Eric Foner

Who Controls the Past, Part I

VTR Date: July 24, 1988

Guest: Foner, Eric


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Eric Foner
Title: “Who Controls the Past…”, Part I
VTR: 7/24/88

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And my guest today is such an accomplished writer and teacher of American history, and 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 parochial or to be engaging in something of an intellectual conflict of interest. For I served the Muse Clio early on, too…and a very first guest on THE OPEN MIND was my teacher, the great American historian Allan Nevins. As Nevins was, my guest today is also DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University. Eric Foner has written compellingly about Tom Paine, about “Politics and Ideology in the Civil War”…and now a volume on “Reconstruction – America’s Unfinished Revolution”, published by Harper and Row.

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, in his new volume our guest helps us better understand a period of our national past long steeped in misstatement and misinterpretation that some feel contributed importantly to unconscionable delays in the Civil Rights Movement of only very recent years. After all, a nation mistaught – in history texts no less than in popular novels, films and other entertainments – a nation mistaught the presumably innocent myths of the Old South and the more malignant ones of Black Reconstruction could only be motivated poorly, if at all, to end racial injustice in America. And I trust, Professor Foner, that doesn’t draw too much upon the devil theory of history.

Foner: No, I don’t think so. I would fully agree with you that this period of reconstruction after the Civil War has been largely misinterpreted, misrepresented and the results of that misrepresentation have been really catastrophic to our national history and particularly to the achieving of some notion of equal rights for all of our citizens.

Heffner: That’s a difficult concept for many people to grasp. How does historical interpretation or re-interpretation impact upon politics?

Foner: Well I think all…the writing of all history is in some way political in that the historian chooses subjects in the past and takes an approach to the past which influenced, in someway, by his or her own concerns in the present. But in the case of Reconstruction I think the politics of history is extremely direct. The old view, the old discredited view, which was taught for so many decades, saw this period after the Civil War as one of rampant mis-government and corruption because Black people, the emancipated slaves, were given a role in politics and were given equal civil Rights in the South. This was supposedly the “great mistake” the nation made after the Civil War, trying to bring Blacks into the political system. Now if you adopt that point of view, it had very direct political consequences. The South was right to disenfranchise Blacks, that is to take the right to vote away from them after Reconstruction. The South was right to resist outside pressures for change. After all, Reconstruction was imposed from the “outside”, therefore Southerners…White Southerners were always fearful of a second Reconstruction. In other words, this mythology of Reconstruction was one of the bulwarks of the racial system of the South which lasted from, let’s say 1900 all the way up to the 1950s and 60s.

Heffner: But you know that’s…it’s interesting you say that lasted all the way up to the 50s and 60s. The question remains…why? How? How could it have lasted that long?

Foner: How could it have lasted…well, that is not a question, really, of interpretations of history, of course, that’s a question of politics, of power. The solid South, the solid Democratic South was so powerfully entrenched in the national political system that either, that forces for change, both within the South and from outside were too weak to challenge it. Look at President Roosevelt and the New Deal, who challenged existing institutions in so many ways, never really did very much about the racial injustices in the South because the solid Democratic South with its influence in the committees in the Senate, the House of Representatives, was one of the bulwarks of the Democratic Party. So it was very difficult…the institutions of the South, the racial system of the South was so deeply entrenched that it really required a tremendous upheaval to overturn it.

Heffner: But I would imagine that most people watching this program now make the assumption that the historian was, if not immune to these pressures, at least at once or twice removed from them.

Foner: Well, of course, you have to…there are many different kinds of historians. Some of the historians who wrote some of the most popular works on Reconstruction were directly involved in politics. For example, Claude G. Bowers, who wrote “The Tragic Era”, a great best seller of the 1920s, which portrayed this period on the most lurid terms and in the most…gave the most racist depiction of Blacks in every way in that period. Bowers was an accomplished historian. He was also an editor of a Democratic Party newspaper in Indiana and “The Tragic Era” was to some extent an attempt to convince White Southerners not to vote for the Republican Party, not to go with Hoover in 1928, or again in 1932. So there was a direct political link, “Look, Reconstruction was the child of the Republican Party, therefore White Southerners ought to stick with the Democrats and they won’t have another Reconstruction”. But then, of course, more academic historians who don’t have direct political concern like that are also creatures of their own time. They’re not immune to the political realities and pressures around them. After all, it was only really in the 1960s that large numbers of historians challenged and overturned this old view. And that, of course, had a lot to do not just with new evidence of new methods, but with the changing climate in the country, changing attitudes about race, changing attitudes about the role of the Federal government and historians were influenced by that, as I say, just as they always are influenced by the time in which they write.

Heffner: In this instance, both before and after the Civil War, the interpretations of, or the presentation of slavery itself, and the presentation of Reconstruction.

Foner: Well, of course, in the last twenty, twenty-five years as you suggest, really no period of American history has undergone such tremendous change in historical interpretation as that era of the Civil War, broadly defined – slavery, the War itself and Reconstruction. In the past…in the 1960s and 70s really, it was slavery that attracted tremendous attention from some of our most talented historians. Now, in the 1980s there’s been a great outpouring of works on the Civil War and Reconstruction, so they’re moving forward in history. And my book, in a way, culminates a lot of that literature, or brings together a lot of that academic, monographic literature and tries to present it in a broad, coherent way which is more accessible to a…you know, more general, non-academic audience.

Heffner: Of course, when I read “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution”, I can’t help but think that there is something unfinished…I mean you then date it…1863 to 1877. Is it finished now?

Foner: Now, it isn’t. The “Unfinished Revolution” does suggest…is meant to suggest the idea that really this revolution was tried, it was aborted, and it’s still is going on. Some aspects of the revolution of Reconstruction were accomplished and finished. The overthrow of slavery, obviously. The changes in the nature of the national political system which gave far more power to the national government. These were finished parts of the revolution in that period. But the question, the unfinished question of “Are Blacks going to achieve full equality in this country?”, which was part of the agenda of that period is still, obviously not…is still on our national agenda one hundred and twenty years after that period.

Heffner: When I went to Columbia College and you are DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia, we read Morrison & Commager “Growth of the American Republic” and that section on the Old South, on the slave that began, “As for Sambo…” and followed through…Has that been sufficiently changed? I don’t mean in that text. I know those words are not there.

Foner: Right.

Heffner: But what about the thought, what about the attitude towards slavery itself?

Foner: I think…one of the questions that historians maybe aren’t the best people to answer is, “How quickly or how fully do changes in interpretations among academic historians influence general, popular attitudes of memories about history?” Among historians, among scholars, nobody would talk about “Sambo” nowadays. Our view of slavery and of the Black experience under slavery, or in the Civil War and Reconstruction is fundamentally different from the 1940s when that text, or that notorious sentence was in that text. But popular consciousness about history is shaped by many things far outside the university. It’s shaped by movies, by television. Now in the case of slavery, I think it has changed. I think “Roots” on television in the 1970s probably did a lot more to change attitudes vis-à-vis slavery than all the books written by academic historians. In the case of Reconstruction, probably the old image of Reconstruction was fixed in the popular mind by “Birth of a Nation”, by that great and notorious film of 1916 which presented in a popular way this old misrepresentation. “Gone With the Wind” also, although that wasn’t the main concern, also presented Reconstruction in that way. In a way we haven’t yet had the popular presentation, the mass presentation in the media of the new view of Reconstruction, in the way that we have of slavery with “roots”. So, I suspect that in terms of Reconstruction, the old view has a much greater staying power in popular ideas than it does among professional academic historians.

Heffner: Do you think…two points: One…two questions…one about the treatment of slavery itself: Are you satisfied that in the popular media, thanks to “Roots” perhaps, the old “As for Sambo…” point of view is gone, finished?

Foner: I think so, although I certainly would be willing to be proved wrong, if someone could demonstrate this. I think…I mean I think in those few cases where slavery does appear either in a movie, a television situation, a novel, nowadays or popular novel, I think you find much greater emphasis on Blacks as active agents in shaping the institution. I mean the Sambo image basically was that the Black, as slave, was a child, was incapable of acting independently, was really a humorous or ridiculous kind of character, harmless, perhaps, but certainly not a full adult, capable of taking part in history as an independent actor. I don’t think you would see that today in any mass media presentation of slavery. I’m not saying that every novel or television program about slavery is historically accurate, but I think that vis-à-vis slavery, that idea has pretty much been erased.

Heffner: Do you think that the presentation of the plantation South, of that myth in “Gone With the Wind”, do you think that when it is read and seen today there is some real understanding of how to place that nonsense?

Foner: Well, “Gone With the Wind” remains very popular, of course. And it does give us that old mythology o9f the glories, the romantic glories of the Old South. Probably there’s a kind of almost schizophrenic popular attitude I would suspect. I think that the moonlight and magnolia viewpoint of the planters probably survives. The Scarlett O’Hara’s the plantation life, the gentility, etc. But I think most people viewing that movie today would think and realize that the portrait of the slaves in there is very stereotyped and very much out of date; the “Mammy” and the laughing slaves and the loyal slaves, etc., etc. I think that that does strike a rather jarring note today, even among people obviously who aren’t really professional historians. Now, of course, there’s going to be a sequel to “Gone With the Wind”, as you well know, being written, which will deal with this Reconstruction period, I suppose, so it will be interesting to see what that presents.

Heffner: Are we taking bets?

Foner: I am not too optimistic, but I’m willing to wait and see.

Heffner: You know, you talked about “Roots”, and you talk about the impact of historical, new historical thinking upon television, television presentations and in turn the impact of television upon our thinking about the South, about Black and White, about Reconstruction. I didn’t know before we arranged to do our program that you had been interested in this subject of television and the docudrama and the…what do you call it…”faction”…

Foner: Faction…fact/fiction married together, right.

Heffner: What is your…

Foner: Well, I have been, I’ve written about this…I attended a Conference sponsored by the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in California with TV producers and a certain number of historians. My experience with these faction, mixtures of fact and fiction, has not been too happy, viewing them as a professional historian. As entertainment, some of these works are very good, “Roots” for example, and many others. But I think in general the historical part tends to get sacrificed to the entertainment part. I’m not saying that history should be presented in a boring and uninteresting fashion. But my experience is that writers for television docudramas tend to think they can take great liberties with the facts in the interest of livening up the story. And some liberties are perhaps okay, on minor points, but too often you get really fanciful depictions of past events on the assumption that this is the only way to engage and keep your large, you know, forty or fifty million people television audience. So I’m…I think it’s a sort of bastardized form. If you’re going to do a novel or a televised novel, fine. But then don’t claim it’s fact. Claim it’s, it’s invented by somebody.

Heffner: I have the feeling as I read this wonderful piece of yours in The Nation from 1979, just after that California conference…

Foner: Right.

Heffner: …that you were being enormously generous. I mean let’s…let’s take what we just said about “Gone With the Wind”. Here an enormously popular bit of fiction, but “faction” too, a mixture of fact and fiction. With the result, I think you believe that the old mythology about the Old South, slavery and Reconstruction was fostered, was underwritten.

Foner: Yes, but “Gone With the Wind” at least Margaret Mitchell and the people who made the movie at least had the honesty not to claim this was “true”. The problem with docudramas is that they take liberties but then they want the imprimatur of doing real history, “this is true, this is based on the facts”. They don’t go up…they don’t put on television and say, “this is a historical novel”, as “Gone With the Wind” is. They want, as someone, as I think I quoted in that article, some producer said, “Well, if you claim it’s true, it gives you five extra rating points” or something, you see. People are more interested in seeing something that is “real” history than someone’s invented version. So there is a little bit of a difference. “Gone With the Wind” is a historical novel. These docudramas make a greater claim to accuracy than “Gone With the Wind” did.

Heffner: Yes, but whatever you say about the authoress, when one reads, even today, “Gone With the Wind”, don’t you think we come away feeling…

Foner: It shapes.

Heffner: …that’s the way it was.

Foner: Yes. It shapes people, it shapes peoples’ opinions and attitudes about the past. That’s, that’s certainly true. And that’s why historians, as you know, in the past five or six or ten years, there has been a lot of lamentation among historians, professional historians that we are losing our audience. That somehow the writing of history has become so technical, so specialized, so arcane that those who are interested in history must turn to others who are perhaps not as expert, but are much better in communicating ideas. And Nevins, who you mentioned before, of course, was a great writer and there were other, you know, of that generation, were wonderful stylists and could appeal to a very broad audience with very, you know, fine history.

Heffner: Including your old friend Claude Bowers?

Foner: Right. Bowers was a very fine writer, of course. And that book…of course he was helped, perhaps by having a completely black and white vision of the past. No subtlety, no shades of gray…there were good guys and bad guys and he told you who they were…the Blacks were all ignorant or corrupt of completely incompetent, the White Southerners, the Ku Klux Klan, etc., were the heroes of the story. It made for a kind of easy, lively reading without taxing the intellect very much.

Heffner: Of course, that was true with Jefferson and Hamilton.

Foner: Right.

Heffner: It was true with Jackson. It was true with all those great Democratic heroes.

Foner: Right. Bowers (laughter)…Bowers always had his good guys and his bad guys clearly laid out and this, perhaps, does help to explain why his books sold so many copies.

Heffner: It certainly helped to explain why he became an Ambassador…

Foner: Right. Yes, he did.

Heffner: …during a Democratic administration. But you know, in this piece in The Nation on docudrama, on “faction” again, I said you were rather generous. You say, “The writers and producers are being pulled simultaneously in three directions by the claims of drama, history and finance. If the marriage of history and drama is difficult, that of art and industry is even more so”. So you’re not talking about limitations of the medium qua medium, you’re talking about the dollar sign.

Foner: Well, the dollar sign is very important. I’m not sure that the people who took part in that conference would have considered that so generous because every single one of them, without exception, absolutely denied that financial considerations had anything to do with anything that they produced. This struck me…I’m not an expert on the television industry, but it struck me as being slightly unlikely. After all, television is a multi-billion dollar industry and they are out to sell products and to get a big audience. So, to say that they’re being pulled by the claims of finance, they would have…these writers and producers would have rejected that. Really, they, they said “No, there was no subject we cannot treat. There is no limit on the way we can treat it. We have carte blanche and it’s purely…history is telling, you know, we are doing what is accurate history”.

Heffner: But, of course, they said it to you in another way. They talked about rating points.

Foner: Yes.

Heffner: And rating points mean…

Foner: Means money.

Heffner: …dollar signs.

Foner: Right. Right.

Heffner: So they were saying the same thing.

Foner: Yes. That is true. You know at that conference they keynote address was given by Gore Vidal, who outraged them all by saying, “I never watch television. I have nothing to do with television”. And now seven or eight years or ten years later he comes on television with a massive serialization of his novel on Lincoln. So, it just shows you how television has a way of seducing or attracting almost everybody.

Heffner: Well, it’s interesting. You say, “seducing or attracting” because on the one hand it’s seducing us away from a wiser, better, more balanced picture of the past, but on the other hand, you say yourself, it’s attracting us to…

Foner: The possibility of a large audience. Obviously, I’m sure Vidal did that because he…how many…I mean his book was a best seller, but the number of people who watched “Lincoln” on television is far, far in excess of what any writer could hope to reach through his book, so that’s the, that’s the attraction.

Heffner: Well, you know, I made note in going through one of your accounts of Tom Paine. You wrote that Paine, “Did not view commercial motives with distaste”. And I wondered whether you do.

Foner: (Laughter)

Heffner: Because you seem to end on that note.

Foner: In this article.

Heffner: Yes.

Foner: Well, perhaps I have slightly more distaste for them than Tom Paine did because of the eras in which we were writing. Paine is writing in the American Revolution at a time when small-scale enterprise, the artisan, the craftsman, the small farmer is, he feels, the sort of economic backbone of American independence. And anything which can promote America’s economic independence will underpin its political independence. Moreover, Paine believed that the free interchange of commerce between nations and peoples was far preferable to other forms of relationship, like war or competition. But, of course, as I say, Paine is talking in a pre-industrial era. The kind of economic enterprise that I maybe have…am expressing a little distaste for there are the great multi-national corporation…the giant conglomerates which control, you know, in a way, or strongly influence the lives of vast numbers of people without any influence or democratic control on their part. So the nature of economic enterprise has changed profoundly from the days of the small craftsman, the artisan, the small farmer, who Paine was celebrating. So, I think that is the reason for perhaps a greater fear or suspicion of economic enterprise today on my part, even though I, you know, I’m very influenced by Paine’s analysis of the situation two hundred years ago.

Heffner: Well, in reading the article on Paine, having just read the piece on docu-drama, “faction” and that very straight statement that there are three pulls – drama, history and finance. I just wondered how accepting you were of finance, as one of the pulls on, or pushes on the creative…

Foner: Oh, I’ve…listen…you know everybody has to make a living and I’d prefer if people were honest about it. In a way I think the most perhaps unfortunate aspect of his particular conference was that many of these writers and producers were not willing to admit, except when they talked now and then about rating points, that finance was a major consideration in terms of what goes on television, what subjects are chosen, etc. I think if one is honest about these various pulls, then one has a better chance of analyzing the situation fully and completely, then if one simply rejects the idea that economics is part of the equation.

Heffner: Well, you’re, you’re…unlike Gore Vidal, you wouldn’t get up and say, “I don’t watch television”.

Foner: I watch a lot of television.

Heffner: Okay.

Foner: Mostly the news, though. (Laughter)

Heffner: Well, again, going back…for the few moments we have…going back to “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution”, think about the ways in which you would like to have the ideas that you express here brought to a larger and larger public…Well, you and I want them all to buy the book, granted.

Foner: Certainly.

Heffner: How would you respond to the very thought of a television treatment?

Foner: Oh, I would be delighted. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I’m some sort of purist in an ivory tower who disdains television or mass media or anything like that. I would be delighted if a story like this could be dramatized or could be treated in a way which was, you know, accessible to large numbers of people.

Heffner: But it will be touted as “the truth”. It will be touted as “what happened in the past”.

Foner: Absolutely, and I would hope that if such a thing happened, that, that historians, myself and others, would have a greater say in the content than is the case with these docu-dramas. Too often in the docu-dramas the historian is there just as a kind of window dressing, as a …you know, to put on this list of credits, you have to have a historical advisor. But his or her advice and interpretation are rarely really consulted, so I think one of the ways of getting around some of these problems is to have historians, not as the…able to veto everything, but at least actively involved in the process all the way through.

Heffner: When that happens will you please call me and tell me about it?

Foner: (Laughter) Absolutely.

Heffner: You don’t really anticipate that, do you?

Foner: No. But our job is to say what should be, not only what is.

Heffner: Eric Foner, thank you so much for joining me today in the discussion of your book “Reconstruction”, and of all the ideas that surround it. I appreciate it.

Foner: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and The New York Times Company Foundation.