Eric Foner interviewed by Bill MoyersHistorians in the News
More books are coming during this bicentennial year. Here's my most recent favorite,"Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World." It's a collection of original essays by prize-winning historians, including the book's editor, Eric Foner, who is with me now.
Eric Foner is an acclaimed professor of history at Columbia University here in New York City, and the author of"The Story of American Freedom","Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War" and"Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution".
Eric Foner, welcome back to the JOURNAL.
ERIC FONER: Good to see you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: You open your book with the anecdote from that great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, when he said in 1876,"No man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln." Boy, was he wrong, right?
ERIC FONER: Well, people have been trying to say new things ever since. But I think the reason we keep finding new things to say about Lincoln is that Lincoln is a mirror for ourselves. People find in Lincoln you know, indications of their own time. The questions we ask about Lincoln change as our times change.
So today, for example, we're really interested in Lincoln's views about race, about slavery, because of the centrality of those questions in the last generation. You know, previous generations were interested in other aspects of Lincoln. So you know, Lincoln is kind of a Rorschach test for every generation to look at and to see new things.
BILL MOYERS: How did he become the lens through which we look at the American experience and define it, in many respects?
ERIC FONER: Well, first of all, of course, he was the president during the most pivotal crisis in American history, the Civil War. He presided over the end of slavery, one of the great turning points, probably the greatest turning point in some ways in American history. But also there's a kind of mythology that is built up about Lincoln in which he exemplifies, you know, what we consider the basic traits or characteristics of American life. He's Honest Abe, you know?
BILL MOYERS: Right.
ERIC FONER: The politician who actually holds to high moral standards. He's the man who rose from very humble background. You know, he was born in a log cabin in Kentucky to, you know, to great success. So he shows how people can rise in this society. So Lincoln seems to exemplify things that we consider kind of essential to the American character and American society. Lincoln was a great man, no question about it. But Lincoln was not, you know, someone who just did everything all by himself. He was influenced by many of the people around him.
He was influenced by the ideas of his time, by the changing circumstances. In fact, that's the greatness of Lincoln, I think, is his capacity to grow and change and evolve. Lincoln's ideas when he dies are quite different from what they were earlier in his life. So you have to put Lincoln in the context of his time, the whole spectrum of thinking about slavery and anti-slavery, to really understand how Lincoln, you know, grew and developed. If you pull Lincoln out of context, as, unfortunately, many-
BILL MOYERS: Right.
ERIC FONER: -writers have a way of doing you know, you're left with a marble man, a statue, but not a real historical figure.
BILL MOYERS: You know, one of my favorite photographs in the book is of the marble bust of Lincoln by Sarah Fisher Clampitt Ames, 1868. It casts him as what's often the case artists wanted to portray American heroes as Greek or Roman gods.
ERIC FONER: You know, Lincoln was a man who valued respectability. He rose from very humble background. But by the 1850s he was a solid middle-class professional, a successful lawyer. You know, he owned more property than most of the people in Springfield, Illinois, the city he lived in. But he never really adopted the way of life of that middle class - you know, he was always considered a little bit rough.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
ERIC FONER: And his frontier ways never went away.
BILL MOYERS: Told lots of bawdy jokes.
ERIC FONER: Yeah. No, he did. So he wasn't the kind of guy to be put there in a toga, definitely not.
BILL MOYERS: You said he was a great man. What's your definition of greatness in regards to Lincoln?
ERIC FONER: Sometimes people are president who may have great characteristics. But they're president in very quiet, calm times and they never have an occasion to demonstrate their greatness.
Lincoln's greatness comes in his response to this crisis, the unparalleled crisis of the Union and of slavery. Now, so it gives him the opportunity to rise to greatness. But, of course, there were many presidents, who given the opportunity-
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
ERIC FONER: -fell by the wayside. Most strikingly, Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, who comes in after Lincoln's death and is president during another great crisis, Reconstruction, and fails abysmally to rise to the occasion because, unlike Lincoln, he can't change his ideas. He's deeply racist. He can't understand that the end of slavery has really put on the agenda a new kind of, you know, definition of citizenship and rights and the political structure of the United States. So, you know, you have two men who are faced with a crisis. Lincoln rises to the occasion. Johnson sinks beneath the waves, you might say.
BILL MOYERS: Do you recognize something in Lincoln that empowered him to rise above his circumstances?
ERIC FONER: Well, I think, the characteristic that I find most interesting in Lincoln is this self-confidence, ability to think for yourself, coupled with open mindedness and willingness to listen to criticism. You know, Lincoln grows up in the frontier, as you know.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
ERIC FONER: But he doesn't associate himself with that culture at all. He doesn't drink. He doesn't hunt. He's not religious at all in a world which evangelical religion is very powerful. In other words, he sets his own standards, moral standards for himself. He doesn't just go with the crowd.
Now, on the other hand, when he becomes president, he realizes that he's going to have to rethink his assumptions. You know, he says in his great message to Congress in December 1862,"We must disenthrall ourselves." Unchain ourselves literally and from our old ideas. And the"we." We. He includes himself as part of that"we.""We've got to slough off our own assumptions and think anew," he says. And so it's that strong moral compass but willingness to listen to criticism and think anew that I think is the characteristic that leads him into greatness.
BILL MOYERS: There was something else about him that I did not know until I read the book, the chapter in it by Harold Holzer, who's a self-taught Lincoln scholar.
A very influential writer. And he has a chapter in your book on Lincoln and the visual arts and how Lincoln understood the power of the photograph and the image and how he would even, like a modern politician, manipulate the image and the photograph to advance his own career.
ERIC FONER: Well, Lincoln, you know, was a politician. That was his main job. We sometimes forget that. This is a guy who was either in office or running for office every day of his adult life except for a short period, 1849 to '54. That was his world, the world of politics. He was shrewd. He understood public opinion. He understood political organization. And, as you say, he understood how to project his own image.
BILL MOYERS: He saw it as his cosmetic salvation, someone says in here.
ERIC FONER: Well, he was not the most good-looking fellow. I don't think he would have done very well on TV nowadays. You know, in fact some people said he was the ugliest guy in Illinois. But he was very, very careful about his public image, how these photographs were distributed, how these paintings were made. So he was, you know, he was careful about how he was presented to the public. And he was shrewd about, you know, what that meant and how he could benefit from certain kinds of visual imagery of himself being disseminated.
BILL MOYERS: And those photographs and those portraits and those sculptures didn't just happen. He would give hours and days of his time to cooperation, to cooperating and collaborating with artists.
ERIC FONER: He understood the, you know, he was pretty busy during the Civil War as president. So he, as you say, he obviously considered that pretty significant.
BILL MOYERS: Do you have any sense of how that came to be?
ERIC FONER: Well, this was the world where photography was just coming into prominence, as you know. It was in a sense, we're overwhelmed by imagery today. You can't get away from it. But at that time, you know, the daguerreotype had come in a little earlier. But that meant, to have the daguerreotype taken, you had to sit there for several minutes, you know, totally still and everybody looked really stiff in those pictures, you know?
But then you know, in the Civil War gives a big impetus to the art of photography just because of the opportunity it arise, it creates. And Lincoln, as you say, Lincoln seizes this. He understands that as photography develops and lithographs develop and the widespread dissemination of images develop, this can be used to help generate public opinion in support of his administration.
BILL MOYERS: So he was an astute manager of his own celebrity?
ERIC FONER: Absolutely, his own self-image, you know? It - my mentor, Richard Hofstadter, in a great essay on Lincoln, he chose the title"Abraham Lincoln and the Self-made Myth."
BILL MOYERS: Self-made?
ERIC FONER: Self-made myth. In other words, how Lincoln created his own image and was brilliant at doing that.
BILL MOYERS: And yet seemingly devoid of cynicism about it, right?
ERIC FONER: This was too early for politicians to be quite cynical about it. No, Lincoln did things partly for ambition, you know? I'm not trying to make Lincoln into a saint. He wasn't Gandhi, Mother Theresa. He was an ambitious politician, an ambitious man. He wanted to be prominent.
And yet he, you know, he wasn't doing - he wasn't using politics in a cynical manner as perhaps some of our more recent presidents have been doing it. He stuck to his principles as he understood them. And when he changed, when he made decisions like the Emancipation Proclamation, which was a shift. You know, he wasn't in favor of emancipation-
BILL MOYERS: Right.
ERIC FONER: The first two years of the war. But he stuck with it. He did not go back. Even when it might have been politically advantageous, 1864, you know, the war is at a kind of stalemate. And people are saying, well, let's get rid of this Emancipation Proclamation.
BILL MOYERS: He almost didn't run again in 1864.
ERIC FONER: Well, he ran. No, he wanted to run but he almost didn't win.
BILL MOYERS: Almost didn't win, right.
ERIC FONER: He thought he was going to lose in August 1864. And people came to him, including Henry Raymond, the editor of the"New York Times", and said,"Look, let's tell the Confederacy that if they come back into the Union we'll let them keep slavery," basically. And, you know, Lincoln said,"No, I cannot do that. That would, you know, I would be damned in time and eternity to go back on this promise I have made." So, therefore, he's a politician. But he's not just a politician. He's not doing things purely for political advantage.
BILL MOYERS: One of the most interesting parts to me of Skip Gates' documentary that's airing next week is a segment he has in"Looking for Lincoln" at the obvious racial racist attitudes that Lincoln embraced. He talks about how he wasn't, as you said, always against slavery. He used the"n" word in reference to blacks. He told racist jokes. I mean, what do you personally make of that side of Lincoln?
ERIC FONER: Well, Lincoln was always against slavery. He wasn't an abolitionist. But from very early on he knew and said that slavery was wrong. But I think the point is, yes, Lincoln shared many of the racial prejudices of a deeply racist society. And he was not part of the abolitionist movement. And that's important because it was in the abolitionist movement, the first interracial movement in American history, that white people of goodwill actually came into contact with articulate, you know, intelligent black people and worked with them.
And Lincoln never had that experience of actually being in an interracial, you know, society. He knew almost no blacks before he became president except, you know, a couple who worked in his home as servants. During his presidency, he then got to know people like Frederick Douglass. Black people visited in White House really for almost the first time in American history as, you know, to discuss things with the president. And he - his views broadened and changed. So, you know, Lincoln is a product of his time obviously.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think at the end he truly did believe in a biracial society?
ERIC FONER: Well, he had to, he came to the recognition that that was necessary. You know, most of his life he believed in this idea of, called colonization.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
ERIC FONER: That is that if blacks were freed, they should be sent voluntarily, he said, but they should be encouraged to leave to go to Liberia in Africa or someplace in Central America or maybe to Haiti. Lincoln said the reason for this is it's impossible for blacks to get any kind of equality in this society. Racism is too deep.
But it was also a way of avoiding the question of what is the aftermath of slavery? Can we be a biracial society? But once he issues the Emancipation Proclamation and also it begins enlisting black soldiers in the Civil War, you know, 200,000.
BILL MOYERS: 200,000.
ERIC FONER: -black men fighting in the-
BILL MOYERS: I didn't know that until I read your book.
ERIC FONER: -fight in the Union Army. But that's a whole different vision of the role of blacks in American society. And Lincoln realizes you can't put these guys in the army to fight and die for the Union and then say,"Okay, when the war is over, you're out of here." You know, he begins, the last two years of his life, for the first time really, he begins to think seriously of, as you say, America as a biracial society and what are the implications of that? Now, Lincoln doesn't live to really fully work this out.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
ERIC FONER: That's the fundamental problem of Reconstruction, which comes after his death and after the Civil War.
BILL MOYERS: And that great promise dashed into restoration of almost slavery conditions again for working blacks.
ERIC FONER: Well, certainly restoration of white supremacy.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
ERIC FONER: I mean, Reconstruction is this wonderful moment when the country, for the first time, tries to become a democracy, I mean, a real democracy for both black and white. And there's a little opening there. Many things change. The Constitution is rewritten. The laws are rewritten. But then, of course, with violence, the Klan, and the north retreating from the idea of equality, we then go back. And, as you know, we go back to the Jim Crow system and segregation and disenfranchisement. And it leaves it almost for another century for us to come back to the agenda of Reconstruction.
BILL MOYERS: In your private moments, do you ever think about what difference it would have made if Lincoln had lived to launch and preside over Reconstruction?
ERIC FONER: I believe Lincoln would have probably, that Reconstruction would have probably ended up where it landed in 1866, that is with civil right national - civil rights legislation, the 14th Amendment guaranteeing the equal protection of all citizens in the Constitution, still a part of our Constitution and maybe limited black suffrage in the South.
Lincoln, at the end of his life, Lincoln was already talking about some black suffrage in the South. Now, this was not as radical as Reconstruction eventually becomes. But I think a reconstruction with the united support of the president and the Congress might have had a greater chance of succeeding for a longer period of time.
It might have become a more stable situation.
BILL MOYERS: Until I read your book, I had never heard the story of Lincoln and William Johnson. William Johnson was his valet.
ERIC FONER: Uh-huh.
BILL MOYERS: One of the few people who accompanied him from Springfield to Washington when he became president. One of the few, perhaps the only person to actually read a draft of the Gettysburg Address before it was delivered. I didn't know this, that on the way back from Gettysburg, they both came down with small pox.
Lincoln's case was not very serious. But Johnson's was. He became quite ill. During his dying, Lincoln took care of him. When he died, Lincoln ordered that he be buried in Arlington Cemetery. And then he had the inscription on his tombstone read:"William Johnson, citizen."
ERIC FONER: Right. And, you know, that is a wonderful story. Johnson is a black man, of course. And, you know, to say" citizen" meant something more than in a way that one might understand today because it was only a few years before, in 1857, that the Dred Scott decision had ruled, that Chief Justice Taney had said,"No black person can be a citizen of the United States." Only white people can be citizens. So to put" citizen" on this black man's gravestone is a kind of an affirmation of something. It's not just an empty phrase. It's an affirmation that, no, black people can also be citizens.
BILL MOYERS: What impact did that have?
ERIC FONER: It's very hard to say.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
ERIC FONER: You know, Lincoln was a very un-self-revealing individual, you know? He didn't expose or display his inner beliefs about almost anything. That's why there's so much debate about what Lincoln really felt. What did he really feel about race? What did he really feel about religion? He kept his views to himself. Even people who knew him extremely well, David Davis or Herndon, his law partner, after his death, you know, people would ask them.
And they said,"Well, I don't really know what Lincoln thought in his heart of hearts about this, that, and the other thing." He was a very reserved and self-continued person. He listened to everybody. But he didn't really express his own views all that much, you know, in terms of day-to-day relations. He did in wonderful speeches and writings. But so we don't know what the precise you know, impact of any particular relationship was on Lincoln.
BILL MOYERS: You know, every American with a political idea wants to establish a connection to the Lincoln legacy. Why is that? I mean, here Obama rides the train on the same route to Washington that Lincoln took, uses the same Bible that Lincoln used for his swearing in. What's the symbolism there?
ERIC FONER: Well, every, you're right. Every political group and ideology has tried to claim Lincoln, whether it's Communists, segregationists, liberals, conservatives, everybody tries to, as David Donald once said, you know,"getting right with Lincoln," or claiming Lincoln as your forebear because I guess that just gives you an extra degree of legitimacy in American political debate.
Lincoln is such an icon that to get him on your side gives you a position of advantage in political debate. I think, you know, the problem is it's now 150 years virtually since the death of Lincoln. And the issues of Lincoln's day, some of them are very much our issues today.
BILL MOYERS: Such as?
ERIC FONER: Well, I mean, race and the nature of an interracial society and the whole question of the relationship of the federal government and the states and who's to protect and define the rights of citizens. I mean, those are Civil War-era issues. And they're still on our agenda today.
On the other hand, it's a different world Lincoln's living in, a different economy, a different society. People sometimes ask me when I give a lecture, you know,"Well, what would Lincoln have said about abortion rights?"
Or what would Lincoln have said about the bailout program? Or you know, and I said, well, Lincoln wouldn't have said anything. Those were not Lincoln's issues of that time. So it's pointless to try to say, well, put Lincoln 150 years later and what would he be saying?
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but what about this? 100 years ago the progressives of Theodore Roosevelt era constantly invoked Lincoln for their agenda, their actions, their ideas, and their program, even though Lincoln could scarcely have imagined the America of Teddy Roosevelt's time, 40 some odd years after his own-
ERIC FONER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: -death. What did the progressives, that first group of robust progressives claim that was useful to them in advancing their agenda?
ERIC FONER: I think they saw Lincoln as, you might say to go back another couple generations, a combination of Jefferson and Hamilton at the same time. In other words, Lincoln is a man who believes in Jeffersonian ideals and equality, of democracy, of the government by the people. He's not an elitist the way Hamilton, who wanted a monarchy basically. On the other hand, he believes in a powerful government, like Hamilton did and Jefferson did not. He believes the government can be an agent of social change and social reform and improvement. And that's, of course, what the progressives were saying in the early 20th century, that the power of big business had become so dominant, the only countervailing force in the society was government.
And you had to empower government to, you know, regulate and control the excesses of business rather than just leaving it to, you know, the market. Now, of course, 100 years later we see that there is some good argument there. And if you just leave it to the market you may end up in a kind of disasters situation.
BILL MOYERS: Lincoln started, did he not, as a Whig, as pro - a member of the pro-business party. And when he was president he favored public funds for private purposes. He favored a continental railroad. He favored an active government.
ERIC FONER: Well, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: -a federal bank.
ERIC FONER: Absolutely. Lincoln was always a Whig. The Whigs but, you know, that's a different society. Say the Whigs were pro-business it's not like today where you're getting, you know, you're just trying to cut taxes for the rich-
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, and get a tax break, right.
ERIC FONER: -and, you know, that kind of thing. They were pro-business in the sense that they thought government aid to building an infrastructure, you know, canals, railroads having a banking system that regulated the economy, would open up doors of opportunity for people like Lincoln. In other words, they're pro-business. But what Lincoln sees in the Whig Party is creating a circumstance where humble men like himself can rise in the social scale.
He's thinking of a society of small farms, small shops. It's not the vast industrial leviathan of the late 19th century. So that's what he sees in these programs of government aid to business, opening up opportunity for ordinary people to kind of seize the possibility of rising in the social scale as he himself did.
BILL MOYERS: And as you've written about within the wake of his death came the great trusts, the monopolies, the first gilded age, the concentration-
ERIC FONER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: -and convergence of power and wealth.
ERIC FONER: Well, this is the great irony of the Civil War you might almost say. Both sides in the Civil War are fighting to preserve their own society. It's obvious for the South. They're fighting to preserve slavery and the war destroys it. And yet something like that, too, happens in the North.
Lincoln is fighting to preserve the America that he knew, the America of opportunity, of the small farm, the small shop. And yet the very act of mobilizing the resources of the nation to fight this war gives a tremendous impetus to factory production, to railroads, to trusts, to giant corporations. And the world that comes out of the Civil War is quite different than the world that went into it. And it's not the world that Lincoln was really that familiar with in his younger days.
BILL MOYERS: Is there a political message for our time from Lincoln?
ERIC FONER: But the lesson, if there is a lesson, it is, again, that we must disenthrall ourselves, as Lincoln said. We must think anew. We cannot just go back to the ways we have been operating over the last 20, 30 years. That doesn't tell us what to do. But it does say we've got to have an open mind and not just stick with the failed ideologies of the past.
BILL MOYERS: The book is"Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World", edited by Eric Foner. Thank you for being with us on the JOURNAL.
ERIC FONER: Great to see you. Great to see you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: I had a history professor at the University of Texas - Robert Cotter - who believed the most remarkable quality of Abraham Lincoln was his empathy for people he didn't personally know. The working man. The soldier in battle. His widow and orphans.
Ordinary folks caught in the undertow of events. We could use that kind of empathy today. As Washington obsessed all week over the fate of one nominee to the cabinet, and as we watched hearings about the failure of watchdog agencies going to sleep on the job, we heard almost nothing of the people across the country suffocating in the wreckage of their lives. Some of us born in the Depression still remember the song made famous by the Carter Family singers, called the"Worried Man Blues".
"I went across that river and I lay down to sleep. When I woke up there were shackles on my feet."
The day my father was fired from his job at Manly's Appliance Store, he came walking home as if he had shackles on his feet. I still remember the look on his face. He wasn't yet 50, but had suddenly turned old, the way a lot of people look today who are losing their jobs. Their stomachs are knotted with fear as the life they had come to expect is fading fast. Not because of their own failures but because our political and financial elites rigged the economy for their own advantage.
John F. Kennedy famously said,"Life is unfair," and so it is. But it wouldn't feel as unfair if the shackles wound up instead on the well-heeled feet of Wall Street and Washington's elect. That's the change we need, the change we can really believe in.
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