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The Haitian Revolution

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Interviewer: In what respects was the Haitian Revolution of the late 1790s and early 1800s a critical global event?

Eric Foner: Today we see the Haitian Revolution, which destroyed slavery—a very powerful institution—in that island and which established the second independent nation in the New World after the United States, as a part of the age of revolution, the age of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution. It was as important as the other two in some respects; it struck fear throughout the Western Hemisphere among slave owners and their supporters. The idea of the slaves rising en masse and actually overthrowing the system of slavery was the great nightmare of slave owners everywhere, including the southern United States. On the other hand, it was a source of inspiration to black people all around the world—in Africa, in Latin America, in the Caribbean, in the United States. Here was a group of black people who claimed and asserted their own freedom. So in other words the impact of the Haitian Revolution rippled out from Haiti—a small island—to influence the whole Atlantic world well into the nineteenth century because for what it symbolized—both for the vulnerability of slavery and for the aspirations for freedom for the millions of African American slaves.

Democratizing public life

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Interviewer: In what ways did public life become democratized throughout the 1790s?

Eric Foner: The 1790s—the first decade under the new Constitution—was a period of tremendously intense political debate. This was not what the Founding Fathers intended. They thought it would be a period of harmony without political conflict, with everybody devoted to promoting the public good, but it didn't work out that way. Very rapidly, two political parties formed—bitter debates took place over economic policies, Hamilton's fiscal policies, and other issues—and these debates reverberated out from Congress into the general public. Moreover, the French Revolution, which was going on at this time, gained a tremendous number of sympathizers in America and a lot of people who opposed it, and that debate also took place in the public realm, not just in Congress. So then, in fact, this was a period of great division in the population, and as a result there was a lot of political organizing. New political societies came to the fore: the so-called democratic republicans, societies that were groups of ordinary citizens who banded together to discuss political issues and to criticize the government. So what we call the "public sphere," that realm of debate outside of government, grew enormously during the 1790s because of the intensity of political difference.

Women's role in the public sphere

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Interviewer: How did women gain a presence in the expanding public sphere in this period?

Eric Foner: The expanding public debate and public sphere opened the door for some women to actually begin to play a political role. Women could not vote in this period, except in New Jersey where they could vote until 1807, but elsewhere they couldn't. Women didn't have access to education in nearly the same way that men did. Most women still lived in the confines of the home, and their lives were shaped by family obligations, but nonetheless a certain number of educated women did become commentators on politics. They wrote essays—Mercy Otis Warren, Judith Sergeant. They became political figures not by being party politicians but by taking part in this debate in the public sphere, where they could write for magazines, they could write for newspapers, and so they claimed the right to a voice in politics even though they didn't have a place in the political system.

America's policy toward Indians in the 19th century

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Interviewer: What was the policy toward Indians that emerged in the new nation?

Eric Foner: President Washington and Secretary Henry Knox and others felt that the country had not been totally praiseworthy in its treatment of Indians and that there had been Indian wars, Indian massacres, the seizure of Indian lands, and they wanted to have a policy of friendship. They didn't want to have wars all the time. There were still a lot of Indians living within the boundaries of the United States, and to have constant warfare was not in anybody's interest, so Washington tried to develop a policy of treaties which would stabilize Indian relations and make clear where Indians had a right to land and where settlers could go. But it never really worked out that way because the pressure for land was enormous with the end of the American Revolution, and hungry settlers pushed westward over the Appalachian mountains into Indian territory in Ohio, in Kentucky, further south, and no matter: the treaty obligations had nothing to do with that. Even though land was reserved for Indians, whites just moved in and settled there and then the government had to decide what to do. They weren't going to push all these people out. They tried to get the Indians to move further, but the Indians didn't want to move further anymore, so there was sporadic Indian warfare throughout this period despite the intention of the Washington Administration (and Jefferson's Administration, too, later on) to have peaceful relations. But the basic conflict, the basic problem of white expansion onto Indian land, there was no solution to that; that was just continuing, and as long as that was happening there was going to be conflict.

Jefferson's "empire of liberty"

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Interviewer: What was Jefferson's "empire of liberty," and how is it connected to westward expansion?

Eric Foner: Jefferson was a tremendous advocate of westward expansion. He believed, unlike Hamilton, who thought that the United States should be a commercial and manufacturing country linked to Europe by trade, that the United States should be an agricultural country that set its sights in the West rather than eastward toward Europe. So Jefferson greatly encouraged westward migration. Of course as president he purchased Louisiana, which doubled the size of the country and opened up vast new areas of settlement. But Jefferson also believed that these areas would be brought into the Union as equal states; that's why he called the United States an "empire of liberty." "Empire" meant it would be a great territorial power, a power in world affairs. But unlike European empires, which consisted of a central area ruling over colonies, the United States would not have colonies, New areas would be brought in as equal states. So, let's say, Ohio would not be a colony of the country; it would come in as an equal member with the same equal rights as all the other states. That's why it'd be an "empire of liberty," because all parts of it would have the same equality as the original thirteen states. That at least was Jefferson's vision of how America ought to function.

19th century slaves

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Interviewer: In the peculiar institution as it developed in the early to mid-nineteenth century, did slaves have any rights recognized by law, and how did southern laws restrict the lives of slaves?

Eric Foner: As in the colonial era, slaves had very, very few rights. A slave was property before the law, a slave could be bought and sold, rented out, seized for payment of a debt; slaves' marriages and family life had no legal recognition, people could be sold, and were sold, away from their parents, their children. Most of the rights of slaves were customary rights, that is, individual owners often recognized certain basic rights among their slaves, partly to make the plantation function more effectively. They recognized, for example, the right of slaves to have religious meetings among themselves. That was against the law; in the law, slaves could not gather without a white person being present, but it was quite common for them to do so for religious services, and most owners would just look the other way. It was completely against the law for slaves to go off the plantation without a pass, but we know that in many communities, on Sunday, for example, when they weren't working, slaves would go to visit relatives on a nearby plantation without a pass, and that was okay with the master as long as they came back by the end of the day. So, the rights of slaves were primarily customary, granted by individual owners, but, of course, they could easily be taken away. They weren't legal rights enforceable in court, or anything like that.