Who Owns History? (2002)
Eric Foner (1943)
In the Preface to Who Owns History?, Eric Foner notes that “each generation rewrites history to suit its own needs” (xi), and that: “In every country, versions of the past provide the raw material for nationalist ideologies and patriotic sentiments.” (xv) Such “rewrites [of] history” can occur through intentional exaggeration and misrepresentation, or simply a genuine lack of understanding of the past, but, in either case, they often serve as rallying cries and debating points for political movements, in which groups attempt to define and promulgate a version of history that supports their particular agenda.
Foner goes on to argue that historians must enter into this fray, to deepen public understanding of the full story of the past. Who Owns History? collects nine essays in which he examines how people, consciously or unconsciously, bend history to suit their needs for the present and desires for the future. The earliest of these pieces was written in 1983, the most recent in 2001, and Foner includes short preface for each essay, to provide the original purpose, and context, within which it was written. Several of the pieces included in the book touch on some of the more dramatic political transformations of the final two decades of the 20th century, while others examine the lives and work of historians themselves, as well as long-standing issues in American history that continue to resonate. Together they provide a fascinating review of the on-going struggle to settle on coherent and accurate interpretations of our particular and common histories.
The essays are grouped into three sections. Part I, entitled The Politics of History and Historians contains two essays; in the first, Foner describes how he came to be a historian, and more specifically how a powerful interest in the civil rights movement during his university years led him to the topic he has spent much of his career studying and writing about, and for which he is perhaps best known: the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. Relevant to the broader theme of the essays collected in the book, Foner notes that the history of Reconstruction represents an archetypal example of how the history of a period can be re-interpreted and misrepresented to serve the political and social interests of a particular moment.
In that opening essay, Foner recalls the important role played by his dissertation advisor, Richard Hofstadter, in his development as a historian. The second essay provides a sketch of Hofstadter’s life and work, summarizing his education and political development, then turning to focus on a series of books he wrote that Foner notes “propelled him to the very forefront of his profession.” (39) In these works Hofstadter examined and critiqued such political phenomena as the rise of Social Darwinism, which was characterized by “the growing use such Darwinian ideas as ‘natural selection,’ ‘survival of the fittest,’ and ‘the struggle for existence’ to reinforce conservative, laissez-faire individualism.” (31) More generally, he wrote a series of works that shed light on what he felt were widespread and yet disturbing elements of American history and political tradition, such as the belief that a fundamental consensus of opinion has historically existed in American society, as well as the development of “a deep-seated anti-intellectualism and provincialism in the American population.” (42) Thus Hofstadter directly examined what he found to be mistaken views in historical understanding, and the broader social situation that allowed them to flourish.
The four essays that make up Part II of the collection each touch on different examples of how history has been re-interpreted and re-imagined by subsequent generations in the context of their present situation. The first looks at the evolution of the American idea of freedom since the early days of the Revolution, when it reflected the simple desire for deliverance from what was seen as English tyranny; over time it developed into a vision of “America as a special place with a special mission,” though, as Foner points out: “This vision required a somewhat exaggerated negative image of the rest of the world.” (60). He goes on to trace the changes in the concept of freedom through the 19th century, particularly during the long years of the abolition movement, before focusing in particular on the dramatic transformation in the 20th century, precipitated by America’s increasingly active presence in and interaction with the world beyond its borders. World War II led to a significant broadening of the “perceptions of who was entitled to enjoy the blessing of liberty … [giving] birth to a powerful rhetoric, the division of the planet into a ‘free world’ and an unfree world.” (64) The economic globalization of recent decades has again caused a re-definition of the American concept of freedom, and Foner argues that it has
been largely appropriated by libertarians and conservatives of one kind or another… [with the] dominant constellation of definitions seem[ing] to consist of a series of negations --- of government, of social responsibility, of a common public culture, of restrains on individual self-definition and consumer choice. Once the rallying cry of the dispossessed, freedom is today commonly invoked by powerful economic institutions to justify many forms of authority, even as on the individual level it often seems to suggest the absence of authority altogether. (70)
Foner follows with an essay he wrote in 1980 after having spent four months in Russia. The far-reaching changes initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev were still playing out, and Russia was marked, he writes, by a period of optimism and openness about the future. Foner describes that this led to a sudden blossoming of interest in Russian history, as well as Russia’s relationship with to the west; this included a radical rethinking of Russian and Soviet history, including a nostalgia for the Czarist past. The essay is perhaps the book’s most dramatic example of the malleable and at times swiftly changing nature of the understanding of history in the face of present realities, for, as Foner writes in the lead-in to the essay, when he returned to Russian just four years later, the bloom was off: “Russia had been subjected to a dose of ‘shock therapy,’ and among the casualties were the utopian dreams I had encountered in 1990.” (75) The pain of the post-Glasnost years led to the earlier interest in history being “supplanted by the daily struggle for survival,” (76) and the Soviet years suddenly not seen in quite so negative a light.
In a similar vein, Foner visited South Africa in 1994, in the wake of an equally dramatic transformation in that society. He discovered that the fundamental and powerful changes that resulted from the end of apartheid led to a fundamental rethinking of South African history. Again, he encountered a country in a transition that precipitated new interpretations and re-interpretations of what had occurred in the past --- as well as what had been forgotten or ignored. In South Africa these discussions also led to a deep and emotionally fraught discussion about what should be intentionally forgotten, to allow the country to successfully move forward.
The second set of essays concludes with one whose topic continues to resonate today: Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?. Bernie Sanders campaign for president may be a long shot, but it has re-opened yet again the question of how Socialism is viewed by the US population. Foner argues that most theories proposed over the years for why socialism has failed to succeed in the U.S. tend to be either demonstrably simplistic and inadequate, or end up begging the question. For much of the essay he refutes explanations that have been put forward by historians since the second half of the 19th century, such as: the success of capitalism; the level of social mobility in the U.S.; the idea that Americans have a long history of consensus in their ideological outlook; and the diverse background of the American working class. Foner concludes the essay by arguing that the question itself in not appropriate, noting that what Americans consider to be the Socialist parties in Western Europe are actually more precisely engaged in “the equitable distribution of the products of capitalism,” and that the more appropriate question is: “Why has there been no socialist transformation in any advanced capitalist society?” (143) By changing the premise, Foner argues that the blinding fallacy of American exceptionalism is removed, and historians can focus on why socialist movements in the U.S. have failed to gain long-term traction. Left open is also the question of whether Socialism could, under certain circumstances, successfully develop in the future.
In the third and final set of essays, Foner includes three on The Enduring Civil War, the ground for which he is most well-known as an historian and writer. The first of these essays, Who is an American?, describes how the common answer to this question has changed since the writing of the Constitution, in which it was defined as “free white persons.” (153) Going beyond the simple facts, that “Blacks were added in 1870, but not until the 1940s did persons of Asian origin become eligible,” (153) Foner examines how attitudes on race evolved, a process that he demonstrates was anything but smooth, with periods of social and political progress followed by others of significant regression.
The civil war and its aftermath are the most obvious case in point, as the Emancipation proclamation, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments together formed a leap forward in the political definition of who was considered American, but were then, within a few short decades, largely curtailed and rejected in the post-Reconstruction period, thus offering a striking demonstration of the consequence of social attitudes not progressing as fast as public policy. Fonder notes that “the ‘failure’ of Reconstruction [i.e., its forced roll-back by southern Democrats] strongly reinforced the racialist thinking that reemerged to dominate American culture in the late nineteenth century, fueling the conviction that non-whites were unfit for self-government.” (160) A long, slow road followed, culminating in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s --- nearly a century later --- when attitudes shifted substantially in just a short period, both socially and politically. The definition of who is an American continues to be a touchstone of debate, as evidenced by debates in Congress and during the current Presidential primaries.
In a separate essay, from 1989, Foner focuses more specifically “on the long, complex constitutional history of African-Americans.” (167) Though he covers the entire period form the writing of the Constitution through to the Supreme Court cases of the 1980’s, the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction marks a dramatic turn in his analysis. Writing that
The Civil War and Reconstruction produced not simply three amendments but a fundamentally new Constitution. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments abolished slavery, established a national citizenship whose rights, enforced by the federal government, were to be enjoyed equally by all Americans, and protected the right to vote of black men. These measures altered the definition of American citizenship, transformed the federal system, and engrafted into the Constitution a principle of racial equality entirely unprecedented in both jurisprudence and political reality before 1860. (177)Focusing specifically on the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment, Foner traces how these clear and broad measures would be circumscribed and circumvented in the decades after they were enacted, as successive local and national legislatures and judiciaries sought to limit their scope. He notes these battles continue into the modern era, in discussions such as those on discrimination and reverse-discrimination.
In the final essay, Foner presents a critique of Ken Burns’s documentary from the 1990’s, The Civil War. In particular he focuses on the final episode, covering the post-war period, in which, he argues, Burns glossed over the true gains made by Blacks during the Reconstruction period, and the subsequent significant set-backs that came as that period was brought to a harsh and bitter end. The topic provides a concise and telling example of the broader themes of the essays collected in this book, as Foner demonstrates how a simplified and ingenuous view of history can lead to fundamental misunderstandings about history that in turn make it more difficult, if not impossible, to clearly understand our present. To return to the quote from James Baldwin with which he open the Preface:
History … does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. (ix)
Read quotes from this book
In an article in the New York Times, When Anger Trumped Progress, Jon Grinspan recalls the rapid decline of faith in government in the years after the Civil War due to wide ranging scandals and failures, and the resulting reversal of Reconstruction policies and progress less than a decade after their introduction. He makes parallels in that essay to present day distrust of government and the difficulties it introduces into attempts to make progress in race relations.
An essay by Timothy Shenk, What Was Socialism, describing the history of Socialism, and its evolution in relation to Capitalism, appeared in The Nation magazine in May, 2014. The article uses the historical summary as a starting off point to discuss recent books on Capitalism and in particular income inequality, among them the then newly published Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty. (The on-line title of the article is Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality.)
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf