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History Doyen: Eric Foner

What They're Famous For

Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, is one of this country's most prominent historians. He received his doctoral degree at Columbia under the supervision of Richard Hofstadter. He is only the second person to serve as president of the three major professional organizations: the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians.

Professor Foner's publications have concentrated on the intersections of intellectual, political and social history, and the history of American race relations. His best-known books are: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (1970; reissued with new preface 1995) Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (1976); Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (1983); Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877(1988) (winner, among other awards, of the Bancroft Prize, Parkman Prize, and Los Angeles Times Book Award); The Reader's Companion to American History (with John A. Garraty, 1991); The Story of American Freedom (1998); and Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World(2002). His new book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, was just published in the fall of 2010. 

Eric Foner is a winner of the Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates (1991), and the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching from Columbia University (2006). He was named Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities in 1995. In 2006, he received and the Kidger Award for Excellence in Teaching and Scholarship from the New England History Teachers Association. 

"Rarely have the study and teaching of history aroused such intense controversy as today. Public interest in how history is conceptualized and taught is to be applauded; however, the increasingly strident calls to reverse the recent achievements of a more heterogeneous profession, a broadened curriculum, and a more nuanced understanding of the American past must be resisted."

(Excerpted from ericfoner.com)

Eric Foner Tells His Own Story (March 31, 2007, at the annual meeting of the OAH)

Quotes By Eric Foner

Eric Foner in "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877"

On January 1, 1863, after a winter storm swept up the east coast of the United States, the sun rose in a cloudless sky over Washington, D.C. At the White House, Abraham Lincoln spent most of the day welcoming guests to the traditional New Year's reception. Finally, in the late afternoon, as he had pledged to do 100 days before, the President retired to his office to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Excluded from its purview were the 450,000 slaves in Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri (border slave states that remained within the Union), 275,000 in Union-occupied Tennessee, and tens of thousands more in portions of Louisiana and Virginia under the control of federal armies. But, the Proclamation decreed, the remainder of the nation's slave population, well over 3 million men, women, and children, "are and henceforth shall be free."

Throughout the North and the Union-occupied South, January I was a day of celebration. An immense gathering, including black and white abolitionist leaders, stood vigil at Boston's Tremont Temple, awaiting word that the Proclamation had been signed. It was nearly midnight when the news arrived; wild cheering followed, and a black preacher led the throng in singing "Sound the loud timbrel o'er Egypt's dark sea, Jehovah hath triumphed, his people are free." At a camp for fugitive slaves in the nation's capital, a black man "testified" about the sale, years before, of his daughter, exclaiming, "Now, no more dat! . . . Dey can't sell my wife and child any more, bless de Lord!" Farther south, at Beaufort, an enclave of federal control off the South Carolina coast, there were prayers and speeches and the freedmen sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee." To Charlotte Forten, a young black woman who had journeyed from her native Philadelphia to teach the former slaves, "it all seemed . . . like a brilliant dream." Even in areas exempted from the Proclamation, blacks celebrated, realizing that if slavery perished in Mississippi and South Carolina, it could hardly survive in Kentucky, Tennessee, and a few parishes of Louisiana.

Nearly two and a half centuries had passed since twenty black men and women were landed in Virginia from a Dutch ship. From this tiny seed had grown the poisoned fruit of plantation slavery, which, in profound and contradictory ways, shaped the course of American development. Even as slavery mocked the ideals of a nation supposedly dedicated to liberty and equality, slave labor played an indispensable part in its rapid growth, expanding westward with the young republic, producing the cotton that fueled the early industrial revolution. In the South, slavery spawned a distinctive regional ruling class (an "aristocracy without nobility" one Southern-born writer called it) and powerfully shaped the economy, race relations, politics, religion, and the law. Its influence was pervasive: "Nothing escaped, nothing and no one."3 In the North, where slavery had been abolished during and after the American Revolution, emerged abolition, the greatest protest movement of the age. The slavery question divided the nation's churches, sundered political ties between the sections, and finally shattered the bonds of Union. On the principle of opposing the further expansion of slavery, a new political party rose to power in the 1850s, placing in the White House a son of the slave state Kentucky, who had grown to manhood on the free Illinois prairies and believed the United States could not endure forever half slave and half free. In the crisis that followed Lincoln's election, eleven slave states seceded from the Union, precipitating in 1861 the bloodiest war the Western Hemisphere has ever known.

To those who had led the movement for abolition, and to slaves throughout the South, the Emancipation Proclamation not only culminated decades of struggle but evoked Christian visions of resurrection and redemption, of an era of unbounded progress for a nation purged at last of the sin of slavery. Even the staid editors of the New York Times believed it marked a watershed in American life, "an era in the history . . .of this country and the world." For emancipation meant more than the end of a labor system, more even than the uncompensated liquidation of the nation's largest concentration of private property ("the most stupendous act of sequestration in the history of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence," as Charles and Mary Beard described it).4 The demise of slavery inevitably threw open the most basic questions of the polity, economy, and society. Begun to preserve the Union, the Civil War now portended a far-reaching transformation in Southern life and a redefinition of the place of blacks in American society and of the very meaning of freedom in the American republic.

In one sense, however, the Proclamation only confirmed what was already happening on farms and plantations throughout the South. War, it has been said, is the midwife of revolution, and well before 1863 the disintegration of slavery had begun. Whatever politicians and military commanders might decree, slaves saw the war as heralding the longawaited end of bondage. Three years into the conflict, Gen. William T. Sherman encountered a black Georgian who summed up the slaves' understanding of the war from its outset: "He said . . . he had been looking for the 'angel of the Lord' ever since he was knee-high, and, though we professed to be fighting for the Union, he supposed that slavery was the cause, and that our success was to be his freedom. "5 Based on this conviction, the slaves took actions that propelled a reluctant white America down the road to abolition.

As the Union Army occupied territory on the periphery of the Confederacy, first in Virginia, then in Tennessee, Louisiana, and elsewhere, slaves by the thousands headed for the Union lines. Union enclaves like Fortress Monroe, Beaufort, and New Orleans became havens for runaway slaves and bases for expeditions into the interior that further disrupted the plantation regime.

About Eric Foner

● "Do we need yet another book on Lincoln?... Well, yes, we do—if the book is by so richly informed a commentator as Eric Foner. Foner tackles what would seem to be an obvious topic, Lincoln and slavery, and manages to cast new light on it.... Because of his broad-ranging knowledge of the 19th century, Foner is able to provide the most thorough and judicious account of Lincoln's attitudes toward slavery that we have." -- David S. Reynolds - The New York Times Book Review"

● While many thousands of books deal with Lincoln and slavery, Eric Foner has written the definitive account of this crucial subject, illuminating in a highly original and profound way the interactions of race, slavery, public opinion, politics, and Lincoln’s own character that led to the wholly improbable uncompensated emancipation of some four million slaves. Even seasoned historians will acquire fresh and new perspectives from reading The Fiery Trial." -- David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, Yale University, author of Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World"

● Definitive and breathtaking: with dazzling clarity and authority, demonstrating a total command of his sources and a sense of moral justice that transcends history, Foner has done nothing less than provide the most persuasive book ever written on Lincoln’s vital place in the fight for freedom in America. This volume stands alone in the field. It is not only the best account ever written on the subject; henceforth, it should be regarded as the only account." -- Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln President-Elect"

● Eric Foner has done it again. The Fiery Trial explores the pivotal subject of Lincoln and slavery free from the mists of hagiography and the muck of denigration. With his usual stylish mastery, Foner advances enlightened debate over our greatest president, the origins and unfolding of the Civil War, and the abolition of southern slavery. His book marks an auspicious intellectual beginning to the sesquicentennial of the American Iliad." -- Sean Wilentz, author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln

● Starred Review. Original and compelling….In the vast library on Lincoln, Foner's book stands out as the most sensible and sensitive reading of Lincoln's lifetime involvement with slavery and the most insightful assessment of Lincoln’s—and indeed America’s—imperative to move toward freedom lest it be lost. An essential work for all Americans. -- Library Journal

● Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 is a "long, brilliant and stylish book . . . of signal importance, not only to understanding one of the most controversial periods in American history but to comprehending the course of race relations in this country during the last century."... Reconstruction "is the most comprehensive and convincing account of the effort to build a racially democratic and just society from the fiery ruins of slavery." -- Gary Nash, Los Angeles Times Book Review

● "in a deliberate effort to overturn stereotypes, [Foner] offers an admiring picture of the freedman during the postwar years... he has performed a real service in bringing blacks front and center in the Reconstruction drama, where they belong." -- David Herbert Donald, the New Republic

● Foner "asserts that Reconstruction had a direct bearing on the civil rights movement and suggests that the period speaks to the still-persisting denial of freedom to blacks that lingers in so many parts of society.... Foner becomes the pre-eminent historian of Reconstruction." -- William S. McFeely, New York Times Book Review

● Foner "is excellent at delineating the dominant ideologies and linking them to political events. . . . Foner also recognizes the early importance of intersectional political parties in resisting and containing sectional confrontation, but he emphasizes their demise in the face of popular sectional ideologies. . . . This is an important and invigorating work." -- J. H. Silbey, American Historical Review about "Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War

● "The Story of American Freedom "is layered in complexity. It approaches brilliance in relating the efforts of many Americans to advance freedom for everyone, of others to advance it for themselves.... Foner relishes 'freedom' as much as the next man -- Robert H. Ferrell, National Review

● "And, like the pragmatic American that he is, is not inclined to define it. Definition, after all, means assigning limits, which is precisely what Foner does not want to do. On the contrary, his particular contribution has been to illustrate the chameleon-like quality of freedom and to suggest the diverse, elusive, mercurial nature of the concept.... it is no small thing for a high-profile American historian to undertake a work of creative synthesis. It was also courageous for someone with intellectual roots in the mid-nineteenth century to write a book containing over 200 pages on the twentieth. What Foner has produced is not a simple, linear story, but one in which the nature and meaning of its central concept, freedom, is constantly up for grabs." -- Daniel Snowman in History Today about "The Story of American Freedom"

Basic Facts

Teaching & Professional Positions:

DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, Columbia University, l988-present;
Professor, Department of History, Columbia University, l982-88;
Professor, Department of History, City College and Graduate Center, City University of New York, l973-82;
Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions, Cambridge University, l980-8l;
Fulbright Professor of American History, Moscow State University, Spring l990;
Harmsworth Professor of American History, Oxford University, 1993-94; 
Leverhulme Visiting Scholar, Queen Mary, University of London, Spring 2008.

Area of Research:

The Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery, and 19th-century America


Ph.D. – Columbia University 1969
B.A. First Class – Oriel College, Oxford University 1965
B.A. – Columbia College 1963

Major Publications:

  • Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1970, reprinted, 1995.
  • Nat Turner ("Great Lives Observed" series), Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1971.
  • Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1976.
  • Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War,Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1980.
  • Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy,Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1983.
  • Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 ("New American Nation" series), Harper and Row (New York, NY), 1988.
  • A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877, Harper and Row (New York, NY), 1990.
  • (With Olivia Mahoney) A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1990.
  • The Tocsin of Freedom: The Black Leadership of Radical Reconstruction, Gettysburg College (Gettysburg, PA), 1992.
  • Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders during Reconstruction, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1993, revised edition, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1996.
  • Slavery and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century America,Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1994.
  • (With Olivia Mahoney) America's Reconstruction: People and Politics after the Civil War, HarperPerennial (New York, NY), 1995.
  • The Story of American Freedom, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1998.
  • Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 2002.
  • The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 2010

Editor / Joint Editor:

  • America's Black Past: A Reader in Afro-American History, Harper and Row (New York, NY), 1971.
  • Harry L. Watson, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America, Hill and Wang (New York, NY), 1990.
  • The New American History ("Critical Perspectives on the Past" series), Temple University Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1990, revised edition, 1997.
  • (With John A. Garraty) The Reader's Companion to American History, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1991.
  • Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, Library of America, 1995.
  • (With wife, Lynn Garafola) Dance for a City: Fifty Years of the New York City Ballet, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1999.
  • (With Alan Taylor; and general editor of entire series) American Colonies ("Penguin History of the United States" series, book one), Viking (New York, NY), 2001.

Contributor to Books: 

Author of introductions and forewords in books by others, including the foreword of For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman, University of California Press; Contributor to the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History and of articles and reviews to numerous periodicals, including the New York Times, New York Review of Books, Journal of American History, Journal of Negro History, and New York History.


Prizes for Reconstruction: Los Angeles Times Book Award for History; Bancroft Prize; Parkman Prize; Lionel Trilling Award; Owsley Prize. Finalist, National Book Award; Finalist, National Book Critics' Circle Award. 
Outstanding Reference Book, New York Public Library; and Library Journal, for Reader's Companion to American History
Awards for A House Divided exhibition, Chicago Historical Society: Lawrence W. Towner Award, Illinois Humanities Council; James Harvey Robinson Prize, AHA.
Award of Merit, American Association for State and Local History, for America's Reconstruction exhibition. 
Order of Lincoln, Lincoln Academy of Illinois, 2009.
John Jay Award for Distinguished Professional Achievement, Columbia College Alumni Association, 2007.
President, Society of American Historians, 2006-07.
Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching, Columbia Univerity, 2006.
Kidger Award for Excellence in Teaching and Scholarship, New England History Teachers Association, 2006 
Silver Gavel Award, American Bar Association, 2005 for "Brown at Fifty," special issue, The Nation, ed. Eric Foner and Randall Kennedy.
Featured in Current Biography, August 2004, 50-55
Featured in History Today, January 2000, 26-29
Class of 2006 Distinguished Professor Award, April 2004
First Place, Electronic Product of 2003, for Columbia American History Online, Association of American Publishers.
Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, Iona College, 2002.
President, American Historical Association, 2000.
Elected Corresponding Fellow, British Academy, 1996.
Scholar of the Year, N. Y. Council for the Humanities, 1995.
President, Organization of American Historians, 1993-94.
Great Teacher Award, Society of Columbia Graduates, 1991.
Elected member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, l989.
National Endowment for the Humanities Senior Fellowships, l982-83, 1996-97.
Guggenheim Fellowship, l975-76.
American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, l972-73. 

Additional Info:

Foner is one of only two persons to serve as President of the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians. 

He has also been the curator of several museum exhibitions, including the prize-winning "A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln," A House Divided exhibit, Chicago Historical Society, and America's Reconstruction, traveling exhibition, originating at Virginia Historical Society. 

Authored articles, essays and book reviews in numerous academic and popular journals, magazines, and newspapers. 
Rewrote Hall of Presidents presentation, Disney World, 1993.
Historical Consultant, The Civil War, Broadway musical, 1999.
He serves on the editorial boards of Past and Present and The Nation, and has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, London Review of Books, and many other publications, and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows, including Charlie Rose, Book Notes, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, Bill Moyers Journal, Fresh Air, and All Things Considered, and in historical documentaries on PBS and the History Channel. He was the on-camera historian for "Freedom: A History of Us," on PBS in 2003.