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Eric Foner
A grey-haired bespectacled man wearing a light blue shirt and sitting on a chair behind a desk; behind him is a bookshelf and a wall mounted with certificates and awards
Foner at his New York City office in 2009
Born February 7, 1943 (1943-02-07) (age 78)
Alma mater
Spouse(s)
  • Naomi Achs
    (m. 1965; div. 1977)
  • Lynn Garafola
    (m. 1980)
Children 1
Awards
  • Bancroft Prize (1989; 2011)
  • Lincoln Prize (2011)
  • Pulitzer Prize (2011)
Scientific career
Institutions
Doctoral advisor Richard Hofstadter
Notable students
  • Elizabeth Hinton
  • Mae Ngai

Eric Foner ( 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.

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. His online courses on "The Civil War and Reconstruction", published in 2014, are available from Columbia University on ColumbiaX.

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. 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. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 2018.

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.

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. 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. 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.

Career

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.

"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. "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."

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."

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

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.

Popular publications and documentaries

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.

Media appearances

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

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. In 1995, he was named Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities.

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.

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.

Personal life

Foner was married to screenwriter Naomi Foner (née Achs) from 1965 to 1977. Since 1982, he has been married to historian Lynn Garafola. 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."

"[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."

"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."

Works

Books

Reissued with a new preface.

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Political history; and winner, in 1989, of the Bancroft Prize, the Francis Parkman Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Avery O. Craven Prize, and the Lionel Trilling Prize.
An abridgement of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution.

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A survey of United States history, published with companion volumes of documents.
  • Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History, ISBN: 978-0-393-92503-6 (vol. 1), and ISBN: 978-0-393-92504-3 (2 vols.).

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

Selected articles

Column on George W. Bush.
Pdf.
  • Foner, Eric, "The Corrupt Bargain" (review of Alexander Keyssar , Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? , Harvard, 2020, 544 pp., ISBN: 978 0 674 66015 1; and Jesse Wegman, Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College, St Martin's Press, 2020, 304 pp., ISBN: 978 1 250 22197 1), London Review of Books, vol. 42, no. 10 (May 21, 2020), pp. 3, 5–6. Foner concludes (p. 6): "Rooted in distrust of ordinary citizens and, like so many other features of American life, in the institution of slavery, the electoral college is a relic of a past the United States should have abandoned long ago."
  • (Additional articles available at EricFoner.com)
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