boundaries of citizenship, and the meaning of freedom and equality.

“We are delighted that Eric Foner is kicking off Columbia’s involvement with the edX platform,” said Columbia University Provost John H. Coatsworth. “His course series on the Civil War will highlight one of our finest teachers while providing students around the world with a window on to the outstanding humanities instruction for which Columbia is known.”

The three online courses are:

1. A House Divided: The Road to Civil War, 1850-1861 – 10 weeks, beginning September 17

2. A New Birth of Freedom: The Civil War, 1861-1865 – 8 weeks, beginning December 1

3. The Unfinished Revolution: Reconstruction and After, 1865-1890 – 9 weeks, beginning February 25

The series trailer is online here:

“Recent events have underscored the fact that our society is still grappling with the long-term legacies of slavery and the failure of Reconstruction, so this history is especially pertinent today” said Professor Foner.

“If you want to know where the world you’re living in came from,” Foner tells us in the trailer, “you need to know about the Civil War era.”

“The Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning is thrilled to see Eric Foner‘s work published this way,” said CCNMTL director Maurice Matiz. “Besides having a great interest in getting those connected to Columbia during Foner’s long career —our alumni— access to the course, we are also hoping that the course will have broad appeal given the public interest in this key period of our history.”

“We are honored to work with Eric Foner on his first MOOC, “The Civil War and Reconstruction,” and to help history-lovers everywhere connect with this prominent historian to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of our shared past and society today,” said Anant Agarwal, edX CEO and professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.

This MOOC series is also registered as an XSeries on edX, giving learners the opportunity to sign up and receive a verified certificate of achievement that authenticates their successful completion of each course.

Visit ColumbiaX here.

In addition, the lecture videos from the entire course will be published on CCNMTL’s YouTube channel.

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Foner - ReconstructionEn su reunión anual celebrada en San Francisco a mediados de abril de 2013, la Organization of American Historians (OAH) rindió un merecido homenaje al historiador Eric Foner (Columbia University) por los veinticinco años de la publicación de su clásico libro Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Publicado en 1998 por Harper & Row, la obra de Foner  es uno de los libros imprescindibles para entender el periodo posterior a la guerra civil norteamericana.

El fin del conflicto Norte-Sur dio paso  a un problema: ¿qué hacer con los  estados sureños derrotados ? Abraham Lincoln favorecía una política generosa que permitiera la reintegración rápida de los sureños a la Unión norteamericana. Lamentablemente para éstos, Lincoln fue asesinado en 1865, lo que llevó a un intenso debate entre su sucesor, Andrew Johnson, y el Congreso federal.  Johnson creía necesario que los estados sureños fueron reincorporados a la nación norteamericana rápidamente. En el Congreso había un grupo de senadores y representantes conocidos como los radicales,  liderados por Thaddeus Stevens, que creían necesario aprovechar la derrota del Sur para reconstruir o rehacer esa región. Las diferencias entre el presidente y el Congreso desembocaron en un  conflicto directo que resultó en una victoria de los congresistas radicales. De ahí que se identifique el periodo posterior a la guerra civil como la era de la Reconstrucción.

Para celebrar los 25 años de Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, la OAH organizó una mesa  compuesta por Foner, Kate Masur (Northwestern University), Heather Andrea Williams (Univeristy of North Carolina- Chapel Hill), Gregory P. Downs (CUNY), Thavolia Glymph (Duke University) y Steve Hahn (UPenn University). Estos colegas desarrollaron un interesante y valioso intercambio sobre la importancia de la obra de Foner en el desarrollo de la historiografía norteamericana.

Comparto con mis lectores un video de esta mesa que fue preparado por The History News Network (HNN).

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