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18th century slavery

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Interviewer: How did slavery emerge as a full-fledged institution in the eighteenth-century colonies?

Eric Foner: The eighteenth century was the great period of the importation of slaves from Africa throughout the whole New World, and most of the slaves brought to colonial North America came in the eighteenth century. This was the period when the plantation system was expanding enormously—tobacco-growing in Virginia, rice-growing, indigo in South Carolina and then Georgia—and it was almost completely reliant on slave labor. No more were indentured servants going to those colonies. Places like Pennsylvania were open to free white immigration, but they didn't want to go to work on a plantation. So there was this whole regularized slave trade, and about 280,000 slaves were brought from Africa to the North American colonies between 1700 and 1770. This far outnumbers the number of Englishmen who came, the number of Germans who came, the number of Irish, the Scots, etc., and as that happened of course slavery became more and more entrenched. The laws of slavery, which had been rather haphazard in many ways in the seventeenth century, were regularized and really put into a whole slave code of laws in the eighteenth century. The racial ideology became more and more fixed. The idea that black meant "slave" and white meant "free" became much more rigidly defined in the eighteenth century, so certainly by the time of the American Revolution slavery was an extremely powerful, extremely well-entrenched institution. It existed in all of the colonies, but it was most powerful in the colonies from Maryland to the South—Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

African-American identity in the 18th century

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Interviewer: How did an African-American identity emerge in the eighteenth century?

Eric Foner: It took quite a while for a single African-American identity to emerge in Colonial America because the large slave trade brought people from many different cultures and many different societies in West Africa. We shouldn't think that because people came from Africa they were all the same people, anymore than people in Europe were all the same people. People from Germany, France, England, and Scotland were often fighting with each other and that was the same thing with Africa. They had their own different societies and languages and religious practices, so you might say an early version of what we would later call the "melting pot" took place in America among Africans, where people from various kinds of backgrounds who never would have encountered each other except for the experience of slavery were thrown together. After a generation or two, the African traditions faded a bit; they still remembered Africa, but the African languages faded, and a more coherent African-American identity began to develop. This was particularly prominent where the population began reproducing itself. In the British colonies, rather quickly the birth rate began to rise amongst these slaves, and so eventually you began to get an American-born generation of slaves who were more assimilated, you might say, into the African-American life than the original slaves who were brought in from many different backgrounds.

Growth of a public sphere in the Enlightenment

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Interviewer: You discuss the growth of a public sphere in the Enlightenment in America. What do you mean by that, and what is its significance?

Eric Foner: The "public sphere" is a term that historians use to describe a sort of realm of discussion and debate that is outside of government. In other words, it's not the parliament, it's not the colonial assembly, it's not a political party, it's really the public, it's people reading newspapers and debating issues in taverns and in public meeting places, holding demonstrations of one kind or another about political issues. The public sphere is this area that is separate from government, and it thrived, it grew, in colonial America because political authority was very weak. The British government was very far away; it couldn't really react quickly to any events in the colonies. Local governments existed but they didn't really have the full authority or the military power behind them that the British government did, and so you got this thriving public sphere which helped to stimulate the idea that ordinary people had a right to participate in public debate, to comment on what's going on in politics, to criticize the governors, etc., which developed rapidly throughout the eighteenth century.

The public sphere

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Interviewer: You mention that the long struggle against British rule expanded the public sphere in America. What exactly is the public sphere, and why is it important?

Eric Foner: Well, what we refer to as the public sphere is this realm in which people discuss public issues, political issues, outside of the realm of government. In other words, it's the realm of public debate, of newspapers, nowadays of Internet blogs and things like that. It's not so much the Congress, the state legislature, and it's not your private discussion in your home, it's the public arena where people meet and debate and read newspapers and magazines and write what they think. The public sphere is essential in a democracy; it's where people exchange ideas and really formulate their political opinions.

The Revolution greatly expanded the public sphere because it brought ordinary people, lower-class people, into political debate. Before the Revolution, most of this political debate was among a rather small elite. Most public pamphlets were addressed to a highly educated audience; they were written with all sorts of legal terminology, even Latin phrases; they were not addressed to the ordinary citizen. It was Tom Paine, really, in his great pamphlet Common Sense, who shattered that and wrote a pamphlet in common language with just logical arguments, and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies, not the two or three thousand that previous pamphlets had. So you get this tremendous expansion of the public sphere, which continues all the way through American history and is an essential attribute of a democratic political system.

The public sphere and civil liberties

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Interviewer: Is there a connection, then, between participation in the public sphere and protection of civil liberties?

Eric Foner: Yes, I think absolutely. Participating in the public sphere makes people much more protective, so to speak, of their own civil liberties. The desire to get into the public sphere is one of the main aspirations of people who are excluded from it: African Americans, women, who previously were not able to participate in these public debates, and of course for many years were excluded from formal politics. A good example of this is in the 1790s, when groups throughout the nation formed what they called these democratic-republican societies to criticize the Washington administration and to support the policies being advocated by Jefferson and Madison. President Washington criticized, in 1794, I think, the democratic-republican societies as "self-created." He still had this older view that more prominent people ought to organize political debate, that the president, or governor, or local leading figures, should organize political debate. Self-created societies, he thought, were sort of anarchic, dangerous. But these societies, therefore, were led to defend their own existence so they defended, they published very striking statements of the right of the people to gather among themselves and to criticize government policies. In other words, that taking part in politics doesn't only happen on election day, then you go home. It's a continuous thing, and that's really what a democratic society is involved with. So this debate in the 1790s was a very important moment in the development of justifications for a vibrant public sphere.

Freedom of the press in the colonial period

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Interviewer: What was the general view of freedom of the press in the colonial period?

Eric Foner: Freedom of the press didn't exist in the colonial period in the way we understand it today. Prior censorship of the press had gone out of existence at the end of the seventeenth century, so people could establish a newspaper and could publish pretty much what they wanted. But, there were pretty strict laws against seditious libel, against contempt, particularly of the Assembly, not so much the governor. So if you published things critical of the Assemblies, you could often be hauled up and put in jail as an editor, or forced to recant, so people could be punished rather severely for what they published in their newspapers. That's not really what we would assume to be freedom of the press today.

On the other hand, there was a tradition in which ordinary people valued freedom of the press; the famous case of John Peter Zenger, in New York colony in the 1730s. He was an editor who was brought to trial for "libel," as they called it, against the governor, and his defense attorney, Andrew Hamilton, said, look, the jury should decide if these claims are true. He called the governor a scoundrel, a liar, a thief, many other nasty things; Hamilton said, look, if you think that's what the governor is, you have to acquit Zenger. Now that was not the law, the law did not give truth, at that time, as a defense against sedition, but he convinced the jury that freedom of the press included the right to say plausible things about those in authority. Zenger was acquitted, and this was a warning to people in power that ordinary people valued freedom of the press. However, after Zenger, editors were still thrown in jail for criticizing the Assemblies, so, again, we shouldn't think that this established freedom of the press forever.

The separation of church and state at America's founding

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Interviewer: Getting to the American Revolution, what was the impact of the Revolution on religious freedom and the separation of church and state?

Eric Foner: Well, the separation of church and state was one of the most remarkable results and accomplishments of the American Revolution. On the eve of the Revolution, most of the colonies had an established, official church. There was a lot of religious pluralism, but you still had the government singling out one denomination, whether it's the Congregationalists in New England or the Anglicans in the South, and giving them financial aid and levying taxes on everybody to support those churches, and discriminating, in some ways, against people who didn't belong to those churches. In most colonies it was illegal to practice Roman Catholicism, even though that wasn't always fully enforced, but the founders of the new nation knew, looking at European history, that Europe had been wracked for centuries by religious warfare, by battles over religion; they believed that for the new government to survive, it had to be separated from these religious conflicts, that religion would bring conflict into the state, and that the state should not interfere with religion. It was a private matter, it was up to the individual conscience. So most of the states, not all, but most of the states, disestablished their churches, soon after the Revolution. That is, stopped selecting one church as the official church, stopped paying for that church, and then of course the Constitution, at least the Bill of Rights, explicitly separates church and state.

Congress is prohibited from passing any laws relating to religion, and in the Constitution, there is no religious qualification for office-holding or voting. Every state, before the Revolution, almost, had some kind of religious qualification to hold office. Even in Pennsylvania, you had to believe in the Trinity, which is broad, but still, that left Jews out. But that no longer exists. The founding fathers wanted, as Jefferson said, to have a wall of separation between church and state, and this was quite unusual in the world of the late eighteenth century.

Father Junipero Serra

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Interviewer: What was the significance of Father Junipero Sarah and the mission system he introduced in California?

Eric Foner: In California, which of course was the outpost of the Spanish empire, the northernmost outposts really were settled rather late in the eighteenth century and then into the early nineteenth century. It was really the very end part of the northern section of New Spain, and originally it was a mission outpost. In other words, the mechanism of settlement was the establishment of these religious missions, including one by Father Junipero Sarah and other religious leaders. The idea was both to consolidate Spanish control and to convert the Indians to Christianity, to Catholicism, and also to gather the Indians at these missions and turn them into productive laborers, at least as far as the Spanish defined it. The Spanish thought the Indians were migrants, vagrants, hunters, and that they didn't really have settled agriculture communities, and so they decided to bring these Indians to live at the missions. "We will make them work in a regularized fashion in the fields growing grapes, growing crops, etc. We will make them into Christians and that will be part of the civilizing process." Father Sarah is a very controversial figure because on one hand he does seem to have wanted to improve the conditions of life of the Indians; on the other hand, many of the labor conditions of these missions were very brutal. They were not that far away from slavery; the Indians were forced to labor much of the year, and so many of them died in large numbers from disease, overwork, etc. In the end, the mission system was really a disaster for the Indian population of California, which declined very, very radically after the Spanish settlement.