Tag Archives: Eric Foner

Even More Liberal Lies About America

Well, we are getting down to the final few weeks in my AP American History course.  It’s always a mad rush in the last few weeks as I have to make sure that I’ve covered most of the major events into the 1990s.  Over the past few days we’ve been talking in detail about the rise of the modern conservative movement and given my recent posts [see here and here] on the supposed left-wing conspiracy in our college and high school classrooms I thought I might share a few thoughts about what we specifically look at.  According to some I am playing my own small part in this conspiracy as I spew my hatred for America and my denials of American Exceptionalism in front of my students.  I guess one need look no further for evidence of this than my use of Eric Foner’s book, Give Me Liberty!: An American History (Norton)

As I was reviewing the chapter it dawned on me that Foner offers a very rich overview of modern conservatism.  The title of the chapter in question is “The Triumph of Conservatism” and covers the period from 1969 to 1988.  Sub-chapter headings include “The Rebirth of Conservatism,”  “The New Conservatism,” “The Conservative Sixties,” “The Rising Tide of Conservatism,” “The Religious Right,” “The Tax Revolt,” “Reagan and American Freedom.”  The chapter covers a number of concepts and movements associated with conservatism, such as Libertarianism the Religious Right and includes references to Milton Friedman, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, William F. Buckley, “Young Americans For Freedom,” “neo-Conservatives,” Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, Jeane Kirpatrick.  Court cases that favor a conservative reading of the Constitution include Milliken v. Bradley, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Bowers v. Hardwick, among others.  The chapter includes a full-page reprint of “The Sharon Statement” (1960)

Consider Foner’s own interpretation of the “New Conservatives” for yourself:

The “new conservatives” understood freedom as first and foremost a moral condition.  It required a decision by independent men and women to lead virtuous lives, or government action to force them to do so.  Although they wanted government expelled from the economy, new conservatives trusted it to regulate personal behavior, to restore a Christian morality they saw as growing weaker and weaker in American society.

Her lay the origins of a division in conservative ranks that would persist to the end of the twentieth century.  Unrestrained individual choice and moral virtue are radically different starting points from which to discuss freedom.  Was the purpose of conservatism, one writer wondered, to create the “free man” or the “good man?”  Libertarian conservatives spoke the language of progress and personal autonomy; the “new conservatives emphasized tradition, community, and moral commitment.  The former believed that too many barriers existed to the pursuit of individual liberty.  The latter condemned and excess of individualism and a breakdown of common values. (p. 1026)

That seems to me to be an incredibly thoughtful, albeit brief, description of the modern conservative movement that gives students a framework for understanding a great deal of recent political and cultural history.  It led to a very interesting class discussion today that I hope to continue tomorrow as we move further into the 1980s.

On the rise of the Religious Right, Foner has this to say:

The rise of religious fundamentalism during the 1970s expanded conservatism’s popular base.  Even as membership in mainstream denominations like Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism declined, evangelical Protestantism flourished.  Some observers spoke of a Third Great Awakening (like those of the 1740s and early nineteenth century)…. Evangelical Christians had become more and more alienated from a culture that seemed to them to trivialize religion and promote immorality.  They demanded the reversal of Supreme Court decisions banning prayer in public schools, protecting pornography as free speech and legalizing abortion.  (p. 1050)

As I said above, the chapter’s focus on conservatism is incredibly rich and benefits immensely from Foner’s commitment to looking beyond the major figures and most prominent organizations in the movement.

Now, of course, there is room to disagree even with the brief excerpts that I’ve provided here, but can we agree that there is nothing that is blatantly anti-American or biased in favor of a liberal/Democratic view of American history?  Actually, if you gave me this book without the author’s name I’m not sure I could nail down the political identity of the author.  Than again I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about the political affiliation of historians.  I tend to judge the quality of their work based on the principles of good history.

Anyway, I hope this alleviates the concerns among some of you that I am feeding my students anti-American ideology. :D

Does Your Dentist Teach History?

A couple of years ago I had a parent contact me about the textbook I was using to teach my AP American History course.  I had just switched from The American Pageant to Eric Foner’s new book, Give Me Liberty! The parent was concerned about the political bias of Foner as well as the overall narrative that his child would learn over the course of the year.  I am a huge fan of parents who take an interest in their child’s education so I agreed to meet with him at his earliest convenience.  We never met in person to discuss his concerns, but we did exchange a number of emails.  The first thing I did was ask the parent to give me an idea of what exactly he found troubling.  Shortly thereafter I received a response that focused on the amount of coverage on issues of race.  I read the response carefully, but had difficulty pinpointing the exact problem so I followed up by asking for specific references.  His response was interesting.  The parent pointed to two sections, one on Reconstruction and the other on Jim Crow, which he believed constituted too much attention.  In addition, he also made it a point to remind me that he was not asking me to swap Foner for a book by Rush Limbaugh.  This last comment took me for a bit of a loop.  It concerned me that Rush Limbaugh would actually be considered as an alternative to Foner or for that matter any trained historian. I thought about how to respond to this last comment as I did not want to offend the person, but I finally decided to assert myself since I was hired to teach the course and my school gives me complete freedom to choose appropriate texts for my students.  I said that it was good to hear that he was not making such a suggestion since Rush Limbaugh is not a historian and Eric Foner is one of the most respected scholars in the field.

In addition I asked if the parent’s concern about Foner’s coverage of race extended beyond the number of pages.  In other words, was there a problem with the interpretation itself.  I went on to offer an explanation as to why I chose this particular book.  In fact, one of the reasons I chose this particular text was the amount of coverage of racial issues, which I explained was important to understanding crucial aspects of American history, including the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement and countless other subjects.  As a historian, however, I understand that thoughtful people can and should disagree about the way in which information is presented and interpreted.  Unfortunately, our conversation never addressed these issues.  I should point out that this parent is well educated and a very successful lawyer.  We eventually met a few weeks later during a parent-teacher night.  We chatted for a bit, but the topic never came up.  I encouraged the parent to contact me at any point regarding concerns about the textbook or any other materials covered in the course.  That never happened and his son went on to score a 5 on the AP Test.

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Discovering Reconstruction

reconstruction_congressI am doing quite a bit of reading over this holiday break. One of the books I am making my way through is Capitol Men by Philip Dray. The book tells the story of the principal black leaders in Congress during Reconstruction. It’s well written and does a thorough job of explaining both the backgrounds of the individual subjects as well as the tumultuous times in which they lived. Actually, I’ve been reading quite a bit about Reconstruction and the postwar years generally, and there is a great deal to choose from. One can’t help but be impressed by the selection of books on Reconstruction that have been published over the past few years. [Click here for Ed Blum's overview of this literature.] Just a few years ago you would be lucky to find the abridged version of Eric Foner’s magisterial history of the period. But the recognition of a spike in interest in the subject also begs for explanation. This influx of new books couldn’t have come at a better time given the election of our first black president. That said, this welcome change probably has little to do with the recent election.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the historiography of Reconstruction. I’ve read a bit of U.B. Phillips, and others who studied under William Dunning at Columbia; Dunning reinforced a rather narrow view of Reconstruction as a failure and one that reinforced white supremacy at the height of Jim Crow in the early twentieth century. It’s important to keep in mind that although this school of thought was challenged by scholars beginning in the early 1950s, and even more so in the 1970s, these debates were largely confined to the academy. To the extent that Americans know anything about Reconstruction, my guess is that they learned it from movies such as Gone With the Wind as well as other popular cultural forms. Scores of books and journal articles slowly chipped away at an interpretation, which viewed Reconstruction as an example of unjustified intrusion by the federal government, corruption in state legislatures at the hands of newly-freed slaves, and a dismissal of the black perspective generally. However, it was not until the 1988 publication of Eric Foner’s Reconstruction (and shortly thereafter, the abridged edition) that a broader audience was offered a readable account that synthesized much of this scholarship. In addition to winning a number of academic awards it also received a great deal of attention in the pages of popular magazines and newspapers. It’s hard to say how much of an effect Foner’s book had on our popular perceptions of the Civil War and Reconstruction – probably little to none, but it is difficult to deny his importance to this new crop of recent historical studies. Most of these authors acknowledge Foner’s scholarship as invaluable in their own quest to better understand the period.

But if Foner’s work constitutes perhaps the best example of a scholarly reconfiguration of our understanding of Reconstruction than it is the war in Iraq, which has introduced that scholarship to a broader demographic. It should come as no surprise that a resurgence of interest came at a time when the public discourse was centered around the reconstruction of Iraq. Historians such as Ed Ayers chimed in with op-ed pieces, which highlighted the challenges of such a venture and reminded the American people of an earlier attempt at trying to reconstruct a deeply-entrenched political, social, and racial hierarchy. Following a list of lessons that one should take away from that “First Occupation”, Ayers concludes with the following:

A hard paradox lies at the heart of all reconstructions: the reconstructor must transform a society in its own image without appearing selfish or self-righteous. An effort at reconstruction, our nation’s history shows us, must be implemented not only with determination and might, but also with humility and self-knowledge — and with an understanding of the experience of defeat that attention to Southern history can give us. Otherwise, America risks appearing as the thing it least wants to be, a carpetbagger nation.

It is not a stretch to imagine scholars and writers of various sorts following up their reading of these editorials by taking a more in-depth look at what went wrong with the federal government’s earlier attempt at Reconstruction, even as our public officials struggled to explain to the America people why there was so little progress in Iraq. For those of us who had an understanding of the difficulties involved in reconstructing a society, the president’s declarations, which reduced the challenge down to the conviction that all people desire freedom seemed grossly naive and even reckless.

The street fighting in Baghdad and Falujah echo those that took place in New Orleans, Memphis, and elsewhere, and while Americans were shocked at the indiscriminate killing among religious sects the postwar terrorism against newly-freed slaves rivals anything to be found in the Middle East. Recent studies of postwar violence include Stephen Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War (2007) and Nicholas Lemann, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (2007). Two books, one by Charles Lane and the other by LeeAnna Keith, explore the Colfax Massacre of 1873. This does not include the numerous scholarly of Reconstruction violence against African Americans, and even newer editions of older studies, that have been published over the past few years. Collectively, these books can be seen as a vindication of Ayers’s warning that a nation engaged in so difficult a project as the reconstruction of another country ought to proceed with “humility and self-knowledge.”

If there is a silver lining in this resurgence of interest it is that a much larger audience now has access to books that present Reconstruction in a much more sophisticated light, one that takes seriously the steps that Americans took to extend and protect basic civil rights regardless of race. It not only involves moving beyond the overly simplistic language of scalawags and carpetbaggers, but involves giving voice to black and white leaders who worked to extend the franchise and other political rights to former slaves and even the vast majority of poor whites who had been excluded from the polity. Recent book include Garrett Epps’s Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America (2007), Eric Foner’s Forever Free, as well as Dray’s Capitol Men. American Experience’s recent documentary on Reconstruction also reflects this newfound interest.

Finally, this could not have come at a better moment in the history of this country. With our first black president set to take office in a matter of weeks it is comforting to know that a solid body of historical scholarship is available for those who are interested in placing Barack Obama’s candidacy within a broader historical context. It is important for us to understand the struggle that led to this moment in our history, and in doing so, we should acknowledge that while it is a momentous step in a new direction, it is but one step on a long road that involves appreciating the extent to which race has shaped this nation’s political, social, and economic hierarchy. We should ask the tough questions related to the timing of Obama’s candidacy, why it didn’t or perhaps couldn’t happen sooner, and why so few African Americans have served in the federal government since Reconstruction. We should ask these questions not with the goal of self-hatred, but because we are all part of this larger national narrative, and because Democracy is a constant struggle. I am under no illusion that large numbers of Americans will flock to the bookstores to purchase these recent titles; however, the fact of their availability suggests to me that our society is in a much better place to ask some of these tough questions that at any time before.

Civil War Odds and Ends

Check out the programs for two upcoming conferences that will focus heavily on the Civil War, the South, and Virginia history.  The first is the Second Annual Virginia Forum which is scheduled for April 13-14 at the Library of Virginia in Richmond.  This conference brings together scholars who focus on all areas of Virginia history.  I took part last year and had a wonderful time.  The American Civil War Center and Virginia Historical Society will host a conference titled “In The Cause of Liberty: How the Civil War Redefined American Values” on March 23-24.  Participants include James McPherson, Gary Gallagher, Nina Silber, David L. Lewis and George Rable.

HNN includes two interviews with James McPherson and Eric Foner which were taped at the recent meeting of the AHA in Atlanta.  The session was titled “Why I became a historian.”  Finally, Chandra Manning will be interviewed today on Civil War Talk Radio followed next week by Gabor Boritt.

Finally, the latest issue of the OAH Magazine of History focuses on Abraham Lincoln.  The staff is planning a few issues devoted to Lincoln over the next two years.  If you are a high school history teacher I highly recommend subscribing to this publication.  The lesson plans are all first-rate and the articles are written by some of the leading scholars in their respective fields.

Teaching Dissent

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for some time now. I’ve been somewhat uncomfortable in the classroom this year and I think I finally understand why. My primary goal as a history teacher is to get my students to engage in critical thinking about as much of their world as possible. We can ask our students to memorize facts and reasons, but if they can’t think for themselves about what they read than none of it is has any intrinsic worth. Of course my classes spend a great deal of time connecting events in American history to more recent events and trends, and within those discussions the war in Iraq looms large. My AP classes finished WWI last week and my two regular surveys are now getting started. In the survey classes my students work on an essay that asks them to think about the role of propaganda in a democracy. I give each student a handout that includes relevant background on George Creel and the Committee on Public Information along with copies of recruitment posters. Along with this issue we also talk about the balance between national security and the right to engage in civil disobedience and free speech. Not surprisingly, Eric Foner provides detailed coverage of this issue in his textbook, Give Me Liberty.

I am finding it more difficult this year to hold these discussions with my students, especially when it comes to the war in Iraq. For some reason they are more resistant to debates that place them in a position to question the actions of the federal government. Students not only seem less willing to question the federal government, some find my suggestion that they even consider the issue as unreasonable. It is as if the suggestion to question is somehow unpatriotic. I’ve actually made disclaimers that my attempts to cajole them into questioning is not necessarily a reflection of any specific stance on my part in relation to theses issues. I have a few students who are very close to a position that justifies or permits any act on the part of the federal government to control public speech and behavior. When asked to justify their position, they simply tout the standard line that any anti-war speech or other action may hurt the morale of the soldiers in Iraq or lead to insecurity at home. Of course I could explain this away by dismissing these students as immature or simply unable to engage in mature discussion about the complex questions surrounding this issue. So, it is no surprise that when it comes to the extreme actions on the part of the federal government during WWI there is very little critical analysis. I should point out that I have plenty of students who are engaged and are willing to step back and examine any issue with a critical eye. What I am trying to emphasize is my perception (and it is just a perception) that more of my students are having difficulty with the idea that they should engage in debate over the boundaries of legitimate government action during wartime.

I don’t know if any of you have felt the same about your classrooms. I’ve thought about how to explain this trend and I always come back to the way in which the Bush administration and the nation as a whole has framed the debate between national security and freedom of speech over the last few years. My juniors and seniors have basically come of age during this post-911 period. Many of them do not read the newspaper, but instead watch the evening news or those entertainers/political commentators such as Chris Matthews and Bill O’Reilly. These are shows that spend very little if any time actually engaged in intellectual discussion. At the beginning of the war we were told not to question the reasons surrounding the decision to go to war for fear of jeopardizing the military mission. Since victory was declared the Bush administration has done a wonderful job demonizing the press for distracting the nation from the wonderful successes we’ve enjoyed in Iraq over the last three years. Within this context it is no surprise that more of my students have matured within this entrenched fear and suspicion that our government has fostered over the last few years. It’s as if they’ve internalized the formula: “If the government is doing it, they must have a sufficient reason for doing it.” I should point out that this is not about whether one should support or not support the war, George Bush, or a specific stance on the “War on Terror”; it is about preserving the role of the people in continuing to work as an additional check on the actions of the individuals who are elected to public office.

I did not grow up during the Vietnam War, but I do know that most Americans did not seriously question the rationale for going to war following Lyndon Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. At some point a few years later Americans woke up and spoke out. Have we made the same mistake this time around? Why all of a sudden are Americans questioning the policies of this government? Yes, they have every right and I am pleased that finally the majority have decided to take a more critical look at the policies of this government. I sometimes wonder where we would be right now if more Americans had spoken out not simply for or against the government and the war, but just to demand more information — how about accountability for what has obviously gone very wrong?

I have no interest in seeing my students adopt any particular ideological/political viewpoint. All I care about is that whatever they believe they leave themselves open to revision and constantly push themselves to better understand their own views as well as the views of others. Democracies are like classrooms: they must be places where its citizenry understands the importance of questioning and it must create an environment that faciliatates a healthy skepticism. This begins in the classroom!