How American history and politics converge | Interview with Dr. Eric Foner

How American history and politics converge | Interview with Dr. Eric Foner

We met with DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, Dr. Eric Foner, to talk about the evolution of the Republican Party, voter suppression, civil wars and so much more. Enjoy!

Notable historian Dr. Eric Foner explores threats to the American experiment, including secession movements, civil wars, political party schisms, and voter suppression. He also examines slavery & abolition, political outsiders, and the evolution of the Republican Party. DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, Dr. Foner talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

…If we did break apart, it wouldn't be along a clear section, a line like the Civil War. In other words, it's not two geographic regions. The different visions of our society reflected by the Democratic and Republican parties are scattered all around the country there.” – Dr. Eric Foner

See Dr. Foner’s Academic Influence profile

See additional influential historians in our article
Top Influential Historians Today

Interview with Historian Dr. Eric Foner

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:22What do we need to know?

Jed Macosko: Hi, it’s Dr. Jed Macosko, at and Wake Forest University. And today we have a wonderful guest coming to us from Columbia University, Professor Eric Foner. And I have a lot of questions for you, Eric, namely…

…what do we need to learn from the Civil War period that can help us now that we’re going through this tumultuous time, because as they always say, “People who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it”? What do we need to know? Tell us what can we learn.

Eric Foner: I think, especially nowadays, the history of the Civil War era, and by that I mean the history of slavery, of the struggle against slavery, the war itself, the end of slavery, the Reconstruction Era, which came after the Civil War, that history is, to use a hackneyed phrase, utterly relevant to our society today, you look at the issues of the Civil War era, they are being fought out in our streets every day. Like who should be a citizen of the United States? That was a fundamental question before and during the Civil War. Every day, it’s been fought out on our southern borders. What about the right to vote? Who should have the right to vote? Well, we are actually speaking on election day here, [chuckle] and as you know, the right to vote is highly contested in many states in this country, and there are efforts in many states to suppress or limit the right to vote.

Well, again, that was a fundamental issue with the Civil War era, the question of the connection, if any between political democracy and economic democracy, this was particularly relevant to the former slaves, the four million people were free during the Civil War. Well, okay, what would be their economic status? Could you be genuinely free if you have no property, no economic opportunity, things like that? And even terrorism. This was an era of our homegrown American terrorism, the Ku Klux Klan, and groups like that, which used violent methods, murder, arson, assault, to try to get their way politically.

Now, that doesn’t tell us…If you study the Civil War era, it doesn’t tell us what we should do in the year 2020, exactly, but it does tell us A, that these issues have been contested throughout our history, and B, that we cannot take the liberties we have for granted. One lesson, unfortunately, of that era is that rights could be gained and rights can be taken away.

…We have to remember our constitution isn't self-enforcing, and people have to be vigilant about protecting their rights. And that's as true today as it was 150 years ago.” – Dr. Eric Foner

After the Civil War, the period that I’ve studied the most, Reconstruction, African-Americans made enormous strides in becoming, at least on paper, equal citizens of the United States. And yet, in the generation after Reconstruction, many of those gains were reversed. The laws and constitutional amendments which had given African-Americans these rights were basically abrogated throughout the South with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court. And so, as I say, we have to remember our constitution isn’t self-enforcing, and people have to be vigilant about protecting their rights. And that’s as true today as it was 150 years ago.

Jed: So the big lesson is that we need to learn to protect our rights because we are no different than the people back during the times of the Civil War, there, before and after. So we have the same vices, the same problems, the same confusions in our minds.

So we just have to be vigilant. Is that what you’re saying?

Eric: Well, the one thing we have that they didn’t have is knowledge of history, at least knowledge of the history [chuckle] since then. And so perhaps we are better positioned than they are to make this democracy better because it seems to be under a lot of strain right now in all sorts of ways. We know what happened to them, and that is a big advantage that we have if we take it seriously.

Jed: Yeah, we know that it led to huge demise to break apart the states and then fight to restore the Union.

So do you think that could ever happen? Here we are on election day. I know a lot of people are nervous about that. I don’t know, what do you think?

Eric: We don’t like to predict the future that much, historians. And on the other hand, one rule is never say never. It doesn’t seem plausible to me, but a lot of things have happened that don’t seem plausible to me. Now, if we did break apart, it wouldn’t be along a clear section, a line like the Civil War. In other words, it’s not two geographic regions. The different visions of our society reflected by the Democratic and Republican parties are scattered all around the country there.

Of course, the coasts are one thing generally, but there’s no single dividing line, which along which this country could split apart. On the other hand, there was a book published recently by Ricky, Richard Kreitner, I call him Ricky ’cause I know him, Break It Up, which is about secession movements in American history, including ones today. There are people in various places, whether it’s Texas, California, New York City, where I live, who think, “Well, we might be better off separating out and not being connected to those other people, whoever they are in the country.” Nothing is impossible in this life, but I hope that we do not [chuckle] break up and become a kind of Balkans with different groups fighting it out among themselves. Let’s try to avoid that.

06:31Republicans vs. Democrats

Jed: Well, you studied the Republican Party before the Civil War, so that’s a long time ago. It’s obviously changed a lot at various points.

If you were plotting major changes, would you say that in the last few years, there’s been a major change? And how does it compare to any other major changes that you as a historian would know about?

Eric: Well, the Republican Party…Yes, my first book, my doctoral thesis, and then becoming a book about the Republican party before the Civil War, now that’s over 150 years ago. So the fact that it has changed should not be that surprising, but at that point, of course, it was a party whose raison d’etre was opposing the westward expansion of slavery. It existed only in the northern states. When Lincoln was elected president, they got no votes in most of the southern states at all. So it was a northern sectional party devoted to restricting and eventually abolishing the institution of slavery.

And for many years, that was the appeal of the Republican Party. They had saved the Union, they had freed the slaves, they were the party of Lincoln. That lasted for a long time. The Civil War basically set the parameters of our political system for generations. If you look at the political maps of the elections, 1888, 1892, down into the 20th century, they’re pretty similar. The Republicans carried the north basically, and the Democrats were the Solid South with a few northern states as well.

That begun to change probably at the time of the New Deal, actually, where first of all, African-Americans who could vote, begin to shift over to the Democratic Party, rather than the Republican Party, because the New Deal measures of Franklin D. Roosevelt were very helpful to African-Americans. Even though he wasn’t that interested in civil rights, the economic relief was…Blacks were hit worse than anyone else by the Depression, and so these economic measures were of great value to them.

But really, I think the current configuration stems mostly from 1964 and onwards, where Lyndon B. Johnson had gotten the Civil Rights Bill passed, the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater who had opposed the Civil Rights Bill of 1864. And then four years later, Richard Nixon , the Republican candidate devised what was called the Southern strategy, to try to bring what they call the White backlash vote, Southern whites who were disgruntled by these civil rights gains of Blacks, bring them from the Democratic Party into the Republican Party.

And that set off a re-alignment which you can see today. Today, the center of gravity of the Republican party is the South, as they say. The original Republican Party didn’t exist in the South. Today, it’s focused on the South, although of course, it has support elsewhere. And today, the Democratic Party is the party of African-American voters and other minority voters by and large, whereas in the 19th century, the Democratic Party was very much the party of slavery and then of racism, and of opposition of Black rights. So there’s been kind of…Each one has taken the clothes of the other, so to speak, and they’re now dressed differently than they had been in that past.

Jed: And the description of how it happened is interesting, and Nixon gets a pivotal role that I hadn’t really thought about, so can you tell me just a little bit more? Would you say that it was his ambition to be President that sort of flipped everything? If he wasn’t so keen on winning, which obviously then led to his demise, that that ambition is what flipped everything? Is that what…

Eric: Well, it wasn’t just one person, as I said, Barry Goldwater carried several Southern states. Even though he lost in a landslide in ’64 by opposing civil rights legislation, Goldwater managed to flip, as they say, several deep South Democratic states over to the Republican Party. Then you had George Wallace, another figure in this, very important, in the late ’60s, who ran for President independently. What did Wallace stand for? Segregation. Segregation, now, segregation forever. That was his slogan. And he showed that there was more than a Southern strategy, he got a lot of votes in the Democratic primaries from working class white people in the north in places like Michigan or Wisconsin or places like that.

So this backlash politics was not just in the South. Nixon was a shrewd politician, it’s hard to say that when you realized how he self-destructive later on, but at this point, he was a…He understood that if you took the traditional Republican vote and you added to it the Wallace vote, you would have a majority, definitely. But Nixon didn’t…When the Southern was…Not as overtly, he didn’t come out and say, “I’m for segregation,” like Wallace did. No, he used circumlocutions. He talked a lot about law and order. He talked a lot about welfare, people on welfare. He didn’t explicitly appeal to racism, but the underlying message was quite clear to those who wanted to hear it. Yeah, Nixon was a very strange and canny guy. He also, of course, tried to keep the Black vote in the north that was traditionally Republican. This process, though, developed over time until today…What is it? 90% or more of African-American vote Democratic, not Republican, and the Republicans are increasingly the party of white voters, north and South. That’s very different than it was in most of American history.

Jed: And this sort of circumlocutions of words that then appealed to the disgruntled white voters, a lot of people have made analogies between Nixon and Trump.

Do you think that that is what was going on in the 2016 elections at all? Or can you speak to that?

Eric: Trump is an unusual character. Let’s put it that way. But he’s a little shrewder also politically than maybe some of his critics are willing to admit. He’s an ego-maniac, we know that everything is himself, himself, himself, but he saw what Nixon accomplished. He also saw what George Wallace accomplished. And he sort of added, in a way…I don’t even know if he thought about this quite as clearly as I’m putting it, but for example, Ross Perot , it’s a different character who ran as an independent in 1992 and got 20% of the vote, which is a pretty astonishing thing for a guy who had no political experience at all. And you remember, he was the one who raised the issue of free trade, of protecting manufacturing. He imposed NAFTA, that kind of thing. And Trump picked that up. That’s addition. Guys like Goldwater or Nixon were not that interested in that issue.

So Trump adds all sorts of things, but yeah, Trump’s running on law and order this time around, 2020, that’s his most prominent phrase now. And he knows that that resonates with many people on all sorts of levels, not just a natural desire for physical safety, but who are the people who are threatening your law and order? Now, Trump is more explicit than Nixon was, he said, “If Biden’s elected, these people are gonna come and take over the suburbs, they’re gonna destroy your houses.” Now, who are we talking about? Trump’s vision is the suburbs are all white, which is no longer true, of course, and the rioters, are all Black, and he’s gonna protect you from that. Maybe that appeals to some voters, I don’t know, we’ll find out.

Jed: Well, we’ll find out today, but since this interview obviously will be seen long after that all happens, it’s just interesting to see how history has, in some ways, repeated itself in the Nixon era, the Trump era. Were there previous eras where a shrewd politician tried to marshall things in the South, people [inaudible] or was it a very…

Eric: Until, really, the end of the 19th century, the South was solidly Democratic, with the exception of this short period of Reconstruction where African-Americans were allowed to vote in the South, and Republican Party governments were set up throughout the Southern states, but those were either voted out of office or overthrown by violence in the 1870s, etcetera.

…Race has always played some kind of role in American political history.” – Dr. Eric Foner

But certainly, race has always played some kind of role in American political history. It’s not the only issue that’s on people’s minds, but it can be appealed to. The slogan of the Democratic Party in the mid-19th century was, “This is a white man’s government, this is a white country. White people should be in charge and non-whites are here at the sufferance of whites.” The most famous statement along these lines came from the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision, where the Chief Justice Taney said that “Black people have no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” That’s 1857. From the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. “They’re not citizens, they cannot be citizens,” he said. And so this kind of racially inflected politics goes way, way back.

This is why what happened after the Civil War is so remarkable. You’ve got three constitutional amendments added to the Constitution: 13, 14 and 15. The 13th abolished slavery throughout the country. The 14th made Blacks citizens, anybody born in the United States becomes a citizen overthrowing the Dred Scott decision and saying that they have to enjoy equal protection of the law, putting the idea of equality into the constitution for the first time. And the 15th giving African-American men the right to vote. So that was a complete shift from the political structure we had before the Civil War, but unfortunately, it didn’t last. And that’s why we needed a civil rights movement 100 years later, which was sometimes called the Second Reconstruction.

17:46Movements in the United States and in the United Kingdom

Jed: And it was that civil rights movement that really made you question everything you had learned in your history classes because it just didn’t fit with this nice orderly progression from smart people in the past, even smarter people in the present, to future smart people. And pretty much like you said, it was all white people in your entire history book, every one of them. So that actually, that civil rights movement gave you the desire to go back and understand things more properly, and it seems like you’ve done that.

One thing that I’ve always wondered about is how closely related were the abolitionist movements in the United Kingdom and the United States? We hear about William Wilberforce, there’s that movie, Amazing Grace, and people know about that. But how connected was that to Abraham Lincoln and the party of abolition?

Eric: Lincoln mentioned Wilberforce in some of his speeches. The anti-slavery…And slavery was an Atlantic phenomenon. It existed throughout in the United States, in the Caribbean, in Brazil and Cuba, it existed in West Africa, not so much in England at this time, but certainly England had a long history of slave owning until abolition there in the 1830s in their empire. So slavery is an international institution, and the fight against slavery was also an international fight.

So American abolitionists, people like Frederick Douglass , William Lloyd Garrison or others, went to England, they spoke in England, they raised money, British abolitionists came here to lecture against slavery. It was a trans-national movement.

And as I said, Lincoln, who was not really internationally oriented, he grew up in Indiana, and then Illinois, which is pretty far away from the Atlantic world, but he knew about the history of the anti-slavery movement in England. He mentioned it in some speeches. He thought that he and the anti-slavery people in the US were part of a kind of a long international struggle, which would end some time, no one knew when, with the end of slavery.

One of the most, I think, debilitating thoughts or ideas in American culture is this idea of American exceptionalism, that we are so different from every other country that we barely need to know anything about them, because we're exempt from the things that happen to them.” – Dr. Eric Foner

So yes, this is…We Americans…[chuckle] How should I put this? One of the most, I think, debilitating thoughts or ideas in American culture is this idea of American exceptionalism, that we are so different from every other country that we barely need to know anything about them, because we’re exempt from the things that happen to them. Whereas, in fact, there’s always been interconnections between the United States and the rest of the world, obviously. And we can actually learn from other people, although many Americans don’t like to think that way. But certainly, abolitionism was an example of how…It’s not American exceptionalism. It’s a broad international movement that fought against slavery both…In all sorts of countries.

Jed: And would it be fair to say that in this sort of 1830s, the British Empire abolished slavery; 1860s, US abolished slavery; We were as far behind as South Africa was in its civil rights, sort of…

Eric: Well, yeah. Well, the reason for that is…There are many, many reasons for that story, but the fact is the slavery in the United States was the biggest and most powerful slave system the world has ever seen. Maybe you go back to the Roman Empire and you’ll find a comparison. Four million slaves in the United States, that’s far more than the whole western…Rest of the western hemisphere combined, Brazil, Cuba, British Caribbean. That’s at least double how many slaves that were there, and was economically central to American growth. Cotton was the oil of the 19th century, the most important commodity in world trade, and the United States was sitting on a monopoly, virtually, of cotton used in the early industrial revolution.

And that was slave-grown cotton. And it’s not just the South. New York, where I live, was totally tied in to slavery. New York’s merchants shipped the cotton, New York bankers financed Southern agriculture. That’s why Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, talked about…He said “American slavery”. He didn’t say “Southern slavery”. American slavery, the whole country was complicit in some way.

So yes, it was hard to [chuckle] abolish slavery in the United States. Obviously, it took a horrible Civil War to do that, but then slavery still continued in Brazil, where it wasn’t ended until 1888, and in Cuba, where it wasn’t ended until somewhere around 1880, I don’t know the exact year. Slavery is hard to get rid of, unfortunately, [chuckle] it gets itself very entrenched.

Jed: And to that end, do you think that because the United States had the biggest slavery institution, that is why our politics from then on has been shaped by that, and we’re seeing it still being played out in the streets?

Eric: Well, we are still fighting about the legacy of slavery. We’re fighting about whether there should be statues of Confederate leaders, as you well know. One of the main differences between slavery as it developed in the Western Hemisphere and historical slavery, because slavery has existed going back as far as we can find, it’s a sad commentary on human nature, but there’s almost always been slavery somewhere, but slavery in the Western Hemisphere was racial slavery, a racial difference or a physical difference, which comes to be called a racial difference, whereas in Ancient Rome, I mentioned, there was no physical difference between slaves and owners, and it was much easier for slaves to become free and integrate into the society, whereas here, the freed slave still bears the mark of slavery upon his person.

And so even though slavery died, the racial ideology about inferiority and superiority of different races, I use “races” so to speak here, because there is no such thing, really, as race as a scientific category, in the sense that your physical appearance determines what your abilities are, your brain power is, that kinda thing. That’s ridiculous, but the concept of race and of racism survives the end of slavery, and that is an unfortunate fact, but it’s true in all of these countries which had racial slavery.

25:11Sign off

Jed: And that is what we are seeing today. So it really is true that if we don’t look back on history, we don’t understand what led to where we are today, we won’t have a full grasp of what we’re facing. So thank you for taking some time to help us understand all the different ins and outs of what you study and what you’ve made your career on. We really appreciate it, Professor Foner, and thank you for spending some time with us today.

Eric: I appreciate it. Thank you for talking to me. I always enjoy talking about history, and so it’s been a pleasure.

Jed: Thank you.