Eric Foner: Calls on scholars to honor scholarly work

Historians in the News

I think it’s time to declare a moratorium on scholars’ denigrating other scholars for failing to achieve popularity. As [William] Freehling’s own extensive footnotes demonstrate [in his new book, The Road to Disunion], those much-maligned specialized studies are the building blocks of historical knowledge. Nor is his dismissal of what he calls “multicultural social history” in favor of the study of politics persuasive. Surely, the task of the historian is to integrate the two.

Freehling himself inadvertently makes this case. At one point he remarks that “blacks’ impact remains the most overlooked cause of the Civil War.” Without runaways seeking liberty there would have been no political crisis over fugitive slaves. Without one slave’s suit for freedom, there would have been no Dred Scott decision. But Freehling never returns to this striking insight, partly because his emphasis on stories involving political actors leaves little room for the slaves. The men, women and children over whose fate political battles raged and who, in fact, made up a majority of South Carolina’s population, remain largely invisible in this account of the road to disunion.

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