Eric Foner

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Eric Foner
Eric Foner, New York City, New York, September 15, 2009.jpg
Foner at his New York City office in 2009
Born (1943-02-07) February 7, 1943 (age 78)
Parent(s) Jack D. Foner (father)
Academic background
Alma mater
Doctoral advisor Richard Hofstadter
Academic work
Discipline History
Sub-discipline American political history
Notable students
Notable works Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution - 1863-1877 (1988)
The Fiery Trial (2010)

Eric Foner ( /ˈfnər/ ; born February 7, 1943) is an American historian. He writes extensively on American political history, the history of freedom, the early history of the Republican Party, African-American biography, Reconstruction, and historiography, and has been a member of the faculty at the Columbia University Department of History since 1982. He is the author of several popular textbooks. According to the Open Syllabus Project, Foner is the most frequently cited author on college syllabi for history courses. [1]


Foner is a leading contemporary historian of the Reconstruction period, having published Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 in 1989 and more than 10 other books on the topic. [2] His online courses on "The Civil War and Reconstruction", published in 2014, are available from Columbia University on ColumbiaX. [3]

In 2011, Foner's The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010) won the Pulitzer Prize for History, the Lincoln Prize, and the Bancroft Prize. [4] [5] Foner previously won the Bancroft Prize in 1989 for his book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. In 2000, he was elected president of the American Historical Association. [6] He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 2018. [7]

Early life and education

Foner was born in New York City, New York, the son of Jewish parents Liza (née Kraitz), a high school art teacher, and historian Jack D. Foner, who was active in the trade union movement and the campaign for civil rights for African Americans. Eric Foner describes his father as his "first great teacher," and recalls how,

deprived of his livelihood while I was growing up, he supported our family as a freelance lecturer. ... Listening to his lectures, I came to appreciate how present concerns can be illuminated by the study of the past—how the repression of the McCarthy era recalled the days of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the civil rights movement needed to be viewed in light of the great struggles of Black and White abolitionists, and in the brutal suppression of the Philippine insurrection at the turn of the century could be found the antecedents of American intervention in Vietnam. I also imbibed a way of thinking about the past in which visionaries and underdogs—Tom Paine, Wendell Phillips, Eugene V. Debs, and W. E. B. Du Bois—were as central to the historical drama as presidents and captains of industry, and how a commitment to social justice could infuse one's attitudes towards the past. [8]

After graduating from Long Beach High School in 1959, Foner enrolled at Columbia University, where he was originally a physics major, before switching to history after taking a year-long seminar with James P. Shenton on the Civil War and Reconstruction during his junior year. "It probably determined that most of my career has been focused on that period," he recalled years later. [9] A year later, in 1963, Foner graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in history. He studied at the University of Oxford as a Kellett Fellow; he received a BA from Oriel College in 1965, where he was a member of the college's 1966 University Challenge winning team, though he did not appear in the final, having already returned to the US. [10] After graduating from Oxford, Foner returned to Columbia where he earned his doctoral degree in 1969 under the supervision of Richard Hofstadter. His doctoral thesis, published in 1970 as Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, explored the deeply rooted ideals and interests that drove the northern majority to oppose slavery and ultimately wage war against Southern secession.


Writing on the Reconstruction Era

Foner is a leading authority on the Reconstruction Era. In a seminal essay in American Heritage in October 1982, later reprinted in Reviews in American History, Foner wrote,

In the past twenty years, no period of American history has been the subject of a more thoroughgoing reevaluation than Reconstruction—the violent, dramatic, and still controversial era following the Civil War. Race relations, politics, social life, and economic change during Reconstruction have all been reinterpreted in the light of changed attitudes toward the place of blacks within American society. If historians have not yet forged a fully satisfying portrait of Reconstruction as a whole, the traditional interpretation that dominated historical writing for much of this century has irrevocably been laid to rest. [11]

"Foner has established himself as the leading authority on the Reconstruction period," wrote historian Michael Perman in reviewing Reconstruction. "This book is not simply a distillation of the secondary literature; it is a masterly account – broad in scope as well as rich in detail and insight. [2] "This is history written on a grand scale, a masterful treatment of one of the most complex periods of American history," David Herbert Donald wrote in The New Republic . C. Vann Woodward, in The New York Review of Books , wrote, "Eric Foner has put together this terrible story with greater cogency and power, I believe, than has been brought to the subject heretofore." [12]

In a 2009 essay, Foner pondered whether Reconstruction might have turned out differently.

"It is wrong to think that, during the Civil War, President Lincoln embraced a single 'plan' of Reconstruction," he wrote. "Lincoln had always been willing to work closely with all factions of his party, including the Radicals on numerous occasions. I think it is quite plausible to imagine Lincoln and Congress agreeing to a Reconstruction policy encompassing basic civil rights for blacks (as was enacted in 1866) plus limited black suffrage, along the lines he proposed just before his death." [13] [ failed verification ]

Foner's recent short summary of his views was published in The New York Times in 2015. [14]

Secession and the Soviet Union

As a visiting professor in Moscow in the early 1990s, Foner compared secessionist forces in the USSR with the secession movement in the US in the 1860s. In a February 1991 article, Foner noted that the Baltic states claimed the right to secede because they had been unwillingly annexed. In addition, he believed that the Soviet Union did not protect minorities while it tried to nationalize the republics. Foner identified a threat to existing minority groups within the Baltic states, who were in turn threatened by the new nationalist movements. [15]

In a New York Times op-ed, he criticized President Donald Trump's tweet calling for the preservation of Confederate monuments and heritage, stating that they represented and glorified white supremacy rather than collective heritage. [16]

Media appearances

Foner has appeared frequently on popular media to discuss US history:

  • "Eric Foner: Eric Foner says Abraham Lincoln didn't see slavery as a fundamental problem confronting America until well into his career". The Colbert Report. Comedy Central. February 11, 2011. Retrieved November 13, 2015.
  • "I's on Edjukashun – Texas School Board: Eric Foner disagrees with the Texas school board's decision to give students a completely misleading view of history". The Colbert Report. Comedy Central. February 11, 2011. Retrieved November 13, 2015.
  • "Exclusive – The Weakest Lincoln: In this extended clip, Judge Andrew Napolitano and Abraham Lincoln compete in a numbers game about the true cost of the Civil War". The Daily Show. Comedy Central. February 11, 2011. Retrieved November 13, 2015.


The professional awards which Foner has received indicate the respect given his work. Journalist Nat Hentoff described his Story of American Freedom "an indispensable book that should be read in every school in the land." [17] "Eric Foner is one of the most prolific, creative, and influential American historians of the past 20 years," according to The Washington Post. His work is "brilliant, important" a reviewer wrote in the Los Angeles Times . [18]

In a review of The Story of American Freedom in the New York Review of Books, Theodore Draper disagreed with Foner's conclusions:

If the story of American freedom is told largely from the perspective of blacks and women, especially the former, it is not going to be a pretty tale. Yet most Americans thought of themselves not only as free but as the freest people in the world. [19]

John Patrick Diggins of the City University of New York wrote that Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, was a "magisterial" and "moving" narrative, but compared Foner's "unforgiving" view of America for its racist past to his notably different views on the fall of communism and Soviet history. [20]

Foner's most recent book Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (2015) was judged "Intellectually probing and emotionally resonant by the Los Angeles Times. [21] His previous book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010) was described by Library Journal as "Original and compelling. … In the vast library on Lincoln, Foner's book stands out as the most sensible and sensitive reading of Lincoln's lifetime involvement with slavery and the most insightful assessment of Lincoln's—and indeed America's—imperative to move toward freedom lest it be lost. An essential work for all Americans." [22]

His inspirational work and comforting way of writing has led to the development of a California-based student fan club. He is revered for his educational writing.

Awards and honors

In 1989, Foner received the Avery O. Craven Award from the Organization of American Historians. In 1991, Foner received the Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates. [23] In 1995, he was named Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities. [24]

Foner was inducted as a Laureate of The Lincoln Academy of Illinois and awarded the Order of Lincoln (the State's highest honor) by the Governor of Illinois in 2009 as a Bicentennial Laureate. [25]

In 2020, Foner was awarded the Roy Rosenzweig Distinguished Service Award from the Organization of American Historians which goes to an individual or individuals whose contributions have significantly enriched our understanding and appreciation of American history. [26]

Personal life

Foner was married to screenwriter Naomi Foner (née Achs) from 1965 to 1977. [27] Since 1982, he has been married to historian Lynn Garafola. [28] They have a daughter.

Comments on teaching

Foner has frequently explored teaching moments that historians can use. He wrote, "Like all momentous events, September 11 is a remarkable teaching opportunity. But only if we use it to open rather than to close debate. Critical intellectual analysis is our responsibility—to ourselves and to our students." [29]

"[S]uccessful teaching rests both on a genuine and selfless concern for students and on the ability to convey to them a love of history." [30]

"In a global age, the forever-unfinished story of American freedom must become a conversation with the entire world, not a complacent monologue with ourselves." [31]



External video
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg Booknotes interview with Foner on The Story of American Freedom, November 15, 1998, C-SPAN
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg Presentation by Foner and Joshua Brown on Forever Free, January 12, 2006, C-SPAN
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg Presentation by Foner on The Fiery Trial, October 27, 2010, C-SPAN
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg Interview with Foner on The Fiery Trial, September 24, 2011, C-SPAN
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg Presentation by Foner on The Fiery Trial, September 24, 2011, C-SPAN
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg After Words interview with Foner on Gateway to Freedom, March 21, 2015, C-SPAN
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg Presentation by Foner on Gateway to Freedom, September 30, 2015, C-SPAN
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg Presentation by Foner on The Second Founding, October 2, 2019, C-SPAN

Some of his books have been translated into Portuguese, Italian, and Chinese.

Selected articles

Related Research Articles

American Civil War 1861–1865 internal conflict over slavery

The American Civil War was a civil war in the United States fought between northern and Pacific states and southern states that voted to secede and form the Confederate States of America. The central cause of the war was the status of slavery, especially the expansion of slavery into newly acquired land after the Mexican-American War. On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, four million of the 32 million Americans were black slaves, mostly in the South.

Emancipation Proclamation Executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862

The Emancipation Proclamation, or Proclamation 95, was a presidential proclamation and executive order issued by United States President Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862, during the Civil War. The Proclamation read:

Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution 1865 Reconstruction amendment abolishing slavery

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. The amendment was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified by the required 27 of the then 36 states on December 6, 1865, and proclaimed on December 18. It was the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments adopted following the American Civil War.

Reconstruction era Era of military occupation (1865–1877) in the Southern United States after the American Civil War

The Reconstruction era, was a period in American history following the American Civil War (1861–1865); it lasted from 1865 to 1877 and marked a significant chapter in the history of civil rights in the United States. Reconstruction, as directed by Congress, abolished slavery and ended the remnants of Confederate secession in the Southern states; it presented the newly freed slaves as citizens with (ostensibly) the same civil rights as those of other citizens, and which rights were guaranteed by three new constitutional amendments, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Reconstruction also refers to the attempt by Congress to transform the 11 former Confederate states; and it refers to the role of the Union states in that transformation.

The Radical Republicans were a faction of American politicians within the Republican Party of the United States from around 1854 until the end of Reconstruction in 1877. They called themselves "Radicals" because of their goal of immediate, complete, permanent eradication of slavery, without compromise. They were opposed during the War by the moderate Republicans, and by the pro-slavery and anti-Reconstruction Democratic Party as well as liberals in the Northern United States during Reconstruction. Radicals led efforts after the war to establish civil rights for former slaves and fully implement emancipation. After weaker measures in 1866 resulted in violence against former slaves in the rebel states, Radicals pushed the Fourteenth Amendment and statutory protections through Congress. They disfavored allowing ex-Confederate officers to retake political power in the Southern United States, and emphasized equality, civil rights and voting rights for the "freedmen", i.e. people who had been enslaved by state slavery laws within the United States.

Abraham Lincoln's position on slavery in the United States is one of the most discussed aspects of his life. Lincoln often expressed moral opposition to slavery in public and private. "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong," he stated in a now-famous quote. "I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel." However, the question of what to do about it and how to end it, given that it was so firmly embedded in the nation's constitutional framework and in the economy of much of the country, was complex and politically challenging. In addition, there was the unanswered question, which Lincoln had to deal with, of what would become of the four million slaves when they were set free, and how they would be provided for in a society that had long rejected them, or looked down on their very presence.

<i>Black Reconstruction in America</i>

Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 is a history of the Reconstruction era by W. E. B. Du Bois, first published in 1935. It marked a significant break with the standard academic view of Reconstruction at the time, the Dunning School, which contended that the period was a failure and downplayed the contributions of African Americans. Du Bois argued directly against these accounts, emphasizing the role and agency of blacks during the Civil War and Reconstruction and framing it as a period that held promise for a worker-ruled democracy to replace a slavery-based plantation economy.

Neoabolitionist is a term used in historiography to characterize historians of race relations motivated by the spirit of racial equality typified by the abolitionists who fought to abolish slavery in the mid-19th century. They write especially about African-American history, slavery, the American Civil War and the Reconstruction Era.

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William Archibald Dunning was an American historian and political scientist at Columbia University noted for his work on the Reconstruction era of the United States. He founded the informal Dunning School of interpreting the Reconstruction era through his own writings and the Ph.D. dissertations of his numerous students. Dunning has been criticized for advocating white supremacist interpretations, his "blatant use of the discipline of history for reactionary ends" and for offering "scholarly legitimacy to the disenfranchisement of southern blacks and to the Jim Crow system."

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<i>The Fiery Trial</i> 2010 book by Eric Foner

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery is a historical non-fiction book written by American historian Eric Foner. Published in 2010 by W. W. Norton & Company, the book serves as a biographical portrait of United States President Abraham Lincoln, discussing the evolution of his stance on slavery in the United States over the course of his life. The Fiery Trial, which derives its title from a State of the Union address by Lincoln, was the 22nd book written by Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. It was praised by critics and won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for History, the Bancroft Prize, and the Lincoln Prize.

Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 is a historical non-fiction monograph written by American Historian Eric Foner. Its broad focus is the Reconstruction Era in the aftermath of the American Civil War, which consists of the social, political, economic, and cultural changes brought about as consequences of the war's outcome. The author addresses, criticizes, and integrates several historical perspectives of the Civil War that first appeared during Reconstruction, such as the reconciliationist, white supremacist, and abolitionist perspectives, into a single cohesive academic narrative based on primary sources, such as newspaper quotations and interviews with Americans who lived through the era, as well as secondary sources, such as other texts written on the subject. The author divides the primary topic of the Reconstruction Era into several subcategories, addressing them individually throughout the text while also integrating them into a larger context. Such subtopics addressed by the book include the gradual abolition of race-based chattel slavery, the gradual emancipation of the previously enslaved, the Reconstruction Amendments, the integration of the previously enslaved into the post-war society, the continuation of Manifest Destiny, the development of new White Supremacist ideologies and groups in both the North and the South, racist pogroms and massacres carried out against the freedmen by former confederates, police, state officials, and vigilantes, the relationship of the newly freedmen to the previously free men, the relationship of freedmen to their former masters, the ascendancy of America's industrial bourgeoisie after emancipation, the dissolution of the wealth and power of the semi-feudal Southern slave aristocracy, the re-integration of Confederate states into the Union, the erection of legal frameworks to elaborate upon and reinforce emancipation, such as the Freedmen's Bureau, the development of systems of education for freed slaves, black male suffrage, the reuniting of African American families separated by slavery, the relationship of newly freed African Americans to the political economy, the appearance of state-sanctioned segregation, regional differences in how Reconstruction was handled, and attempts by freedmen to achieve subsistence and political independence outside the dual frameworks of Northern paternalism and Southern attempts to restore the old order.


  1. Authors, Open Syllabus.
  2. 1 2 Perman, Michael. "Eric Foner's Reconstruction: A Finished Revolution". Reviews in American History, Vol. 17, No. 1. (March 1989), pp. 73–78.
  3. "The Civil War and Reconstruction". edX. January 7, 2015. Retrieved June 8, 2016.
  4. "Prestigious Lincoln Prize goes to Eric Foner". The Washington Post.
  5. "Historian Foner among 3 winners of Bancroft Prize". March 28, 2011. Archived from the original on October 20, 2012. Retrieved June 7, 2013.
  6. "Eric Foner".
  7. "Election of New Members at the 2018 Spring Meeting".
  8. Jon Wiener, "In Memoriam: Jack D. Foner." Perspectives (April 2000) – American Historical Association
  9. Eric Watkin, "Professor James P. Shenton '49: History's Happy Warrior", Columbia College Today 22:3 (Summer 1996).
  10. "Columbia College Today".
  11. Foner, Eric, "The New View Of Reconstruction," American Heritage , October/November 1983, Volume 34, Issue 6.
  12. Columbia College Today: "Freedom Writer".
  13. "If Lincoln Hadn't Died...", American Heritage , 2009
  14. Foner, Eric (March 28, 2015). "Why Reconstruction Matters". The New York Times.
  15. "Secession of Baltic States?", Eric Foner, The Nation, February 11, 1991, Volume 252
  16. Foner, Eric. (August 21, 2017) “Confederate Statues and 'Our' History." The New York Times. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
  17. Mansart, Tom (2000). "Books". The New Crisis.
  18. "The Story of American Freedom: Eric Foner: 9780393319620" . Retrieved June 7, 2013 via
  19. Draper, Theodore H. (September 23, 1999). "Freedom and Its Discontents by Theodore H. Draper". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved June 7, 2013.
  20. John Patrick Diggins, "Review: Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877", The National Interest, Fall 2002
  21. Smith, Wendy (January 8, 2015). "Review 'Gateway to Freedom' reveals underground railroad history". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 10, 2015.
  22. The Fiery Trial. W.W. Norton & Co. September 26, 2011. ISBN   978-0-393-34066-2.
  23. "Foner and Tsividis Given 1991 Great Teacher Awards". University Record. 17 (5). September 27, 1991.
  24. "New York Council for the Humanities". Retrieved June 7, 2013.
  25. "Laureates by Year – The Lincoln Academy of Illinois". The Lincoln Academy of Illinois. Retrieved March 4, 2016.
  26. "Roy Rosenzweig Distinguished Service Award Winners". Organization of American Historians.
  27. "Eric Foner". IMDb.
  28. Barnard College Newscenter Archived February 28, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  29. "Rethinking American History in a Post-9/11 World" History News Network
  30. Eric Foner, Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 2002), p. 7.
  31. "American Freedom in a Global Age" Presidential Address to the American Historical Association annual meeting, January 2001.
  32. Foner, Eric (April 20, 1995). Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. ISBN   978-0-19-509497-8.
  33. Foner, Eric (1970). America's black past. ISBN   9780060421151.
  34. Foner, Eric (1971). Nat Turner. ISBN   9780139331435.
  35. Foner, Eric (2005). Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. ISBN   978-0-19-517486-1.
  36. Foner, Eric (October 2, 1980). Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War. ISBN   978-0-19-972708-7.
  37. Foner, Eric (September 2007). Nothing But Freedom. ISBN   978-0-8071-3525-9.
  38. Foner, Eric (January 10, 1990). A Short History of Reconstruction . HarperCollins. ISBN   978-0-06-096431-3.
  39. Foner, Eric; Mahoney, Olivia (1990). A House Divided. ISBN   978-0-393-02755-6.
  40. Foner, Eric; Garraty, John Arthur (1991). The Reader's Companion to American History . Houghton-Mifflin. ISBN   978-0-395-51372-9.
  41. Foner, Eric (1992). "The tocsin of freedom".
  42. Foner, Eric (1994). Slavery and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century America (Inaugural Lectures) (University of Oxford). ISBN   978-0-19-952266-8 via Books.
  43. Foner, Eric; Mahoney, Olivia (June 1, 1997). America's Reconstruction. ISBN   978-0-8071-2234-1.
  44. Foner, Eric (1993). Freedom's Lawmakers. ISBN   978-0-19-507406-2.
  45. Foner, Eric (1997). The New American History. ISBN   978-1-56639-552-6.
  46. Foner, Eric (1994). The story of American freedom. ISBN   9780799215946.
  47. Foner, Eric (April 16, 2003). Who Owns History?. ISBN   978-1-4299-2392-7.
  48. Foner, Eric (December 1, 2005). Give Me Liberty!. ISBN   978-0-393-92782-5.
  49. Foner, Eric (2004). Voices of Freedom. ISBN   978-0-393-92503-6.
  50. Foner, Eric (2008). Voices of Freedom. ISBN   978-0-393-93108-2.
  51. Foner, Eric (2005). Forever Free . Knopf. ISBN   978-0-375-40259-3.
  52. Foner, Eric (2009). Our Lincoln. ISBN   978-0-393-33705-1.
  53. Foner, Eric (September 26, 2011). The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. ISBN   978-0-393-08082-7.

Further reading



Academic offices
Preceded by
Eliot Freidson
Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions
Succeeded by
Douglass North
Preceded by
John Lewis Gaddis
Harmsworth Professor of American History
Succeeded by
Robert Dallek
Professional and academic associations
Preceded by
Lawrence W. Levine
President of the
Organization of American Historians

Succeeded by
Gary B. Nash
Preceded by
Robert Darnton
President of the American Historical Association
Succeeded by
Wm. Roger Louis
Preceded by
Peter Kolchin
Bancroft Prize
With: Edmund Morgan
Succeeded by
Neil R. McMillen
Preceded by
Michael S. Sherry
Succeeded by
James Merrell
Preceded by
Michael Burlingame
Lincoln Prize
Succeeded by
Elizabeth D. Leonard
Preceded by
Liaquat Ahamed
Pulitzer Prize for History
Succeeded by
Manning Marable