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. Foner is a leading contemporary historian of the post-Civil WarReconstruction period, having published Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 in 1989 and more than 10 other books on the topic. His free 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 in 1989 for his book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. In 2000, he was elected president of the American Historical Association.
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.
Foner went to Columbia University for his B.A.; he was majoring in physics until he took 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 as a history major. He studied at Oxford as a Kellett Fellow; he received a B.A. from Oriel College in 1965. Foner returned to Columbia for his Ph.D, where he worked under Richard Hofstadter; he finished in 1969.
From 1973–82 Foner served as a professor in the history department at City College and Graduate Center at City University of New York. In 1976–1977 he was a visiting professor of American History at Princeton University. In 1980 he was Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Cambridge.
Appointed the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University in 1988, a chair previously held by his mentor Richard Hofstadter, Foner specializes in 19th century American history, the American Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction. He served as president of the Organization of American Historians in (1993–94), and of the American Historical Association (2000). He is one of only two persons to serve as president of the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians.
Writing on the Reconstruction Era
Foner has long been considered a leading authority on the Reconstruction Era of American history. 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.
That year, he gave the Walter L. Fleming Lectures in southern history, which were later published as Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy.
In 1988 Foner published his definitive book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. It won the Bancroft Prize, the Francis Parkman Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Avery O. Craven Prize, and the Lionel Trilling Prize.
"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." Foner has continued to lecture widely on Reconstruction and published several shorter versions of his major book, including A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863–1877 (1990) and America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War (1995).
In a 2009 essay, Foner pondered whether Reconstruction might have turned out differently.
"It is wrong to think that, during the Civil War, 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."[not in citation given]
Foner's most recent summary of his views on the significance of Reconstruction was published in The New York Times in 2015.
In August 2017, in the wake of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Foner argued that Confederate monuments should not be removed, but instead more statues should be installed, including statues of African Americans like Nat Turner.
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 U.S. 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.
Exhibitions and testimony
With Olivia Mahoney, chief curator at the Chicago History Museum, Foner curated two prize-winning exhibitions on American history: A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln, which opened at the Chicago History Museum in 1990, and America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War, a traveling exhibit that opened at the Virginia Historical Society in 1995. He revised the presentation of American history at the Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland. He has served as consultant to several National Park Service historical sites and historical museums.
Foner served as an expert witness for the University of Michigan's defense of affirmative action in its undergraduate and law school admissions (Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger) considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003.
Foner serves on the editorial boards of Past and Present and The Nation.
Foner has written for The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, London Review of Books, and other publications. In addition, he has spoken about history on television and radio, including Charlie Rose, Book Notes, and All Things Considered. He has appeared in historical documentaries on PBS and The History Channel. Foner contributed an essay and conversation with John Sayles in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, published by the Society of American Historians in 1995. He was the historian in Freedom: A History of US on PBS in 2003.
Foner has appeared frequently on popular media to discuss US history:
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." "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.
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.
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.
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. 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."
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. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the British Academy and holds an honorary doctorate from Iona College.
Foner has taught at Cambridge University as Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions, at Oxford University as Harmsworth Professor of American History, where he is also an honorary fellow of the Rothermere American Institute, and at Moscow State University as Fulbright Professor.
In 2007 the alumni of Columbia College voted to give Foner the John Jay Award for Distinguished Professional Achievement. In 2011, his book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery won the Pulitzer Prize for history, the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize.
Foner has been awarded honorary doctorates from Iona College; the State University of New York, Purchase; Queen Mary University of London, Dartmouth College, and Lehigh University.
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 1965 Foner married screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, from whom he divorced in 1977.
In 1982 Foner married Lynn Garafola, professor of dance at Barnard College and dance critic, historian, and curator. They have one daughter.
Eric Foner's paternal uncles are the late Marxist labor historianPhilip S. Foner (his father's twin brother) and labor activists Henry Foner and Moe Foner.
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."
- Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press. 1995 . ISBN 0-19-509497-2. Reissued with a new preface.
- America's Black Past: A Reader in Afro-American History. New York: Harper & Row. 1970. , editor
- Nat Turner. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. 1971. ISBN 0-13-933143-3. , editor
- Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press. 1976. ISBN 0-19-501986-5. 
- Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press. 1980. ISBN 0-19-502781-7. 
- Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 1983. ISBN 0-8071-1118-X. 
- Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row. 1988. ISBN 0-06-015851-4. 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.
- A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row. 1990. ISBN 0-06-096431-6. An abridgement of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution.
- A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln. with Olivia Mahoney. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society. 1990. ISBN 0-393-02755-4. 
- The Reader's Companion to American History. ed. with John A. Garraty. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. 1991. ISBN 0-395-51372-3. , editor
- The Tocsin of Freedom: The Black Leadership of Radical Reconstruction. Gettysburg, Pa.: Gettysburg College. 1992. 
- Slavery and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press. 1994. ISBN 0-19-952266-9. 
- America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War. with Olivia Mahoney. New York: HarperPerennial. 1995. ISBN 0-06-055346-4. 
- Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction (rev. ed.). Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 1996. ISBN 0-8071-2082-0. 
- The New American History (rev. ed.). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1997. ISBN 1-56639-551-8. , editor
- The Story of American Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton. 1998. ISBN 0-393-04665-6. 
- Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World. New York: Hill and Wang. 2002. ISBN 0-8090-9704-4. 
- Give Me Liberty!: An American History. New York: W.W. Norton. 2004. ISBN 0-393-97872-9. A survey of United States history, published with companion volumes of documents.
- Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History, ISBN 0-393-92503-X (vol. 1), and ISBN 0-393-92504-8 (2 vols.).
- Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. New York: Knopf. 2005. ISBN 0-375-40259-4. 
- Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and his World. New York: W.W. Norton. 2008. ISBN 0-393-06756-4. 
- The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: W.W. Norton. 2010. 
- Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2015. p. 320. ISBN 978-0-393-24407-6.
- Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History. I.B. Tauris. 2017. ISBN 978-1-78453-769-2.
Some of his books have been translated into Portuguese, Italian, and Chinese.
- Foner, Eric (July–September 1978). "Radical Individualism in America: Revolution to Civil War". Literature of Liberty. 1 (3): 1–31.
- Foner, Eric (October–November 1983). "The New View of Reconstruction". American Heritage. 34 (6).
- Foner, Eric (Spring 1984). "Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?". History Workshop Journal. 17: 57–80. JSTOR 4288545.
- Foner, Eric (March 1989). "The South's Inner Civil War". American Heritage. 40 (2). Archived from the original on 2013-12-18.
- Foner, Eric (January 27, 2000). "Rebel Yell". The Nation.
- Foner, Eric (September 5, 2002). "Changing History". The Nation.
- Foner, Eric (December 10, 2002). "The Century, A Nation's Eye View". The Nation.
- Foner, Eric (April 13, 2003). "Not All Freedom Is Made In America". The New York Times.
- Foner, Eric (June 2, 2003). "Dare Call It Treason". The Nation.
- Foner, Eric (June 26, 2003). "Diversity Over Justice". The Nation.
- Foner, Eric (September 6, 2004). "Rethinking American History in a Post-9/11 World". History News Network.
- Foner, Eric (2006). "Expert Report of Eric Foner: from Gratz, et al. v. Bollinger, et al." Archived from the original on August 29, 2006.
- Foner, Eric (December 3, 2006). "He's the Worst Ever". The Washington Post. Column on George W. Bush.
- Foner, Eric (Winter 2009). "If Lincoln Hadn't Died..."American Heritage. 58 (6).
- Foner, Eric (October 10, 2011). "The Civil War in 'Postracial' America". The Nation. Archived from the original on October 1, 2011. Retrieved February 7, 2012.
- Foner, Eric (November 2012). "The Supreme Court and the history of reconstruction – and vice-versa". Columbia Law Review, special issue: Symposium: The Thirteenth Amendment: Meaning, Enforcement, and Contemporary Implications. Columbia Law School. 112 (7): 1585–1606. JSTOR 41708159. Archived from the original on 2015-11-17. Pdf.
- Foner, Eric (January 1, 2013). "The Emancipation of Abe Lincoln". The New York Times.
- (Additional articles available at EricFoner.com)
- ^ abPerman, Michael. "Eric Foner's Reconstruction: A Finished Revolution". Reviews in American History, Vol. 17, No. 1. (Mar., 1989), pp. 73–78.
- ^"The Civil War and Reconstruction". edX. 2015-01-07. Retrieved 2016-06-08.
- ^"Prestigious Lincoln Prize goes to Eric Foner". The Washington Post.
- ^http://newswire.ascribe.org/cgi-bin/behold.pl?ascribeid=20110210.071303&time=02%2000%20PST&year=2011&public=0[permanent dead link]
- ^"Historian Foner among 3 winners of Bancroft Prize". Sify.com. 2011-03-28. Retrieved 2013-06-07.
- ^"Eric Foner".
- ^Jon Wiener, "In Memoriam: Jack D. Foner." Perspectives (April 2000) – American Historical Association
- ^Eric Watkin, "Professor James P. Shenton '49: History's Happy Warrior", Columbia College Today 22:3 (Summer 1996)]
- ^Foner, Eric, "The New View Of Reconstruction," American Heritage, October/November 1983, Volume 34, Issue 6.
- ^Columbia College Today: "Freedom Writer".
- ^"If Lincoln Hadn't Died...", American Heritage, 2009
- ^Foner, Eric (March 28, 2015). "Why Reconstruction Matters". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 November 2015.
- ^Munshi, Neil (August 17, 2017). "Trump says it is 'foolish' to remove Confederate symbols". Financial Times. Retrieved August 17, 2017.
- ^"Secession of Baltic States?", Eric Foner, The Nation, 11 February 1991, Volume 252
- ^"Olivia Mahoney"(PDF). About Us. Chicago History. Archived from the original(PDF) on 2010-09-25.
- ^Mansart, Tom (2000). "Books". The New Crisis.
- ^"The Story of American Freedom: Eric Foner: 9780393319620: Amazon.com: Books". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2013-06-07.
- ^"Freedom and Its Discontents by Theodore H. Draper". The New York Review of Books. 1999-09-23. Retrieved 2013-06-07.
- ^John Patrick Diggins, "Review: Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877", The National Interest, Fall 2002
- ^Smith, Wendy (January 8, 2015). "Review 'Gateway to Freedom' reveals underground railroad history". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 10 November 2015.
- ^"The Fiery Trial". Amazon.com. W.W. Norton & Co. Retrieved 10 November 2015.
- ^http://www.columbiaspectator.com/vnews/display.v/ART/2004/09/30/415bac2847275?in_archive=1. Retrieved April 25, 2006. [dead link]
- ^"New York Council for the Humanities". Nyhumanities.org. Retrieved 2013-06-07.
- ^"Laureates by Year – The Lincoln Academy of Illinois". The Lincoln Academy of Illinois. Retrieved 2016-03-04.
- ^"Eric Foner". IMDb.
- ^Barnard College NewscenterArchived 2006-02-28 at the Wayback Machine.
- ^"Rethinking American History in a Post-9/11 World" History News Network
- ^Eric Foner, Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 2002), p. 7.
- ^"American Freedom in a Global Age" Presidential Address to the American Historical Association annual meeting, January 2001.
- ^"Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men".
- ^"America's black past".
- ^"Nat Turner".
- ^"Tom Paine and Revolutionary America".
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This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
From The Nation’s very inception, the idea of freedom has been fundamental to its political outlook. Of course, freedom (along with its twin, liberty) has long occupied a central place in Americans’ political vocabulary. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—its ubiquity, freedom is an idea whose meaning is always contested, always in flux. The Nation’s 150-year history exemplifies how successive generations of reformers and radicals (themselves ever-changing categories) have thought about freedom and how the concept has expanded over time to include more and more Americans and more and more realms of life. Ideas central to The Nation’s understanding of freedom today—economic justice, civil liberties, anti-imperialism, political democracy, racial equality and personal autonomy—are deeply rooted in one or another era of the magazine’s past.
The Nation was born in July 1865, shortly after the end of the Civil War, a conflict that transformed the meaning of American freedom. The journal’s founders included prominent Northern abolitionists. In a country rhetorically dedicated to freedom but substantially grounded in slavery, the abolitionist movement pioneered the notion of freedom as a universal birthright, a truly human ideal. Principles such as birthright citizenship and equal protection under the law without regard to race, which would later become cornerstones of American freedom, were products of the antislavery crusade. Soon after The Nation came into existence, they were written into the Constitution. The magazine’s very name reflected a new identification, spawned by the war, of the American nation-state with the progress of freedom. Thanks to the abolition of slavery, a powerful federal government, once widely feared as a danger to individual liberty, now appeared, in the words of the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, as the “custodian of freedom.”
The Nation’s primary audience was the reform-minded Northern middle class, solidly committed to the classic principles of nineteenth-century Anglo-American liberalism—not only antislavery, but also free trade, free public education, civil-service reform and an absence of governmental restraints on individual liberty. The editor, the Anglo-Irish journalist E.L. Godkin, who determined the magazine’s course until the turn of the century, never wavered from these beliefs. Increasingly, however, as American society changed, these views made him more and more conservative. The Nation’s first issue proclaimed that the Civil War marked a momentous turning point in “the great strife between the few and the many, between privilege and equality, between law and power.” But as time went on, Godkin positioned the magazine on the side of the few, of privilege and of power.
The first indication of this transition was The Nation’s abandonment of the cause of the former slaves. The Nation’s prospectus listed among its priorities the “removal of all artificial distinctions” between blacks and the rest of society. Yet while Godkin initially supported granting the right to vote to male former slaves, he quickly succumbed to white-supremacist propaganda that depicted biracial Reconstruction governments in the South as travesties of democracy. He became persuaded that the former slaves were unfit for political participation. By the 1880s and 1890s, all semblance of compassion for African-Americans had disappeared from The Nation’s pages. Godkin expressed sympathy for Southern efforts to disenfranchise black voters, supporting poll taxes and literacy tests for voting “if honestly enforced” in a nonracial manner, which, of course, they were not.
Godkin was equally alarmed by the rise of a militant labor movement in the North and its demand for laws limiting the hours of labor. Increasingly, The Nation saw the democratic state itself as a threat to individual liberty. Godkin insisted that the market, not politics, was the true realm of freedom, which he defined as “the liberty to buy and sell…where, when, and how we please,” without government interference. Efforts to use the state to uplift the less fortunate were doomed to failure. Those at the top of society deserved to be there, since they were, by definition, the fittest. This was the language of Social Darwinism, whose leading American proponent, William Graham Sumner, became a Nation contributor.
By the 1890s, The Nation, created by one generation of reformers, was out of touch with the next—social thinkers critical of laissez-faire dogma and sympathetic to organized labor. As the economist Henry Carter Adams observed in 1894, “The New York Nation is a decided Bourbon. Its editors have learned nothing during the last twenty-five years.” Adams spoke for the “new liberalism” that emerged on both sides of the Atlantic in the late nineteenth century and flourished during the Progressive era, when reformers demanded greater governmental regulation of the economy and a more positive and collective definition of freedom. The Nation had little to say on these subjects. In the early twentieth century, its editor, Paul Elmer More, an erudite literary critic who had studied Sanskrit, Greek and Latin at Harvard, offered cautious support to some progressive legislation, such as the income tax (which Godkin had vehemently opposed), but focused the magazine on literary commentary rather than politics.
In the Progressive era, the revitalized labor movement insisted that in an age of corporate capitalism and widespread inequality, the concept of economic freedom needed redefinition. Progressive reformers argued that in a modern economy, “industrial freedom” for ordinary Americans meant not so much property ownership as economic security. To achieve this, laissez-faire was inadequate. Freedom required the ability of workers to organize collectively to advance their interests, and government action to create an economic floor beneath which no citizen would be allowed to sink. Such thinking remained alien to The Nation, which insisted in 1910 that “Any scheme of regulation which would prevent poverty would be equally subversive of liberty.” It was left to The New Republic, founded in 1914, to become Progressivism’s leading journalistic voice.
* * *
In one realm, The Nation under More did break with Godkin’s legacy. The latter had been skeptical of the ability of immigrants to take part in American democracy. In keeping with enlightened Progressive thought, however, The Nation repudiated the nativist upsurge sparked by the era’s immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. In 1915, it carried Horace Kallen’s essay “Democracy Versus the Melting-Pot,” which rejected the idea of forced assimilation in favor of cultural pluralism.
The real break with The Nation’s past, however, came in 1918, when Oswald Garrison Villard—who had inherited ownership of the magazine in 1900 from his father, the railroad magnate Henry Villard—took over as editor, a position he occupied until 1932. He made The Nation livelier, more controversial and more radical. It quickly became what it has remained ever since: a voice demanding far-reaching social change in the name of greater freedom. Villard emphatically rejected the magazine’s traditional commitment to government nonintervention as the essence of liberty. The “widest possible freedom,” he wrote, required “social control in the common interest.” The Nation called on the “friends of freedom” to embrace the revolutions that swept Europe in the wake of World War I, defended labor’s right to organize, and advocated the “democratization of industry.”
If Villard brought The Nation to a belated embrace of Progressivism in economic policy, the magazine also embraced two stances, neglected by most Progressive reformers, that would become central to liberalism later in the twentieth century. One was racial equality. A grandson of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and a founder of the NAACP, Villard viewed racial justice as essential to the fulfillment of the promise of American democracy. He revived The Nation’s original commitment to eradicating inequality for blacks. Villard voted for Woodrow Wilson in 1912 but quickly denounced Wilson’s segregationist racial policies. The Nation consistently spoke out against lynching and supported efforts to secure a federal law criminalizing the practice.
Villard’s other preoccupation was civil liberties. Most Progressives, entranced by the ways the democratic state could promote the public good, had evinced little interest in the rights of dissenters; the battle for free speech had been led by marginal groups like “free love” advocates and the Industrial Workers of the World. But massive repression during World War I gave birth to a new recognition of the importance of civil liberties. In 1918, The Nation itself saw an issue banned from the mails, for the curious reason that it criticized the government’s choice of Samuel Gompers to represent American labor at a conference in Europe (Gompers being far too close to the Wilson administration for Villard’s taste). The following year, an editorial on freedom of speech proclaimed that “it is the men who are denying that right, and not the Socialists and I. W. W.’s, who are the most dangerous enemies of the social order to-day.”
In 1923, under the heading “Sweet Land of Liberty,” The Nation detailed the degradation of American freedom: the refusal to allow two socialists to speak in Pennsylvania, the arrest of 400 IWW members in California, the beating by Columbia University students of a graduate student who had written a letter to the university’s daily newspaper defending freedom of speech and the press. From World War I to the present, The Nation has identified freedom of expression as an essential hallmark of American freedom, and has highlighted and condemned violations of this principle.
In addition, thanks to Freda Kirchwey, who joined the staff in 1918, the magazine during the 1920s published pioneering articles on sexual freedom, birth control, divorce laws and the sexual double standard. It thus anticipated the more recent extension of the claims of freedom from a set of public entitlements into the arenas of family life, social and sexual relations, and gender roles. Overall, wrote the journalist Heywood Broun, “a curious piece of casting” had made Villard, the son of a robber baron, “head…of the most effective rebel periodical in America.”
* * *
In 1932, Villard retired as editor; Kirchwey soon succeeded him. The Nation quickly emerged as a strong supporter of the New Deal; if it criticized FDR, it was because it felt his response to the Depression was inadequate, not least in the area of racial justice. But it continued to insist that government power was crucial to the enjoyment of individual freedom. During World War II, The Nation enthusiastically embraced the idea of national economic planning to guarantee a “high-income, full-employment economy,” the only way to enable Americans to enjoy “the way of life of free men.”
Throughout Roosevelt’s presidency, The Nation was a combatant in the struggle over the idea of freedom. When opponents of the New Deal in 1934 created the American Liberty League, The Nation editorialized: “we are, of course, under no illusion as to what these eminent men have in mind when they use the word ‘liberty.’… [Their] conception of liberty is the right to maintain the old discredited order…the liberty of some men through special privilege and government favoritism, or by the absence of government control, to build up large fortunes.”
In international affairs, Kirchwey broke decisively with a tradition shared by all her predecessors—opposition to American military interventions overseas. Godkin strongly opposed the Spanish-American War on the grounds that an imperial state would inevitably trample on individual liberty, and that the peoples of Cuba and the Philippines were unfit for participation in American democracy. Unlike most Progressives, who managed to find a way to support American entry into World War I, Villard, a committed pacifist, never became reconciled to it. In the 1920s, The Nation strongly criticized the American occupations of Haiti and Nicaragua. During the following decade, however, Kirchwey increasingly viewed the rise of fascism as the major threat to freedom in the world and called for collective action to combat it. In 1941, she joined the Free World Association, which urged the United States to enter the war against Hitler.
The World War II discourse of a world divided into free and unfree sectors, which originated in the antifascist crusade, took on a new meaning during the Cold War. Under Kirchwey, who remained editor until 1955, and her successor Carey McWilliams, The Nation became perhaps the leading journalistic voice opposing American foreign policy and defending the right of dissenters against the onslaught of McCarthyism. In 1952, the magazine devoted an entire issue to the question “How Free Is Free?” The articles outlined the depredations of the “American witch hunt,” with its blacklisting, censorship, government loyalty programs and violations of academic freedom. The magazine published writings by Edgar Snow, Owen Lattimore and other targets of “Tail-Gunner Joe” McCarthy.
McWilliams had witnessed the impact of anticommunism firsthand in California, where he began his journalistic career. California, he wrote, “has probably had more witch hunts and more free-speech fights than any state in the union.” The experience left him with “an abiding contempt for professional ‘anti-Communists.’” While the “back” of the magazine contained literary and cultural pieces severely critical of Stalin’s Russia, both Kirchwey and McWilliams felt that to couple a critique of McCarthyism with accounts of the situation in the Soviet Union would deflect attention from the threat to freedom at home. The Nation insisted that communists deserved precisely the same civil liberties as other Americans, and when the ACLU refused to defend their rights, McWilliams helped form the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee to do so. His stance led to angry rebuttals from many liberals who coupled aggressive anticommunism with their criticisms of McCarthy. Magazines such as Commentary (which had not yet embarked on the path to extreme conservatism) and The New Leader carried on a vendetta against The Nation, charging it with “Stalinism.” Despite this, at a time when many journalists enlisted in the anticommunist crusade, The Nation remained the most outspoken champion of the right to dissent.
McWilliams continued to criticize American foreign policy. He published prescient articles by Bernard Fall about Vietnam and, in 1965, a piece by the historian Eric Hobsbawm on how the United States could not possibly win the war there. But McWilliams lacked Kirchwey’s preoccupation with world affairs and focused more on domestic concerns. He published exposés on the link between cigarette smoking and cancer, automobile safety (by a young law student, Ralph Nader), the rise of the military-industrial complex, and the illegal activities of the FBI and CIA.
As McWilliams later wrote, however, his “special interests” were civil liberties, organized labor and race relations. Beginning in the mid-1950s, the magazine devoted increasing attention to the civil-rights revolution, then gathering momentum. In 1956, nearly a century after The Nation’s founding, the magazine returned to its roots with a special report on race that began with a call for the federal government to “Enforce the Constitution.” The Nation fully embraced the militant phase of the civil-rights movement unleashed by the sit-ins of 1960. In 1962, it published an article by the civil-rights attorney Loren Miller that castigated white liberals for preferring incremental gains and ignoring the urgency of change. Blacks “don’t want progress,” Miller wrote, “they demand Freedom…Freedom Now.”
Here was the insistent voice of the ’60s, soon to be adopted in a host of campaigns by other groups that felt they did not enjoy full American freedom. Under McWilliams, The Nation viewed these new movements with a kind of sympathetic detachment. Most of its employees were over 40, and the cool, aloof McWilliams could not have been more different in demeanor from the decade’s insurgent youth. But almost in spite of itself, as a result of what the journalist Jack Newfield called McWilliams’s “intransigent radicalism” on civil rights, civil liberties and the Vietnam War, The Nation became a voice of ’60s protest. And McWilliams’s own longstanding example helped to inspire practitioners of the decade’s engaged, radical journalism.
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McWilliams left the editorship in 1975. Victor Navasky and, subsequently, Katrina vanden Heuvel succeeded him. Their leadership has coincided with the triumph in American political discourse of a definition of freedom reminiscent in many ways of E.L. Godkin’s. Propagated most effectively by Ronald Reagan, it emphasizes limits on government as the essence of liberty; equates economic freedom with “free enterprise,” not economic security; and sees the unregulated economic marketplace as the true realm of freedom. (Unlike Godkin’s outlook, however, it is coupled with an imperial foreign policy.)
But The Nation has refused to cede the idea of freedom to the right. Drawing upon its complex history, it has articulated a different understanding of freedom, still grounded in a powerful commitment to personal liberty, and wary of overseas military interventions, but also fully engaged with the strivings for equality of disadvantaged groups of Americans—and rooted in a belief in the vitality of political democracy. Under Navasky, a First Amendment absolutist, The Nation maintained a commitment to freedom of speech and the press as cornerstones of American liberty, while extending the principle more than ever before to its own pages, which now included candid appraisals of past failures of the left. All sorts of competing viewpoints within the worlds of liberalism and radicalism clashed in the magazine’s pages (sometimes it seemed that columnists were most energized by criticizing one another). And The Nation now fully embraced the “liberation” movements spawned by the 1960s—the second wave of feminism and demands for equality by Latinos, Native Americans, gays and others—as well as issues the left had traditionally ignored, such as environmentalism.
In the twenty-first century, with vanden Heuvel as editor, The Nation has displayed considerable courage by standing virtually alone among significant media outlets in opposing the rush to war in Iraq (and, more recently, Syria). Especially since the terrorist attacks of 2001, moreover, The Nation has been at the forefront of protests against the curtailment, in the name of fighting “terrorism,” of legal protections such as habeas corpus, trial by an impartial jury, and limits on the government’s power to spy on individuals. It has challenged the invocation of freedom as an excuse for war overseas (George W. Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom, for example), and as a justification for the increasing dominance of big money in politics. And since the financial crisis of 2008, it has insistently raised the question of whether rising economic inequality and insecurity are compatible with genuine freedom.
History never really repeats itself. But the questions that preoccupied The Nation over the course of its history remain eerily relevant today. Will the onward march of capitalism produce a shared abundance—or a continued widening of the gap between the social classes? Will democratic self-government survive the assault of money and the transfer of economic decision-making to institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which lack any semblance of democratic legitimacy? Will the growing racial and ethnic diversity of American society promote greater tolerance, or fragmentation and bitterness? Will the ongoing revolution in the status of women, which propelled the idea of freedom into the most intimate realms of life, survive a powerful backlash? Can civil liberties co-exist with a “war on terror” that has no discernible ending point? These are the questions that will shape the life of the nation, and The Nation, in the years to come. In the twenty-first century, the need for a positive, expansive, socially responsible understanding of freedom is as great as at any time in The Nation’s history.
Eric Foner, Dewitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, has been a contributor to The Nation since 1977—his first article was about Sacco and Vanzetti—and on the editorial board since 1996. His latest book is Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, published in January.