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Constitution, pt 1: framers of the Constitution

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Interviewer: The Constitution begins with the words "We the people of the United States"; who were "the people" according to the framers?

Eric Foner: The words "We the people," which begin the Constitution—"We the people of the United States create and ordain this new form of government"—are not self-explanatory. They don't tell you who "the people" are, and in fact if you read the Constitution carefully you will see that there are different types of persons within the United States, not all of whom are "the people." For example, the Constitution refers to Indians as being another people: they are considered members of tribes with their own sovereignty; they are dealt with by treaty; in other words, they are separate people, they are not part of "We the people of the United States." And then of course there are those referred to in the Constitution rather indirectly as "other persons." "Other persons": these are the slaves. The word slaves or slavery does not exist in the original Constitution. The first time it gets into the Constitution is in the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolishes it in 1865, but if the word is not there the thing is definitely there. Those "other persons" are not entitled to the rights which the Constitution outlines. So you have "people" and "persons"; the "We the people" are basically the free population of the United States not including the slaves and not including Indians, so it's a much more limited group than might appear at first glance.

Constitution, pt 2: impact on slavery

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Interviewer: How did the Constitution affect the institution of slavery in America?

Eric Foner: Lord Acton, a British writer over a century ago, said the American Constitution was an effort to avoid settling basic differences. And about slavery he had a point. The Constitution embodied a series of compromises about slavery, but overall it certainly strengthened the institution of slavery, and without that some at least of the southern delegates to the Constitutional convention would not have approved of the document. The Constitution allowed the slave trade from Africa, which had been cut off during the Revolution, to continue for another twenty years. Any state could continue importing slaves until 1808—or at least it gave Congress the power to stop the importation of slaves from Africa in 1808, which did happen—but basically South Carolina and Georgia imported many tens of thousands of slaves because of the window of opportunity created by the Constitution. Second, the Constitution required that fugitive slaves be returned to their owners, so a slave could escape from Virginia to New York, which was in the process of abolishing slavery, but New York still had to recognize that person as a slave and send them back to Virginia. And finally, there's the three-fifths clause, which said that in counting the population, which determined the number of congressmen, three-fifths of a state's slave population would also be counted. There's the free population plus three-fifths of the slaves. Now of course the slaves didn't have any right to vote—they had no rights—nonetheless, they were counted. This gave the South considerably more political power than it would have if only its free population were counted. More congressmen and more electoral votes, so overall certainly the constitution did strengthen the institution of slavery.

Bill of Rights, pt 2

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Interviewer: How important was the Bill of Rights at the time, and what has been its significance since then?

Eric Foner: The Bill of Rights, which is what we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was added in 1791, 1792, a few years after the ratification of the Constitution. It was really a requirement. Many of the anti-Federalists—that is, people who opposed ratification of the Constitution—were won over by the promise that the Bill of Rights would be added as soon as Congress met, which indeed did happen. Now, the Bill of Rights, of course, listed the basic civil liberties which Americans were to enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right to a speedy trial by jury, the right to be protected against cruel and unusual punishment, etc. What's interesting is that all of those rights in the Bill of Rights are protected against infringement by the national government. The first words of the First Amendment are "Congress shall pass no law"; in other words, it didn't apply to the states. Many states continued to violate citizens' liberties in many ways. The Bill of Rights had little impact when it was passed. In fact, it was only in the twentieth century that the Bill of Rights really became the basis for a great deal of legal decision making, but it did put into the language of American politics this language of "rights of citizens," "rights against the government," certain basic rights that the government did not have a right to infringe on, and therefore it helped to expand the idea of liberty that most Americans had.

Racial division between slaves and free men

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Interviewer: How did race emerge as the sole significant marker between slavery and freedom in this period?

Eric Foner: One of the ironic results of the American Revolution was that the very emphasis on liberty and equality actually had the tendency of enhancing or increasing the importance of race as a dividing line in American society. In colonial America, race had been one among many kinds of inequality—religious inequality, class inequality, gender inequality, of course—but the Revolution put this idea of equal rights forward. Many of the middle halfway houses between slavery and freedom dropped away—indentured servitude and apprenticeship disappeared after the Revolution—so you have a white population that was basically free but not equal in many ways, though it was basically composed of free people. Then you have a black population that is basically composed of slaves, even though there were a growing number of free blacks at this time. Race became the way of explaining how it was that slavery existed in a society supposedly dedicated to liberty. The reason is allegedly that blacks were racially inferior; in other words, they had certain inborn characteristics that made it impossible for them to really enjoy freedom, to really exist as free people. So race became the way of explaining the existence of slavery in a free society, and as such it became more and more embedded in American life in the nineteenth century, as slavery itself expanded.

Market Revolution, pt 1

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Interviewer: The Market Revolution is an important concept in your discussion of the early to mid-nineteenth century. What was the Market Revolution, and how did it contribute to a stronger sense of a private self that should be free of interference from others and the government?

Eric Foner: Well, what we call the Market Revolution is this rapid change in the American economy in the first part of the nineteenth century, thanks to territorial expansion, thanks to many improvements in transportation: the steam boat, the railroad, the canal, the telegraph eventually, which knit the country together in a national market and made the circulation of goods throughout the country much, much easier and quicker than it had been prior to, let's say, 1800. The Market Revolution quickens the pace of economic growth, and it also pulls people out of what we call self-sufficient farming.

In 1800, most farmers basically concentrated on growing food for their own families; they didn't sell very much, and they didn't buy very much. By 1850, most people are engaged in market transactions: they're buying what they need at stores, they're selling their goods on the open market, and this is the way to get ahead and accumulate wealth.

The Market Revolution has tremendous impact on the way people live their lives. One of the ways is in exalting this notion of individual economic enterprise, individual economic ambition and achievement. A guy like Lincoln, who grows up before the Market Revolution, lives in the frontier and basically, in his early days, there's very little exchange of goods between him and his family and other people, but eventually he becomes a tremendous booster of railroads, of canals, and eventually, in the 1850s, he's a lawyer for the big railroads in Illinois, where he lives, and he's one of those people who talks about the race of life and the desire to get ahead and the ability to get ahead as a central element of free society, as opposed to slavery. Again, that emphasizes the private realm of freedom.

At the time of the Revolution, freedom was usually mostly referred to as a set of public rights: the right to vote, the right to participate in government, things like that. Now you're getting this private realm of freedom being articulated, of getting ahead individually, choosing your own line of work, the right to free labor, competing in the marketplace; this is a reflection of the spread of the Market Revolution.