Read an Excerpt
Who Owns History?
THE POLITICS OF HISTORY AND HISTORIANS
MY LIFE AS A HISTORIAN
In 1996, the department of history at Fordham University invited a group of American historians whose work had focused on the history of race in the United States to speak about the influences that had shaped our choices of career and subject matter.
Historians, by and large, are not noted for introspection. Our calling requires us to analyze past events, but we rarely turn our interpretive talents upon ourselves. I welcome the opportunity to reflect publicly about how and why I became a historian, how my approach to the study of history has changed over time, and how the concerns of the present have helped to shape the questions I ask about the past.
Born in New York City in 1943, I was raised in Long Beach, Long Island, to all outward appearances a typical child of America's postwar suburban boom. In one respect, however,my upbringing was unusual, although emblematic nonetheless of one aspect of the American experience. Shortly before I was born, my father, Jack D. Foner, and uncle, Philip S. Foner, both historians at City College in New York, were among some sixty faculty members dismissed from teaching positions at the City University after informers named them as members of the Communist party at hearings of the state legislature's notorious Rapp-Coudert Committee, a precursor of McCarthyism. A few years later, my mother was forced to resign from her job as a high school art teacher. During my childhood and for many years afterward, my parents were blacklisted and unable to teach. Unlike most of my generation, I did not have to wait until the upheavals of the 1960s to discover the yawning gap that separated America's professed ideals and its self-confident claim to be a land of liberty from its social and political reality. My friend Gabor S. Boritt, who grew up in communist Hungary and now directs the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, once remarked to me, "I was raised in a country where we understood that most of what the government says is untrue." "That's funny," I replied, "I grew up in the same country."
Given the profession of my father and uncle, it seems in retrospect inevitable that I would become a historian. But, as I frequently tell my students, events are inevitable only after they happen. As a youth I wanted to be an astronomer, and my first published book was entitled The Solar System. To be sure, "published" is a bit of an exaggeration. The book, with one chapter on each planet, was dictated by me, typed by my mother, and illustrated by a family friend. It was not based on archival research. But I was only seven years old at the time.
My greatest joy as a youth was gazing through a telescope on spring nights, and my idea of athletic prowess was servingon the Long Beach High School math team (we finished second in Long Island one year). But I also imbibed a lively interest in both history and current events. Historical and political concerns suffused our household. Every child thinks his upbringing is entirely normal. Only gradually did I realize that other families did not discuss the intricacies of international relations and domestic politics over the dinner table, or follow election returns in France, India, and Guatemala as avidly as those in the United States.
What was truly distinctive about my family's view of both American history and the world around us, however, was our preoccupation with the past and present condition of our black fellow countrymen. As suburbs go, Long Beach was a liberal community, whose predominantly Jewish residents regularly voted Democratic. But on issues relating to race, the prevailing sentiment was indifference. Our idyllic town had its own small ghetto, home to black domestic servants, but no one except my parents and a few like-minded friends seemed aware of its existence, or wondered why housing there was so inferior to that enjoyed by whites. In school, we did commemorate Negro History Week, mostly with lessons about George Washington Carver and his amazing feats with peanuts. But our history texts were typical of the time: slavery, they taught, was a regrettable but not particularly oppressive institution, Reconstruction a terrible mistake, and blacks played no discernible role whatever in the rest of American history. I well recall my mother (to my embarrassment) striding into school to complain about the illustrations of happy slaves playing banjos in our primary school history text. The principal could not understand her unhappiness. "What difference does it make," he asked, "what we teach them about slavery?"
In my home, however, it made a great deal of difference. As the work of Mark Naison and other scholars has shown, in the 1930s the Communist party was the only predominantly white organization to make fighting racism central to its political program. Communist-oriented historians like Herbert Aptheker and my uncle Philip Foner, along with black scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois, had begun the process of challenging prevailing stereotypes about black history. At home, I learned ideas that today are taken for granted but then were virtually unknown outside black and left-wing circles: slavery was the fundamental cause of the Civil War and emancipation its greatest accomplishment; Reconstruction was a tragedy not because it was attempted but because it failed; and the condition of blacks was the nation's foremost domestic problem. Du Bois and Paul Robeson were friends of my family, Frederick Douglass (whom my uncle had rescued from historical oblivion by publishing a four-volume collection of his magnificent writings and speeches) a household name. In my home, we followed with a growing sense of excitement the unfolding of the civil rights movement, and it was assumed that my younger brother and I would participate in it. Tom went on to take part in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. I attended not only the March on Washington of 1963 but also the less well-known march of 1957, and in 1960 I spent a great deal of time picketing Woolworth stores in New York in support of the Southern sit-ins. By then, I was a freshman at Columbia College, where during my undergraduate years I became the first president of ACTION, a student political party that, along with sponsoring folk music concerts, issued newsletters on civil rights and persuaded the off-campus housing registry to drop listings from landlords who would not sign a nondiscrimination pledge.
I entered Columbia fully intending to major in astronomy. By the end of my sophomore year, my interestor perhaps my talentin science had waned considerably. Then, in my junior year, I somehow persuaded James P. Shenton to allow me to enroll in his senior seminar on the Civil War period. By the end of the year, I was not only a history major but had developed what has become a lifelong passion for that era.
Looking back over my career, I realize that I learned from two great teachers what it is to be a historian. The first was my father. Deprived of his livelihood while I was growing up, he supported our family as a freelance lecturer on history and current affairs. Listening to his lectures, I came to appreciate how present concerns can be illuminated by the study of the pasthow the repression of the McCarthy era recalled the days of the Alien and Sedition Acts, how the civil rights movement needed to be viewed in light of the great struggles of black and white abolitionists, and how in the brutal suppression of the Philippine insurrection at the turn of the century could be found the antecedents of American intervention in Iran, Guatemala, and Vietnam. I also imbibed a way of thinking about the past in which visionaries and underdogsTom Paine, Wendell Phillips, Eugene V. Debs, and W.E.B. Du Boiswere as central to the historical drama as presidents and captains of industry, and how a commitment to social justice could infuse one's attitudes toward the past. The second great teacher was Jim Shenton, legendary at Columbia for his dramatic lecturing style and the personal interest he took in his studentsdown to introducing us to the city's culinary attractions. From Shenton, I learned that successful teaching rests both on a genuine and selfless concern for students and on the ability to convey to them a love of history.
My seminar paper that year was a study of the Free Soil party of 1848, a justifiably obscure topic that led to my first excursion into archival research, in my senior thesis, supervised by Richard Hofstadter. The fact that the civil rights movement was then reaching its crescendo powerfully affected my choice of subject: the racial attitudes of those who opposed the expansion of slavery. Just two years earlier, Leon Litwack had stunned the historical profession with his demonstration, in North of Slavery, that racism was every bit as pervasive in the antebellum North as in the slave South. My research built on his insight, to demonstrate that many Free Soilers opposed the expansion of slavery in order to keep blacks, free or slave, from competing with "free white labor."
My senior thesis became the basis of my first two published articles, which appeared in 1965. More importantly, it introduced me to Hofstadter, the premier historian of his generation, who would soon be supervising my dissertation. One day Hofstadter related to me how he had obtained his first full-time teaching position when a job opened in 1941 at the downtown branch of City College because of the dismissal of a victim of the Rapp-Coudert Committee. Students initially boycotted Hofstadter's lectures as a show of support for his purged predecessor, but eventually they returned to the classroom. Ironically, Hofstadter's first job resulted from the flourishing of the kind of political paranoia that he would later lament in his historical writings. Even more ironically, the victim of political blacklisting whom Hofstadter replaced was my father.
Whatever thoughts he harbored about this twist of fate, Hofstadter played brilliantly the role of intellectual mentor so crucial to any student's career. His books directed me toward the subjects that have defined much of my own writingthehistory of political ideologies and the interconnections between social development and political culture. Years later I learned that it was thanks to Hofstadter that on graduating from college, I was awarded a Kellett Fellowship to study at Oriel College, Oxford. The tutorial system, in which the student prepares a paper each week and reads it aloud to the tutor, gave me invaluable training in quick, clear expository writing. Each week I was forced to master a subject about which I previously knew nothingthe reasons for the decline of the medieval wool trade, for exampleand to present my ideas in a coherent fashion. I probably owe it to my years at Oxford that writer's block has never been one of my problems. At the end of my stay, I decided to return to Columbia to pursue a doctorate in American history. My decision was not greeted with universal enthusiasm. When I told my tutor, W.A. Pantin, a specialist on the English church in the fourteenth century, that I wanted to devote my career to the American past, he replied: "In other words, you have ceased to study history."
I returned to Columbia in 1965. While I was away, the sixties had happened. Students now wore long hair and colorful attire and spent much of their time imbibing substances of questionable legality. Vietnam had replaced race as the predominant issue on campus; it would soon become the catalyst for a full-fledged generational rebellion. Like so many others, I threw myself into the antiwar movement, but intellectually I remained preoccupied with issues surrounding slavery and race, a preoccupation that deepened as America's cities burned between 1965 and 1968, the civil rights movement evaporated, and it became clear that racism was far more deeply entrenched in American life than we had imagined a few short years before.
Somehow, while participating in events from antiwar marches to the Columbia student rebellion of 1968, I managed to write my dissertation, which became the basis of my first book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. A study of the ideology of the Republican party before the Civil War, the dissertation grew out of my old interest in free soilism. Among my aims was to outline Republicans' complex attitudes toward blacks, but I was deeply impressed by a comment by Winthrop Jordan at a conference I attended in 1966: "To understand people's attitudes about race, you have to understand their attitudes about everything" Jordan's remark helped me conceptualize my theme as a study of ideologythe coherent worldview that brought together reinforcing attitudes about labor, economic growth, westward expansion, and race relations, and which inspired Republicans to oppose slavery's expansion and the growth of Southern political power. Published in 1970, my book became part of a trend whereby American historians rediscovered the value of the concept of ideology. Events of the time strongly influenced this development. In a society engulfed by social crisis, it no longer seemed plausible to argue, with 1950s "consensus" historians, that Americans had never disagreed profoundly over social and political issues.
To one looking back from the vantage point of thirty years, Free Soil seems a curiously old-fashioned book. Written, as it were, on the threshold separating two generations of historical scholarship, it lacked the benefit of the "new histories" that have matured since its publication in 1970 and that have focused historians' attention on the experiences of ordinary men and women rather than political leaders. History education at Columbia in those days resolutely favored the political and intellectual. But when I returned to England for the1972-73 academic year to pursue work for my next project, a history of American radicalism, I encountered the new social and labor history. My historical writing would never be the same. Today, when we take for granted that history must include the experience of previously neglected groupsblacks, women, laborers, and othersit is difficult to recapture the sense of intellectual excitement produced by the works of E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and other British practitioners of "history from below." Thanks to what came to be called the "new social history," which they inspired, we today have a far more complex and nuanced portrait of the American past, in all its diversity and contentiousness.
Of course, the inclusion of these diverse experiences in teaching and writing is not without its difficulties, as I had already discovered. In 1969, I was offered a job as an instructor in history at Columbia. As the department's junior member, I soon found myself representing history on doctoral dissertations from other departments, with fascinating subjects like "Tree Imagery in Emerson" and "The Belgian Press and the Boer War." But the main reason I was hired was to teach Columbia's first course in African-American history. My qualifications lay in a course on the subject that I had offered in Double Discovery, a summer program for minority high school students, and my writings on free soil and race. Inevitably and understandably, many of Columbia's black students felt that the first such course in the College's two-hundred-year history ought to be offered by a black scholar. But I was eager to teach the course and insistedas I continue to believethat teaching and writing in black history should be held to the same standards as in any other academic discipline. The race of the instructor is not among them.
At any rate, I prepared avidly for the course, reading everything I could get my hands on, and for the first few weeks my expertise disarmed my critics. But a month into the term, a group of black students began demonstrating both in and out of class, denouncing the course, in the idiom of the day, as a racist insult. For the rest of the term, there were walkouts and disruptions. Yet most of the 150 students in the class attended every lecture and seemed eager to hear me teach the subject. (As they told me privately, they actually liked my lectures and had nothing "personal" against me.) After this baptism by fire, nothing that has happened in a classroom has ever fazed me. Out of that course came my next two publications: America's Black Past, an anthology of writings in the field, and Nat Turner, a documentary collection about America's greatest slave rebel. Since 1969, I have taught black history many times with little problem. Equally importantly, over the years I have fully integrated the black experience into my general courses on nineteenth-century history.
My initial career at Columbia lasted only three years. While I was in England, the department informed me that I should not expect to receive tenure. I was bitterly disappointed, but this rebuff turned out to be an immense stroke of good fortune. City College had just hired Herbert Gutman to revitalize its history department, and Herb offered me a job. So in 1973, I moved to a college that was one mile uptown from Columbia but was as remote from it in other ways as if it were located on the far side of the moon. City was in the throes of adjusting to open admissions, with a faculty bitterly divided against itself At my first department meeting, one colleague called another "a perjured slanderer," whereupon the second launched a lawsuit for defamation of character. But coming to City was the bestthing that had ever happened to me, both as a teacher and a historian. It brought me into contact with an entirely different group of studentsthe children of the city's white ethnic, black, and Hispanic working class, nearly all of them the first members of their families to attend college. Some were woefully unprepared, while others were quite ready to take advantage of the opportunity that had suddenly been opened to them. Life at City was by turns inspiring and frustrating, but I have no doubt that the challenge made me a much better teacher.
Equally remarkable was the intellectual community Gutman had assembled, including brilliant young American historians like Leon Fink, Virginia Yans, and Eric Perkins. At the center of the group stood Gutman himself, with his irrepressible enthusiasm for recovering the history of forgotten Americans, from coal miners and silk workers in Gilded Age America to slaves. Under his influence, my education as a historian continued apace. My next book, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, was powerfully influenced both by my recent stay in England and by Gutman's work. Like Free Soil, this was essentially a study of political ideology, but now I grounded Paine's writings firmly in the social history of his diverse environments, especially lower-class London and Philadelphia, and explored the role of social movements, not just political parties, in the dissemination of political ideas.
Having completed Tom Paine, I prepared to return to my long-delayed history of American radicalism. (Paine was supposed to have been the first chapter, but when I sat down to write it, the chapter had come to more than two hundred pages, a book in its own right.) But fate, in the person of Richard Morris, intervened. Totally unexpectedly, Morris invited me towrite the volume on Reconstruction for the New American Nation series, of which he and Henry Steele Commager were editors. Although I had written nothing on Reconstruction except for an essay on Thaddeus Stevens (another prospective chapter in my ill-fated radicalism book), I had long had an interest in this, the most controversial and misunderstood period in all of American history.
Years before, I had presented my own interpretation of Reconstruction to my ninth-grade American history class at Long Beach High School. Our teacher was Mrs. Bertha Berryman, affectionately known among the students as Big Bertha (after a famous piece of World War I artillery). Following the then-dominant view of the era, Mrs. Berryman described the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which gave the right to vote to black men in the South, as the worst law in all of American history. I raised my hand and proposed that the Alien and Sedition Acts were "worse." Whereupon Mrs. Berryman replied, "If you don't like the way I'm teaching, Eric, why don't you come in tomorrow and give your own lesson on Reconstruction?" This I proceeded to do, admittedly with my father's help, in a presentation based largely on W.E.B. Du Bois's portrait of Reconstruction as a pivotal moment in the struggle for democracy in America. At the end of the class, Mrs. Berryman, herself a true democrat, announced: "Class, you have heard me, and you have heard Eric. Now let us vote to see who was right." I wish I could report that my persuasive presentation carried the day In fact, only one student voted for me, my intrepid friend Neil Kleinman.
It therefore seemed almost preordained when Morris offered me the chance to get even with Mrs. Berryman. I soon discovered that I had agreed to take on a project with a checkeredpast. In 1948, Howard K. Beale had agreed to do the book; he died eleven years later without having written a word. He was succeeded by David Donald. In 1969, Donald published an article lamenting that he had found it impossible to synthesize in a single account the political, economic, social, and intellectual developments of the era, and the course of national, Northern, and Southern events. The effort to do so seemed to make him despair of the entire enterprise of chronicling the nation's past. He had come to the conclusion, Donald wrote, that "the United States does not have a history." In 1975, he abandoned the project to devote himself to a more manageable one, a biography of Thomas Wolfe.
Fools, they say, rush in where angels fear to tread. I assumed I could do a year or two of reading and complete the book soon afterward. In fact, it took about ten years to research and write it. The turning point in my conceptualization of the project came in 1978, when I was invited to teach for a semester at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. There, in the state archives, I encountered 121 thickly packed boxes of correspondence received by the state's Reconstruction governors. The letters contained an incredibly rich record, almost entirely untapped by scholars, of local social and political life in the state. Before my eyes unfolded tales of utopian hopes and shattered dreams, of struggles for human dignity and ignoble violence by the Ku Klux Klan, of racism and black-white cooperation, of how everyday life had become "politicized" in ways barely hinted at in the existing literature. I realized that to tell the story of Reconstruction, I could not rely on available scholarship, impressive as much of it was, but would have to delve into the archives to recover the local texture of life. In ensuing years, my research introduced me to an amazing cast ofcharactersformer slaves seeking to breathe substantive meaning into the freedom they had acquired, upcountry farmers struggling to throw off the heritage of racism, planters seeking to retain control of their now-emancipated labor force, and Klansmen seeking to subvert the far-reaching changes of the era. Like Du Bois half a century earlier, I became convinced that the freed people were the central actors in the drama of Reconstruction. Rather than simply victims of manipulation or passive recipients of the actions of others, they were agents of change, whose demand for individual and community autonomy helped to establish the agenda of Reconstruction politics.
Another unexpected development also affected the project's conceptualization. For the 1980-81 academic year, I was invited to teach as the Pitt Professor of American History at Cambridge University. Once again a stay in England broadened my horizons as a historian. Prompted by some of my colleagues, I began to read about the aftermath of slavery in the British Empire, especially in the Caribbean and South Africa. I soon discovered that this literature, much of it unknown to scholars of American history, approached the transition from slavery to freedom in rather different ways from our own historical writing. Instead of defining the problem primarily as one of race relations, the predominant view in this country, scholars in Britain, Africa, and the Caribbean focused attention on the labor question after slaveryhow former slaves struggled to secure economic autonomy while former planters, often aided by the British government, sought to encourage them to return to work on the plantations and, when unsuccessful, imported indentured laborers from China and India to take their place. The same issues of access to economic resources and control of labor, I became convinced, were central to the aftermath ofslavery in the Reconstruction South. But my reading also underscored for me the uniqueness of Reconstruction, for only in this country were former slaves, within a few years of emancipation, given the right to vote, and only here did they exercise a significant degree of political power on the state and local levels. Historians at that time were prone to describe Reconstruction as essentially conservative, since it adhered to constitutional forms and did not distribute land to the former slaves. I became convinced that enfranchising the freedmen constituted, both in a comparative perspective and in the context of the racism of antebellum America, a truly radical experiment in interracial democracy.
In 1982, I returned to Columbia to teach, and here over the next few years the book was written. There is a certain irony in the fact that a Columbia historian produced this new history of Reconstruction, exemplified by the fact that my research expenses were partly covered by the department's Dunning Fund and much of my reading took place in Burgess Library. For it was at Columbia at the turn of the century that William A. Dunning and John W. Burgess had established the traditional school of Reconstruction scholarship, teaching that blacks were "children" incapable of appreciating the freedom that had been thrust upon them, and that the North did a "monstrous thing" in granting them suffrage. There is no better illustration than Reconstruction of how historical interpretation both reflects and helps to shape current policies. The views of the Dunning School helped freeze the white South for generations in unalterable opposition to any change in race relations, and justified decades of Northern indifference to Southern nullification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The civil rights revolution, in turn, produced an outpouring ofrevisionist literature, far more favorable to the aspirations of the former slaves.
I think it was the historian C. Vann Woodward who first called the civil rights movement the Second Reconstruction. Although history never really repeats itself, the parallels between the period after the Civil War and the 1950s and 1960s are very dramatic, as are the retreats from the Reconstruction ideal of racial justice and social equality in the latter decades of the nineteenth century and again in our own time. The issues that agitate race relations todayaffirmative action, the role of the federal government in enforcing the rights of citizens, the possibility of interracial political coalitions, the relationship between economic and political equalitywere also central to the debates of Reconstruction. Most strikingly, perhaps, both Reconstructions failed adequately to address the economic plight of black America, itself the legacy of 250 years of slavery and a century of segregation. The first Reconstruction did not respond to the former slaves' thirst for land. The second, which gave rise to a large black middle class, left millions of blacks trapped in decaying urban centers and deindustrializing sectors of the economy. Like the Reconstruction generation, we have seen radical movements rise to prominence, then retreat and shatter. Like them, we have seen the resurgence of ideologies of social Darwinism, biological inferiority, and states' rights that blame the victims of discrimination for their plight or insist that the federal government must not interfere with local traditions of inequality. Just as the failure of the first Reconstruction left to future generations an unfinished agenda of racial and social justice, the waning of the second has shown how far America still has to go in living up to the ideal of equality.
Published in 1988, my book on Reconstruction received a gratifying responseit won several prizes from historical organizations, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and sold far more copies than I was accustomed to. Reviewers praised its voluminous research and the way I integrated the era's numerous themes into a coherent whole. But ultimately, the book's merits derive from the fact that I care deeply about the issues of racial justice central to Reconstruction and to our society today If Reconstruction was born in the archives, it was written from the heart.
With the publication of Reconstruction, I assumed I would turn my scholarly attention to other areas. But things have not turned out this way In the course of my research, I had gathered an immense file of biographical information about black political leaders in the postwar Southjustices of the peace, sheriffs, and state legislators, as well as congressmen and U.S. senatorsmost of them unknown even to scholars. I brought this information together in Freedom's Lawmakers, a directory containing capsule biographies of some fifteen hundred individuals. Their treatment by past historians strikingly illustrated how racism and a commitment to maintaining white supremacy in the South had warped scholarly writing. Generations of historians had ignored or denigrated these black officeholders, citing their alleged incompetence in order to justify the violent overthrow of Reconstruction and the South's long history of disenfranchising black voters. Claude Bowers's sensationalist best-seller of the 1920s, The Tragic Era, described Louisiana's Reconstruction legislature as a "zoo"; E. Merton Coulter wrote in 1947 that black officeholding was "the most exotic development in government in the history of white civilization ... [and the] longest to be remembered, shuddered at,and execrated." My hope was to put these men, as it were, on the map of history, to make available the basic data concerning their lives, and to bury irrevocably the misconception that Reconstruction's leaders were illiterate, propertyless, and incompetent.
As Freedom's Lawmakers indicates, I seem unable to escape the Reconstruction era. I am currently the historical adviser for a television documentary on the period and recently served as curator of a museum exhibitionthe first ever to be devoted exclusively to the periodthat opened in 1995 at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond and subsequently traveled to venues in New York City, Columbia, Raleigh, Tallahassee, and Chicago. This last project emerged from another unexpected twist in my career: my emergence as something of a public historian.
Shortly before I finished my book on Reconstruction, I was asked by the Chicago Historical Society to developalong with one of their curators, Olivia Mahoneya major exhibition on the Civil War era. My initial response was that they had approached the wrong person. I have no background in the study of material culture or in museum work. As a teacher, I am resolutely old-fashioneduntil very recently, I never used slides, films, or the Internet in teaching, except for a tattered map of the United States that I began tacking to the classroom wall after discovering that students in New York City do not know the location of the Mississippi River. But, the society's directors assured me, they had plenty of staff who could design exhibitions. What they needed was up-to-date historical thinking. For years, one of their most popular rooms had been the Lincoln Gallery, a collection of memorabilia such as the GreatEmancipator's top hat, a piece of wood from his log cabin, some photos, and dioramas of scenes, real and mythic, from his life. The exhibition was popular, but it was not history. The society proposed to replace it with a full-scale account of the causes and conduct of the Civil War. As curator, my job was to outline the major historical themes, write labels, and, working with Mahoney, choose the objects to be included in the show. The only stipulation was that the exhibit had to include the bed on which Lincoln died after being shot at Ford's Theater. This had somehow come into the society's possession, and people traveled from far and wide to see it. Otherwise, I had complete intellectual freedomI could do and say pretty much anything I wanted.
Like other historians, I have often lamented that scholars too often speak only to themselves and seem to have abandoned the effort to address a broader public. How could I refuse this invitation to help shape how hundreds of thousands of visitors who might never have attended a university history class or read an academic treatise understand a pivotal era of our country's history? So I accepted, thus embarking on what became, for me, a thoroughly enjoyable process of learning by doing. The finished exhibit, A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln, is unabashedly interpretive. It explores the contrast between free and slave labor and the societies built upon them, focuses on slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War, devotes attention both to abolitionism and to Northern racism, and as it gives an account of the military history of the war, also stresses the process of emancipation as central to the war's meaning. Lincoln is present, but as a figure located firmly within his own time, not an icon standing outside it. The exhibit has been agreat success, not only winning several awards but inspiring other museums to bring in historians to upgrade outdated presentations of history.
My new role in public history involved me in a realm that was suddenly filled with controversywitness the evisceration in the mid-1990s of the Smithsonian Institution's proposed exhibition on the dropping of the first atomic bomb, or the Library of Congress canceling a small show on the life and material surroundings of slaves. Of course, vigorous debate about how history should be studied and taught is healthy and inevitable in a democratic society. But too often critics of innovative exhibitionswhether veterans' groups in the case of the Smithsonian, or black employees of the Library of Congressreveal a desire for a history that eliminates complexity from our national experience. The overwhelmingly positive reactions to the two historical exhibitions on which I worked suggest that visitors actually enjoy encountering new ideas and having their preconceptions challenged by unfamiliar interpretations. The public seems to be more open-minded, more willing to learn, than those who desire a purely celebratory public history are prepared to believe.
Only recently have my scholarly interests moved on from Reconstruction. My latest book, The Story of American Freedom, published in 1998, traces how various Americans have interpreted and defined freedom, so central an element of our national consciousness, from the Revolution to the present. The book builds on my earlier writings on free labor, emancipation, and Reconstruction, but unlike my previous work, it brings me into the twentieth century. My theme is that rather than a fixed category or predetermined concept, freedom has always been a terrain of struggle. Its definition has been constantly createdand re-created, its meanings constructed not only in congressional debates and political treatises but on plantations and picket lines, in parlors and bedrooms. It has been invoked by those in power to legitimate their aims, and seized upon by others seeking to transform society. In our own time, we have seen the putative division of the planet into free and nonfree worlds invoked by our government to justify violations of individual liberties at home and support for some highly repressive governments abroad. Yet within my lifetime as well, the greatest mass movement of the century reinvigorated the language of freedom with its freedom rides, freedom songs, and the insistent cry "Freedom now!" The story of American freedom, in other words, is as contentious, as multidimensional, as American society itself.
Let me close, however, by looking back to the mid-1990s, when I again spent the academic year in England, this time as Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford. Once again, living there seemed to expand my intellectual horizons, bringing me into contact, just as I was embarking on my study of freedom, with social historians of language and historians of political thought. But the year's highlight came not in England but five thousand miles to the south. In the summer of 1994, I was invited to lecture in South Africa, shortly after it had experienced its first democratic elections. To me as a historian of Reconstruction, the photographs, broadcast around the world, of men and women waiting on endless lines to cast their first ballots brought to mind the scenes of celebration in our own country when former slaves voted for the first time after the Civil War. It was a reminder, in these days of cynicism about politics and democracy, that voting can be a deeply empowering act.
On the day before I left South Africa, I delivered the T. B. Davie Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town, named in honor of a vice-chancellor who courageously defended academic freedom during the 1950s. Thirty-five years earlier, when the government imposed apartheid on South African universities, students had marched to the Parliament to extinguish a torch of freedom. After my lecture, the torch was relit to symbolize the birth of a new South Africa. It was a moment of genuine emotion, illustrating the interconnectedness of past, present, and future. It seemed to me fitting that a historian was chosen to speak at this occasion, and it was an honor for me to be the one, especially since I know from my own family's experience how fragile freedom can be.
Copyright © 2002 by Eric Foner