The Unfinished Revolution - Eric Foner’s story of American freedom.
Every great historian revises history in his or her own way. Eric Hobsbawm replaced narratives about the making of the modern world that focused relentlessly on the political games played by powerful men with a rich tapestry of social and economic history. Gerda Lerner explained how women defied patriarchal rule with everyday acts of resistance and public confrontations. W.E.B. Du Bois, John Hope Franklin, and Ira Berlin made it impossible to write US history without understanding the pivotal role of African Americans, enslaved and free.
For nearly half a century, Eric Foner has been challenging and overturning the benighted assertions made about the most studied and contentious period in US history. Nothing has been more important to the development of American society and politics than the Civil War and Reconstruction. Yet until the 1960s, most influential scholars conceived of the era as a sad departure from America’s grand march of progress toward political liberty and economic plenty. They claimed that the “war between the states” could have been avoided if sage voices of compromise had only been able to silence the hotheaded abolitionists and their secessionist counterparts. Their view of Reconstruction tended to be even more wrongheaded, rendering a decade of biracial democracy as an era dominated by vengeful Yankees who headed south to stir up racial antagonisms, echoing the pro–Ku Klux Klan narrative of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.
Foner has dedicated his career to demolishing these assumptions about how the Civil War happened and how the victors shaped what came after. Inspired by the black freedom movement of the 1960s and its successors, he has demonstrated, perhaps more than any other historian of his generation, how central emancipation was to the political conflicts that eventually exploded into civil war. In his most influential work, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, published in 1988, he showed that the struggle for equality and freedom continued long after the Confederacy died, even if its victories were frustratingly incomplete.
The Second Founding, his new book about the trio of landmark constitutional amendments all ratified less than five years after Lee’s surrender, demonstrates his talent at unearthing insights about the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, in particular how Americans defined and acted on the ideals of freedom and democracy. It’s a slim volume that synthesizes the vast library of works devoted to Reconstruction. But he uses that rich scholarship to highlight the radicalism of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and how, over the past 150 years, clever and powerful conservatives have diligently sought to undermine their egalitarian promise. As Foner reminds us, the “key elements of the second founding, including birthright citizenship, equal protection of the laws, and the right to vote, remain highly contested…. Rights can be gained, and rights can be taken away.”
Charting the ironies of freedom won and lost during and after Reconstruction, Foner’s new book is also a guide to nearly all of his scholarship, which examines not only the rights and better living conditions gained through extended contests for power but also the ambiguous consequences of what were, as a rule, only partial victories. The sensibility that drives his work was likely born out of his experiences on the left and the frustrations of a period of American radicalism that helped do away with legal apartheid and spearheaded movements for gender equality and the protection of the environment but also failed to mount a serious challenge to the conservative tilt of both major parties.
This sensibility was also a family inheritance rooted in the experiences of his father, Jack Foner, and his uncle Philip Foner. Both men wrote important works on African American and labor history but, as sympathizers with communism, suffered from an early rehearsal of McCarthyism during World War II, when the New York State Legislature led an investigation that resulted in the loss of their jobs as professors at City College. Given this legacy, Eric Foner has always recognized that while most Americans viewed their nation as the “embodiment of freedom,” the contest to define and act on that idea “has been used to convey and claim legitimacy for all kinds of grievances and hopes, fears about the present and visions of the future.” He expresses these judgments in what another eminent historian, Christopher Lasch, called “plain style”: direct and vivid prose without a trace of specialized language, which anyone with a passing interest in the subject can read, learn from, and enjoy.
Born in 1943, Foner began his career as a historian by answering a critical question that hardly any American historian had thought to ask before: How were the leaders of the new party that nominated Abraham Lincoln and governed the nation through the bloodiest conflict in US history able to unite? In the run-up to the Civil War, there were three distinct camps of Republicans, each with its own constituency and distinct reasons for opposing the expansion of slavery. On the left were the abolitionists, who initially refused to participate in a political system they considered evil to its core and who insisted on immediate emancipation by any means necessary. To their right were the former Democratic and Whig politicians who had abandoned their parties in search of an organization that could stop the growth of slavery but who favored a less immediate plan to eradicate the “peculiar institution,” which they believed would die out in the states where it had long existed. Many abolitionists had lambasted the same politicians for whom they now campaigned—and the antagonism had often been mutual.
Foner’s answer to that complex question, delivered in a dissertation written at Columbia University and published as his 1970 book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, was that the moral activists and veteran office seekers who created the Republican Party built their coalition around a shared ideology that transcended their differences. Each group could agree that the expansion of slavery posed a serious threat to the interests of ordinary white craftsmen and farmers in the North—who, after all, composed the majority of citizens and voters in that region. What all three groups wanted was free soil, free labor, and free men.
This new ideology, Foner argued, “gave northerners of divergent social and political backgrounds a basis for collective action. It provided the moral consensus which allowed the North, for the first time in history, to mobilize an entire society in modern warfare.” But it did not eliminate the differences between those Republicans who continued to work for racial equality and those who cared mostly about breaking the grip of Southern planters on the nation’s economic and political life. At a time when the data-driven social history of families and communities was all the rage among other young scholars, Foner persuasively insisted that big ideas and national politics still mattered.
Foner next turned his attention to another subject with a familial resonance, the history of American radicalism. He began with the American Revolution and intended to conclude with the New Left. However, he got so immersed in the life of Thomas Paine, one of the nation’s earliest and most prominent radicals, that he wound up devoting an entire book to him and never did get around to unraveling, at length, the rest of the left’s often tortured, occasionally triumphant past. The work he produced, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, returned to a theme found in his first book: the dialectic between moral purpose and political exigency. The English stay-maker turned pamphleteer pioneered notions about work, political freedom, and self-governance that future leftists would champion, but he was also a supporter of the new Constitution, written largely by men who sought to limit the power of the plebeian masses.
Despite these ambiguities in Paine’s politics, Foner persuasively argued that he was a radical forerunner: “Modern in his commitment to republicanism, democracy and revolution….modern in his secularism, modern in his belief in human perfectibility…modern in his peculiar combination of internationalism…with his defense…of a strong central government for America.” As in his book on the making of the Republican Party, Foner placed ideology at the core of his analysis. People start revolutions, he suggested, only when they acquire the ability to express their desires for fundamental change in fresh and enthralling ways.
Over the next decade, Foner returned to the Civil War, but his next major book focused on its aftermath. Adding to his fascination with ideology, Reconstruction is also a work of sweeping social and political history that helped revise how most historians—as well as much of the reading public—understood this crucial period. Most history textbooks rehashed it as a sorry tale of vengeful white Northern radicals who bestowed the vote on ignorant freedmen to punish white Southerners, leading to a period of political corruption and disorder. Beginning in the 1960s, scholars started to chip away at this bigoted and historically inaccurate portrait, pointing out that the fledgling biracial state governments in Dixie taxed big planters to pay for roads, schools, and hospitals that benefited everyone. But the idea, dripping with racist condescension, that Reconstruction was a “tragic era” had largely survived the legal demise of Jim Crow.
Foner destroyed that notion so completely that no serious historians—even those on the right—have attempted to revive it. Drawing on a wealth of documents written by and about freedmen and -women, he thrust to the center of the drama the determination of black people to exercise political power in the South and to assert their right to a share of the wealth and property their labor had created. Expanding on a thesis Du Bois developed in his 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America, Foner showed that the struggle for true emancipation required economic as well as political equality. With the inconstant aid of federal agencies like the Freedmen’s Bureau, some African Americans went on strike for higher wages, while others squatted on fallow land, demanding that the government fulfill its promise to grant them homesteads so they could be truly independent of their former owners.
Throughout this grand narrative, Foner reveals how the actions of powerful men in both the North and the South closed down the possibilities for a social and economic transformation that black Americans helped open up in the South. In 1867, Thaddeus Stevens, the veteran abolitionist who was an influential Radical Republican leader in Congress, introduced a measure that would have confiscated Confederate lands and doled them out in 40-acre lots to freedmen and their families. But many of the same Republican colleagues who had rallied to pass the 13th and 14th Amendments balked at the idea of redistributing the wealth of traitors now that the war was over. Even most Radical Republicans, Foner wrote, “believed that in a free labor South…black and white would find their own level.” Giving freed people what one lawmaker called “a perfectly fair chance” should not mean challenging the unwritten rules of the capitalist economy. The defeat of Stevens’s plan doomed the potential for building a democratic order in the South and unintentionally sowed the seeds of a century of American apartheid.
More than 30 years after its publication, Foner’s book remains a thrilling piece of historical imagination as well as a vital work of pathbreaking research. It transformed Reconstruction from an epilogue to the drama of civil war into the pivot on which the future of African Americans, the South, and the nation turned. Unfortunately, in the late 1870s, the arc of history turned back to injustice as white politicians in the North abandoned the experiment in biracial democracy and let former Confederates take back control in Dixie.
In his next major work on the Civil War era, Foner examines our greatest president’s struggle throughout his political career with the question of how to bring about black freedom. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, published in 2010, applied the historian’s fascination with ideology to a question that countless authors inside and outside the academy had argued about for more than a century: how the self-made man from Illinois evolved from a local politician who assumed the inferiority of black people and merely hoped to stop the “peculiar institution” from spreading westward into the president who led what became a war to abolish slavery. To eradicate the sin of human bondage, Lincoln declared at his second inaugural in 1865, about a month before his murder, might require that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”
Although Foner clearly admires Lincoln, the book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history, bore out the logic of his subject’s modest statement in 1864 that “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” As a young politician, Lincoln was content to leave the decision of whether to abolish slavery up to each state. During his first months in the White House, he made no protest when Congress passed a constitutional amendment that would have stopped the federal government from interfering with slavery where it existed. Less than two years later, however, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Then, in 1863, he oversaw the recruitment of close to 200,000 black soldiers, most of whom had recently been freed or escaped from bondage.
As with his first book, Foner explains a feat of ideological conversion. His incisive tracking of Lincoln’s speeches and writings about slavery, combined with a matchless grasp of the political exigencies of war, results in a narrative simultaneously intimate and of major historical consequence. It is probably as close a study of Lincoln’s mind on this critical matter as can ever be written, and Foner’s judgment balances a biographer’s praise with the contextual sobriety of a historian: “If Lincoln achieved greatness, he grew into it.”
The Second Founding draws on a theme that has animated all of Foner’s work, the gap between the nation’s lofty ideals and the way those in power, abetted by the prejudices and fears of ordinary people, fail to act on or deliberately sabotage efforts to embody them in durable laws and institutions. Here, he dwells more than ever before on the complex yet profound consequences of additions to the Constitution that, on paper, may appear rather straightforward attempts to secure the gains of Reconstruction into perpetuity.
The import of the 13th Amendment, for example, seems simple enough. It abolished slavery and any other form of “involuntary servitude,” save for those convicted of a crime. Recently, critics of mass incarceration, such as Ava DuVernay with her documentary 13th, have made the amendment an emblem of the country’s long history of legal racism. Yet Foner also points out how fundamental a departure the amendment was at the time from the constitutional norms that had existed since the ratification of the founding document nearly 80 years before. The 13th Amendment did not just end slavery; it “created a new fundamental right to personal freedom, applicable to all persons in the United States regardless of race, gender, class, or citizenship status.” In Congress, most Democrats, marrying foul racism with a defense of states’ rights, warned that if valuable possessions in the form of human beings could be wrested from their owners without compensation, nothing would prevent power-hungry Republicans from seizing other forms of property.
[Michael Kazin teaches at Georgetown University and is a coeditor of Dissent. He is at work on a history of the Democratic Party.]
Copyright c 2019 The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission. Distributed by PARS International Corp.
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