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The Embryo Caesar

Eric Foner: After Hamilton, 14 December 2017

The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering The Story of an Early American Crisis 
by James E. Lewis Jr..
Princeton, 715 pp., £27.95, November 2017, 978 0 691 17716 8
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... The current​ territorial shape of the 48 contiguous United States has been fixed since 1853. Nearly a century and a half later, the country’s geographic outline – stretching from coast to coast, with Maine, Florida and Texas sticking out at various angles – is instantly recognisable and so ingrained in our imagination as to seem unquestionable ...

Tremendous in His Wrath

Eric Foner: George Washington, Slave Owner, 19 December 2019

‘The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret’: George Washington, Slavery and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon 
by Mary Thompson.
Virginia, 502 pp., £32.50, January 2019, 978 0 8139 4184 4
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... One of the few​ facts of American history of which Donald Trump appears to be aware is that George Washington owned slaves. Trump mentioned this in 2017 as one reason for his opposition to the removal of the monuments to Confederate generals that dot the southern landscape. In Trump’s view owning slaves probably enhances Washington’s reputation: like him, the first president knew how to make a buck ...

I just get my pistol and shoot him right down

Eric Foner: Slave-Dealing, 22 March 2018

The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History 
by Anne C. Bailey.
Cambridge, 197 pp., £19.99, November 2017, 978 1 316 64348 8
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... In pre-Civil War​ fugitive slave narratives – memoirs written by men and, occasionally, women who had escaped to freedom and hoped to convert readers to the cause of abolition – the most heart-rending passages described slave auctions and the separation of families that usually ensued. When the abolitionist journalist and underground railroad activist Sydney Howard Gay interviewed fugitives who passed through his office in New York City in the 1850s he found that the threat of sale was a major reason for the decision to run away ...

United States of Amnesia

Eric Foner, 9 September 2021

The Ground Breaking: The Tulsa Race Massacre and an American City’s Search for Justice 
by Scott Ellsworth.
Icon, 304 pp., £16.99, May, 978 1 78578 727 0
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... Historians,​ public officials and forensic anthropologists are searching for unmarked mass burial sites. Not in Bosnia or Syria but in the United States of America: in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to be precise. The on-again, off-again effort to locate the remains of the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Riot – now known as the Tulsa Race Massacre – is a central theme of The Ground Breaking, a riveting book by Scott Ellsworth, who has spent most of his adult life piecing together the story of perhaps the deadliest instance of racial violence in the country’s history ...

The Great National Circus

Eric Foner: Punch-Ups in the Senate, 22 November 2018

The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War 
by Joanne Freeman.
Farrar, Straus, 450 pp., £20.99, September 2018, 978 0 374 15477 6
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... On​ 22 May 1856, Preston Brooks, a member of the US House of Representatives from South Carolina, strode into the Senate chamber shortly after the daily session had ended. Two days earlier, Charles Sumner, the Senate’s most outspoken critic of slavery, had delivered a five-hour speech, ‘The Crime against Kansas’. Sumner not only denounced the ‘rape’ of Kansas by pro-slavery forces, which had terrorised Northern settlers and sacked the town of Lawrence, but ridiculed Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina in unusually personal terms, alluding to his speech impediment ...

This Guilty Land

Eric Foner: Every Possible Lincoln, 17 December 2020

Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times 
by David S. Reynolds.
Penguin, 1066 pp., £33.69, September, 978 1 59420 604 7
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The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln and the Struggle for American Freedom 
by H.W. Brands.
Doubleday, 445 pp., £24, October, 978 0 385 54400 9
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... Abraham Lincoln​ , memorialised as a child of the frontier, self-made man and liberator of the slaves, has been the subject of more than 16,000 books, according to David S. Reynolds’s new biography, Abe. That’s around two a week, on average, since the end of the American Civil War. Almost every possible Lincoln can be found in the historical literature, including the moralist who hated slavery, the pragmatic politician driven solely by ambition, the tyrant who ran roughshod over the Constitution, and the indecisive leader buffeted by events he could not control ...

The Corrupt Bargain

Eric Foner: Democracy? No thanks, 21 May 2020

Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? 
by Alexander Keyssar.
Harvard, 544 pp., £28.95, May, 978 0 674 66015 1
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Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College 
by Jesse Wegman.
St Martin’s Press, 304 pp., $24.50, March, 978 1 250 22197 1
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... Every​ four years Americans wake up to the fact that a president can be elected despite receiving fewer votes than another candidate. Until 2000 the electorate couldn’t be blamed for being unaware of this possibility, because it hadn’t happened since 1888. But twenty years ago George W. Bush squeaked into office with a five vote majority in the electoral college even though Al Gore outpolled him by half a million votes ...

During the war and after the war

J.R. Pole, 11 January 1990

Oxford History of the United States. Vol. VI: Battle Cry of Freedom, The Civil War Era 
by James McPherson.
Oxford, 904 pp., $35, June 1988, 0 19 503863 0
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Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 
by Eric Foner.
Harper and Row, 690 pp., $21.95, April 1988, 0 06 015851 4
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... were perceived. Racism entered into the processes by which its own operations were analysed. Eric Foner, who now holds at Columbia University the DeWitt Clinton chair once held by Richard Hofstadter, makes the very interesting point that, as Northern liberals lost heart for and interest in the struggle for racial justice in the South, they found it ...

Racist Litter

Randall Kennedy: The Lessons of Reconstruction, 30 July 2020

The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution 
by Eric Foner.
Norton, 288 pp., £18.99, October 2019, 978 0 393 65257 4
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... growing numbers of Americans were thinking of Reconstruction with a new respect.In​ 1988 Eric Foner published Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-77, a grand narrative built on ground largely cleared of the racist litter left by previous scholars. It is a stupendous scholarly achievement: eloquent, accessible, punctiliously ...

A Topic Best Avoided

Nicholas Guyatt: Abraham Lincoln, 1 December 2011

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery 
by Eric Foner.
Norton, 426 pp., £21, February 2011, 978 0 393 06618 0
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... endorsement of limited black suffrage demonstrates how much he had ‘grown’ in the White House. Eric Foner has become the leading exponent of the second point of view, and The Fiery Trial is a sustained argument for Lincoln’s growth into greatness. Foner consigns Butler’s claims to an endnote and assures us that ...

Forty Acres and a Mule

Amanda Claybaugh: E.L. Doctorow, 26 January 2006

The March: A Novel 
by E.L. Doctorow.
Little, Brown, 367 pp., £11.99, January 2006, 0 316 73198 6
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... that had been redistributed to the freed slaves was returned to the former slave owners and, as Eric Foner has shown, the freed slaves were coerced into working for their former masters for low wages. After Reconstruction their situation worsened. The Southern state governments began to revoke their new rights; the federal government, which was more ...

Even When It’s a Big Fat Lie

Alex Abramovich: ‘Country Music’, 8 October 2020

Country Music 
directed by Ken Burns.
PBS, eight episodes
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... Oxford published Ken Burns’s ‘The Civil War’: Historians Respond. Two of the essays, by Eric Foner and Leon Litwack, were scathing, but, for the most part, the book’s tone was measured; Burns and Geoffrey Ward, who had written the film’s script, contributed replies. But a funny thing happened as Burns made more documentaries: instead of ...

11 September

LRB Contributors, 4 October 2001

... rid the world of evil are now relying on our allies to impose some restraint on the White House. Eric Foner New York I write this in an ominous lull between the talk of vengeance and vengeance itself. We can hope, but without much optimism. The reputations of too many politicians, generals and intelligence chiefs seem to depend on an early manifestation ...

Divinely Ordained

Jackson Lears: God loves America, 19 May 2011

A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided 
by Amanda Foreman.
Penguin, 988 pp., £12.99, June 2011, 978 0 14 104058 5
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... heroic narrative. Guided at times by Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony, Eugene Genovese, Eric Foner and David Brion Davis conceived slavery as a mode of organising labour, as well as a system of racial domination. This led to the recognition that advocates of ‘free labour’ had economic as well as humanitarian reasons for opposing ...

Wrecking Ball

Adam Shatz: Trump’s Racism, 7 September 2017

... troops left the vanquished but still defiant South, scarcely a decade after the end of the war. Eric Foner has described the Reconstruction era, when ex-slaves became citizens and the first biracial Southern governments were elected to power, as America’s ‘unfinished revolution’. The battle over Reconstruction never ended; it has simply changed ...

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