Eric Foner On Post-Civil War Disappointments

Eric Foner, author of Our Lincoln, talks about the era following the Civil War in which former slaves were promised equal rights and citizenship. Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University.

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. I can't remember a time when the word "history" has been used as much as in the past few days, as Americans have talked about Obama's history-making inauguration and the desire to witness that history. We invited one of America's most prominent historians to talk about the meaning of this moment in history. Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University and has written extensively about reconstruction, Lincoln and the history of race relations in America. His latest books are "Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction" and "Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World." Eric Foner, welcome back to Fresh Air. Today, there's a big celebration in our nation, and tomorrow, it's back to work dealing with wars, the financial crisis, health insurance, poverty. What do you think is the importance of having a president at this time of crisis who has a gift for public speaking and for uniting people and for rallying them?

Dr. ERIC FONER (History, Columbia University; Author, "Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World"): Well, Obama is - does seem to be able to touch people in a way that the best and most successful politicians are able to do. I hope that Obama seizes the opportunity that he comes in with to really take dramatic action. People want that. People want bold action. In a way, the best comparison or analogy to the situation Obama's coming in with is 1933. We're not in the Great Depression at the moment, but we are in a pretty serious economic situation. And one of the things Roosevelt showed when he came in 1933 is that bold action generates support. Roosevelt didn't have a blueprint; he was an experimenter. The New Deal was not hatched in his mind all at once. They tried many things in 1933, some of which worked, some of which didn't. But I think the very visible evidence of bold action rallied people behind him.

And I really hope Obama seizes this moment, because I see Obama's election, putting the question of race aside, as really a possible turning point in our history. It's the end of the age of Reagan. We have lived in the age of Reagan since 1980. You know, historians divide our politics not by president by president, but by, kind of, political periods. The New Deal era lasted all the way to the 1960s or so, and the age of Reagan has lasted from 1980 to now. And now, this election repudiates the basic principles that Reagan established and that every president since him has governed by - including Clinton, by the way - limited government, deregulation, things like that, the market being the arbiter of economic policy.

Well, the market didn't work very well last year, and I'm sure Obama is well aware of that. And I think he has the opportunity to establish a new governing paradigm that may last well beyond his four or eight years in office. And that's what I think he should do to seize this, you know, great confidence that people have in him and this great desire for bold action which is out there in the country.

GROSS: A lot of comparisons have been made between Obama and Lincoln. And one thing that you point out that we have to keep in mind about Lincoln is that he changed a lot. He didn't always believe in - that slaves should be emancipated or even that after they were emancipated that they should have equal rights. Would you talk a little bit about Lincoln's evolution regarding race and slavery?

Dr. FONER: Well, this is the greatness of Lincoln, absolutely, his capacity for growth. And you know, in 1862, in a message to Congress, Lincoln said, we must disenthrall ourselves - wonderful words, you know, Lincoln had this fabulous command of the English language even though he only had one year of education - disenthrall ourselves; that is, we are sort of tied down by old ideas. And he was part of that we. He himself had to grow out of his earlier views, which were certainly pretty racist regarding blacks and rather gradualist in dealing with slavery. How did he do that? Partly it was just events, the failure of military - to achieve military victory in the first year or so of the war.

But also, Lincoln was the kind of guy who listened to alternative points of view. Lincoln was willing to respond to social movements. He just didn't think inside the beltway. He listened to abolitionists. He listened to religious leaders. He was the first president ever to meet with black people in the White House, I mean, in other words, to discuss policy. Now, there had been slaves in the White House, but now, Lincoln talked to Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth and other prominent black people. So, he had an open mind, and he was willing to - he was able to grow. And that I think is the essence of his greatness.

He ends up, in 1865, in a far different place than he begins. So, there's where I think Obama can learn from Lincoln. It's not the specific policies, but it's the frame of mind of openness and of willingness to change and willingness to listen to these social movements out in the country which help put him in office. And I think if he can do that, he can rise to the occasion of this crisis we're in.

GROSS: Because of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, "Team of Rivals," a lot has been made about how Lincoln put together this team of rivals, his political opponents, people with different points of view, and that concept helped him become a great president. And I wonder if you agree...

Dr. FONER: Well, you know, Terry, with all due respect to Doris, who's a very good historian, I don't think this really holds much water. First of all, every president did that in the 19th century. That's how you created a Cabinet. You brought in the leading figures of your party. The secretary of State was supposed to be your main rival in the party. John Quincy Adams had Henry Clay, and I could name others who were rather much more obscure. Second of all, Lincoln's Cabinet was basically dysfunctional. I don't think it's a good model for Obama. I hope that's not what he thought he was doing. It did consist of several people who thought they were better qualified to be president than Lincoln, and some of them were ambitious to succeed Lincoln in 1864. And the Cabinet didn't meet very frequently. Lincoln basically dealt with each member individually in terms of their own departments. When they did meet, they frequently couldn't make decisions. So, it's a wonderful idea, "Team of Rivals," but actually when you get into the history, this analogy between Lincoln and Obama, it doesn't actually hold water.

GROSS: Is there anything else you've heard quoted about American history, you know, in the context of Obama's election that you think misstates what actually happens historically?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FONER: You know, I think this whole Lincoln analogy has gone a little too far. There are analogies between Lincoln and Obama. One is that neither of them had very much political experience on the national level before they became president. Obama has four years in the Senate; Lincoln had one term in Congress. They didn't become major figures based on, you know, a long record of public service. It was actually their eloquence; it was speeches that made both Lincoln in the 1850s and Obama at the 2004 Democratic Convention or during the campaign, his speech on race. It was speeches that connected them with the public. And I think that is a reasonable analogy. On the other hand, some of what's happened - I guess this is theatricality, you know, taking the same train ride as Lincoln, eating the same dinner as Lincoln...

GROSS: The Bible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The swearing-in Bible.

Dr. FONER: Well, there's a very good historical point. You know, not just the Bible, but the preacher. Lincoln was inaugurated twice with no preacher involved. You didn't need a preacher to get inaugurated in the 19th century, and it was quite uncommon to have ministers there. You know, they believed actually in the separation of church and state back then. And Lincoln, in fact, never was a member of a church in his entire life. He probably couldn't run for office nowadays. So, you know, if Obama were really modeling himself on Lincoln, he would not have Reverend Warren or any of these other preachers around at his inauguration. We are a secular government, supposedly.

GROSS: Yeah, sometimes, you think, well, this is such - you know, all the presidents have done it. How far does it go back? How far does that idea go back?

Dr. FONER: I think it's a 20th-century idea, actually. You know, I think John Quincy Adams wasn't even sworn in on a Bible. He put his hand on the Code of Laws of the United States. He said, I'm pledging my allegiance to the laws. I'm - the role of the president is to ensure that the laws are enforced, not that the Bible is enforced. So, you know, there were various different views of this. But people in the 19th century, knowing the terrible wars of religion that had racked the world for centuries, knowing that government intrusion in religion is actually bad for churches, were much more sensitive to this business separation of church and state than we have become lately. Also, Lincoln in his great second inaugural address said, nobody knows God's will. Nobody knows God's will. We have to do the best we can without knowing that. Today, we are much more advanced than that. You know, every member of Congress knows God's will, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FONER: They're told by God how to vote. You know, God's position on this, God's position on that. They tell you what it is. So, we're much more knowledgeable than Lincoln about what God's will is nowadays.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You've been a history professor a long time. Has the level of your students' interest in this campaign been different than in previous years?

Dr. FONER: Oh, very much so. I think the students were tremendously engaged. You know, this last term while the campaign was going on, I was teaching a lecture course at Columbia University on the history of American radicalism, about 200 students in this class. And it was great to have this going on, to have history happening. We were talking about Eugene Debs and the early Socialist Party when McCain was accusing Obama of being a socialist. My students, unlike most people, actually therefore knew what a socialist was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FONER: And they also knew Obama is not a socialist, whatever he is. And of course, we talked about race in American politics, and we had talked about earlier efforts of blacks to gain the right to vote, to run for office. So, I think, you know, in my class, this was a fabulous learning experience and teaching opportunity. So, yeah, I think this has stimulated interest in politics and in history among young people, which is certainly a very good thing.

GROSS: So much of the country has been celebrating the election and inauguration of President Obama, and part of that celebration is probably because things have been so difficult in the country in the past few years, and Bush became such an unpopular president. Now that Obama is president, do you think some of that enthusiastic support is going to turn into political pressure? That some of the groups that really supported him will now become not his opponents, but groups pressuring him to take action in the way that they think the action should be taken?

Dr. FONER: I hope that happens. I hope that is what will make Obama a great president, if it does happen. You know, the last day of my class at Columbia in December, I said to the students - you know, I'm not telling students how to vote, and I'm not telling students what their political views ought to be. That's not the role of the professor. But I said, look, if you worked for Obama, as many of them did, you have to keep pressuring Obama on these issues. Lincoln needed the abolitionists. Roosevelt needed the labor movement. Johnson needed the civil rights movement. And Obama needs you to keep pressuring him on these issues that are of importance to you. Don't just think that change comes from the top. You know, that's not how democracy works.

GROSS: Eric Foner, thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. FONER: Always a pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University. His latest book is "Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World." Coming up, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey. Her black mother and white father worried that their biracial daughter would be an outcast. She'll talk about what Obama's inauguration means to her. This is Fresh Air.

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