Eric Foner

The Historian as Public Intellectual

VTR Date: January 29, 2010

Eric Foner discusses the role of the historian.


GUEST: Eric Foner
AIR DATE: 01/29/2011

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

And this is the second of two programs recorded today with Eric Foner, the widely acclaimed De Witt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University.

Coincidentally, the incomparable Allan Nevins, who then held that same distinguished Chair at Columbia, was a guest on my very first Open Mind program … and another teacher and friend at Columbia, Richard Hofstadter, was to become DeWitt Clinton Professor there some years later.

Of course, when Eric Foner first joined me here in the 1980’s I described him as “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 the past half-century have themselves made history…”.

And today I’d like to ask him about his own matured thoughts about the role of the historian as history-maker and as public intellectual, if you will.

FONER: Well, you, you know, historians are citizens and we have as much right and obligation to take part in public affairs and to express our point of view as anybody. And, you know, I would never tell a historian they should not be … you know, act as part of our democracy.

I think the role of the public intellectual today is maybe a little different than it was in the day of Richard Hofstadter, who you mentioned.

People like that who … because, because the modes of communication, as you well know, are so different today, so much more expansive, you know, everybody in the world … maybe it’s a good thing … can post his or her views on the web and you search the Internet and there’s really not much way of knowing whether someone is actually expert or qualified or not. And, you know, the voice of the scholar sometimes gets drown out in a, you know, in just the cacophony of the Internet.

But I think at Columbia, where I teach, as you said, there is a long tradition of historians as spokesman in the public world. You go back to Nevins, go back to Henry Steele Comanger, Hofstadter.

People today like my colleague Alan Brinkley, myself, Mark Mazower, the Chairman of our Department. These are people you see in the magazines and the newspapers. You see them on television. Simon Schama another colleague of mine. So, you know, we do have a tradition and I think we, as historians, have an obligation to try to get a up-to-date view of history out there into the public dialogue.

Because unfortunately, when politicians use history, as they frequently do, it’s oversimplified, it’s, you know, very, very limited and often extraordinarily misleading. And so, to the extent that historians can complicate the discourse about history, that is, that is out there … I think we will do a public service.

HEFFNER: Well, you talk about Columbia’s … not point of view … but what happens, generally, at Columbia.

What about other universities? Has that intellectual participation diminished?

FONER: Well, I think Columbia was always … there was always a little more of this mainly because we’re in New York City.

Now the media is no longer as quite as centered in New York City as it has been, but … you know … for most of the 20th century, this was the place where magazines were, key national newspapers were, television networks were and so when public forums wanted to get the views of a historian, it was easy to just go to Columbia.

And so, you know, obviously Harvard professors do this and have served in government. People around the country have done this. But it, it does seem to be more prominent among Columbia historians.

And also, another thing is, some places, and I don’t want to criticize other institutions have a slight disdain for what might be called “popular” history … for the historian who becomes a figure in the public realm.

And we don’t have that at Columbia. As I say, we, we believe that historians … wherever there’s history, the historian ought to be there.

And many of us, including myself have tried … you know, I, I have curated museum exhibitions, for example.

And I’ve been on public television history documentaries. As long as you try to make sure what you’re putting forward is good history, I, I don’t see any problem with that. I think, in fact, it’s a desirable thing for historians to try to bring the fruits of current knowledge to a non-academic audience.

HEFFNER: I’m thinking of … that one used to say about Columbia … “the germ of the notion” …

FONER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … rather than the “gem of the ocean”.

FONER: Right.

HEFFNER: It played a major role, certainly in, in the New Deal …

FONER: Well, if you go back to the New Deal … the so-called brains trust of FDR consisted of many Columbia professors and go back even further, to the first Roosevelt … TR in 1912 when he ran for President, you know, as an Independent on the Bull Moose ticket … the platform of that … which really … the platform of that Progressive Party, which really established the agenda for 20th century Liberalism and called for things which we still don’t have … like national health insurance … that was written by Columbia professors. E. R. A. Seligman and people like that who aren’t well known now.

So Columbia professors have had a long history being directly involved in political activity.

Of course there’s a danger there also. There’s a danger than you somehow shape your view of history to meet a current political need. And that’s … that happens frequently, it happens … for example, in World War I when many scholars from Columbia and elsewhere sort of enlisted in the war effort and wrote these historical works to demonstrate that, you know, the American/British/French alliance went way back in history, whereas Germans were always on the outside and not really part of Western civilization.

And, you know, that wasn’t very good history, let’s say, but it was written for an immediate political and military purpose. So the historian who ventures into the public realm has to remember what hat he’s wearing.

You know as a citizen you can say what you want. But if you want to claim authority as a historian, you’d better make sure you’re holding up professional standards of history.

HEFFNER: Is it true .. .the story or is it apocryphal that when Charles Beard wrote his An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution … somebody said to President Nicholas Murray Butler at Columbia … “Have you read Beard’s last book?” and he said, “I certainly hope so”.

FONER: (Laughter) It’s possible. It’s, it’s a story … I’ve heard it. But, of course, remember, that’s 1913 … four years later Charles Beard gave Columbia one of the greatest lessons in citizen ship that it has ever had, by resigning from the University because Nicholas Murray Butler announced, when the US entered World War I … “There is no more …” in April, you know, 1917 … “There is no more ground for dissent anymore”. Nobody here can criticize … before the war … fine … nobody can criticize American involvement in World War I anymore at this university and he fired two members of the faculty who did so where upon Beard, who was probably the most distinguished member of the faculty, resigned.

And went down to help found The New School. So, you know, Beard knew what freedom of speech was and Nicholas Murray Butler, perhaps didn’t.

HEFFNER: … we’ve, we’ve .. you talk about Columbia and public intellectuals. How serious are you about the impact of the new means, the various new electronic means of communications upon authority? Upon expertness?

FONER: Well, of course, what is expertness today? I mean, you know, I’m not … I’m pretty low tech compared to my students … you know, I’m way beyond them.

When I want to learn how to do something I talk to an undergraduate student.

But, you know, many stu … I try to encourage or to inculcate in students the notion of expertise. So for example, I, I say I don’t want to see footnotes to Wikipedia in a paper here.

Wikipedia is a perfectly legitimate thing to look at, but it is not based on expertise. Some of the entries are fine. Some of them are pretty off-base from my point of view. You have enthusiasts who go in and, you know, have a … “I’m really an admirer of Chester A. Arthur and I’m going to make sure that the Wikipedia entry says that Chester A. Arthur is the greatest President of the 19th century”. You know.

And, so … nowadays with information so readily available out there on the web, being able to judge what is reliable and what isn’t is, is, is difficult. I think students really need to learn that .

The first thing they have to learn is the difference between a website that says “dot edu” and “dot com”. Dot com they’re trying to sell you something. So you have to bear that in mind if you’re …

HEFFNER: And dot edu? No?

FONER: Well, they’re trying to sell you education or something, right. That doesn’t mean everything on a dot edu is reliable. But this, you know, something that comes out of the Library of Congress … dot org … or, or comes out of a major historical society … is, is likely to have been vetted by somebody in a way that, you know, something … some, some students term paper from some university that’s out there … may not be quite as reliable. And students sometime … you know, have to learn how to make that distinction.

HEFFNER: Do you find a) that they’ve learned how to make that distinction? You’re sort of implying that they don’t know it …

FONER: I think they don’t come in to college necessarily …

HEFFNER: That’s what I meant.

FONER: … knowing that. But we make a big effort to, you know, to, to inculcate this. On the other hand, I don’t want to sound like a Luddite at all … I think the proliferation of sources online is unbelievably helpful.

You know, like I just wrote this book, as you well know about Abraham Lincoln. Today every word written by Lincoln is available online. Every letter to Lincoln, 20,000 of them in the Library of Congress Lincoln collection is available online.

The Congressional debates are available. The so-called “O.R.” the Official Records of the Civil War … over 100 volumes … is digitalized.

Lincoln was a lawyer, right, in the 1830’s and 40’s, 50’s … he was involved in about 5,000 law cases. Everyone of those law cases is on a little compact disk which they have in the law school library at Columbia.

You know, 25 years ago to go through those cases you have to go out to courthouses in Illinois to, you know, specific … all this … it, it would take you months.

Now, in an afternoon, as I did, you can search through for every case of Lincoln’s that involved a Black person in any way. You can just sit there and do it.

So, it makes it … and newspapers, magazines, all digitized … the makes the availability of material for the historian … you know, just enormous, compared to what it had been in the past.

That doesn’t tell you how to think. (Laugh) It doesn’t telll you how to analyze it. But the sources available are, are far greater than in the past and that, that’s a tremendous boon to us.

HEFFNER: Eric, you don’t have to lose your Luddite status …

FONER: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … to see the upside …

FONER: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: … of this revolution.

FONER: … well, for the 19th century, it’s a great upside. By the 20th century, the downside is you’re overwhelmed with material. There’s so much material now available that it’s almost impossible to, you know, look at even … more than a tiny fraction of it. And that is … can be overwhelming for, for scholars as well as a great advantage.

HEFFNER: Yes, but a number of people have said to me, the presence of email, the ability not to commit yourself …


HEFFNER: … on paper, but to commit yourself to the ether … makes it very difficult for historians.

FONER: Well, it is a problem because, you know, in the 19th century the bread and butter of our research are letters …


FONER: … is correspondence, you know, And they’re tremendously revealing. They’re tremendously valuable. You know in the Library of Congress are the papers of numerous Congressmen from the Civil War era …John Sherman, Trumbull, there are boxes and boxes of them. And you get a real sense of public sentiment and the ebb and flow of different issues by reading these letters.

Well, if everyone were just sending emails and then the Congressman would delete them later on … you know, how do you even save emails is a problem for archivists and what happens to emails that are just deleted and disappear? You know, future historians will not have that handwritten correspondence available that we have when we study the 19th century.

HEFFNER: Unless they have the FBI and CIA along with them …

FONER: Well, of course, I guess that’s the point. Somebody has these things somewhere …

HEFFNER: Indeed.

FONER: … and is watching them, it would appear. But, you know, where and how may not be so easy for the historian to get ahold of.

HEFFNER: Well, then seriously, how is history, contemporary history being written?

FONER: Well, I think it’s be written very well. I’m not, you know, every, every scholar faces obstacles of one kind or another. For example, the 1970s … I don’t know if we consider that contemporary or not, but it’s pretty recent … is now the subject of an enormous and very, very good body of literature that has come out just in the last few years looking at the seventies as a pivotal decade of transformation in, in, in American economics, politics, culture … books by Judith Stein, from City University here on the economic transformation of the seventies, really the beginning of de-industrialization. Laura Kalman, others on, on the politics and, you know, I think … so they can study that period and, you know, contemporary history is closer … it’s a little more tricky, but … I don’t think historians are having a great problem doing this.

HEFFNER: You know …

FONER: You know, when you get up to the Bush Administration … the second Bush Administration it may be a little too early for historians to really be able to come to terms with it.

HEFFNER: Well, what do you think you historians will be doing? How do you come to terms with the digital age?

FONER: Yeah, well they will, they will have to find … and you know Archives are dealing with this.

For example, Presidential records are now … many of them are digital, but they are still being archived in the National Archives or in Presidential Libraries around the country.

You know, I’m a scholar of the 19th century so I’m not … I feel I’m skating on thin ice to say what exactly is going on in the … you know … in the Jimmy Carter Library or in the Ronald Reagan Library. Or, or Clinton, you know. But, but these kinds of records are being gathered up by archivists so that they can be available to historians even when they weren’t originally produced on paper.

HEFFNER: Well, the original draft …

FONER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … of history … makes me think back to our efforts in 1988 and 1999 when we spoke together at this table. I’d like to go back for a moment to that question of the relationship of the news gatherer and the historian.

Do you see the responsibility of the journalist as not quite the equivalent of the responsibility of the historian, but some connection between the two?

FONER: Well, it’s a cliché, of course, as you know, that journalism is the first draft of history.


FONER: I think … but, I, I actually think that’s probably not the case. These are two different endeavors. They are both worthy endeavors, but they’re not, you know … the journalist has a particular purpose which is to tell a story at the moment, as best he or she can … but they don’t … you know, what, what makes a historian different is hindsight … is that … is this reflection, looking back at an event … which journalists just don’t have the, you know, the luxury of being able to do.

They’ve got to meet a deadline and get something into the newspaper or online in the next day or two. So, you know, that’s not to criticize the … you know, the value of what they’re doing.

But, you know, those of us who study the 19th century are well aware that every newspaper back then was totally partisan. You pick up a Democratic newspaper and a Republican newspaper covering the same event and you’re reading about two totally different things.

The purpose of the newspaper and all the journalists understood this, was to promote the position of a political party.

Now, today it’s not quite like that, but there are some venues, Fox News, for example, which does seem to have a pretty partisan outlook.

But, you know, I think maybe journalists … the, the notion of objectivity may actually hide built-in presuppositions and predilections on the part of the newspaper and the journalist which historians then have to take into account when they are using journalism later on as the first draft of history.

So, you know, I think it’s, it’s not … there’s not much point in asking a journalist to be a historian or asking a historian to be a journalist, you know.

We, we have a different purposes, a different role in society which is to take the long view and to take … make a measured judgment after events have happened and reached their conclusion.

HEFFNER: Of course, you’ve just pulled the rug out from underneath me because …

FONER: Sorry.

HEFFNER: … whenever I have a journalist here, I ask him whether he doesn’t have, to some considerable extent … not even limited extent, a responsibility when he’s writing this first draft of history. After all so many journalists today do go on to write what we consider history.

FONER: Absolutely and that’s fine, of course. But then they are writing … they have a little … a different hat on. I mean for example, this new book by Isabel Wilkerson about Black migration. You know she’s a journalist, an excellent journalist and this book has gotten a very good reception and it’s … is it journalism? Well, not really in the sense that it’s … in, in a sense she’s using interviews and journalistic techniques, but she’s also done an enormous amount of research and it goes way back in history, back to the early Black migrations of the 20th century, the first part of the 20th century.

So, uhmm, you know, she’s using journalistic techniques, but adding to them a … you know … a deep knowledge of history also. So she’s a journalist. But the book, I wouldn’t call journalism.

HEFFNER: And the contemporary historians, I wondered whether you find to any degree … considerable degree at all the kind of orientation that let’s say a Claude Bowers brought as a historian to …

FONER: (Laugh) … to Reconstruction?

HEFFNER: Well, to Reconstruction, to the early years, too.

FONER: Well, yeah …

HEFFNER: To Jefferson and …

FONER: … Bowers was the Editor, as you know, of a Democratic Party newspaper …


FONER: … in Indiana. He was a partisan. And his book on Reconstruction The Tragic Era had an enormous, an enormously pernicious impact on the writing of history and on American society. You know, it was … it’s a fanciful and exaggerated and deeply racist view of what happened after the Civil War. And it influenced many, many people.

But you know Bowers wrote that book because … after 19 … in ’29 … he wrote it because in 1928, for the first time since the Civil War or since Reconstruction … Hoover had carried several Southern states … breaking the “solid South” temporarily because, you know, Al Smith was a Roman Catholic, as you know, and there were many Southerners who didn’t want to vote for him for that reason.

Bowers as a Democrat was alarmed. He wrote Tragic Era to remind White Southerners why they should not vote Republican. Because the Republicans are the party of emancipation, the Republicans are the party of Reconstruction, they’ll give Black people the right to vote again and look how horrible that would be. And so, you know, that was a purely political book in the guise of a work of history.

HEFFNER: Do you find much politics in the guise of history today?

FONER: I’m sure there is some … absolutely. And I would be the first to say that my own … any historian’s point of view affects how they write history. There’s no question about that.

In fact how could you write history with a blank mind, with no opinion about anything. That would hardly produce an interesting book.

So, you know, what I tell my students, the point is not to have … this will go … fit right into this show … not to have an empty mind, but an open mind. That is to say to be willing to change your mind, if you encounter … you go to the past, you go to your research with suppositions, assumptions, but you have to be willing to change your mind if you encounter evidence that runs the other way.

HEFFNER: Well, Virginia Gildersleeve up at Barnard used to say, “Girls, always have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.”

FONER: (Laugh) Yeah … right. And, you know, there is a notion of objectivity … the journalist tries to be objective, the historian tries to be objective. But sometimes people think “objective” means you have no ideas, no point of view. And that, that’s impossible.

What makes you interested in history is precisely what excites you in the present. You know, why am I interested in Lincoln and slavery?”. Because I grew up in the Civil Rights era, you know. I took part in the Civil Right Movement, to some extent. I, I … you know, I, I came …

HEFFNER: You grew up in a civil rights family.

FONER: I came up … I grew up in a family where it was second nature in my family to know that racism is the deepest evil in American society and American history and that the struggle for racial justice is essential to making this a better society.

And it’s natural if you have that view to look to history … to look to abolitionism … to look to Lincoln … to look to the Civil War … to try to understand what happened. That doesn’t mean you take your point of view from 2010 and read it back.

See, one of the problems with Lincoln … people want him to be Martin Luther King, Jr. They want him to be a total egalitarian, you know. And they’re shocked when they discover that he held views that seem racist to us at many points in his life.

Well, Lincoln is a product of his own era, you now. You can’t expect him to be living in our moment. So you can’t just take your views of the President and transpose them back into the past.

But the questions you ask are given to you by the world you’re living in.

HEFFNER: Do you think you were ever disadvantaged, as a historian, by the intensity of … the politics of your family?

FONER: No. I don’t really think so. I, I think that a passionate interest in something makes you a better historian.

You know, my other mentor at … apart from Richard Hofstadter … was a teacher called James P. Shenton at Columbia. Not, not a prolific writer, but a great teacher. What made him a great teacher was his passion for the subject. He cared enormously. He conveyed that he cared to the students. He had a point of view, no question about it.

But … he told his students honestly … “Look this is what I think and this is where I’m coming from.” And that is what made him a good … you don’t want a teacher who has no opinion about anything. What, what kind of class would that be?

HEFFNER: I remember when I was the Founding General Manager of Channel 13, here in New York, I put Jim Shenton on the air …

FONER: Ah, yeah … all his history lectures.

HEFFNER: And I was thinking when I read The Fiery Trial, your new book … I was thinking of how much he would have pushed it. He would have talked about it …

FONER: Well, you know, he was a great teacher … he became a great friend of mine for many years. The first history course I ever took as an undergraduate was Shenton’s year long seminar on the coming of the Civil War, the Civil War, Reconstruction. And it shows you what an inspiring teacher, what effect an inspiring teacher can have on a student.

I’m still studying that period … half a century, almost after I took Shenton’s course. So, that shows you how a teacher … we have to remember that as teachers … that we have an impact on students, you know, so we’ve got to make sure that we’re careful about what that impact is. But, you know, an inspiring teacher is what makes people pursue a course of study.

HEFFNER: And an inspiring writer. Because I’m sure that’s what will be said … is being said in the reviews … and what will in the future be said about The Fiery Trial.

I go back, though, to the question which we have about a minute, plus left …

FONER: Okay.

HEFFNER: Where you advantaged or disadvantaged …

FONER: I, I think I’m advantaged …

HEFFNER: … by the Foner family?

FONER: … I, I am advantaged. I’m proud of my family. As you said at the beginning … my, my father and my three uncles … these four brothers … spent an enormous amount of their lives trying to pursue social justice in this country. Labor, civil rights, civil liberties, etc.

I grew up in a family where I learned from early on that these were important; that these were valuable things to, you know, take seriously.

In my family Fredrick Douglass was a, you know, household name at a time when he didn’t exist in history textbooks in the 1950’s. People like the abolitionists were heroes … Tom Paine. And I … so I learned a view of American history where the dissenters and the critics and the radicals played a role in American history, as well as the Captains of Industry and the Presidents. And I think that’s a very valuable perspective to have.

HEFFNER: All I can say, Eric Foner, is I’m glad it happened that way. Thank you so much for joining me again.

FONER: You’re very welcome, Richard.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.” And do visit The Open Mind website at

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.