Memory  /  Q&A

Light Under a Bushel: A Q&A with Eric Foner

“It’s important to study history if you want to be an intelligent citizen in a democracy.”

Nawal Arjini: How did you come to specialize in Civil War history?

Eric Foner: When I was in college in the 1960s, I wanted to be a physics major, but I had a great deal of interest in history; my father and uncle were historians. The civil rights revolution was reaching its peak, and many young people like myself wanted to find out where this crisis came from. We had been taught a history that said the problems of American society had been solved, and yet here were thousands of people in the streets insisting that serious problems still existed.

I took a course on the Civil War era with James Shenton. Here’s the impact a teacher can have: I took that course, and I’ve been studying the period ever since. My first interest was the antislavery movement. My dissertation and first book were about how the early Republican Party, dedicated to stopping the expansion of slavery, rose to power, and how politics can be used to promote radical social change. Later I started studying Reconstruction. The debates in our society today about citizenship, the right to vote, terrorist violence in our country—that period raises all those issues. I’m always interested in the connections between past and present. The questions that interest me historically tend to come out of the moment I’m living in.

And now there’s a resurgence in the study of the post–Civil War era and the legacies of emancipation.

History never totally repeats itself, but there are a lot of similarities. Younger historians are now looking at why Reconstruction was not successful in solidifying the basic rights of African Americans. The Constitution was amended. The laws were changed. Equality was put into our social fabric for the first time. And yet then it was overthrown and reversed. How did that happen? Why is something like that happening today? Frederick Douglass said that progress is not necessarily inevitable. Rights can be gained and taken away.