Eric Foner

Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University.

United States of Amnesia

Eric Foner, 9 September 2021

Survivors recalled seeing trucks loaded with bodies heading out of the city, presumably to burial sites in unknown locations. Dick Rowland was not one of the victims. Somehow, he escaped during the chaos. One might think it impossible to erase an event of this magnitude from historical memory. But Tulsa tried its best. Scott Ellsworth discovered that police reports and National Guard records had been systematically destroyed; other documents were removed from the state archives. News articles were cut out of surviving copies of local newspapers in the University of Tulsa library. Shortly after the violence ended, Ellsworth learned, the city’s police chief ordered his men to confiscate any images of the destruction in the possession of Tulsa’s photography studios. Years passed, and yet Oklahoma history textbooks made no mention of the massacre. A teacher who moved to the city in 1950 was warned on pain of dismissal not to mention the events of 1921 in class.

This Guilty Land: Every Possible Lincoln

Eric Foner, 17 December 2020

Abraham Lincoln​, memorialised as a child of the frontier, self-made man and liberator of the slaves, has been the subject of more than 16,000 books, according to David S. Reynolds’s new biography, Abe. That’s around two a week, on average, since the end of the American Civil War. Almost every possible Lincoln can be found in the historical literature, including the moralist who...

It seems​ like ages have passed, not just nine months, since the all-consuming public issue in the United States was the impeachment of Donald Trump. The trial was a giant anticlimax, of course, its proceedings lacking witnesses, its outcome predetermined. That Trump remains in the White House reminds us that there is almost no way of unseating an American president, even one manifestly...

Given its undemocratic nature and long history of dysfunction and racial bias, it isn’t surprising that almost from the start proposals began to circulate about changing the way electors were chosen, or even doing away with the electoral college entirely. Over time, more than eight hundred such amendments have been introduced in Congress. Amending the constitution is a daunting task, requiring the approval of two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the states. But it has nevertheless been accomplished 27 times, effecting changes that have significantly democratised American politics: extending the right to vote to African Americans, women and 18-year-olds; shifting the election of senators from legislatures to voters; barring the imposition of poll taxes and allocating electoral votes to residents of Washington, D.C. But the stark fact is that with the exception of the Twelfth Amendment, which only tweaked the system, the strange way we elect the president has survived intact for over two centuries. 

One of the few​ facts of American history of which Donald Trump appears to be aware is that George Washington owned slaves. Trump mentioned this in 2017 as one reason for his opposition to the removal of the monuments to Confederate generals that dot the southern landscape. In Trump’s view owning slaves probably enhances Washington’s reputation: like him, the first president...

In her new book Joanne Freeman shifts her attention to the three decades leading up to the Civil War. She reports that not a session passed without punches being exchanged between congressmen, and knives and pistols being drawn. The pervasiveness of violence among lawmakers will surprise even specialists in 19th-century American history. From the mid-1830s to the outbreak of war in 1861, Freeman counts more than seventy violent incidents – duels, fistfights, stabbings – in the halls of Congress and the surrounding streets. Anticipating violence, she writes, congressmen regularly ‘strapped on knives and guns’ before heading to work.

In pre-Civil War​ fugitive slave narratives – memoirs written by men and, occasionally, women who had escaped to freedom and hoped to convert readers to the cause of abolition – the most heart-rending passages described slave auctions and the separation of families that usually ensued. When the abolitionist journalist and underground railroad activist Sydney Howard Gay...

The Embryo Caesar: After Hamilton

Eric Foner, 14 December 2017

One political leader who apparently tried to act on the idea of establishing a new nation in the heart of North America was Aaron Burr. ‘Apparently’, because the exact scope and intentions of what came to be known as the Burr Conspiracy of 1805-7 remain murky at best. Until recently, Burr was really known for one thing: killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804.

Between​ 1910 and 1930, more than a million black Americans moved from the rural South to industrial cities north of the Mason-Dixon line. Refugees fleeing grinding poverty, political disenfranchisement, inadequate education and the ever present threat of violence (a comprehensive system of white supremacy known by the shorthand Jim Crow), they found employment on the bottom rungs of the...

Enter Hamilton

Eric Foner, 6 October 2016

The racism​, xenophobia and violence of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is widely seen as an aberration, as if reasoned debate had been the default mode of American politics. But precursors to Trump do exist, candidates who struck electoral gold by appealing to exaggerated fears, real grievances and visceral prejudices. Among Trump’s predecessors are the anti-immigrant...

Last year’s bicentennial of Britain’s outlawing of the Atlantic slave trade inspired a host of scholarly and popular commemorations: conferences, exhibitions, even a big-budget film, Amazing Grace, that made an unlikely matinee idol of William Wilberforce. All these events took place in an atmosphere suffused with self-congratulation. The crusade against the trade and the...

‘They fell upon their own knees, and then upon the Aborigines.’ The old quip about the Puritans who settled colonial New England offers a succinct and not inaccurate summary of white-Indian relations in the United States. Despite the twists and turns of official policy – from Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to assimilate Indians by teaching them to farm (even though they...

Is the United States an empire? Only in the US could such a question even be asked. To the rest of the world, the answer is obvious: the US is perhaps the most powerful empire the world has known. Empire means dominion, the desire and ability to determine the fate of peoples near and far. And in every index of power – ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, military, economic and...

Divinely Ordained: Lincoln

Eric Foner, 23 October 2003

History never repeats itself, but there are uncanny resemblances between policies of the Bush Administration since 11 September and the way the Government under Abraham Lincoln responded to the crisis of the Civil War in the 1860s. Both Presidents assumed powers that went well beyond what the Constitution seems to allow. In both cases, thousands of people suspected of assisting the enemy were...

‘In the United States at this time,’ Lionel Trilling announced in 1950, ‘liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.’ How things have changed. Today in the US, liberalism seems extinct, except as a term of political abuse....

Tired of Giving in: Rosa Parks

Eric Foner, 10 May 2001

On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old black woman who had just completed her day’s work in a department store in Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on a city bus to a white passenger, as required by municipal law. The incident sparked a year-long bus boycott, the beginning of the modern phase of the civil rights revolution. And it made Parks,...

Manufacturing in Manhattan

Eric Foner, 1 June 2000

After a period when it mainly conjured up images of street violence and urban deterioration, New York is once again America’s number one tourist attraction, and neighbourhoods long in decline are undergoing remarkable revivals. To be sure, a few blemishes mar the renaissance: the periodic killing of unarmed black men by the police, for example, or the persistent failure of the public...

From The Blog
22 February 2011

Thanks to the public employees of Wisconsin, thousands of whom have occupied the state capitol building for the past several days, the class struggle has returned to the United States. Of course, it never really left, but lately only one side has been fighting. Workers, their unions and liberals more generally have now rejoined the battle.

It is more than 130 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, but Americans have yet to arrive at a generally agreed understanding of either the history or the legacy of slavery. When a Congressman from Ohio recently proposed a national apology for the enslavement of African-Americans as a way of easing the country’s racial tensions, the result only demonstrated how polarised the historical memory of slavery has become. Most blacks felt that the step would be wholly inadequate, a device to avoid concrete measures to deal with such enduring consequences as the persistent racial gap in income, health and housing, for example. Most whites insisted that they had nothing to apologise for – after all, the last of the slaveowners had long since died. Moreover, it was endlessly reiterated, Africans sold other Africans into slavery, as if this somehow obviated white America’s responsibility for creating the most powerful slave system the world has known.’

Eden without the Serpent

Eric Foner, 11 December 1997

Paul Johnson is one of the most indefatigable writers on either side of the Atlantic. In the past twenty years, the former editor of the New Statesman turned ardent Thatcherite has produced, among other books, The Birth of the Modern (weighing in at more than a thousand pages), Modern Times, a massive chronicle of the 20th century, and lengthy histories of Christianity and Judaism. If succinctness is not his forte, neither is modesty. Johnson’s latest book opens with the claim that it ‘has new and often trenchant things to say about every aspect and period of America’s past’. No one who knows his earlier writings is likely to be surprised by its strengths and weaknesses. For better or worse, A History of the American People is vintage Johnson.‘

An Agreement with Hell

Eric Foner, 20 February 1997

The United States must be the only country in the world to have lived for more than two centuries under a single written constitution. In France, monarchies and republics, each with its own constitution, have come and gone. Britain has yet to commit its constitution to paper.

Separation Anxiety

Eric Foner, 18 April 1996

The American Revolution is the subject of a rich and complex historical literature. In the 19th century, George Bancroft, the father of American historical writing, portrayed it as the culmination of a long, divinely-inspired progress – the triumph of freedom and democracy on the North American continent. The seed of liberty, planted by the earliest settlers, reached its inevitable flowering in national independence.

More Pasts Than One

Eric Foner, 23 March 1995

Rarely has the study and teaching of history been the subject of such intense public debate as in the United States today. While America’s now-famous ‘culture wars’ originated in disputes over the teaching of literature – the demand that the canon should be expanded to include works by women and non-whites – history has recently taken centre stage. Assaults by structuralists, Post-Modernists and the like had already undermined many of the discipline’s methodological assumptions. American historians, however, like the public at large, are a resolutely non-theoretical lot. No one much cared when Jacques Derrida questioned the epistemological foundations of historical knowledge, or Hayden White insisted that historical narratives are, in large measure, carefully contrived myths. But when Indians spoiled the quincentenary of 1492 by condemning Christopher Columbus as a mass murderer, not only did the popular press cry ‘foul’, but historians had no alternative but to take notice.’

Eric Foner writes: Norman Cantor’s comments about me do not deserve a reply. But since my late uncle cannot defend himself, it is worth noting that Philip Foner ‘couldn’t get’ an academic position not because of the quality of his books – many of which are today deemed indispensable for students of African-American and labour history – but because of McCarthy-era...

A Boost for Slavery

20 February 1997

The addition of a single word to my review of Original Meanings by Jack Rakove (LRB, 20 February) reversed the meaning of one of my sentences. This concerns the famous clause of the US Constitution providing that, along with free inhabitants, three-fifths of the slave population were to be counted when apportioning Congressmen among the states. As printed, the sentence stated that ‘only’...
Eric Foner writes: I have read and reread Theodore Draper’s letter and cannot discover what he is complaining about. In none of the three cases does his rebuttal invalidate my point. In fact, the passages he quotes from the book demonstrate the accuracy of my comments rather than refuting them.It hardly seems fair for Mr Draper, a frequent contributor to that outpost of Oxbridge in the Big Apple,...

Reconstruction was under attack from the outset. There was never a consensus on its legitimacy, and in the end it sank under the weight of racism, indifference, fatigue, administrative weakness, economic...

Read More

A Topic Best Avoided: Abraham Lincoln

Nicholas Guyatt, 1 December 2011

On the evening of 11 April 1865, Abraham Lincoln spoke to a crowd in Washington about black suffrage. The Civil War had been over for a week. Lincoln had already walked the streets of Richmond,...

Read More

During the war and after the war

J.R. Pole, 11 January 1990

With the passing of generations, the Civil War will lose its chronological centrality in American history, and may well come to be regarded, not so much as the great crisis of the very principle...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences