Eric Foner

A Historian’s ‘Story of American Freedom,’ Part I

VTR Date: January 12, 1999

Guest: Foner, Eric


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Eric Foner
Title: A Historian’s “Story of American Freedom”
VTR: 1/12/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is such an accomplished writer and teacher of American history, his particular fields of interest are so relevant to so many of our contemporary concerns, that I don’t really have to apologize for perhaps seeming somewhat parochial or to be engaging in something of an intellectual conflict of interest.

For I served the muse Clio early on, as well … and a very first guest on The Open Mind was my teacher, the great American historian Allan Nevins.

As Nevins also was, my guest today is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University.

In the past, Eric Foner has written compelling about Tom Paine, about the Civil War, and about “Reconstruction — America’s Unfinished Revolution” which won the coveted Bancroft and Francis Parkman prizes.

The scion of perhaps America’s best known family of radical Left intellectuals whose contributions to the Civil Rights, civil liberties, labor and anti-war movements of this century have themselves made history, in his new volume, “The Story of American Freedom” published by W. W. Norton in historian Alan Brinkley’s words my guest “has written a synthesis of American history that incorporates the new discoveries of recent scholarship and the much more complicated vision of our past that the new scholarship has created; and he has still made the story seem somehow whole”

But I want to ask my guest just how whole he feels the story of American freedom is.
Is its seeming “wholeness” there mostly for the sake of its readers, or does it actually represent its author’s essential “act of faith” which is what Charles A. Beard called all recorded history. Tell me about this matter of freedom in America.

FONER: Well, Richard, that’s a very good question and I suppose citing Beard, really that could be asked about any work of history. Any historical narrative is to some extent an invention simply because the historian, through his or her active intellect creates order out of a tremendous chaos of events and influences and selects certain themes and issues and events in the past to write about and excludes many other things. So, I wouldn’t … I think what Professor Brinkley said was very kind. I certainly don’t intend this book to be a whole portrait of American history, but I do think that if you look at American history through the lens of this very central notion of freedom which is so important to us in our conception of ourselves as a people, you do get a new way of looking at familiar events whether its the Revolution or the Civil War or the New Deal and you highlight maybe some unfamiliar things which … whose importance, I think, can be shown by seeing them through this lens of freedom.

HEFFNER: You know when I read Alan Brinkley’s blurb I thought to myself now “The Story of American Freedom” … is it the story of my concern as an American a hundred years ago for the story of American freedom. Or is it my concern about myself? Is the story of American freedom a parochial one? One that has to do with the history of individuals and groups who are concerned about themselves by not concerned about the larger society.

FONER: Well, I think there’s some of both in this story. And I guess my main point in this book is that the very idea of freedom, so important to us as Americans, is not a fixed idea, it’s not a pre-determined concepts, it’s not a end or a goal to which history just moves in a straight line down a railroad track. It’s constantly contested, its constantly up for grabs. Different people, different groups in our history have defined or understood freedom in different ways. And the story of freedom is actually the story of these conflicts. It’s the story of how ideas of freedom have developed, have changed have circled back upon themselves so that ideas that are in eclipse in one era come to the fore in another. That’s the story, and I think that’s a much more interesting story than if we just said “Okay, well, the Founding Fathers sort of created a country based on freedom and it’s been getting better ever since.” It’s not a straight line history. As Thomas Wentworth Higgenson, who commanded Black troops during the Civil War said, “Revolutions may go backward. Freedoms can be gained and they often have been in our history. They can also be taken away, or challenged. So this is an open-ended history. It’s a contested history. And I think it’s the debate itself which gives this history its dynamism and its drama.

HEFFNER: Why is freedom such a theme. Could you have picked some other theme or is freedom, in your estimation, the predominant, the prevailing theme in America?

FONER: Well, I think freedom is more central to our political vocabulary, to our sense of ourselves as a people than any other word. If you ask someone, man or woman on the street, you know, why they’re doing something, pretty soon they’ll say “well, it’s a free country”. We think of ourselves as the cradle of liberty, or the land of the free. Things like that. Now that doesn’t mean that other countries, other peoples don’t cherish freedom. But I think freedom here holds a more central place in our political ideology than it does in other country. Now, as I say, that doesn’t mean that everyone agrees on what freedom is. During the Civil War, Lincoln said, you know both sides here claim to be fighting for freedom. In the South, however, freedom for Whites meant the right to own a slave. That was a different vision of freedom than Northerners had. But both spoke of freedom as their goal. So that it seems like every group in American history tries to appropriate this concept of freedom to advance their own interests and aspirations. And that’s what gives freedom such utility in writing about the American past. Of course one could say “equality” or democracy … and there are books which trace those ideas. But what happens with freedom is it sort of absorbs or incorporates those ideas. Sometimes when people are talking about freedom, they really mean equality, or equality becomes part of their conception of freedom. So this is, I think, the key word, as we say, of Americans’ political language.

HEFFNER: And its role today?

FONER: Well, it’s as contested today as it always has been. Nowadays … one of the last things I did when I wrote this book was to go to the Internet, which is sort of what’s happening today, and plug in the word “freedom” to one of the search mechanisms. And if you do that, anybody who’s watching can easily do that, you’ll come up with some fairly strange things. You’ll come up with militia units out in the wilds of Montana who are trying to, you know, get rid of the Federal government. You will find people who blow up Federal office buildings. You will find anti-tax groups. You will find free market propagandists. In other words, today the concept of freedom seems to be a series of negatives. It’s hostility to government, it’s hostility to social citizenship or things like that. And, basically the right to do whatever you feel like without outside coercion. Those ideas have been present in American history in the past, but those aren’t the only ideas of freedom that have flourished in our history. And one of the points I wanted to make in this book is that this Libertarian conservative definition of freedom which seems so dominant today is not the only American idea of freedom, and maybe in the future other notions will come back into our discourse which seems to be pushed off to the side right now.

HEFFNER: When you say “other concepts” of freedom, what do you mean?

FONER: Well, we could start with one of FDR’s Four Freedoms from World War II. As with many of our wars, you know, the government tried to mobilize popular support of World War II by talking about it as a war for freedom. And, as you well know, FDR put forward the Four Freedoms as our goals … freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear and freedom from want. Now you don’t hear much about freedom from want nowadays. The essence of that idea was that to enjoy freedom people have to have a certain modicum of economic security. That the person, as Roosevelt said, who is necessitous, who is so poor that they can’t really make ends meet is not truly free. That there’s this economic dimension of freedom, as well as the personal or political dimensions. That idea you’re not going to find if you look around our politics nowadays. But it may, as the gap between rich and poor, seems to be widening and widening and widening, maybe that will come back into our politics in the twenty-first century.

HEFFNER: Eric, how, how fair is that, that one doesn’t see references to the meaning of the freedom from want.

FONER: Well, I don’t see a lot of politicians talking about it. Obviously we still have the so-called safety net of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc., but it seems like the main thrust of our politics in the 1990s has been to limit people’s sense of entitlement. In fact, there’s a whole literature, as you know, which claims that the problem with American society is people think they have too many entitlements, they have too high aspirations. They shouldn’t look to the government to give them a sort of wherewithal. But it’s not even just freedom from want. Throughout our history economic freedom has often been defined as some sort of either economic independence. So for example, Jefferson talked about the person owning land as being truly free. Or in the twentieth century, since owning land doesn’t seem to give you a lot of economic autonomy nowadays. Things like economic security, like a “living wage”, as they called it in the early part of the nineteenth century, or of the twentieth century. Or, as the progressives talked about “industrial freedom”. That is a say in the economic decisions that affect your life. These are all ideas which have been out there. Some of them are still, obviously they never disappear. But I think today they’re not as widely held or as widely disseminated as at some other moments in our past.

HEFFNER: How do you account for the fact, as you stated, that, the concept of freedom from want doesn’t play the same role today that it did when FDR gave expression to it.

FONER: Well, one reason, of course, is that FDR is coming right at the end of the Depression when “want” was a widespread phenomenon in the society. Today poverty is still scandalously present in a rich society like ours. But is more confined to the margins, to people in Appalachia, to Blacks, to recent immigrants, to people who are, perhaps, less central to the way our politics seems to operate. But also I think during the 1980s and Ronald Reagan plays an important part in this book. I think the Conservatives were very adept, lead by Reagan and others in, sort of re-defining what freedom was. To them economic freedom means not economic security or freedom from want, but letting the marketplace operate without outside restraint. The argument being, of course, that this will create prosperity for everybody. So low taxes, lack of government regulation, that’s what economic freedom was for Reagan and Conservatives and I think they really … just as Roosevelt had shifted the meaning of freedom in his Administration, I think Reagan and Conservatives shifted it again toward this, you know, free market definition of economic freedom during that period.

HEFFNER: You say “shifted it”. I know that it was their purpose, and I know from reading your book how strongly you feel about that.

FONER: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: But did they … did they achieve in terms of the nation at large what Roosevelt had achieved in his sense of freedom?

FONER: Maybe not quite as much. I mean … in 19 … I quote … in 1936 during the Presidential election campaign of ‘36 when Roosevelt was running for re-election, I quote the New York Times as saying “what’s really going on in this election campaign is a battle for possession of the word ‘freedom’.” Roosevelt insisted in that campaign that freedom meant economic security. The Republicans insisted, Land and etc. , his opponents, insisted that freedom meant the free market, individual initiative. The overwhelming majority that Roosevelt achieved in that election … stemmed from many causes, but seemed to be in part a popular judgment that his definition of freedom was more in turn with public opinion. Now, if you go to public opinion polls today you will still find that most Americans think, for example, that government should guarantee a job to all who want one and don’t have it. But I don’t hear either political party articulating that idea. In other words, the, the difference, the intellectual difference between the parties, despite all the showmanship going on in Washington nowadays over sexual and other issues. The substantive intellectual differences between the parties are very, very narrow today. And, I think that’s one of the reasons that these various definitions of freedom really don’t get articulated very much in the political spectrum because you don’t have the clashing ideologies that you did during the New Deal, or perhaps during the Progressive Era, or during the anti-Slavery Movement when politics really reflected very fundamental differences on major public issues.

HEFFNER: Would you have it otherwise?

FONER: I think I would have it otherwise. I’m not saying that we ought to have, you know, that our politicians ought to be always at each other’s throats and, you know, with no holds barred. But I think a democracy requires, I think, the people to be presented with substantive choice. And I think looking back 50 years from now historians will be very hard pressed to identify significant substantive differences between, for example, President Clinton and George Bush. Or President Clinton and Bob Dole during the last Presidential campaigns. You know on some issues like abortion rights they, they differ very markedly. But certainly one of President Clinton’s whole reason d’être, as a politician has been to move the Democratic party closer to Republican positions on most things. And, so we don’t … yeah, I think more difference between the parties is desirable if you’re going to have a Democratic system in which people actually have a choice between the parties.

HEFFNER: Now, you know, I’m interested in that because James MacGregor Burns, whenever he sat at this table has expressed that same idea and I, I challenged him always on …

FONER: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … that, and think that I wonder what Jim is thinking today and we’ll have to call him and ask him.

FONER: Right.

HEFFNER: But are we … have we been better off when there has been that ideological gap between the parties?

FONER: Well, the ideo … you know what is the cause and what is the effect, one might say. I think the ideological gap arises when there are fundamental issues confronting the country which sort of … the usual consensus politics can’t solve. Go back to the slavery issue before the Civil War. The political system, the political leaders tried for decades to keep the slavery issue out of politics. Because they knew it was so disruptive, it posed the danger of breaking up the Union. And now you might say, “Well, that was very bright of them, or very clever of them to try to keep slavery out of politics”. Unfortunately, slavery existed and was a growing problem for the country, and just keeping it out of politics didn’t address the fact that this was a fundamental problem about the nature of our society. And so when it finally came into the politics, it did so with a vengeance and eventually broke up the Union into our greatest crisis. So, looking back I’m not sure that one would say that those who tried to narrow differences really did the country a service. Because they, you know, it’s like keeping a lid on a pressure cooker. If the pressure is in there, you can’t keep the lid on forever, one day it’s going to blow up. It might have been better if our political leaders had confronted the question of slavery a little earlier and maybe been able to deal with it in a less dramatic way than the Civil War.

HEFFNER: Don’t you think that those people who see Clinton, President Clinton as having moved us by adopting, co-opting …

FONER: MmmHmm.
HEFFNER: … a good deal of Republican thinking. That we have moved, we’ve moved one step and another step … not one step forward and one step back …

FONER: Right. We’re moving, it’s hard to tell what direction we’re moving in. There are fundamental differences in our country today. I think the whole impeachment history here has shown them. But they’re not so much conventional political or economic issues, but you might almost say “cultural questions” stemming from the 1960s. It seems like we’re still fighting the Culture Wars of the 60s over and over again. And, I have a whole chapter in my book about 60s freedom and I think that that decade helped to re-shape the idea of freedom in very fundamental ways. First of all, the Civil Rights Movement, called itself the “Freedom” Movement. It rescued the idea of freedom from a sort of Cold War definition in which freedom was just anti-Communism. And tried to give freedom a substantive meaning as, you know, empowerment for those who had been long disadvantaged in American society. As you well know, the Civil Rights Movement talked about, you know, had its Freedom Rides and its Freedom Songs. They appropriated the notion of freedom more effectively than any other social movement in the twentieth century. But you also got, of course, the counter-culture and a somewhat different vision of freedom as just personal liberation … the right to choose your own life style, to have sexual behavior or clothing or hair styles or anything like that without, you know, in any way you want without anybody interfering with you. And there are a lot who don’t like that notion of freedom and we’re still in a sense debating whether freedom is this personal liberation or some notion of collective restraint and morality. And in a sense that’s still roiling our politics in the 1990s.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s why I was interested in, in “The Story of American Freedom” I had the feeling that you were suggesting that that sixties matter, oh, hadn’t been settled but something like that.

FONER: Well, it hasn’t, and I don’t think this is so unusual. After all, as you know, after the Civil War for forty or fifty years politics revolved around the Civil War. People went out and voted Democratic or Republican depending what side their father or grandfather had fought for. After the New Deal, for decades people would go out and vote for Roosevelt again, even though he was long gone. It does seem like our politics has a way of revolving around the past as much as around the future. It takes a long time for these periods of real social division to get themselves resolved. I think … to some extent sixties definitions of freedom have triumphed. I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to the sexual mores and rigid family structures of the 1950s, I don’t think we’re ever going to see women put back into the kind of suburban housewife mold. I don’t think that we will see Black Americans put back into an era of segregation and disenfranchisement, and that sort of thing. So these gains are permanent but they caused a tremendous reaction. After all, remember the sixties were not only the decade of the counter-culture and Black rights, they were the decade of Goldwater, of the Young Americans For Freedom, the grass roots young conservative movement. Trent Lott in the Senate is as much a [product of the sixties as Clinton is. The two wings of the sixties … the conservative sixties and the libratory sixties have been fighting it out ever since.

HEFFNER: Yes, but let’s tote up the votes that Goldwater got.

FONER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: When he ran against Lyndon Johnson.

FONER: Well, but tote up the votes that Reagan got running against the sixties. In ‘66 Reagan was elected Governor of California by running against the Student Movement and Anti-War Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. And even when he was elected President in 1980, a good deal of his appeal was somehow for, your know, law and order, morality, to go back … past the sixties to a mythic kind of, you know, version of small town America.

HEFFNER: Well, in a sense then, the question is for me … which is it? Which one in the sixties?

FONER: The fight is still on, you know, and I think … I can quote to you, this may seem like an odd analogy … somebody once asked Chou En Li, Chinese Premier, etc., how history would judge the impact of the French Revolution and he said, “it’s too soon to tell”. We historians don’t like to make judgments on who won if it just too place 30 years ago. Maybe 50 years from now historians will be able to know who won.

HEFFNER: Well, Eric, though we’re taping this show in the middle of … towards the middle of January, 1999 … we don’t know when it will be on the air. But I was fascinated by a report in yesterday’s New York Times referring to the fact that you have just been elected President-Elect … made President-Elect of the American Historical Association. Congratulations.

FONER: Thank you, it’s a great honor.

HEFFNER: You say, they quote you here … they make the point that there was nothing, at the AHA’s meeting about what has been going on in Washington … impeachment, etc. And you say here, next year in Chicago there maybe room at the annual meeting’s agenda … in the annual meeting’s agenda for a discussion of impeachment. And then I guess you added, “assuming that Mr. Clinton’s fate is decided by, by then”, a year from now. But you’re quoted as saying, “we’re not political pundits, he said without a trace of smugness, we like to know how something turns out before we analyze it”.

FONER: [Laughter] Well, I didn’t have a trace of smugness. I perhaps had a trace of irony which I have discovered reporters often don’t quite capture. I think that instant analysis of history is not really what historians ought to be doing. As citizens we have an absolute right and obligation to put our opinions forward. I have an opinion about impeachment … I’m happy to share it with anyone who’s interested, but that’s my opinion as a citizen. I don’t claim that my knowledge of the Founding Fathers or of the Civil War and Reconstruction makes me a better judge of the charges against President Clinton than you or any other citizen of the United States who has a right in a democracy to hold those views also. I observe frequently that when historians get involved in partisan politics you end up with bad history and bad politics. What I mean to say is as individuals we can get involved, but not with the imprimatur of history. Not with the claim that we are speaking for history.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but how do you not do that? How can Eric Foner speak except as I know, and everyone else knows that he is the President-Elect of the American Historical Society.

FONER: Well, I think a little self-restraint is often a good idea. I, I don’t think, you know … I know a great deal about, let’s say the history of American race relations, I’ve studied it, I’ve studied slavery, Reconstruction … that doesn’t mean that I know what is to be done at the moment, so to speak, about serious racial divisions in our country. The one thing that my knowledge and other historian’s knowledge can help … anybody who’s thinking about these … help them understand these questions is to show them how we got to where we are today. And that these questions are perennial, they’re persistent, they didn’t just pop up over night. But that doesn’t tell us what we ought to be doing. It … that’s really for people to judge from many, many different perspectives, and as I say … maybe I’m just sounding too old-fashioned and conservative now, but I just really think historians should wait before leaping into the political fray because they tend to forget about their historical knowledge when they do that and they just act like anyone else … saying “I’m for Clinton, and I’m going to find an interpretation of history which supports Clinton”. Or “I’m for impeachment and I’m going to show you … I’m going to rummage through history and find good historical grounds for impeachment”. You can do either of those very easily. History doesn’t tell us a single lesson.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting that that is not what historians do 40 years, 100 years after the deed?

FONER: To some extent they do do it, but one hopes they do it with sufficient apparatus of evidence and argumentation that they, that the plausibility of their writings can be judged effectively by other people. In my book I’m making an argument about the history of American freedom. If another scholar wrote this book, they would write it very differently, but I’m giving you the entire scholarly apparatus along with it, which enable you to judge when I say this happened, you can decide for yourself, “well, does he make a convincing case or not?”. When you’re involved in a TV show as a pundit debating with other people, it’s kind of hard to bring that scholarly background to bear.

HEFFNER: I hope, since we’ve reached the end of this program that you’ll sit still and let us do another one, because I want to go further on the question of historians commenting not on the past, but on the near present.

FONER: Certainly.

HEFFNER: Thanks so much for joining me today, Eric Foner.

FONER: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.