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Civil War Historian Eric Foner on the Radical Possibilities of Reconstruction

Web ExclusiveMarch 11, 2015
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As the nation prepares to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, we talk to historian Eric Foner about Reconstruction and the birth of a homegrown racist, terrorist movement led by the Ku Klux Klan. Foner wrote one of the definitive books on the era, titled “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.” He won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” His latest book is “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.”

Click here to watch Eric Foner discuss his new book on the underground railroad.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest, in this part two interview, is Eric Foner, author of Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. It just came out, and it’s already a New York Times best-seller. He is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, DeWitt Clinton history professor at Columbia University. His other books include Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 and The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. But I want to turn to your work on Reconstruction.

ERIC FONER: Certainly.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, we were just in Selma for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the civil rights activists that fought so hard for their freedom, voting rights today such a critical issue in this country. Talk about where it all began.

ERIC FONER: Well, the civil rights movement was sometimes called the Second Reconstruction, and that’s a good term, because all these issues became part of the national agenda in Reconstruction. And that was the period when the first national civil rights legislation was passed, the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The 14th and 15th Amendments were added to the Constitution.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what all these were.

ERIC FONER: Right. The Civil Rights Act for the first time declared that anybody born in the United States is a citizen. That may seem like sort of second nature to us now, but it was not true then. Black people often were not citizens. And even today, it’s very contested, because, as you know, there are a lot of people who think, well, children born here whose parents are undocumented immigrants are not citizens. But they are. I’m sorry. The 14th Amendment—the Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment both say that very explicitly. It was the first definition of American citizenship.

And then it went on to say, the Civil Rights Act—and then the 14th Amendment does this also—that these citizens are all to enjoy equal civil rights. There was nothing like that before the Civil War, absolutely not. Whiteness was a privilege. Black people, even in the North, had very, very few rights. And so, really, it’s Reconstruction that puts this concept of equal citizenship, without regard to race, into our laws and constitutions.

And then, a little bit later, black men—not women, of course—get the right to vote in large numbers for the first time in American history. So you get the first experiment in interracial democracy in our history, where many, many black people are voting. There had been a handful voting in the North before the war. At least 2,000, by my estimate, hold some public office during Reconstruction in the South, ranging from justice of the peace all the way up to Congress, the House and Senate. And so you get—really, on the ashes of slavery, you’re trying to build a equal society.

Now, you know, it’s by no means perfect. Certainly Reconstruction failed to address the economic plight of African Americans, and their desire for land of their own did not get fulfilled. But, you know, Reconstruction was successful enough that it spurred a violent reaction and—again, this is, you know, an issue of today—terrorism, that we had our home-grown terrorism, the Ku Klux Klan and groups like that, which sprang up to try to restore white supremacy in the South. And unfortunately, you know, after—by the 1870s, the will in the North to enforce these new laws and amendments was fading.

And so, Reconstruction—you know, this is a brief summary, but Reconstruction ends in 1877. But as W. E. B. Du Bois said in his great book, Black Reconstruction in America, this was an experiment in democracy. That’s why we should think about it on this show. This was the first time we genuinely had democracy in this country—for men, but without race being a barrier to participation in American political life.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you talk about the rise of the Klan against it.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But in the North also, you had the Northern press depicting Reconstruction as a period of corruption—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —of people who didn’t know how to run government suddenly in office—

ERIC FONER: Much of the Northern press—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and created a whole public sentiment against it.

ERIC FONER: Absolutely. No, by the 1870s, more and more Northerners, even Republicans, who had put this into effect, are saying, you know, this is all a mistake. Social Darwinism is becoming more and more prominent. That is, this is an effort to uplift those at the bottom of society, and that really is just unnatural; it’s just like trying to save a species in the natural world that’s doomed—you know, the struggle for existence, the survival of the fittest. And yes, the idea comes along that Reconstruction governments are full of corruption. There was corruption in the South. It wasn’t nearly as much as the Tweed Ring in New York City. But the point is, they said, it is blacks voting that is the reason for corruption. That, you know, it’s one thing to say, yeah, there’s corruption, there always is, but here it’s giving blacks the right to vote was the terrible mistake, and so we’ve got to take it away if we want to restore good government. So, yes, in the North, this racist image of Reconstruction becomes more and more prevalent. And then, later, a generation later, as you well know, our university, at Columbia, becomes the place where the Dunning School—where the scholarly underpinning for this idea is developed by William Dunning and Burgess and their students, and you get, you know, the whole literature of around 1900 or so that Reconstruction was a terrible mistake because black people were given the right to vote, and therefore the South is correct to take the right to vote away from them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also, how Reconstruction ended? I mean, the famous presidential election that—

ERIC FONER: Well, it ended in a political bargain in 1876. Just like in 2000, the disputed election hinged on Florida and a couple of other states. And to make a long story short, eventually, you know, the Republicans—

AMY GOODMAN: You don’t have to make it that short.

ERIC FONER: Both sides claimed to have won. Tilden, the Democrat, Hayes, the Republican, claimed to have won the presidential election of 1876. There were these disputed returns from three of the states. And after a rather complicated winter, the bargain, if you want to call it that, of 1877 was reached, where basically Republicans got control of the national government, but they acquiesced in Democrats, who then were the racist party, taking control of the entire South. And Hayes promised that the federal government would no longer intervene to protect the rights of blacks. In other words, they had in the past. Under Grant, they had sent federal marshals into South Carolina, Alabama, to crush the Ku Klux Klan. The federal courts had tried, sometimes without success, sometimes with, to enforce the civil rights measures. But the end of Reconstruction means then the federal government is going to sort of abdicate its responsibility for protecting these new rights of the former slaves. So it was definitely a disaster for black people and for American democracy altogether.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So the very Republican Party that initially wanted to abolish slavery—

ERIC FONER: Retreats.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —then retreats and allows the Democrats to seize control.

ERIC FONER: Right, yeah. Now, you know, history never ends at one moment. It’s not until 1900, more or less, that a whole new racial system is put in place in the South, what we kind of call Jim Crow—you know, segregation, disenfranchisement of black voters, the emasculation of education for blacks in the South, very severely limited economic opportunities. You have that whole—it takes a while to put that into place. It doesn’t just come in 1877. But—

AMY GOODMAN: And who were the major forces putting that into place?

ERIC FONER: Well, it’s Southern planters, basically, merchants. It’s the upper-class Southerners who are, you know, regaining their control of Southern political life and Southern economic life, which had been wrested from them during Reconstruction. But the point is, the North acquiesces. It’s not just the South. It’s the North acquiesces in this. And after all, the Supreme Court, just like today, there’s a whole series of Supreme Court decisions over 20, 30 years that chip away at these rights and reinterpret the 14th Amendment as a protection of corporations, not a protection of black citizens. So, the whole nation is guilty, even though the main effort is in the South.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, as I was saying, we were in Selma and Montgomery.


AMY GOODMAN: We saw the First [White] House of the Confederacy. It’s very well appointed—

ERIC FONER: I’m sure.

AMY GOODMAN: —very well preserved. I remember, after Hurricane Katrina, the house in Mississippi of Jefferson Davis was one of the first places they poured millions into, one house, as people were struggling all over.

ERIC FONER: Right. It was a nice big house, right.

AMY GOODMAN: But what about this issue of the monuments that are saved and the monuments that are not saved.

ERIC FONER: Or never built. I mean, I agree with you. The public history, as we call it, the representation of our history in the public realm, is half a century or more behind our current conception of the—for example, today, any—every historian will tell you slavery was the fundamental institution of Southern life, it was central to the American economy, and it was central to the coming of the Civil War. But—and there were millions of people who suffered from slavery. There is not a single museum of slavery in the United States, although I read in The New York Times there’s a fellow in Louisiana who is opening one now. But certainly, if you go to Washington, D.C., you don’t see very much about the history of slavery in our country in the many museums and, you know, monuments there.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you feel, one similar to the Holocaust Museum.

ERIC FONER: Yeah. We have a big Holocaust Museum, which is a wonderful museum. But what would we think if the Germans built a big Museum of American Slavery in Berlin and had nothing about the Holocaust? We would think they were trying to avoid something. There is no monument in this country to the victims of slavery. There is one in France. President Sarkozy dedicated it about seven or eight years ago in Luxembourg Gardens. I’ve been there. It’s a small thing, but it’s dedicated to the slaves of the French Empire. We don’t have something like that. So, you know, our public history needs to be updated.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s move from the monuments to the issue of reparations and what happened—


AMY GOODMAN: —and did not happen with reparations. I mean, certainly Jews in the United States and around the world have—


AMY GOODMAN: A number of them have gotten compensation from Germany.

ERIC FONER: Oh, well, the state of Israel is constantly getting these payments from Germany. I mean, in a way, that’s the closest analogy to what people talk about reparations here. You know, we’ve had reparations like to Japanese Americans who were interned in World War II; under President Reagan, this was signed. Now, those were the individual victims of internment. There’s nobody alive today who was a slave before the Civil War. A better analogy is that Germany is still making payments every year to Israel, so that’s reparations to a people, not just to specific victims. You know, I don’t—I’m not sure I like to use the word “reparations.” It has become so politically charged that it may be counterproductive. I prefer to talk about social policy. In other words, if you look at our society today, there are still—I mean, you know, as the president said at Selma, and many others, you know, we have come a long way, but we—

AMY GOODMAN: What did you think of the president’s speech?

ERIC FONER: I thought it was very good. I thought it was very good. I have a lot of criticism of President Obama, but he is able, when he puts his mind to it, to make good speech. But, you know, we’ve come a long way, but if you look at any index of social life—I don’t care whether it’s life expectancy, health, education, unemployment rates, on and on and on—there is still a very significant racial gap in this country. So, we need policies to address that. I guess what I’d say is, if the political situation existed where reparations were possible, we would not need reparations.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you, because, being a historian, you obviously have a vested interest in maintaining the importance of history. But how do you—what do you say to Americans who continue to say, “Well, this is all—all this racism and discrimination was in the past”?

ERIC FONER: Yeah, “We’re colorblind now.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, “We’re colorblind now.”

ERIC FONER: You know, of course I hear that. I hear that from my own students. And in a certain sense, I understand it. We went to Columbia, both of us, Columbia College. Juan is a lot younger than I am, but we were both there. You know, at that time, it was basically an all-white institution, as you know. I mean, my class may have had two or three nonwhites and that was it. Yours may have had a few more. But today it’s much more racially diverse, and the experience of students is basically that they interact on a fairly equal level with people of all—and they say, “Well, what’s the problem here with race?” Now, occasionally, you get something like an Oklahoma, where there is overt racial—but you don’t see that around Columbia very much. But nonetheless, you have to say, well, look at the society; don’t just look at, you know, a group of upper-middle-class people and how they’re interacting with each other. The history of racism still weighs on the present. And actually, even though I’m a historian, it’s not just slavery we’re talking about. This is not just—didn’t just stop 150 years ago. There is race—the report on Ferguson just the other day. This is still happening. It’s in different ways. We don’t have Bull Connor out there with his dogs, exactly. But—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you have police chiefs out there with their tanks and their drones.

ERIC FONER: We have police chiefs with tanks. We have people being shot who are unarmed. So, obviously, that is certainly happening. But, you know, the face of racism, to me, today is a guy in a three-piece suit, a banker at Wells Fargo, for example, who is pushing black people into subprime mortgages, and they’re going to lose their house, whereas a white person with exactly the same financial record is going into a better mortgage. So, you know, there is racism built into all sorts of institutions. Often it’s not quite as visible. But that’s part of what it means to analyze society, to see through the facade and see what’s really, you know, in the depths of the society.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Foner, what is your criticism of President Obama?

ERIC FONER: How long do you have? You know, I’m a historian. I can talk about President Obama as a citizen. I fear—until very recently, he seems to have gotten a little more backbone lately, since the 2014 elections. But I fear that—in the first five, six years of his presidency, he failed to push hard enough for changes that are necessary in the society. I think when he came in, he had a real opportunity to really try to address the problems of the financial system, but in fact they just patched it all up, and we’re back pretty much where we started and with another crisis very possible. You know, look, I admire many things about President Obama, but I also think—I wish he had done more, particularly when he had the opportunity to do more, when he first came in and Democrats had 60 members of the Senate, and there was a lot—and, I mean, he came in with a lot of public enthusiasm behind him. And I fear he didn’t really take advantage of that enough.

AMY GOODMAN: Can we end where we began, with your new book that just became a New York Times best-seller, Gateway to Freedom, if you could read from that?

ERIC FONER: Well, this is another just out of the Record of Fugitives kept by Sydney Howard Gay in New York City, a record of fugitives who passed through the city in the mid-1850s. I talk about Harriet Tubman, the great, you know, in there. But Harriet Tubman is well known. Here’s one who is sort of like her who isn’t well known: Frank Wanzer.

“[T]he dramatic escape of twenty-five-year-old Frank Wanzer, his fiancée Emily Foster, and a married couple, … and Wanzer’s subsequent return to bring out relatives still in slavery. Having hired a carriage and a pair of horses, the group departed on Christmas Eve, 1855, from Loudoun County, Virginia, northwest of Washington, accompanied by two other men on horseback. They traveled day and night, braving frost, hunger, and 'very severe weather.' They barely avoided recapture. After covering 100 miles, they lost their way in Maryland and inquired at a mill for the road to Pennsylvania. The miller realized they were fugitive slaves, and the party soon found itself surrounded by seven white men on horseback … The fugitives, however, including the women, were heavily armed; when they brandished knives and … pistols, their pursuers decided [quote] not to 'meddle' with them.” And they go on and on. They reach Philadelphia.

“Wanzer, however, was determined to return to Virginia. In July 1856, armed with three pistols, he traveled by train from Toronto to [Pennsylvania] and walked [back to Virginia]. A dozen slaves agreed to leave with him, but only three kept the appointment—his sister, her husband, and another man. The party turned up at William Still’s office [that’s in Philadelphia] on August 18 and at Gay’s [in New York] the following day, and were dispatched to Canada.”

So, this is incredibly courageous, to escape to Canada and then come back into the South to lead other people out, so—and no one’s ever heard of Frank Wanzer. You know, Harriet Tubman is well known. So this kind of story in the Record of Fugitives is just tremendously dramatic.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Eric Foner, your own family, if you could tell us about your background?

ERIC FONER: Well, I grew up in what I guess is colloquially called a sort of old left family. There were four brothers—my father, who was a professor of history; my Uncle Philip.

AMY GOODMAN: Your father was?

ERIC FONER: Jack Foner. Three of them have passed, but one, Henry Foner, a labor leader, president of the Fur and Leather Workers Union, is still alive. And, in fact, in about two weeks, we’ll celebrate his 96th birthday. Another uncle, Moe Foner, was head of—a big official of the 1199 Drug and Hospital Workers Union here. So they were all activists and radicals, and some of them suffered for their activity. My father and uncle were blacklisted from teaching for a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: And your uncle is the historian Philip Foner.

ERIC FONER: Philip, Philip Foner, very, very prolific historian. So this was, you know—and growing up, I met people like, as a kid, Paul Robeson. W. E. B. Du Bois was a friend of my family. So, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: What was W. E. B. Du Bois like?

ERIC FONER: Well, when I met Du Bois, I was like 12, and he was 92, so, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: So he was old.

ERIC FONER: To me, he was a very—he was a very dignified-looking old man, you know. It’s only in retrospect that I say, “Oh, my God! I met Du Bois!” When I was 12, I wasn’t quite as knowledgeable about the significance of that.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does it mean to say that your father and your uncle were blacklisted from teaching in the New York City schools?

ERIC FONER: They both taught at City College in—or the City University in New—in 1940, way before McCarthyism, there was a purge in the City University system of, quote-unquote, “communists.” Many of them weren’t communists, but it didn’t matter. And 50 or 60 faculty were fired and then could never get a job again either—then, after the war, McCarthyism begins. And so, it was only in the 1960s, my Uncle Phil eventually got a job at Lincoln University, black college.

AMY GOODMAN: Pennsylvania.

ERIC FONER: Yeah. And my father got a job at Colby College in Maine, where he actually established the first black studies program in New England. This was in the mid to late 1960s. But there were about a 25-year period where they could not teach. And, you know, this is just a sign of how fragile our liberties can be in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric Foner, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Again, congratulations on your latest book. It’s called Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. Professor Foner won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. He also wrote Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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StoryMar 11, 2015Gateway to Freedom: Historian Eric Foner on the Hidden History of the Underground Railroad
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