Eric Foner Defines America

Jane Weir, American Renaissance, March 9, 2015

If you liked the Underground Railroad, you’ll love illegal immigration.

Here’s a conundrum you’ve heard before. Why aren’t black people protesting against immigration amnesty? Why aren’t all those outstanding African-American politicians shouting for deportation of illegal aliens until every native-born Person of Dark Color has a job? It appears there is an active campaign to persuade American blacks that they should be sympathetic to illegal aliens because they were once in a very similar situation.

The argument is contrived and harebrained, but it is being pushed by the popular, persuasive, very leftist history professor at Columbia University, Eric Foner.

On February 24, Prof. Foner spoke in Harlem at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library. He has just published a new book, a popular history on the Underground Railroad (Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad). After talking about the book for about an hour, Prof. Foner answered questions from the audience–most of them easy softballs. At the very end a hefty, elderly black woman stood up and asked one more question:

With all the stuff going on with Mexicans and immigration, I get a feeling this is a lot like what you been talkin’ about. So is there a parallel there, with immigration, and the Underground Railroad?

Prof. Foner absolutely beamed at this, as though he’d been hoping for it all evening.

“Yes, there is!” he agreed. “It’s people seeking a better life, and some people want to throw them out and some want to help. The parallels with the Underground Railroad are real. The people we admire now are the ones who tried to help these people. And I think a hundred, hundred-fifty years from today, we will see that. Looking back, [illegal immigration] will all look different!”

Whereupon somebody asked him why, if he felt that way, he doesn’t run for office. Prof. Foner replied, “I’m like Frederick Douglass, I don’t think I should take part in politics.”

I don’t know if the hefty woman and her “immigration parallel” question was a plant, but it was a perfect Eric Foner moment. His main field of study for the past 40 years has been the Reconstruction Era, but his specialty, his talent–and it is a real gift–is his ability to reframe history by subtly introducing outlandish, contrarian twists and points of view, so that he winds up standing traditional history on its head.

Of course, Prof. Foner does this to promote a political agenda. His retelling of Reconstruction is meant to instruct us that it was not really a tragic era of rapacious capitalists, carpetbaggers, scalawags and chaotic black-run state governments. That is the Reconstruction that historians now refer to as the Dunning School of history, after an early 20th-century historian, Prof. Foner’s long-ago predecessor at Columbia. It’s probably also the version you learned in grade school, and the Reconstruction you know from the films Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation–which was released 100 years ago, when the horrors of Reconstruction were still living memory.

You may also have learned that this era of abuse and infamy from 1865 to 1877 ended only because Democrats agreed to swap the White House–their man Gov. Tilden had won the popular vote–if the Republicans would agree to withdraw Federal troops from the South.

Gradually, insidiously, Eric Foner has replaced this traditional telling of Reconstruction with the fable that Reconstruction was really a bright and wonderful thing. In fact, it should have gone on longer! We should have more of it today! This quite literally was the theme of his 1988 masterwork, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, as well a dozen other books and papers he’s written on the subject since 1970.

Eric Foner

Eric Foner

In Fonerland, the defeated Southerners were wicked people who deserved to be punished and impoverished. The key players of the Reconstruction South were not carpetbaggers and the other cliché scapegoats of the cinema, but rather the freedmen, the ex-slaves. Capable, industrious, and optimistic, these were neither victims nor political footballs. The ex-slaves were the new, natural political leaders of the era, striving to rebuild the South on the noble principle of free labor!

No one has had more fun with Eric Foner’s twisted history, perhaps, than Paul Gottfried. Speaking at the Mencken Club in 2012, he surveyed leftist-agenda historians in general, and soon came to Prof. Foner, whom he summed up with these crisp remarks:

[Foner’s] portraits of former slaves who oversaw state governments in the occupied South with a wisdom worthy of a philosopher king left me gaping with disbelief. For those who are not entirely hallucinatory or egregiously dishonest, such narratives should be open to question. Equally noteworthy is Foner’s demonization of any white Southerner who objected to the Reconstruction government. This author holds no brief for the complaints or misfortunes of defeated white Southerners. For those who were trampled underfoot after a lost war, Foner has about as much sympathy as he does for those who were destroyed by the Soviet experiment under Lenin and Stalin.

Writing in The American Conservative in 2009, Prof. Gottfried excoriated Prof. Foner’s history and political agenda at length, taking special note of the way he rewrites history to suit some current twitch or fad of “political correctness:”

Foner’s vision of American history comports with the political correctness favored by the Left today–indeed at times he seems less interested in Reconstruction than in reconstructing latter-day American society. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, this project has won him influential admirers among the Republican Party. But even as Foner invokes the legacy of slavery and other racial iniquities as pretexts for government-mandated “social justice” and sensitivity today, he has never had to say he was sorry that he and his family whitewashed the crimes of Stalin’s USSR.

Prof. Gottfried detects inconsistencies that no other critic seems to have noticed. The young Eric Foner was definitely and frankly a Red Diaper Baby; his father and uncle were Communist historians. But when it comes to the Civil War and Reconstruction, we cannot easily tag him as a “Marxist historian,” because the orthodox Marxist analysis of Reconstruction is very close to what you got from the traditional Dunning School–or from Birth of a Nation, or from a modern neo-Confederate such as Thomas DiLorenzo. Under the Marxist lens, Reconstruction was basically an economic and social rape of a defeated territory by northern capitalists, who plundered Southern commerce, tax revenues and the “freed slaves” to further their own interests. Thus, Eric Foner is a pro-capitalist of convenience, when his social agenda demands that we make heroes of carpetbaggers and scalawags.

At Harlem’s Schomburg Center on February 24, there were several instances of Prof. Foner’s didactic sophistry. His equation of illegal aliens to Underground Railroad and runaways was the most obvious and daffy, but there were others.

For example, anti-neo-Confederate writers accuse the Southern states of hypocrisy when they claimed to be in favor of States’ Rights but demanded that the Fugitive Slave Act be attached to the 1850 Omnibus Bill. That law, Prof. Foner declared, was the most “active and intrusive” instance of federal power ever enacted. “The South wanted vigorous federal intervention,” he said. “When South Carolina secedes and they issue this kind of declaration of complaints, the big issue is the number of slaves not returned.”

Why was the Fugitive Slave Act not a contradiction of States’ Rights? For one thing, this was the third federal law mandating the return of slaves. The first was in the Constitution, the second was in 1793. Furthermore, return of runaway slaves, or stolen property, from one state to another, is implicitly required by the “full faith and credit” clause of the Constitution.

In the 1840s, some Northern states (Massachusetts in particular) passed laws that interfered with or countermanded the return of runaways. These were arguably unconstitutional as they did not uphold “full faith and credit” of another sovereign state’s laws. That is why the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was necessary: to override these legislative attacks by one state upon another. That slavery is widely regarded as distasteful is quite beside the point, and does not justify Prof. Foner’s dishonest characterization of a federal law.

Up on stage with Prof. Foner was a former student of his, a black historian named Leslie Harris, author of In the Shadow of Slavery. They chatted amiably about how wonderful a person, and what a fine historian each other was: a real love-fest. I’ve interviewed Prof. Foner in the past, and can attest that he is a very smooth and affable fellow. No doubt this is one reason why his revisionist history is so dangerous. You don’t see it coming; he’s not a firebrand. He’s taking your country from you, but doing it so smoothly that in another century you’ll look back and thank him.

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Jane Weir
Jane Weir is a former journalist and current (unpublished) novelist now living in New York City. She has been published in Punch, The Spectator, Food & Wine, and San Diego Home-Garden Lifestyles.
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