Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction

Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction

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by Eric Foner, Joshua Brown

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From one of our most distinguished historians comes a groundbreaking new examination of the myths and realities of the period after the Civil War.

Drawing on a wide range of long-neglected documents, Eric Foner places a new emphasis on black experiences and roles during the era. We see African Americans as active agents in overthrowing slavery, in shaping


From one of our most distinguished historians comes a groundbreaking new examination of the myths and realities of the period after the Civil War.

Drawing on a wide range of long-neglected documents, Eric Foner places a new emphasis on black experiences and roles during the era. We see African Americans as active agents in overthrowing slavery, in shaping Reconstruction, and creating a legacy long obscured and misunderstood. He compellingly refutes long-standing misconceptions of Reconstruction, and shows how the failures of the time sowed the seeds of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s. Richly illustrated and movingly written, this is an illuminating and essential addition to our understanding of this momentous era.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A highly readable story of black Americans’ ongoing heroic struggle for freedom . . . Beautifully told.” –The Washington Post Book World“Passionate, lucid, concise without being light. . . . Foner traces the lines of race and politics that run from Reconstruction to the age of segregation to the civil rights movement to our own time.” –The New York Times Book Review“Foner delves deeply into the politics of the time, to be sure, but he spends much more time showing how political decisions affected real people. . . . This book has the potential to become a model for future history books that target a broader audience.” –The Washington Monthly“African Americans emerge as political powerful actors in Forever Free. In [these] vivid pages . . . we become acquainted with these extraordinary people, some well-known, some virtually unknown.” –The New Republic
James Goodman
Forever Free is a good book: passionate, lucid, concise without being light. But will it be a match for ignorance? The old history took hold when Northerners concluded that the freedmen and women were as hopeless as white Southerners said they were; their fate was best left in white Southern hands. Through decades of lynching, segregation, disfranchisement, debt peonage, heightened prejudice and abject poverty, history justified inaction by demonstrating that federal interference only made race matters worse.
— The New York Times
Heather Cox Richardson
The story recounted in Forever Free is heroic and beautifully told, but ultimately it is too simple for today's America. Foner offers a tutorial in racism and seeks to illuminate current debates over affirmative action and reparations by suggesting that racial equality cannot be realized until entrenched white racism is addressed. But the events of the Reconstruction period illuminate a larger national struggle over who should have a say in government when voting determines how tax dollars are spent. That 19th-century demands for tax reform blossomed into festive 20th-century gatherings where black people were lynched seems a perilous lesson for today's Americans to ignore.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Probably no period in American history is as controversial, as distorted by myth and as "essentially unknown" as the era of emancipation and Reconstruction, award-winning historian Foner (The Story of American Freedom; Reconstruction; etc.) argues in this dense, rectifying but highly readable account. His analysis of "that turbulent era, its successes and failures, and its long-term consequences up until this very day" addresses the debates among historians, corrects the misrepresentations and separates myth from fact with persuasive data. Foner opens his work with an overview of slavery and the Civil War and concludes with a consideration of the Civil Rights movement and the continuing impact of Reconstruction upon the current political scene, a framework that adds to the clarity of his history of that era, its aftermath and its legacy. Joshua Brown's six interspersed "visual essays," with his fresh commentary on images from slavery through Reconstruction to Jim Crow, buttress Foner's text and contribute to its accessibility. In his mission to illuminate Reconstruction's critical repercussions for contemporary American culture, Foner balances his passion for racial equality and social justice with disciplined scholarship. His book is a valuable, fluid introduction to a complex period. 139 illus. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT - Raymond Puffer
Probably the longest-running battle over the Civil War is the simple question, what caused it? Mostly, in years past, historians have blamed factors such as economic competition and states' rights; slavery, most held, was too simplistic a cause. And yet a volume such as Forever Free forcibly reminds us that if slavery, as such, didn't actually cause the great conflict, the Civil War most certainly was about slavery. Professor Eric Foner, a distinguished academic historian, has produced a useful and readable one-volume treatment of the experience of African Americans from slavery, through Emancipation in the Civil War, and beyond into the frustrations of Reconstruction. Realizing that this is a lot to ask of a single book, Foner wisely devotes most of his space to the ins and outs of the Reconstruction Era. Most students are aware, for example, that the promise of "40 acres and a mule" tragically was not kept, but the author carefully explains how alternate plans might have worked if implemented fairly. Throughout, numerous carefully selected photographs, engravings, and political cartoons chosen and edited by Joshua Brown, serve to enliven the sometimes-pedantic text, and bring a vivid sense of reality to the narrative. The author is too wise to get bogged down in academic detail, and for the most part his writing style is clear and straightforward. Best of all, he keeps his focus firmly on the African Americans themselves, their hopes and their experiences. Secondary teachers will find many uses for this title.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This is a more accessible, though equally distinguished, treatment of the material covered in Foner's Reconstruction (HarperCollins, 1989). It draws on his earlier work and also on more recent scholarship to present a particularly complex time in American history and to correct common misconceptions about the period (1865-1877). Especially significant is the clear explanation of how the historical record refutes negative stereotypes of ex-slaves widely disseminated after the Civil War. Racist images of these newly enfranchised citizens as inferior, passive individuals easily manipulated by white anti-Southerners were accepted by many historians well into the 20th century, and the distortions were supported in the wider culture by popular entertainment, novels, and films, e.g., Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. This book shows that African Americans took active roles in fighting for freedom and leading postwar attempts to establish political and social equality. Six absorbing "Visual Essays," edited with commentary by Brown, use archival illustrations and photos to examine how graphic arts influenced public attitudes toward African Americans during and after Reconstruction. An epilogue, "The Unfinished Revolution," links the main themes to issues still challenging the U.S. at the beginning of the 21st century, raising questions virtually assured to prompt classroom discussion.-Starr E. Smith, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Reprinted Edition
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Read an Excerpt

On the evening of January 12, 1865, twenty leaders of the local black community gathered in Savannah, Georgia, for a discussion with General William T. Sherman and Edwin M. Stanton, the Union’s secretary of war. The encounter took place at a pivotal moment in American history. Less than three weeks earlier, Sherman, at the head of a sixty-thousand-man Union army, had captured the city, completing his March to the Sea, which cut a swath of destruction through one of the most productive regions of the slave South. On the horizon loomed the final collapse of the Confederacy, the irrevocable destruction of slavery, and the turbulent postwar era known as Reconstruction. Americans, black and white, would now have to come to terms with the war’s legacy, and decide whether they would build an interracial democracy on the ashes of the Old South.

One of the most remarkable interchanges of those momentous years, the “Colloquy” between Sherman, Stanton, and the black leaders offered a rare lens through which the experience of slavery and the aspirations that would help to shape Reconstruction came into sharp focus. The meeting, which took place in the house where Sherman had established his headquarters in Savannah, was the brainchild of Secretary Stanton, who, the general later recalled, “seemed desirous of coming into contact with the negroes to confer with them.” It was Sherman who invited “the most intelligent of the negroes” of the city to the gathering. The immediate purpose was to assist Union authorities in devising a plan to deal with the tens of thousands of slaves who had abandoned Georgia and South Carolina plantations and followed his army to the city. But in its deeper significance, the discussion, conducted in a dignified, almost solemn manner, revealed how the experience of bondage had shaped African Americans’ ideas and hopes at the moment of emancipation.

The group that met with Sherman and Stanton, mostly Baptist and Methodist ministers, included several men who had already achieved prominence among Savannah’s African American population and who would shortly assume positions of leadership in Reconstruction. Ulysses L. Houston, who had worked as a house servant and butcher while in slavery, had since 1861 been pastor of the city’s Third African Baptist Church. He would go on to take part in the statewide black convention of 1866, where representatives of the freedpeople demanded the right to vote and equality before the law, and to serve in the state legislature. James Porter, an Episcopal vestryman, before the war operated a clandestine and illegal school for black children, who “kept their secret with their studies; at home.” He would soon help to organize the Georgia Equal Rights Association, and, like Houston, become one of the era’s black lawmakers. James D. Lynch would rise to prominence in Mississippi’s Reconstruction, serving as secretary of state and winning a reputation, in the words of a white contemporary, as “a great orator, fluid and graceful,” who “stirred the emotions” of his black listeners “as no other man could do.” Most of the other Colloquy participants would play major roles in the consolidation of independent black churches, one of the signal developments of the postwar years.

If the Colloquy looked forward to the era of Reconstruction, it also shed light backward onto slavery. Taking place, as it were, at the dawn of freedom, it underscored both the diversity of the black experience under slavery and the common culture—the institutions, values, and aspirations—that African Americans had managed to construct before the Civil War in the face of the extraordinary repression and dislocations visited by slavery.

The group that met with Sherman was hardly typical of all blacks. Only 5 percent of the nation’s black population was free in 1860, but five of the twenty men who met with Sherman were freeborn, and of the remainder, no fewer than six had obtained their liberty before the war, either by self-purchase or through the will of a deceased owner. Although the law forbade teaching slaves to read and write, several at the Colloquy were literate. Houston had been taught to read by white sailors while working in the city’s Marine Hospital. Lynch, the only participant in the Colloquy to live in the North before the war, had been educated at Kimball Union Academy, in New Hampshire, taught school in Jamaica, New York, and preached for the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Indiana prior to 1860. These were men of talent, ambition, and standing, fully prepared for the challenges of freedom.

The conversation with Sherman and Stanton revealed that the black leaders possessed clear conceptions of slavery and freedom. The group chose at its spokesman Garrison Frazier, a Baptist minister who had purchased the liberty of his wife and himself in 1856. Asked what he understood by slavery, Frazier responded that it meant one person’s “receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent.” Freedom he defined as “placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, and take care of ourselves”; the best way to accomplish this was “to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor.” Frazier also affirmed (despite pro-slavery dogma to the contrary) that blacks, free and slave, possessed “sufficient intelligence” to maintain themselves in freedom and to enjoy the equal protection of the laws. Here were the goals—the right to the fruits of one’s labor, access to land, equal rights as citizens—that would animate black politics during and after Reconstruction.

Despite Frazier’s optimism about blacks’ capacity to take full advantage of emancipation, slavery cast a long shadow over the discussion. Asked whether blacks preferred to live in communities of their own or “scattered among the whites,” he replied: “I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over.” (On this point alone, disagreement followed, for Lynch insisted it would be best for the races to live together; all the others, however, agreed with Frazier.) At the same time, Frazier affirmed the loyalty of African Americans, free and slave, to the federal government. “If the prayers that have gone up for the Union army could be read out,” he added, “you would not get through them these two weeks.” As for Sherman himself, Frazier remarked that blacks viewed him as a man “specially set apart by God” to “accomplish this work” of emancipation.

By the time of the Savannah Colloquy, slavery was an old institution in America. Two and a half centuries had passed since the first African Americans set foot in Britain’s mainland colonies. Before the American Revolution, slavery existed in all the colonies, and in Spanish Florida and French Louisiana, areas subsequently absorbed into the United States. Slavery is as old as human civilization itself. It was central to the societies of ancient Greece and Rome. After dying out in northern Europe after the collapse of the Roman empire, it persisted in the Mediterranean world, where a slave trade in Slavic peoples survived into the fifteenth century. (The English word slavery derives from Slav.) Slavery in Africa long predated the coming of Europeans and the opening of the mammoth transatlantic slave trade in the sixteenth century.

The slave system that arose in the western hemisphere differed in significant ways from others that preceded it. Traditionally, Africans enslaved on their own continent tended to be criminals, debtors, and captives in war. They worked within the households of their owners and had well-defined rights, such as possessing property and marrying free persons. It was not uncommon for slaves in Africa to acquire their freedom. Slavery was one of several forms of labor, not the basis of the overall economy as it would become in large parts of the New World. In the western hemisphere, by contrast, slavery centered on the plantation system, in which large concentrations of slave laborers under the control of a single owner produced goods—sugar, tobacco, rice, and cotton—for the world market. The fact that slaves greatly outnumbered whites in plantation regions magnified the prospects for resistance and made it necessary to police the system rigidly. Labor on slave plantations was far more demanding than in household slavery, and the death rate among slaves much higher. And New World slavery was a racial system. Unlike in the ancient world or Africa, slaves who managed to become free remained distinct because of their color, a mark of bondage and a visible sign of being considered unworthy of incorporation as equals into free society.

Slavery proved indispensable to the settlement and development of the New World. Of the approximately 12.5 million persons who crossed the Atlantic to live in the western hemisphere between 1500 and 1820, perhaps 10 million were African slaves. The Atlantic slave trade, which flourished from 1500 into the nineteenth century, was a regularized business in which European merchants, African traders, and American planters engaged in a complex and profitable bargaining over human lives. Most Africans were shipped in inhuman conditions. “The height, sometimes, between decks,” wrote one slave trader, “was only 18 inches, so that the unfortunate human beings could not turn around, or even on their sides . . . and here they are usually chained to the decks by their necks and legs.” Olaudah Equiano, the eleven-year-old son of a West African village chief, kidnapped by slave traders in the 1750s, later wrote a widely read account of his experiences, in which he described “the shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying” on the ship that carried him to slavery in Barbados. Disease spread rapidly on slave ships; sometimes the ill were thrown overboard to prevent epidemics. The colonies that became the United States attracted a higher percentage of free immigrants than other parts of the New World. Even here, however, of some 800,000 arrivals between 1607 and 1770, more than 300,000 were slaves.

The first mass consumer goods in international trade were produced by slaves—sugar, rice, coffee, and tobacco. The rising demand for these products fueled the rapid growth of the Atlantic slave trade. The profits from slavery stimulated the rise of British ports such as Liverpool and Bristol, and the growth of banking, shipbuilding, and insurance, and helped to finance the early industrial revolution. The centrality of slavery to the economy of the British empire encouraged an ever-closer identification of freedom with whites and slavery with blacks. This is not to say that all whites enjoyed equality. Many gradations of freedom coexisted in colonial America. The majority of English settlers who crossed the Atlantic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries came as indentured servants who agreed to labor for a period of years in exchange for passage. Even after their term of labor ended, many remained poor, landless, and unable to meet the property qualifications for voting.

Slavery and ideas about innate racial difference developed slowly in seventeenth-century America. Some early black arrivals were apparently treated as servants rather than slaves, and gained their freedom after a fixed term of labor. Not until the 1660s did the laws of Virginia and Maryland explicitly refer to slavery. As tobacco planting spread and the demand

for labor increased, however, the condition of black and white servants diverged sharply. “Race”—the idea that humanity is divided into well-defined groups associated with skin color—is a modern concept that had not fully developed in the seventeenth century. Nor had “racism”—an ideology based on the belief that some races are inherently superior to others and entitled to rule over them. But as slavery became more and more central to the colonial economy, views of race hardened. In 1762, the Quaker abolitionist John Woolman commented on the strength of “the idea of slavery being connected with the black color, and liberty with the white.”

By the mid-eighteenth century, slaves accounted for nearly half of Virginia’s population. Virginia had changed from a “society with slaves,” in which slavery was one system of labor among others, to a “slave society,” where the institution stood at the center of the economic process. Slavery formed the basis of the economy, and the foundation of a powerful local ruling class, in the entire region from Maryland south to Georgia.

Slavery also existed in the middle and northern colonies, although there, slaves generally worked on small farms or in their owners’ homes or shops rather than on large plantations. Nonetheless, in 1746, New York City’s 2,440 slaves comprised one-fifth of its total population. Among cities on the North American continent, only Charleston and New Orleans counted more slaves than New York. As immigration from Europe increased, the proportion of slaves in the workforce outside the southern colonies declined. But areas where slavery was only a minor institution still profited from slave labor. Merchants in New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island participated actively in the slave trade, shipping slaves from Africa to the Caribbean or the South. Much of the grain, fish, and livestock exported from Pennsylvania and other northern colonies was destined for the slave plantations of the West Indies.

The colonial era witnessed the simultaneous expansion of freedom and slavery in Britain’s Atlantic empire. These were the years when the idea of the “freeborn Englishman” became powerfully entrenched in the outlook of both colonists and Britons. Yet the eighteenth century was also the great era of the Atlantic slave trade, a commerce increasingly dominated by British merchants and ships. During that century more than half the Africans shipped to the New World as slaves were carried on British vessels.

The American Revolution threw the future of slavery into doubt. When Thomas Jefferson in 1776 proclaimed mankind’s inalienable right to liberty, and he and other leaders of the new nation spoke of the United States as an asylum of freedom for the oppressed peoples of the world, one American in five was a black slave (including more than one hundred owned by Jefferson himself). The same colonial newspapers that carried arguments against British policies and accounts of resistance to British tyranny also printed advertisements for the sale of slaves. The Revolution did, however, make slavery for the first time a matter of widespread public debate. It inspired charges of hypocrisy, not only from British opponents of independence but also within America. How strong, wondered Abigail Adams, could the “passion for liberty” be among those “accustomed to deprive their fellow citizens of theirs”? But the Revolution also inspired hopes that the institution of slavery could be eliminated from American life.

The language of liberty echoed in slave communities, North and South. The first concrete steps toward emancipation in the North were “freedom petitions”—arguments for emancipation presented to New England’s courts by slaves who claimed the rhetoric of liberty for themselves. In 1776, Lemuel Haynes, a black minister who served in the Massachusetts militia during the War of Independence, penned an antislavery essay. If liberty were truly “an innate principle” for all mankind,” Haynes wrote, “even an African [had] as equally good a right to his liberty in common with Englishmen.” The British offered freedom to slaves who joined the royal cause, and nearly one hundred thousand deserted their owners; twenty thousand of them accompanied the British out of the country at the end of the war—to Europe, Canada, Africa, and, in some cases, reenslavement in the West Indies. Perhaps five thousand escaped bondage by enlisting in the Revolutionary army or local American militias.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“A highly readable story of black Americans’ ongoing heroic struggle for freedom . . . Beautifully told.” –The Washington Post Book World“Passionate, lucid, concise without being light. . . . Foner traces the lines of race and politics that run from Reconstruction to the age of segregation to the civil rights movement to our own time.” –The New York Times Book Review“Foner delves deeply into the politics of the time, to be sure, but he spends much more time showing how political decisions affected real people. . . . This book has the potential to become a model for future history books that target a broader audience.” –The Washington Monthly“African Americans emerge as political powerful actors in Forever Free. In [these] vivid pages . . . we become acquainted with these extraordinary people, some well-known, some virtually unknown.” –The New Republic

Meet the Author

Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. His special area of study has been the Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery, and 19th-century America. Among his dozen books is Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, widely considered to be the definitive work on Reconstruction, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for History, the Bancroft Prize, and the Parkman Prize, among other honors. He served as president of the American Historical Association in 2000 and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1989. He reviews books frequently for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

Joshua Brown is executive director of the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is the author of Beyond the Lies, a book on gilded-age America, and co-author of the interactive CD-ROMS and groundbreaking textbook (1990, 2000) Who Built America? He is also the coexecutive producer of the noted Web projects "History Matters" and "The September 11 Digital Archive."

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Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
nbmars More than 1 year ago
Eric Foner begins this excellent short elaboration of his earlier book (Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877) with the observation that, in spite of the biblical proportions of the transformation of four million slaves from bondage to citizenship, "this critical moment in our nation's history has failed to establish itself in the national memory, at least with any accuracy or full depth of understanding." Because of this omission, he charges, problems with race remain that have never been fully addressed. Foner charges that the legacy of the Civil War developed into "a fascination with the valor of combat," a war of "noble tragedy pitting brother against brother." Black Americans are relegated to a minor role. This characterization dominates the history, memorialization and discussion of the Civil War and post-Civil War period. Largely obliterated is the service of some 200,000 African Americans in the Union army and navy; the vast exodus of southern slaves to northern lines as the Union came through; the excitement over freedom by African Americans; their desire to work, own land, engage in civic activities, vote, and above all, to get educated; and the violent suppression of those aspirations. "Jim Crow" laws taking rights away from blacks were enacted in one state of the South after another. The Klan was given free reign to exercise police powers over blacks without fear of reprisal. Schools and other public services for blacks were defunded. History textbooks used in southern schools were designed to teach white superiority and black backwardness, so that children imbibed these ideas from the earliest age. These practices helped structure the commemorative patterns that came to inform the dominant narratives of our history, and which thus kept alive the negative stereotypes of Reconstruction. Foner bemoans the fact that "At the dawn of the twenty-first century, what is remarkable is both how much America's racial situation has changed, and how much it remains the same." He implores us to reexamine Reconstruction and its effects, to help challenge the dominant narratives that successfully keep traditionally oppressed groups from receiving equal opportunity. He asks us to cease effacing the stories of black achievement during Reconstruction, and to recognize the ideological components of memory. Only then can we make good on the promises that were made to blacks so long ago that they too could be part of the American dream.