“Writing history is like figuring out a detective plot.”
For best-selling author Eric Foner, putting together the pieces is part of the creative process.
He is embarking on the journey once again for his forthcoming book in which he’ll explore the notions of equality and citizenship that we’ve come to know as part of the U.S. Constitution. For Foner, these ideals are actually part of a “Second Founding” that came about thanks to post-Civil War amendments, a concept he’ll be discussing during his opening night keynote on Wednesday, Nov. 28, as part of the Lincoln’s Unfinished Work conference at Clemson University. Foner will be followed by a keynote titled “Optimism and Pessimism in the African American Racial Imagination” from Harvard University Law School’s Randall Kennedy.
Before arriving later this month, Foner spoke about his keynote, what conference guests can expect to learn and how everyday life inspired him professionally.
Question: How are you preparing for your keynote?
Foner: What I’m going to be speaking about is what I’m currently writing about, what I’m thinking about. I’m going to distill the ideas in my book about how the Civil War and Reconstruction changed the U.S. Constitution through the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments that were added after the Civil War — how they were interpreted by the Supreme Court, how they were battled over by different groups of people trying to implement them and what they mean to us today.
I’m looking forward to it because Professor (Vernon) Burton and the others who have organized this have invited a very high-powered group of scholars. Plus, there will be many others students and community people attending and I’m always interested in the feedback or reaction. A lecture is not the same thing as writing a book; it’s a different medium, it’s a different genre. You’ve got to engage the audience in a somewhat different way, so I look forward to seeing how that works.
Question: What is the biggest thing you hope people will take away from your talk on November 28th?
Foner: First of all, I hope that they’ll gain more knowledge of our Constitution, which is very important in our society. Too many people don’t really understand what fundamental changes took place in the Constitution after the Civil War. They still look back at the original Constitution of 1787, which, of course, is still with us, but it’s been altered in very significant ways. The word equal is not in the original Constitution – it is the 14th Amendment. The definition of citizenship is not in the original Constitution – it’s in the 14th Amendment. The word slavery is not in the original Constitution, even though it’s in there in other words, like “other persons held to labor.” The word slavery is put in in the 13th Amendment in the very act of abolishing it; the first time they directly mention slavery is abolishing slavery. I think if people come away with a deeper understanding of how the Constitution we live with today is partly based on the original one and partly based on what happened in the Civil War, that would be a valuable insight.
Question: What inspired you to research this topic?
Foner: I have written a lot about the Civil War era. I wrote a book about Lincoln, I wrote a book about the Reconstruction period. I’m not a legal historian. I don’t even claim that this is legal history in a technical sense, but I decided to write about this because I think a lot of people don’t appreciate how these amendments changed the Constitution in fundamental ways and how they are still relevant for us today. I think these amendments are very relevant to the key issues in our society today, and they’re not widely known or understood, which is what inspired me to write this book to try to help people figure out what they’re all about.
Question: What drew you to history?
Foner: I grew up in a family in which history was always considered very important. My father was a historian as well as an uncle of mine, so I heard a lot about American history while I was growing up over the dinner table.
Equally important: I was in college and then graduate school in the 1960s and, as you know, that was a pretty turbulent time in history. Many of us wanted to know where this was coming from. The kind of history we learned in high school in the 1950s couldn’t really explain what was going on in the society. So it was a combination of my upbringing and the world around me that led me into the study of history and the study of what I have particularly written about, which is slavery, the Civil War, the antislavery movement and the Reconstruction era after the Civil War – all of those seemed very relevant to what was going on in the society around me.
Question: What is the most challenging part of studying history?
Foner: You know, in some ways writing history is like a detective story. You’re trying to gather up the evidence to figure out what happened. Or sometimes I liken it to a jigsaw puzzle, but unfortunately a few of the pieces are lost so you’ll never get the entire picture. The most challenging thing, but also in a way the most rewarding, is the research itself. Whatever your question is – whether it’s a big question or a little, more local thing that you’re trying to examine – it’s just finding the answers to the questions you’re interested in and figuring out what kind of historical sources and documents are going to be relevant to your investigation. It’s always challenging, but as I say, it’s a challenge that’s also enjoyable.
Question: What would you say is the impact of your work?
Foner: I don’t know. I mean, you can’t determine what people make of your work. They may interpret it in very different ways than you anticipated or intended. I’ve been fortunate that many of my books have achieved a pretty wide readership. I’ve had many opportunities in books and other venues to disseminate my ideas, so what I hope people have learned from them is how deeply rooted slavery was in our society, how the struggle against slavery and the abolition of slavery in the Civil War led to a series of fundamental changes in our society and the effort to really get beyond race and create a really equal society, and how that challenge is still with us.
Question: What has been the most rewarding part of your career up to this point?
Foner: Well, I think teaching was actually the most rewarding. Even though I’m retired now, I taught for just about 50 years and despite technology, I think there’s no substitute for the teacher in the classroom and the live interaction between teachers and students.
The event is open to the public, but registration is required. Find more information on registration and the schedule of events here: www.clemson.edu/lincoln.
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