History On the Front Lines

Eric Foner, Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History

IB Tauris, 224pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781784537692

reviewed by Tom Cutterham

Born to a family of communists and labour organisers in 1940s New York, and trained as a historian there in the 1960s, Eric Foner has for the best part of a generation been one of the leading historians both in and of the United States. His retirement from Columbia University last year has provided a number of opportunities to reflect on Foner's towering intellectual achievements – including a conference in his honour at Columbia this month, and this book, which collects some of his contributions to the left-leaning political and cultural magazine The Nation. With another septuagenarian New Yorker in the White House, there could hardly be a more pressing moment to reflect on the history of American politics, and the politics of American historical memory.

Foner's long career has found its centre of gravity in the United States' Civil War of 1861 to 1865, an epochal conflict that killed more American soldiers than all the nation's other wars combined. The doctoral dissertation he completed under Richard Hofstadter, published as Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (1970), is still among the most definitive accounts of the ideas and arguments that framed the outbreak of the war. It was followed by a foray into the eighteenth century with Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (1976). More recently, Foner returned to Lincoln in his Pullitzer and Bancroft Prize-winning The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010), and to the antebellum era in Gateway to Freedom: A Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (2015).

Important as that work has been, Foner's greatest scholarly contribution took place on the historiographical battleground of Reconstruction. For much of the 20th century, dominant narratives of the period from 1865 to 1877 were shaped by a mythology of the south and its ‘Lost Cause’ tied up with white supremacy and segregation. Foner's book, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (1988), helped to restore the era's significance as one of conflict over citizenship, democracy, and equality, as well as race – and one that was substantially driven by the self-emancipatory efforts of African-Americans themselves. At the same time, Foner drew on his earlier work to show how Reconstruction entrenched capitalist free labour, both structurally and ideologically, at the heart of American society.

In many of the essays in Battles for Freedom, Foner grapples with the continuing ramifications of Reconstruction's failure – or rather, its unfinished state. Reading his dispatches from the culture wars of the 1990s reminds us that disputes over the Confederate flag, and the commemoration of slavery's defenders, are not new to the era of Black Lives Matter. Not only historical memory, but political culture more broadly, is constituted through public monuments and symbols, school curricula and textbooks, and the kind of history that citizens encounter on TV and in high street bookshops. Left and right each understand the significance of this terrain. As Foner puts it in an article on Charleston bomber Dylann Roof, ‘ideas about history legitimate and shape the present.’

Apart from a reflection on Sacco and Vanzetti – the Italian-American anarchists unjustly executed for murder in 1927 – which was Foner's first piece for The Nation, and an essay on the rise of the docudrama from 1979, everything in Battles for Freedom was written in the last 30 years. In the 1990s at the height of the culture wars, Foner did battle with Lynne Cheney and others who sought to overthrow the scourge of political correctness and redress academia's left-wing bias. It's depressing to find that remarks he made in 1990 apply just as easily today. But Foner's writing for The Nation really got going under George W. Bush, with his strident defence of academic freedom and universal civil rights in the age of the PATRIOT Act.

Less than a month after 9/11, Foner wrote: ‘The principle that no group of Americans should be stigmatized as disloyal or criminal because of race or national origin is too recent and too fragile an achievement to be abandoned now.’ Tarnished as a traitor for his opposition to Bush's policies, he defended the right to dissent. He also hit back against those who tried to use the legacy of Abraham Lincoln – fake quotes and all – against anti-war activists. Lincoln was willing to wage war to save the Union, but like many others, he strenuously opposed the United States' war against Mexico in the 1840s. The bicentennial of his birth, neatly intersecting with Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration, is marked by one of the longer essays in Battles for Freedom, which reflects the lines of thought that Foner carried through in Fiery Trial.

If Bush was ‘arguably the worst president in history,’ Foner was no cheerleader for Obama either. He felt ‘deep disappointment’ in the president's unwillingness to address issues central to so-called New Deal liberalism, including ‘economic democracy; mass unemployment; [and] unrestrained corporate power.’ He critiqued the notion of a ‘postracial’ America that Obama seemed to embrace. Finally, during the Democratic presidential primary, Foner backed Bernie Sanders' insurgent candidacy. In an open letter to Sanders that appears in Battles for Freedom, Foner urged the senator to look to home-grown American radicalism, rather than Scandinavian social democracy, as a foundation on which to build his rhetoric: ‘Here in the United States,’ wrote Foner, ‘the most successful radicals have always spoken the language of American society and appealed to some of its deepest values.’

It is historians – both academic and public – who recover, reconstruct, and interpret such language and values. Like Howard Zinn, a brief tribute to whom appears in this volume, Foner has made it his business not only to understand the past but to place it squarely in the spotlight of conversations about the present and the future. His advice to Sanders may seem oddly parochial when so many Americans have families and histories that stretch far beyond the United States. But his commitment to a public memory that includes abolitionists, feminists, trade unionists and anarchists, which puts Confederate iconography in its proper place (the museum), and which remembers Lincoln the peace activist as well as Lincoln the warrior, is an example to his successors at Columbia and everywhere else.

Among Foner's most crucial achievements is that the public, political writing that Battles for Freedom represents was never a sideline or digression from his scholarly historical work. Both sprang from the same deep commitment to a radical sense of justice. It sometimes seems all too easy for historians to efface the political in their own scholarship, presenting their work as securely neutral products of mere curiosity about the past. Foner shows that another route is possible. We need not sever the connection between past and present. The best history, and the best politics, emerges from a dialogue between the two – as radicals like Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton well understood. Foner has already helped to shape a generation of American dissidents. Hope for the future will depend on more historians continuing his work.