offoffoff opinion



Site links
  • Contact us

    Get our newsletter:
    Search the site:

    Current Opinion

  • Interview: Eric Foner on freedom
  • Interview: George McGovern on Vietnam, Iraq and the election of 1972
  • Interview: Maurice Isserman on the 1960s, Vietnam and Iraq
  • Interview: Thomas Keck on judicial activism and the conservative Supreme Court
  • Interview: Bard O'Neill on Insurgency and Terrorism and the Iraq War


      Eric Foner
    Eric Foner on Freedom

    Columbia Professor Eric Foner talks about our ideas of freedom from early America to the current election.


    Columbia Professor Eric Foner, best known for his histories of the Reconstruction era, also published "The Story of American Freedom" in 1998, looking at what the idea of freedom has meant to Americans throughout our country's history. As the word "freedom" cropped up repeatedly in presidential politics, I wanted to talk with Professor Foner about the resonance and meaning of "freedom" — the word and the ideal. Here is an edited transcript of our interview, conducted shortly before the Republican convention in New York.


    Related links: Official site
    State of the Nation

    Interviews about the state of our country from the election to the inauguration.

    • George McGovern on Vietnam, Iraq and the election of 1972
    •  Thomas Keck on judicial activism and the conservative Supreme Court
    • Bard O'Neill on Insurgency, Terrorism and the Iraq War
    • Maurice Isserman on "America Divided"
    • Eric Foner on freedom
    Available from

    Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877


    The Story of American Freedom

    Q: I went to look up your book on Amazon, and one or two people had written something like, "Why should he be writing this book? He's a specialist in the Civil War era, and what does he know about freedom?"

    ERIC FONER: I actually don't look at those things, but people have a right to put their point of view out there. Actually, I would say quite the reverse — the Civil War era is precisely what got me interested in this question of freedom. This is the moment in American history where freedom, you might say, became not simply an abstract idea but a concrete reality and problem. The question of the emancipation of the slaves. I've written a long book about the Reconstruction era, in which the critical problem facing the country was: What is going to be the meaning of the freedom of these four million people? What rights go along with being a free American? Are they going to achieve the right to vote, [own] land, civil rights, legal rights? And that was the crux of the debate in that very contentious period.

    So I think, in a sense, it was the very study of the Civil War, the aftermath of the Civil War, and the process of emancipation itself and how the country reacted to the end of slavery that got me interested in this issue of the conflicting views of freedom — that freedom is not a simple thing. There's not just one predetermined definition of freedom. What freedom meant to African-Americans coming out of slavery was very different from what their freedom meant to, let's say, former slave owners, and then Northerners had their own idea of what freedom meant. So it was exactly my study of that period that got me interested in looking at freedom in a broader sense in American history.

      These ideas of freedom are always being contested. There may be a dominant view at a time, but there are other subordinate views. Sometimes what's subordinate in one era will become dominant later on.
    Q: I read your book on Reconstruction, and also a book on Andrew Johnson at the same time, and it seemed to me that, more than the Civil War, which has had this resurgence of interest over the last fifteen years, Reconstruction really determined what the country was going to be.

    ERIC FONER: Well, Reconstruction did have a lot to do with the future path of American development — particularly in its race relations, but [also] other ways — and you might say it was a tremendous missed opportunity for the country to set off on a road toward greater equality and greater justice than really was implemented in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. You know, I look at that period whole. The pre-Civil War period, the Civil War, the Reconstruction — it's all one large era in which the subject of slavery, slavery's relation to American life, emancipation, these are the critical questions confronting American society. And they still reverberate. They reverberate in debates over whether we should fly the Confederate flag. They reverberate in debates over the issue of reparations for slavery. They reverberate in efforts in some places to rename schools that are named after slave owners. So we haven't yet quite come to terms with slavery in our own consciousness, even though it's 150 years, almost, after the end of the Civil War.

    Q: Some of the arguments over freedom that started to develop after that included freedom of contract and the conflicting economic rights that people tried to claim, and later, Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, which attempted to redefine the idea of freedom as things that people are entitled to that aren't necessarily the things that are in the Bill of Rights or in the Declaration of Independence.

    ERIC FONER: Well, actually, Roosevelt then, in '44, talked about a second Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights, of course, is a protection of basic liberties — freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to a trial by jury, the right against unjust imprisonment, etc. — against suppression by the federal government. The Bill of Rights was initially written with the assumption that a powerful national government is the greatest danger to liberty — a widely held view, of course.

    By the 20th century, people like Roosevelt and many others were concerned with other kinds of threats to liberty. And in fact Roosevelt argued that the government can be a promoter of freedom as well as a restricter of freedom. The Four Freedoms were freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear and freedom from want. The last two require an active government. Roosevelt insisted freedom is not just the civil liberties, it's economic security, it's an economic wherewithal — some basic level beneath which people will not sink. The really poor person is not free in some basic way, as he said. So he wanted to expand the concept of the Bill of Rights, you might say, to include these positive freedoms — the right to a job, the right to health care, the right to education — as well as the negative freedoms of not letting the government interfere with civil liberties.

    Q: Prior to the New Deal, one of the biggest conflicts was over economic freedom, and the Supreme Court for decades interpreted the Constitution as protecting freedom of contract, even if that contract was essentially coerced by the employer and denied what we would now think of as rights that employees have.

    ERIC FONER: Right. In the late 19th century, and well into the 20th century, this notion of freedom of contract, that freedom meant the ability to pursue your economic aims, your economic self-interest, without outside interference, was the dominant legal view of freedom. It wasn't the only one — the labor movement put forward their own view, the progressive era, people like Louis Brandeis and Jane Addams, put forward their own very different view of freedom. But the dominant view, certainly in the courts, was this freedom of contract — and in a way, it came out of the slavery controversy. They really saw legislation restricting the hours that someone can work or regulating how a business conducts itself as relics of slavery — that slavery restricted a person from enjoying the fruits of his labor, and now that slavery was abolished everybody should be able to pursue his own economic self-interest without outside restraint. But in a modern industrial society, that view of freedom turned out to be a very limited one. Corporate power, unequal wealth, oppressive working conditions were restrictions on people's freedom, and they couldn't just be addressed through this notion of freedom of contract.

    [In the] Cold War, the Free World was an odd place, since being in the Free World just required you to be anti-communist. When I was in school in the 1950s growing up, we used to have maps on the wall — the Free World. But you know, like, South Africa was part of the Free World.  

    Q: So during that period between the Civil War and the New Deal, did a popular understanding of freedom develop that was different from the dominant understanding?

    ERIC FONER: Well, this was a period of intense conflict over this. In the 1870s, '80s and '90s, there was bitter, violent labor conflict in this country. The great strike of 1877, Pullman, Homestead — you know, we saw violent labor conflict. And then in the early 20th century, the progressive era put forward a very different [idea].

    My point, of course, is that these ideas of freedom are always being contested. There may be a dominant view at a time, but there are other subordinate views. Sometimes what's subordinate in one era will become dominant later on, just as the New Deal view was around, but it didn't become dominant until the '30s, or the current, more conservative views of freedom were around in the '50s and '60s, but they didn't become dominant until the '80s and '90s. So there are all sorts of strands within the notion of freedom, and we can't just assume that there's one idea of freedom and that's it, and everybody has to agree on it.

    Q: I picked up your book and I started to read it from the Cold War forward, and you talk about how during the Cold War, we found it useful to define the world as divided into the free world and the not-free world. How did that definition come about?

    ERIC FONER: Well, that actually was a holdover from World War II, when the same notion of the free world was out there, but there it was the countries fighting the Nazis, and then the Nazi and the Axis powers being representatives of the lack of freedom. This penchant for dividing the world into either-or seems to be deeply rooted in the American psyche. I don't know, maybe it comes out of our Puritan heritage or something — the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And even today, of course, the president [says], "You're either with us or against us." There are those who are for the terrorists and those who are against the terrorists, and that's it. There's no alternative ground that is recognizable. [In the] Cold War, again, the Free World was an odd place, since being in the Free World just required you to be anti-communist. I remember when I was in school in the 1950s growing up, we used to have maps on the wall — the Free World. But you know, like, South Africa was part of the Free World. Why? Because they were against the Russians. That was the definition. But there was no freedom in South Africa for most of the people.

    The word "freedom" had been transformed to mean "anti-communist." So if you were anti-communist, you were free, even though your own people may not enjoy genuine freedom. Dictators all over the world were allies of the United States as part of the Free World, allegedly. So this penchant for black and white, for dividing the world, for not seeing nuance, for not seeing middle grounds — it makes life simple, and it can be a great rallying cry for people, and yet it tends to muddy the waters of the real world, which is full of grays and mixed situations, and is not quite so simple as good and bad fighting it out all the time.

    Continued: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Next

    OCTOBER 25, 2004

    Post a comment on "Eric Foner"