Eric Foner

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

VTR Date: January 12, 1999

Guest: Foner, Eric


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

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And my guest for this second of our two part series, is again Eric Foner, Columbia University’s distinguished DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, whose recent W.W. Norton volume, “The Story of American Freedom” provides so much pleasure for all of its readers and so much grist for this erstwhile historian’s mill.

Now, Mr. Foner, I’d like to go back to what we were saying at the end of our first program about historians daring to comment on contemporary events, perhaps testify as to what history tells them about them. I gather you’re kind of negative about that.

FONER: Cautious, maybe is a better word. Historians have as much right as any other citizens to comment on public events and to bring their expertise to bear. The danger becomes … a historian, I think Alfred Kelly, wrote an article back in the fifties about his experiences as a historian in the legal case that led to Brown vs. Board of Education, the desegregation decision. It was called “Law Office History” … his article. And what he was saying was, you know, we did a good job, but really we were searching through the past to find evidence to support the position we wanted to take in court. Now all historians due that to some extent, but on the other hand, the writing of history is filled with nuance and “well, on the other hand, this is the case”. And we never make, in our historical writing these blanket judgments. Or we try to give the whole picture. If you’re involved in a law case, or in politics, people are looking for “Yes” or “No” answers, either/or dichotomies. What did the Founding Fathers mean by “high crimes and misdemeanors, Professor”, you know. Well, if the historian says, “Well, you know, it’s a little complicated, there’s a lot of meanings, and there were different Founding Fathers. And some of them thought this and that”, your Senator is going to turn off very fast. If you come to say, “Look here [pounds on table], the Founding Fathers meant this …”, that could be very effective, but as history, if may be open to some question. So, I just think historians have to be very careful when they do get involved in political debate not to sacrifice the complexity and nuance of history for the immediate political occasion.

HEFFNER: Well, we’re of course taping this program in mid-January, 1999 and you don’t know and I don’t know when the case of William Jefferson Clinton is going to be resolved one way or another, or another, or another. But still I wonder whether you are being critical of those people who have commented, those who ply the historical trade.

FONER: Well, there have been quite a few historians who have leaped into this fray on different sides, and some of them are very good friends of mine, so I certainly don’t want to be critical of them. I, I do think that some of the arguments that historians have advanced in support of President Clinton have been historically suspect. Let’s put it that way. Let me say I am completely opposed to the impeachment of President Clinton. My reading of the Constitution and our history suggests that what he is guilty of, disreputable as it is, is not what the political system really means by … or does not measure up to the function of impeachment in our political system. Impeachment in our political system, I think, is a way of getting rid of someone who is abusing the rights of the body politic. Andrew Johnson, the first President to be impeached was doing that, in the sense that he was striving very mightily to deprive four million African Americans of their basic rights as citizens. That, to me, is sort of an impeachable offense. If Clinton was oppressing the freedom of speech or depriving people of the right to vote, he should be impeached. But these private matters, even concealing private sexual affairs doesn’t affect the nature of our democracy or the political system. So to me impeachment is not the mechanism for that. But my point about bringing history to bear is … for example, one hears some historians talk about “well, we must not let the Presidency be weakened. The President is our leader in times of crisis.” Well, it’s hard for a scholar like myself of Reconstruction after the Civil War to endorse that as blanket rule of American history. During Reconstruction it was Congress that was actually the leader in striving to expand the rights of all Americans, to give Black people their standing as free citizens of the country and it was the President who was obstructing it … Andrew Johnson … all the way down the line. So it’s not a rule of all of our history that the President is the person we have to look to in times of crisis. Weakening the Presidency to me is not necessarily a … would not necessarily create a crisis in our government. This particular President, I think, is unjustly being put on trial. So, in other words I’m just saying that … not to mention and, you now, not to go into what an individual said … I just think that one has to be very careful when one is a historian entering the public realm to make sure you’re still acting as a … you know, as a good historian, that’s all.

HEFFNER: But you know, I’m so puzzled by what you say because in “The Story of American Freedom” you, you glory in the fact that freedom has meant different things to different people. So when you talk about what Woodrow Wilson called “Congressional government” …

FONER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … after the Civil War you’re talking about a period that … I was going to say “most”, I’ll strike that … so many of us in political science and in history … talking about a period that we regretted … just as Wilson did, it existed to be sure, but it was not something that we embraced. That was …

FONER: Well, what Wilson … I’m not sure Wilson is the person we ought to bring to bear on this … if at all …

HEFFNER: Because it was racial attitudes?

FONER: Yeah … I mean his objection to Congress during the Reconstruction Period stemmed to a good, to a considerable extent from Congress’ efforts to bring Civil Rights and Voting Rights to bear for Black Americans. Wilson in … you know … in his writings as a political scientist … yet at the turn of the century, called the South a fully functioning democracy. This is a time when Black people had been disenfranchised. How can you call that a fully functioning democracy? I’m just say that Wilson, like so many others, reflected the racial views of his period. So his “anamad???” versions upon Congressional government have to be take with a bit of a grain of salt because they’re being advanced through this particular point of view. The point is not whether Congress is good or if the President is good. We’ve had good Congresses and bad Congresses. We’ve had very great Presidents and some pretty bad Presidents. Our political system, as you well know, is structured so that there’s a balance among the branches of government, and that each of the three major branches … the Supreme Court, or the President, or the Congress can counteract the evils done by the other. And sometimes can take the lead in redressing social problems which the other branches don’t want to address.

HEFFNER: But certainly many of the historians about whom you might be somewhat critical for their participation in the current debate have talked about their concerns about the, about the possibility of parliamentary government. And …

FONER: Right.

HEFFNER: … talk about moving us into an area …

FONER: Yeah, it’s funny, because in other countries … other countries seem to be going down the road of American Presidential government, and they’re worried about us going down the road of parliamentary government. Britain, which has a parliamentary system … some people there are saying “well, we’re going this American direction” .. with the Prime Minister really being, although the leader of the Labor Party, in this case, being sort of a public figure on his own, rather than simply the leader of the majority party in the Parliament. Israel has changed its Constitution fairly recently in order to have a direct election of the President, rather than simply the majority in the Kenssett, choosing the President. It seems like in an age of the media and sort of sensationalism and popular entertainment, there has to be a single figure who represents the government. And parliament … I don’t think we’re ever going to have parliamentary government in this country because the nature of our public life seems to focus so much on individuals.

HEFFNER: But if our Presidents become more and more … or more frequently subject to the political disapproval by the legislative, won’t we come closer to parliamentary government and if we do, from your own knowledge of American history …

FONER: It could be a problem. If Clinton is impeached and removed … convicted and removed from office, and we don’t know if that’s going to happen as we’re talking … I think that would certainly be a warning to future Presidents that they better not alienate Congress quite in the ways that Clinton has. It would lower the bar, as they say on what constitutes an impeachable crime, or offense. If Clinton is acquitted, or the charges are dropped, or he is censured, but not removed … this episode may have less impact on our body politic than one may think. Future Presidents may say, “well, look, they tried to get rid of Clinton and they didn’t, they couldn’t, and the public didn’t support them, so really I don’t have to worry about this kind of thing.”

HEFFNER: If you were a future President of the United States I would think you would darn well worry about it, whether Clinton is convicted or if he is acquitted.

FONER: Well, I’m, I’m more comfortable talking about the past Presidents than the future Presidents. Certainly, as we all know, many Presidents of the past have committed acts, first of all not that dissimilar from some of the acts that Clinton is accused of committing, or even more flagrant violations of their trust than Clinton and were not impeached for it. It does seem that the nature of impeachment has been changed by this. But if there is a public backlash against it and the election of the year 2000 may show us if that happens, I think future Congresses will wait … you know, will think twice before embarking on impeachment for these kinds of reasons.

HEFFNER: Well, we won’t discuss that … because we can’t … and we can’t even discuss “Profiles in Courage” to see who will vote …

FONER: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … which way. But I … you say you’re more comfortable in thinking about Presidents in the past which brings me back to a question that has come up so often recently, and there you’ve indicated to me, ;yourself that when you talk about slavery and you … your, your primary field is the Civil War and Reconstruction. Questions come up about Jefferson and the Sally business and the question of his fathering a child by a slave …

FONER: Right.

HEFFNER: … why is this of such enormous importance today?

FONER: Well of course the question of Jefferson and Sally Hemmings goes way back to … it was raised first during his own Presidency, so it’s not a new invention or new discovery. Now we have DNA evidence which perhaps demonstrates that he did father children with her. Certainly that was not unknown in the slave South … for slave owners to take sexual advantage of slave women. It was quite common, as you well know. The notion that Jefferson did it, though, does seem rather at odds with some of his more lofty pronouncements about human dignity and human rights and equality, etc. What I think is … given the nature of our media and everything, it’s inevitable that Jefferson and his sex life will be of great fascination. What’s of more interest, perhaps in an enduring way is the question of Jefferson as a proponent of freedom, as a universal right … after all “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable rights of mankind, according to him and the Declaration of Independence. And yet Jefferson, as a slave owner, who owned a couple of hundred slaves for most of his adult life. How could Jefferson reconcile his genuine belief in liberty with his owning of slaves. That’s a question I talk a lot about in my book on freedom because we may see that as a contradiction … looking back at it 200 years later, but in the era of the American revolution and subsequently there were many Americans who believed … White Americans … who believed that true freedom rested on slavery. That slavery actually provided you with the elements of life you needed to be free. For example, Jefferson believed that to be free you had to be economically independent. You had to own land, etc. Owing a slave contributed greatly to your economic independent. In fact in 1780 the Legislature of Virginia, to reward veterans who had fought for the freedom of Virginia in the Revolution gave them a certain acreage of land and a slave. If you had fought for the independence of America, you got a slave, because that would help to support your economic autonomy and therefore your freedom. And then Jefferson and much of his generation, and certainly this accelerated or developed subsequently, believed that Black people were simply incapable of exercising the rights that go along with freedom. They were like perpetual children, as John Stuart Mill would later use that phrase. If you exclude people from the blessings of liberty who are not capable of exercising or enjoying those blessing, you’re not really contradicting yourself. Just as we won’t … we don’t see it as a contradiction to deprive children of the right to vote, even though we’re a democracy. Jefferson and subsequent generations would say, “Well, Blacks are just outside the boundary of those who can truly enjoy freedom”. And therefore to enslave them is not a contradiction, because they’re not within this boundary of the people who deserve or are capable of being free. In fact, in the book I argue that it wasn’t Jefferson and his generation, but really the Abolitionists and the slaves themselves who fought for freedom, who actually gave full meaning to the notion of freedom as a universal birthright; freedom as a ideal not bounded by race, not bounded by the accident of birth, but something that every person in the country was entitled to. So that dynamic between slavery and freedom is essential to shaping American history from the Revolution down to the Civil War.

HEFFNER: Yet your explanation … your general explanation certainly holds. But when we come to Jefferson can’t one find writings in Jefferson that direct themselves precisely to …

FONER: Jefferson …

HEFFNER: … Black Negro slavery.

FONER: … in private writings and indeed, a little bit in the notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson criticized slavery, absolutely. Jefferson knew slavery was wrong. On the other hand he couldn’t envision a … what we would call today a “multi-racial” society. When he talked about the possibility of freeing slaves in the future, he always coupled that with the notion they ought to be colonized or sent out of the country. In other words, the United States for Jefferson and much of that generation was a society of White people. If slaves became free they should find their own national homeland somewhere else. In the Caribbean, in Africa, etc. In fact, one of the very first laws … I mention this in the book … passed by the Congress in 1790 … the first Congress of the United States, was a law regulating who could come to the United States to become … and become a naturalized citizen. Now, Tom Paine in “Common Sense” had said the meaning of the revolution was to create an asylum for liberty … America was going to be an asylum for freedom, for people all over the world who were oppressed in their native countries. The first naturalization law said okay people can come here and after five years they can become naturalized citizens. But it included the word “White”, only White people could come and become citizens. Asians could not, Africans could not. In other words, even at the very beginning of our existence as an independent nation that racial boundary was written into our laws and it took a long, long time to get it out. So there you have an example, again of a belief in freedom as an abstract universal right and yet the implementation of freedom is within what I call this boundary that actually excludes a great number of people.

HEFFNER: But if you were to distinguish between our history, of which this act is past, and our heritage, would you still put an acceptance of chattel slavery ….

FONER: Well …

HEFFNER: … in our heritage?

FONER: Chattel slavery existed for most of what is American history.


FONER: It began from the early seventeenth century, as you know, so it’s, it’s not … this is not to blame American history or say, “Oh, we ought to be ashamed of our history”. Every country has elements in their history which are, perhaps, less exalted than others. The point is that slavery is essential to understanding how and why our history developed the way it did. Slavery spawned very rigid racial lines … after all the Supreme Court, as you know, in the Dred Scott Decision said, “No Black person can be a citizen of the United States”. That’s a legacy of slavery. Slavery also spawned a struggle to abolish it. Abolitionists who put forward a different vision … Frederick Douglas, Wendell Phillips, who said, “No, let us put forward a truly universal idea of what freedom is”. And in the Civil War and Reconstruction their vision of freedom without race was written into the Constitution in the Fourteenth Amendment. That’s also part of our heritage. The point of my book is that our heritage is not a single thing. It’s not a straight line, it’s a complicated and contested heritage, and that to me makes it more interesting than simply just saying “Well, we started perfect and we’ve been getting better every since.

HEFFNER: Well, no one’s talking about perfect.

FONER: Right.

HEFFNER: But if one were to take the “Better Angels” of our nature isn’t there room to embrace them, surround them with a protective cocoon and say that essentially it’s not all that relative … that there is something we can call the American heritage and it doesn’t include slavery. History, yes.

FONER: I’m not sure I would quite go that far because I think that the very values that you have, that you would associate with the American heritage, or what Gunnar Merdahl(???) called “the American Creed” in his book, “The American Dilemma”, those values were shaped in the struggle against slavery. So that it’s a symbiotic relationship. You cannot understand American freedom without understanding American slavery. Freedom it seems always requires an opposite against which to define itself. And the existence of slavery shaped what we think freedom is. Just as, for example, the existence of Nazi Germany shaped ideas of freedom in the 1930s and ‘40s and then during the Cold War, the existence of the Soviet Union shaped what we thought freedom was during the Cold War. For example, we think today … if you ask somebody about what they think freedom is … pretty quickly they will talk about the Bill of Rights. Or if they don’t mention the Bill of Rights, they will talk about freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom of assembly … the right in the Bill of Rights. These are central to our definition of ourselves as free Americans. But really for most of our history, those were considered that central, it was only during the 1930s actually that the Roosevelt Administration made a concerted effort to highlight the Bill of Rights as what distinguished American liberty from Nazi tyranny. It was the existence of that alien, unfree society which highlighted the value of civil liberties. The first time the Justice Department set up a division of civil liberties was in 1939, it had never been there before. Civil liberties became more and more central to the definition of freedom because of this opposite. So that it’s this dynamic of freedom and unfreedom kind of co-existing and shaping each other that I think makes this story quite interesting. Therefore we’re never going to get slavery out of our conception of how American history and the American heritage has developed.

HEFFNER: If there were to be a modern day Decrevcore???, and he were ask, “what then is this new man” …

FONER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … this American. Would you be able to define …

FONER: Well, you know, Crecore???, of course, as you know, was the Frenchman who wrote in his letters in 1780. And it’s interesting to note when he said, “What is this new man, the American?”, he then answered his own question …


FONER: … and he said “He is not an Englishman, but he is a product of Europe; he is an Englishman, he is a Scotsman, he is a Swede, he is a Frenchman, he is a melting pot of those different groups”. The one group Crecore(???) didn’t mention were Africans. And this was at the time when the Black population was higher in percentage terms than at any point in our entire history … one-fifth of the American population were African-Americans. But they were invisible to him, they weren’t part of “who is an American”. And this is not to condemn Crecore????, it’s to show again how slavery creates that boundary of some being in and some being on the outside. Now today, “who is an American” is still a very contested idea. As you know, there are battles over who should be allowed into the country, should … you know, battles over immigration, battles over the rights of immigrants, who is an illegal alien, who isn’t. Those battles have taken place throughout our history, in the early twentieth century. Now again. They have a racial overtone, but they’re not purely racial. The definition of who is an American has changed many times and probably will change many times in the future. So it’s not so simple to just answer that permanently for all of American history.

HEFFNER: But … next year, when Eric Foner is President of the American Historical Association, and somebody said, “Mr. President, what is this new man, this old man, what is this American?”.

FONER: Well, I …

HEFFNER: Won’t you be able to …

FONER: … I will answer them, this is why we are … don’t go on TV sound bites. I will answer them with a lesson in history. I will say, “well, here is how that concept has developed over time”. Similarly if someone said to me, “what is freedom? Isn’t there something which is freedom?”. I would say, “well, not really.” There are many different definitions of freedom, and there is a history of the idea of freedom, and I can tell you how at different points in our history, different visions have come to the fore or not, but that doesn’t mean that that’s going to be the same in the future. We hold ideas to be central to freedom which never even occurred to the Founding Fathers. We believe in the right of, let us say, sexual freedom … personal self determination, control over your own body. Many people think that’s essential to freedom today, as it is. Jefferson and the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have given two thoughts to that. Their idea of freedom was much more public, political, representation, participation in the public realm, etc. That doesn’t mean our idea of freedom is better or worse than theirs. It means that things change over time, and that’s why, if you think as a historian, you like to see how things have evolved over time, rather than giving a quick answer to a question about the very moment.

HEFFNER: Your colleagues in the profession … are they more or less than before thinking like historians? In your terms.

FONER: I think they are. I think … there’s been a lot of controversy about American history in the past decade. Some of it very surprising to us. Whether it was the debate over the National History Standards, the Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution, battles over history curriculums in Legislatures and schools. We historians from being ignored, suddenly became the focus of tremendous public debate, which was sometimes very nice and sometimes rather disturbing. But this discussion obscured, I think, the fact that to my mind American history, anyway, is in the best shape it has ever been in its whole history, as a discipline. We have a broader range of good histories being written, the subject matter of history has expanded enormously from the old, the sort of Presidential focus to the history of woman and African Americans and social history and labor history and groups that has been excluded from previous narratives. We have more historians doing more good history now than ever before. There is a problem, I think of communicating those findings and those insights to a general public. Too many historians still tend to talk only to other historians. And one of the purposes of my book on American freedom was actually to draw on this vast literature and to try to synthesize it and present it in a way that is accessible to those who are not in the academic world and to say, “well, look, here is what American history looks like now because of the great expansion of literature of the past generation”.

HEFFNER: Eric Foner, you’ve succeeded with “The Story of American Freedom”.

FONER: That’s very kind of you to say.

HEFFNER: Thank you so much for joining me again on The Open Mind.

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.