On complexity and revisionism in the doing of history

Why Study HistoryFrom Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

On complexity:

Historians realize that the past is complex. Human behavior does not easily conform to our present-day social, cultural, political, religious, or economic categories. Take Thomas Jefferson for example. Jefferson is the most complex personality of all of the so-called founding fathers. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence–the document that declared that we are “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom–one of the greatest statements on religious freedom in the history of the world. He was a champion of education and founder of one of our greatest public universities–the University of Virginia. As a politician, he defended the rights of the common man, and he staunchly opposed big and centralized governments that threatened individual liberties. As president, he doubled the size of the United States and made every effort to keep us out of war with Great Britain.

At the same time, Jefferson was a slaveholder. Though he made several efforts to try to bring this institution to an end, he never succeeded. Jefferson needed his slaves to uphold the kind of Virginia planter lifestyle–complete with all it consumer goods and luxury items–that he could not live without. He was in constant debt. And he may have been the father of several children born to his slave Sally Hemings.

Another example of the complexity of the past is the ongoing debate over whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I recently published a book titled Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? In the course of my promotion for the book–at speaking engagements and on radio shows across the country–I was often asked how I answered this question. I found that most people came to my talks or tuned into my radio interviews with their minds already made up about the question, looking to me to provide them with historical evidence to strengthen their answers. When I told them that the role of religion in the founding of America was a complicated question that cannot be answered through sound bites, many people left the lecture hall or turned off the radio disappointed, because such an answer did not help them promote their political or religious cause.

Yet the founding fathers’ views on religion were complex, and they do not easily conform to our twenty-first-century agendas. The founding fathers made sure to keep God and Christianity out of the United States Constitution but did not hesitate to place distinctly Christian tests for office in most of the local state constitutions that they wrote in the wake of the American Revolution. Some founders upheld personal beliefs that conformed to historic orthodox Christian teaching, while others–especially major founders such as Adams, Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin–did not. The founders opposed an established church and defended religious liberty while at the same time suggesting that Christianity was essential to the health of the republic.

The life of Jefferson and the debate over Christian America teach us that human experience is often too complex to categorize in easily identifiable boxes. The study of the past reminds us that when we put our confidence in people–whether they are in the past (such as the founding fathers) or the present–we are likely to be inspired by them, but we are just as likely to be disappointed by them. Sometimes great defenders of liberty held slaves, and political leaders who defended a moral republic rejected a belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ or the inspiration of the Bible. Historians do their work amid the messiness of the past. Though they make efforts to simplify the mess, they are often left with irony, paradox, and mystery.

On revisionism:

Historians must come to grips with the fact that they will never be able to provide a complete or thorough account of what happened in the past.

Even the best accounts of the past are open to change based on new evidence or the work of historians who approach a subject with a different lens of interpretation. In this sense, history is more about competing perceptions of the past than it is about nailing down a definitive account of a specific event or life. As [historian David] Lowenthal notes, “History usually depends on someone else’s eyes and voice: we see it through an interpreter who stands between past events and our apprehension of them.” While the past never changes, history changes all the time. Think, for example, about two eyewitness accounts of the same auto accident. Even if we can assume that drivers involved in the accident believe that they are telling the truth about what happened, it is still likely that the police will receive two very different accounts of how the accident occurred and two different accounts of who caused the accident. It is thus up to the police officer in charge, or perhaps a judge, to weight the evidence and come up with a plausible interpretation of this historical event. But let’s imagine two weeks after the paperwork is filed and the case is closed, a reliable witness to the accident emerges with new evidence to suggest that the person who the judge held responsible for the accident was actually not at fault. This new information leads to a new historical narrative of what happened. History has changed. This is called revisionism, and it is the lifeblood of the historical profession.

The word revisionism carries a negative connotation in American society because it is usually associated with changing true facts of the past in order to fit some kind of agenda in the present. But actually, the historian who is called a “revisionist” receives a high compliment. In his book Who Owns History?, Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor Eric Foner recalls a conversation with a Newsweek reporter who asked him, “When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?” Foner responded, “Around the time of Thucydides.” (Thucydides is the Greek writer who is often credited with being one of the first historians in the West). Those who believe “revisionism” is a negative term often misunderstand the way it is used by historians. Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history. Any good revisionist interpretation will be based on evidence–documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind. This type of reconstruction of the past always take place in community. We know whether a particular revision of the past is good because it is vetted by a community of historians. This is called peer review. When bad history does make it into print, we rely on the community of historians to call this to our attention through reviews.

A few examples might help illustrate what I mean when I say that revisionism is the lifeblood of history. Without revisionism, our understanding of racial relations in the American South after the Civil War would still be driven by the what historians called the “Dunning School.” William Dunning was an early twentieth-century historian who suggested that Reconstruction–the attempt to bring civil rights and voting rights to Southern Blacks in the wake of the Civil War–was a mistake. The Northern Republicans who promoted Reconstruction and the various “carpetbaggers” who came to the South to start schools for blacks and work for racial integration destroyed the Southern way of life.

In the end, however, the South did indeed rise again. In Dunning’s portrayal, Southerners eventually rallied to overthrow this Northern invasion. They removed blacks from positions of power and established a regime of segregation that would last for much of the twentieth century. These so-called redeemers of Southern culture are the heroes of the Dunning School, an interpretation of Reconstruction that would inform D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most popular, and most racist, motion pictures of the early twentieth century.

In the 1930s the Dunning School was challenged by a group of historians who began to interpret the period of Reconstruction from the perspective of the former slaves. Rather than viewing the Blacks in the post-Civil War South as people without power, these revisionist authors provided a much richer understanding of the period that included a place for all historical actors, regardless of skin color or social standing, in the story of this important moment in American history….

In the end, all historians are revisionists. The Christian historians R.G. Collingwood wrote that “every new generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historians, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise the questions themselves.” This may mean that a historian will challenge the cherished myths of a particular culture or uncover evidence that does not bode well for a patriotic view of one’s country. (At other times, of course, evidence could strengthen the public bonds of citizenship). As new evidence emerges and historians discover new ways of bringing the past to their audiences in the present, interpretations of specific events change. This makes history an exciting and intellectually engaging discipline.


Eric Foner on the “Buried Promise of the Reconstruction Amendments”

Foner new bookOver at The New Yorker, Isaac Chotiner interviews historian Eric Foner on the promise of Reconstruction.  Foner, of course, remains the foremost historian of  Reconstruction.  I have taught his book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 several times over the years.  Foner’s current book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, focuses on the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.

Here is a taste of his interview with Chotiner:

You say early in the book that, in one sense, “Reconstruction never ended.” What exactly do you mean?

I defined Reconstruction in two ways. One, it’s a particular time period of American history. You can debate the dates. It starts in 1865, when the Civil War ends, or maybe it starts in 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation is issued, and it ends sometime in the eighteen-seventies, although there’s debate about that also.

But, I think, more importantly, Reconstruction is a historical process. And the process is, How does the United States come to terms with the results of the Civil War? The unity of the nation we seem to have come to terms with. But the other matter is the destruction of slavery. How does the United States deal with the fact that four million people who were slaves became free? What role would they have? What rights would they have? How would they be treated? And those debates are still going on. Pick up today’s newspaper, and you’ll find things which relate back to the legacy of slavery. So in that sense, the reckoning has never happened, or we’re still grappling with the consequences of two hundred and fifty years of slavery.

Did you write this book because there was an area of Reconstruction you wanted to learn more about or teach people more about, or had things changed in your understanding of your previous scholarship?

Why does one choose to write a book in the first place? It may be some archival discovery, which was not really the case here. It may be the way debates are going on in the present. That did influence me. The issues central to the Fourteenth Amendment, the Fifteenth Amendment, the right to vote, are still part of our politics today. Who should vote? Who should be a citizen? What does equality before the law really mean? But, most important, and without trying to denigrate any other scholar, I lecture a lot about Reconstruction—I lecture in law schools, I lecture in history departments, I lecture to public audiences outside the academy—and I have found that there’s very little knowledge of why the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments are important, or what they were trying to accomplish, even in law schools.

One of the things that I think needed to be corrected is that so much discussion of these amendments is based on just law-making places, like Congress and the Supreme Court. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m a historian. You’ve got to look at the whole society. Everybody was debating these questions during Reconstruction. So if you want to find out the meaning of these amendments, you’ve got to look way beyond Congress and the courts to see the general debate. And I felt that hadn’t been really illuminated enough.

Read the entire interview here.

Historians Discuss American History in the Age of Trump


Tom Ashbrook interviews historians Judith Giesberg and Julian Zelizer on his WBUR-Boston show “On Point”

Listen here.

Themes discussed and things learned:

  • Julian Zelizer is writing a book about Newt Gingrich
  • Zelizer says that we should be careful not to place Trump solely in “long term continuums.”  There is a lot about him that is unique, new, and unprecedented.
  • Giesberg trashes Newt Gingrich’s attempt to compare the culture wars with the American Civil War.
  • Giesberg reminds us that Confederate monuments were erected during Jim Crow.
  • Zelizer:  If you think that we are living in “two different countries” today, try learning something about the 1960s.
  • Giesburg assigns Eric Foner’s biography of Abraham Lincoln in her Civil War class at Villanova.
  • Giesburg argues that Lincoln learned a lot during his presidency.  So can Trump.  (But she is not optimistic).
  •  Zelizer:  In the 1990s, Gingrich pushed a kind of conservative populism similar to Trump’s base.
  • Zelizer connects Trump’s populism to Father Coughlin and George Wallace.  Trump is the first president to ride this wave of conservative populism to the White House.
  • Zelizer: Race-based nativism never went away.  Trump is not “restoring” anything.
  • Evangelicals Christian do call NPR stations and make thoughtful comments
  • Giesburg compares the Trump victory to the period of “redemption” at the end of Reconstruction.

Eric Foner: Robert E. Lee’s “Legend” Needs to be “Retired”


Yesterday’s New York Times is running a piece by Columbia University historian Eric Foner on the legacy of Robert E. Lee.  Foner’s focus is on how Lee became a “legend” in the minds of the post-Civil War South and how his “legend” became wound-up with the so-called Dunning School of Reconstruction.  This is classic Foner.

Here is a taste:

Historians in the first decades of the 20th century offered scholarly legitimacy to this interpretation of the past, which justified the abrogation of the constitutional rights of Southern black citizens. At Columbia University, William A. Dunning and his students portrayed the granting of black suffrage during Reconstruction as a tragic mistake. The Progressive historians — Charles Beard and his disciples — taught that politics reflected the clash of class interests, not ideological differences. The Civil War, Beard wrote, should be understood as a transfer of national power from an agricultural ruling class in the South to the industrial bourgeoisie of the North; he could tell the entire story without mentioning slavery except in a footnote. In the 1920s and 1930s, a group of mostly Southern historians known as the revisionists went further, insisting that slavery was a benign institution that would have died out peacefully. A “blundering generation” of politicians had stumbled into a needless war. But the true villains, as in Lee’s 1856 letter, were the abolitionists, whose reckless agitation poisoned sectional relations. This interpretation dominated teaching throughout the country, and reached a mass audience through films like “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Klan, and “Gone With the Wind,” with its romantic depiction of slavery. The South, observers quipped, had lost the war but won the battle over its history.

As far as Lee was concerned, the culmination of these trends came in the publication in the 1930s of a four-volume biography by Douglas Southall Freeman, a Virginia-born journalist and historian. For decades, Freeman’s hagiography would be considered the definitive account of Lee’s life. Freeman warned readers that they should not search for ambiguity, complexity or inconsistency in Lee, for there was none — he was simply a paragon of virtue. Freeman displayed little interest in Lee’s relationship to slavery. The index to his four volumes contained 22 entries for “devotion to duty,” 19 for “kindness,” 53 for Lee’s celebrated horse, Traveller. But “slavery,” “slave emancipation” and “slave insurrection” together received five. Freeman observed, without offering details, that slavery in Virginia represented the system “at its best.” He ignored the postwar testimony of Lee’s former slave Wesley Norris about the brutal treatment to which he had been subjected. In 1935 Freeman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography.

That same year, however, W. E. B. Du Bois published “Black Reconstruction in America,” a powerful challenge to the mythologies about slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction that historians had been purveying. Du Bois identified slavery as the fundamental cause of the war and emancipation as its most profound outcome. He portrayed the abolitionists as idealistic precursors of the 20th-century struggle for racial justice, and Reconstruction as a remarkable democratic experiment — the tragedy was not that it was attempted but that it failed. Most of all, Du Bois made clear that blacks were active participants in the era’s history, not simply a problem confronting white society. Ignored at the time by mainstream scholars, “Black Reconstruction” pointed the way to an enormous change in historical interpretation, rooted in the egalitarianism of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and underpinned by the documentary record of the black experience ignored by earlier scholars. Today, Du Bois’s insights are taken for granted by most historians, although they have not fully penetrated the national culture.

Read the entire piece here.

Are We Headed For Another Civil War?


Historians Judith Giesberg, David Blight, Gregory Downs, and Eric Foner weigh-in on this question with New Yorker writer Robin Wright.

Here is a taste:

Before Charlottesville, David Blight, a Yale historian, was already planning a conference in November on “American Disunion, Then and Now.” “Parallels and analogies are always risky, but we do have weakened institutions and not just polarized parties but parties that are risking disintegration, which is what happened in the eighteen-fifties,” he told me. “Slavery tore apart, over fifteen years, both major political parties. It destroyed the Whig Party, which was replaced by the Republican Party, and divided the Democratic Party into northern and southern parts.”

“So,” he said, “watch the parties” as an indicator of America’s health.

In the eighteen-fifties, Blight told me, Americans were not good at foreseeing or absorbing the “shock of events,” including the Fugitive Slave Act, the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, the John Brown raid, and even the Mexican-American War. “No one predicted them. They forced people to reposition themselves,” Blight said. “We’re going through one of those repositionings now. Trump’s election is one of them, and we’re still trying to figure it out. But it’s not new. It dates to Obama’s election. We thought that would lead culture in the other direction, but it didn’t,” he said. “There was a tremendous resistance from the right, then these episodes of police violence, and all these things [from the past] exploded again. It’s not only a racial polarization but a seizure about identity.”

Generally, Blight added, “We know we are at risk of civil war, or something like it, when an election, an enactment, an event, an action by government or people in high places, becomes utterly unacceptable to a party, a large group, a significant constituency.” The nation witnessed tectonic shifts on the eve of the Civil War, and during the civil-rights era, the unrest of the late nineteen-sixties and the Vietnam War, he said. “It did not happen with Bush v. Gore, in 2000, but perhaps we were close. It is not inconceivable that it could happen now.”

In a reversal of public opinion from the nineteen-sixties, Blight said, the weakening of political institutions today has led Americans to shift their views on which institutions are credible. “Who do we put our faith in today? Maybe, ironically, the F.B.I.,” he said. “With all these military men in the Trump Administration, that’s where we’re putting our hope for the use of reason. It’s not the President. It’s not Congress, which is utterly dysfunctional and run by men who spent decades dividing us in order to keep control, and not even the Supreme Court, because it’s been so politicized.”

Read the entire piece here.

Eric Foner Talks History


Over at History News Network, Erik Moshe continues his series of interviews with historians . This time his subject is Columbia University historian Eric Foner.

Here is a taste:

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

There’s a couple of things that I often repeat to my students. Oscar Wilde, I believe, said, “The only obligation we have to history is to rewrite it,” which I think is a good one. Ernest Renan, the 19th century French historian, said something to the effect of—this is a rough translation—“the historian is the enemy of the nation.” I often ask students, what does he mean by that? “The enemy of the nation.” Does that mean we’re traitors? No, what he’s saying is nations are built on myths, historical myths, and then the historian comes along and if he’s doing his job, shatters those myths, and often that makes the historian very unpopular. People like their myths but “myth” is not a good way of understanding how the society developed to where it is today.

Another saying, this goes back to Carl Becker, “History is what the present chooses to remember about the past.” In other words, he’s trying to tell us that history is created by the historian in a certain sense, the historical narrative is the creation of the historian. The facts of history are out there but the selection of facts and the merging of the facts into a narrative is an act of the historical imagination. It doesn’t just exist out there independently in the past.

My own saying, I don’t know if I invented this—perhaps I did—which I tell students is that “nothing is easier than finding what you are looking for.” In other words, that’s my plea to be open-minded. When you go to an archive, you have certain presuppositions but it’s very easy to find what you’re looking for and to ignore those things which don’t fit your assumptions, and you can’t do that. You have to, as they say, be open-minded enough to be willing to change your mind when you encounter countervailing evidence. Those things were on my mind because as it happens, I used to teach seminars, etc. I would start off the first session with a list of these quotations about history and ask students to discuss them and what they tell us about what we’re going to be doing that semester.

Read the entire interview here.

Eric Foner Talks “Good History”

FonerNorton2.2Journalist John Green recently interviewed Columbia University historian Eric Foner for the British socialist newspaper Morning Star.

Here is a taste:

You’ve argued that the past needs to be “usable.” What exactly do you understand by that term?

The idea of a “usable” past is often misunderstood. It certainly does not mean distorting history for political ends, nor ignoring less than appealing features of past movements with which one is sympathetic.

I do believe that for those trying to change society today, an understanding of where our current situation comes from is essential and knowledge of past social movements very desirable.

A usable past is a body of historical knowledge that inspires people to try to make this a better world and that cuts through much of the historical mythology with which we are surrounded.

You say that Trump is not an aberration, but a logical extension of the way the Republican Party has been operating since Barry Goldwater. Why?

In terms of personality or temperament, Trump may be unique.

But his essential outlook and strategy — liberating business from “regulation,” opposing the rights of labour, appealing to white resentment against non-whites and native-born peoples, fears of foreigners and immigrants — have been standard Republican fare since Goldwater’s campaign of 1964 and Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy.”

Trump gives all this a new twist but the basic ideology is the same.

In the face of the Trump administration’s determined efforts to rewrite history or change our understanding and interpretation of it, how do you feel historians can best counter that?

To paraphrase Jefferson, the best antidote to bad history is good history. In the current situation, writing what Nietzsche called “critical” history is itself an act of opposition.

Read the entire interview here.


A National Monument for Reconstruction?

freedmens-bureauHistorians Gregory Downs, Eric Foner, and Kate Masur are urging Barack Obama to make such a monument part of his legacy.  (Should we imply from this New York Times piece that these historians do not think such a monument has a chance with Donald Trump as president?).

Here is a taste:

Although Americans are already looking ahead to the next presidential administration, President Obama retains the power to shape his legacy and our nation in his remaining weeks in office. He has already used his final months to create several national monuments, and we urge him to create another, one that will speak as much to the nation’s present and future as it does to its past: the first national monument dedicated to Reconstruction — the turbulent, misunderstood era after the Civil War — in Beaufort, S.C., which has one of the country’s highest concentrations of Reconstruction-related sites.

Work on the monument is already underway. Community leaders in Beaufort have submitted a formal request to the National Park Service for a monument that encompasses key sites of emancipation and postwar community-building. In May, two South Carolina representatives — James Clyburn, a Democrat, and Mark Sanford, a Republican — sponsored a resolution to establish a national monument to the Reconstruction era. And last month, a group of 17 historians who have been helping the National Park Service study Reconstruction, as well as the American Historical Association and other professional historical groups, endorsed this effort.

This is a crucial time to commemorate Reconstruction. The period after the Civil War created the modern United States: Three constitutional amendments ended slavery, created equal legal protection and birthright citizenship, and prohibited racial discrimination in voting laws. Four million formerly enslaved Americans reconstructed their families and communities, establishing thousands of churches and schools and civic organizations.

Reconstruction was the nation’s first great experiment in biracial democracy, with hundreds of thousands of black men able to vote for the first time, and significant numbers holding elective office. Largely for that reason, Southern planters led coups against local governments that supported Reconstruction, and went on to bar blacks and many poor whites from voting and to construct a system of Jim Crow racial exclusion.

Read the entire piece here.

I think a Reconstruction monument is a great idea.

Eric Foner on the Possibility of a GOP Breakup


Is it the end of the Republican Party as we know it?  Historians have been talking about it. Eric Foner is one of them.

Here is a taste of Foner’s interview with Janell Ross at The Washington Post.

So, there have been a lot of stories written about tensions inside the GOP and the possibility of a very, very messy convention, a nomination fight or even a fracture. Have we ever been here before?

FONER: Well, it depends what you mean by a “fracture.” If you mean events that totally destroyed a major party and created a new one, the last time that happened would have been in the 1850s. Before that, the country had two major political parties: the Democrats and the Whigs. Since then, we have had basically two major parties — the Democratic and Republican Parties — with some short-lived breakaway and one-election-cycle movements that sometimes deeply influenced election outcomes. But we have not seen an actual party die or a new one born and continue since 1854.

Isn’t that when and how the Republican Party itself was born?

Yes. In the 1850s, there were a lot of things creating a lot of conflict inside both parties. Somehow, the Democratic Party managed to hang together. The Whigs didn’t, and out of that came the Republican Party.

I think most people know that the major issue — the issue that ultimately killed the Whig Party in the United States — was the question of what was happening with slavery. There were very few people advocating the immediate abolition of slavery at the time. The issue was really whether or not slavery would be extended to the territories out West. There were some other issues tied to this. But at the time you had two parties — the Democrats and the Whigs — which competed with each other in every region of the country.

There were Northern Whigs who differed on a lot of things. For example, some believed in a high tariff and others believed in a low tariff. But lying beneath that, for just about everyone in the party, was the sense that the South had dominated the federal government since the drafting of the Constitution. Most of the presidents had, at that point, been from Southern, slave-holding states. There were a lot of people who felt that the South had too much political influence at the federal level, in part because slave labor gave it some distinct economic advantages [i.e. free labor].

That’s why, in its earliest days, the Republican Party was a Northerners’ party representing northern political and economic interests and the North’s position on the expansion of slavery.

Of course, once you say that, you have to also acknowledge two things. Slavery proved to be the issue that the political system could not handle, or the issue that could not be resolved within the political system. It was a question eventually settled by Civil War. And you also have to say that the Republican Party we’ve discussed is not, of course, what the party is today, when a lot of its voters are down South.


Eric Foner Gives Bernie Sanders Some Advice About Democratic Socialism

Esteemed Columbia University historian Eric Foner recently gave Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders some advice about how to talk about democratic socialism.  The advice came in a letter published in The Nation.  

In a nutshell, Foner wants Sanders to connect his political ideas to the radical tradition in the United States rather than to present-day socialism in Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, etc.).  By doing so, socialism will not seem so foreign to Americans. 
Here is a taste:

You could begin with Tom Paine and other American revolutionaries who strove not simply for independence from Britain but to free the new nation from the social and economic inequalities of Europe. Embrace the tradition of abolitionists, black and white, men and women like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Abby Kelley, who, against overwhelming odds, broke through the conspiracy of silence of the two major parties on the issue of slavery and helped to create a public sentiment that led to Lincoln’s election and emancipation. (And don’t forget to mention that slaves represented by far the largest concentration of wealth in the United States on the eve of the Civil War, that slaveholders were the richest Americans of their time, and that nothing could be accomplished without confronting their economic and political power.) Refer to the long struggle for women’s rights, which demanded not only the vote but also equality for women in all realms of life and in doing so challenged some of the most powerful entrenched interests in the country.

Eric Foner on the *New York Daily News*

Growing-up as a working-class kid in North Jersey my family subscribed to two daily newspapers: The Morristown Daily Record and the Newark Star-Ledger.   In addition, my father would always bring home his worn and coffee-stained copy of the New York Daily News.  On the weekends we got the Sunday Daily News.  (I never remember seeing a copy of The New York Times in my house).

I always read the Daily News the same way. Since I was a New York sports fanatic I would always start with the back of the paper and work my way toward the middle.  I was a big fan of the cartoons of Bill Gallo. When I got to the end of the sports section I would  flip to the front page and start reading the non-sports-related news.  I always read Jimmy Breslin’s column, but I am not quite sure why.  

Needless to say, I was thrilled back in 2010 when I wrote my first piece for the Daily News.  

I thought about those days in the 1970s reading the New York Daily News when I ran across historian Eric Foner‘s letter to the editor published in the October 6, 2015 issue of The New York Times.  Here it is:

Your article about the transformation of The Daily News (“Layoffs and Digital Shift at The Daily News May Signal the Tabloid Era’s End,” news article, Sept. 28) brings back memories of my days as a young City College history professor in the 1970s at the time of open admissions.

The students hailed from every conceivable racial and national background, and had widely differing degrees of preparation for college. In addition to history courses, I was assigned to teach remedial reading (a subject in which I had no training whatever).

I told the students at the outset to bring The New York Times to class each day; we would work on reading comprehension and vocabulary and also discuss what was going on in the world. The next day only a handful of students arrived with the paper. It turned out that The Times was simply not for sale in the neighborhoods where they lived. So we switched to The Daily News, available at every newsstand in New York.

Their reading improved during the term. Equally important, they learned a heck of a lot about the city in which they lived.


Two Forms of Exceptionalism: Foner and Cheney

Over at The Anxious Bench blog, John Wilsey, a professor of history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, explores the various ways that Americans think about the United States as an “exceptional” nation. He compares the form of American exceptionalism espoused by Eric Foner in a recent article in The Nation with the view of exceptionalism recently put forth by Dick and Liz Cheney in the Wall Street Journal and in their new book Exceptional.  Here is a taste:

Foner argued that, if American exceptionalism has any basis of truth to it at all, that basis is found in the concept of birthright citizenship. He noted in his piece that the idea of birthright citizenship arose out of the injustice of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Americans had not always acted justly toward non-whites, as seen in the Dred Scott case of 1857 and in attempts to exclude Chinese people (among others) from citizenship in the late nineteenth century. But regardless of those violations of justice, Americans ultimately came to believe that, as Foner wrote, “anyone born here can be a good American.” Foner wrote that Republican presidential candidates now calling for an end to birthright citizenship in the name of American exceptionalism are really betraying it.
The Cheneys’ conception of exceptionalism differs significantly from Foner’s. While the Cheneys and Foner both talk about American ideals as being central to exceptionalism, the Cheneys see those ideals in terms of a global mission and responsibility. For the Cheneys, America is a superpower “because of our ideals and our power, and the power of our ideals.” America has championed causes of “freedom, security and peace for a larger share of humanity than any other nation in history” and is “the most powerful, good and honorable nation in the history of mankind.” And while America did not necessarily seek greatness, greatness was thrust upon her—and America has a profound duty in the world to champion righteousness and freedom wherever these are threatened.
Foner’s conception of exceptionalism is exemplarist. It is a conception that admits flaws, but conceives of those flaws as opportunities for correction. Foner’s conception of exceptionalism is rooted in the founding ideals of individual rights, basic human equality, and the human dignity on which those ideals are based. Foner’s articulation of American exceptionalism is open, inclusive, and expansive. While Americans do not always get it right, Americans remain perpetually unsatisfied with wrong, and seek, by fits and starts, to promote the ideals with which they began their national career.
The Cheneys’ conception of exceptionalism goes beyond mere example. To be sure, the Cheneys wrote that America began as an example, but after World War II, “we became freedom’s defender.” (We could quibble with their historical accuracy—they leave out America’s contribution to Allied victory in World War I and Woodrow Wilson’s messianic vision of American leadership in the Versailles peace, a vision that birthed the Cheneys’ articulation of exceptionalism in the first place. But I digress.)
Two qualities animate the Cheneys’ articulation of exceptionalism—missionary zeal and American innocence. The idea that America has been charged with a global mission to “defend freedom” anywhere and everywhere is not new. It can be traced back to the colonial Puritans in the seventeenth century, American revolutionary sermons in the eighteenth, the manifest destiny of “Young America” in the nineteenth, and Wilson’s messianism of the early twentieth. In the Cold War, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles saw the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States in Manichean terms, part of a cosmic conflict of good versus evil. And everyone remembers Reagan’s “evil empire speech” of 1983. Reagan was fond of loosely quoting Abraham Lincoln, calling America “the last best hope of humanity” and advocating for America’s indispensability and innate goodness in a world perpetually threatened by forces of wickedness.
In this closed form of exceptionalism—this form of exceptionalism that is largely informed by religiosity and nationalism—America has two things that no other nation has, or ever has had. The first is immense power, and the second is innate innocence. Only America has the ability to defeat threats to freedom, and only America has the righteous credibility to do so.
Read the rest here.
I encourage you to check out Wilsey’s forthcoming book, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.

Eric Foner Defends American Exceptionalism

It is really hard to argue that the United States is not an exceptional nation.  It was the first nation born out of the Enlightenment.  In the early 19th century it was probably the most democratic place in the world.  As Chesterton said, it has always been a “nation with the soul of a church.”

American exceptionalism has fallen out of favor in recent decades, especially among liberals.  When understood in the context of the history of American foreign policy, American exceptionalism has produced some ugly results.  Unfortunately the idea of American exceptionalism has often gone hand in hand with some of the worst forms of imperialism.

And then there are those Christians who connect American exceptionalism to the providence of God. They believe that the United States is exceptional because it has somehow been uniquely blessed by God.  I am not going to go into the various problems with this view, but if you want to delve deeper into this idea I would recommend John Wilsey’s forthcoming book American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.

Eric Foner, the liberal historian who teaches at Columbia University in New York, might not  come immediately to mind when thinking about the defenders of American exceptionalism.  Yet, in this piece published in The Nation, Foner shows how the United States’s commitment to birthright citizenship makes America exceptional. 

Here is a taste: 

Birthright citizenship–the principle that any person born in the United States is automatically a citizen–has been embedded in the Constitution since the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868. This summer, it has suddenly emerged as a major issue in the Republican presidential campaign. Following the lead of Donald Trump, candidates like Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul have called for the repeal or reinterpretation of the amendment, to prevent children born to undocumented immigrants from being recognized as American citizens.

The situation abounds in ironies.  Now a Republican target, the 14th Amendment was for many decades considered the crowning achievement of what once called itself the part of Lincoln.  Today, moreover, birthright citizenship stands as an example of the much-abused idea of American exceptionalism, which Republicans have berated President Obama for supposedly not embracing. Many things claimed as uniquely American–a devotion to individual freedom, for example, or social opportunity–exist in other countries.  But birthright citizenship does make the United States (along with Canada) unique in the developed world.  No European nation recognized the principle.  Yet. oddly, those most insistent on proclaiming their belief in American exceptionalism seem keenest on abolishing it.

Read the rest here.

The National Park Service Wants Americans to Know About the Era of Reconstruction

Now that the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is done it is time for a similar commemoration of the long period of Reconstruction.  Unfortunately, Reconstruction has never quite captured the imagination of Americans in the way that the Civil War has done.  And why would it?  Reconstruction was messy.  And it ended with the “redemption” of the South and the subsequent era of Jim Crow.

But as Eric Foner and others have argued, Reconstruction. at least in its early years, was also a time of great opportunity and agency for the freemen living under the Radical Republican regime.

The National Park Service wants to make Americans aware of this history. A recent article in The New York Times describes what the NPS is up to:

The park service has played an important role in shaping, and reshaping, popular historical awareness. During the past two decades it has overhauled its Civil War sites, incorporating material on slavery into exhibits that had long been criticized by scholars for avoiding discussion of the root causes of the conflict.

But its 408 properties nationwide still do not include a single site dedicated to the postwar struggle to build a racially equal democracy.

“It’s the biggest gap in the park service by far,” said Robert Sutton, the service’s chief historian, adding that too many Americans still regard Reconstruction as “a disaster” best left forgotten.

To fill that gap, the service has hired two historians to conduct its first comprehensive survey of “nationally significant” sites connected with Reconstruction — the first step toward possible designation of a new site by Congress.

The initiative was announced in May. Since then, the massacre of nine African-Americans at a church in Charleston, S.C., in the midst of continuing debates over the Black Lives Matter campaign, has only underlined the enduring relevance of an era that saw both the dramatic expansion of rights for African-Americans and their violent rollback….

Historians have traditionally defined Reconstruction as lasting from 1865 until 1877, when most federal troops had withdrawn from the South and white supremacist Democrats gained control of state governments. The park service, echoing scholarly recalibrations, is taking a broader view, looking at sites dating from 1861, when slaves began fleeing to Union encampments, until 1898, when Jim Crow laws were fully in place.

The high-water years of Reconstruction included passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which granted equal citizenship and voting rights to 4 million formerly enslaved African-Americans, as well as the creation, for both blacks and whites, of the first statewide public school systems in the South, the first significant public hospitals, new labor policies and other transformations…

But Representative James E. Clyburn, a Democrat who represents part of Beaufort County in Congress, said a park service site, while “long overdue,” could meet “some resistance, maybe some significant resistance.”

“I don’t think it’s been poorly understood,” Mr. Clyburn, a former high school history teacher, said of Reconstruction. “I think it’s been intentionally misrepresented.”

Read the entire article here.

Eric Foner Talks Reconstruction

In case you hadn’t seen it yet, the current issue of Jacobin is running an extensive interview with Eric Foner.  The Columbia University historian reflects on his career and his work on the Republican Party, the Civil War, and, of course, Reconstruction.

Here are my two favorite parts of the interview:

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

This was a long time ago, probably 1957 or ’58 — it was tenth or eleventh grade. And yeah, it was American History class, in Long Beach, Long Island, and the teacher was basically giving us the old, traditional Birth of a Nation view of Reconstruction. She said the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which gave the right to vote to black men in the South, was the worst law in all American history.
So I raised my hand and I said, “I don’t agree with you, Mrs. Berryman, I think the Alien and Sedition Acts were worse.” I don’t know where I got that from. And she said, “Alright, Eric, if you don’t like the way I’m teaching, you come in tomorrow and you give a lecture on Reconstruction.” Which I did — my father was a historian, Du Bois was a friend of the family, we had Black Reconstruction at home. So we used that.
I came in and I gave my presentation, and at the end of the class the teacher says, “All right, we’re now going to have a vote as to who’s right: me or Eric.” Well, she won by a landslide, let’s put it that way

Q: I wanted to talk about Karl Rove, who is apparently a big fan of your book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, on antebellum Republican ideology.
He said he learned how to build a political coalition from that book.
A student came up to me one year and said, “You might not approve of this, but I’ve got an internship in the White House working for Karl Rove this summer.” I said I don’t disapprove, they need all the help they can get down there. He said, “I’m glad you feel that way,” and he whipped out his copy of my Reconstruction book and said, “Mr Rove asked if I could get you to sign this for him.”

Being A Public Intellectual: Historians and the Public

Julian Zelizer, Princeton University

On Saturday afternoon I attended a session at AHA 2015 entitled “Being a Public Intellectual: Historians and the Public.”  There were some high-powered historians on this panel, including Peniel Joseph, Claire Potter, Julian Zelizer, Eric Foner, and Michael Kazin.  The place was packed–standing room only.

I live tweeted the session @johnfea1 and Storified the session here.

I thoroughly enjoyed this session–even found it inspiring.

In the end, the members of the panel seemed to have differing views on what the role and responsibilities of a “public intellectual.”  Peniel Joseph and Claire Potter were clearly historian-activists.  Zelizer called himself more of a “commentator” than an “activist.” (Joseph insisted that we can do both–comment and act). Foner approached his role as a public intellectual from a more traditional historical perspective. He believed that good scholarship could lead to social change.  Kazin seemed to be somewhere between Joseph/Potter and Foner.

Check out the tweets for more.

Happy 145 Birthday To The 14th Amendment

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted on July 9, 1868.  Here it is:

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. 

Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State. 

Section 3. No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may, by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability. 

Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void. 

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Here is Eric Foner on the 1866 Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment. 

Punditry, Scholarship, and George W. Bush

Sean Wilentz of Princeton wondered if George W. Bush was “The Worst President in History?”  Eric Foner of Columbia University agreed with him.  (I found Foner’s remarks particularly problematic since in the immediate wake of 9-11 he reminded us that historians should be careful about analyzing any event until some time had past so that they could develop some perspective).  Historian Robert Dallek proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow for a “recall” of Bush.  Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said that Bush was a threat to the nation and the planet.

Stephen F. Knott, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and the author of Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics (U of Kansas Press) notes that all of these historians are liberals who, of course, have strong political disagreements with Bush and his administration.  Fair enough.  But Knott, in his recent Washington Post article, goes on to argue that these political differences are getting in the way of historical objectivity.  He states that these historians “breached their professional obligations” and engaged in “scholarly malpractice.”

Here is a taste:

The animus that scholars have directed toward Bush has at times made a mockery of the principle of academic objectivity. At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in January 2009, a panel on the Bush-Cheney years organized by a group called Historians Against the War featured scholars from Columbia, Yale, Trinity College, New York University and Yeshiva University. They compared the Bush “regime’s” security practices to those of Joseph McCarthy and various “war criminals.” The cover illustration of the roundtable’s report showed Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, seated on a pile of human skulls.

All of this overheated rhetoric and fear-mongering has come from academics who profess to live the life of the mind. In their hasty, partisan-tinged assessments of Bush, far too many scholars breached their professional obligations, engaging in a form of scholarly malpractice, by failing to do what historians are trained to do before pronouncing judgment on a presidency: conduct tedious archival research, undertake oral history interviews, plow through memoirs, interview foreign leaders and wait for the release of classified information…

…George W. Bush’s low standing among academics reflects, in part, the rise of partisan scholarship: the use of history as ideology and as a political weapon, which means the corruption of history as history. Bush may not have been a great president; he may even be considered an average or below-average president, but he and — more important — the nation deserve better than this partisan rush to judgment.  

Also of interest: “Historians Still Despire George W. Bush” and Julian Zelizer’s “History’s Jury is Still Out on George W. Bush.”