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Slavery, pt 1: emancipation

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Interviewer: The history of slavery and emancipation has a strong transnational dimension. In Chapter 11 you write that in the first four decades of the nineteenth century slavery was abolished in most of Spanish America and the British empire. What impact did these emancipations have on the end of slavery in the United States?

Eric Foner: Slavery of course was a global institution; it existed in Africa, it existed in the Middle East, and of course it was a Western Hemisphere institution that existed all up and down North and South America and in the Caribbean. In the first part of the nineteenth century, the Spanish areas after they became independent set in motion the abolition of slavery, and of course the British abolished slavery in the 1830s in their colonies in the Caribbean. This had a tremendous effect in the United States; slave owners felt they were a shrinking minority even though slavery in the United States was by far the largest slave system in the Western Hemisphere. Still it’s becoming more and more isolated as slavery is abolished in other places. The abolition of slavery in these other places, first of all, created a precedent for how slavery might be abolished here. It was generally done in a gradual manner not as an immediate act, even though in the British colonies, it only took about five years to abolish it. In Spanish America it was through this very long gradual process of emancipation.

So many people in the United States, including Abraham Lincoln, for many years thought that this gradual method probably was the best; it was a peaceful method that led to less disruption of the society, and that was the way the United States should get rid of slavery—over a long, slow period of abolition. Of course, it didn’t work out that way in this country, but that model affected how Americans began to think of the possibility of getting rid of slavery. On the other hand, it also stimulated a big debate in the United States: what was the consequence of emancipation in these other places? Many southern slave owners said it was a failure—sugar production fell in the West Indies after slavery, because the former slaves wanted to grow food for themselves rather than sugar for the world market. So a big debate took place about whether the aftermath of emancipation proved that slavery actually was a better economic institution than free labor. So certainly the main point is Americans watched what happened in other countries, debated what happened in other countries, and were influenced by the ending of slavery in other countries.

Frederick Douglass

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Interviewer: How do you assess the significance of Frederick Douglass as an anti-slavery leader and in other ways?

Eric Foner: Frederick Douglass was really one of the towering figures of nineteenth-century American history. Of course, his own life career is remarkable. He was born a slave, he lived as a slave until he was a young man, he escaped from slavery, he later became a very prominent abolitionist and women's rights advocate, etc. He became one of the great orators of the reform world, both in America and in Europe. He edited several newspapers, he was an extremely eloquent writer, and he really became by far the most prominent black American in the nineteenth century. So Douglass is a remarkable figure if you consider how far he rose in the society and the talent that he demonstrated, and Douglass put forward a powerful critique of slavery. He was unremitting in his denunciation of slavery and of American society for tolerating it, but at the same time he in a sense tried to hold onto American values. He said that liberty, equality, these were our values and slavery violated them. The slave was actually more true to American values in his desire for freedom than the slaveowner was. The role of the abolitionist, he said, was to make America live up to its professed values, which it was violating every day.

Slavery, pt 2: community under constraints

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Interviewer: How were slaves able to create a community life even under the constraints of the slave system?

Eric Foner: Slavery was a violent, brutal, and oppressive system, and one cannot sugarcoat that or mitigate it. On the other hand, it was a functioning social order. People were born, lived, and died within the slave system, both master and slave. In order for the system to function, slaves had to be given a certain amount of autonomy within it. You couldn't have an overseer with a gun forcing every slave to work everyday. That's not a very efficient way of getting labor done. Slaves found openings or niches in the system where they could create their own culture somewhat independent of that of the master. They created their own family lives. They kind of created a religion, which was Christian but not the same as white Christianity. They had secret religious meetings, secret preachers who preached about the evil of slavery. The white Christianity said, Look, slavery is supported by the Bible and it's a divinely inspired institution. Slaves didn't believe that for a minute, so they created their own community, but always within this larger power structure. One should not exaggerate the mitigating power of the creation of the slave community, but it did enable many to survive the institution of slavery without surrendering their own dignity, their own sense of themselves, and without accepting the legitimacy of slavery, which was something they never did.

slavery, pt 3: the difference in American slavery

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Interviewer: How did American slavery differ from earlier slave societies in other parts of the world?

Eric Foner: Slavery in the New World, including the United States, Brazil, and the Caribbean, was quite different from slavery as it had existed in other periods of history. Slavery, sad to say, has always existed in human history; there is even slavery today in some parts of the world. Slavery, traditionally, had been a household institution. That is, the average owner would have one or two slaves work in the home or maybe in the fields with the owner, and very often there was very little physical difference between slaves and owners. In Africa there was slavery, but there was no physical difference between all the Africans. In the Roman Empire white people were slaves, but in the United States slavery had two characteristics that made it very different. First, it was plantation slavery, which was based on the large-scale agricultural unit producing goods for the world market. That meant that in the slave areas the slaves greatly outnumbered the whites, and therefore the rigidity of the system, the policing of the system, had to be extremely severe. The danger of revolt was always there. Second, slavery in the Western Hemisphere was racial slavery: there was this physical difference between master and slave, so that race and slavery came to reinforce each other. Slavery helped to promote this racist ideology that justified it, so therefore the black person always bore on his self the mark of slavery. Even when he became free, he still carried the mark of slavery. In the Roman Empire, when a slave became free, he just melted into the society. You didn't know who was an ex-slave. In Africa slaves could marry into the free society and become free and they didn't look any different than anyone else, but in the United States prejudice against blacks was the carryover of the prejudice of slavery, and it exists long after slavery, of course, was abolished.

 slavery, pt 4: institutional conflicts of freedom and slavery

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Interviewer: How were Americans able to reconcile the persistence of slavery in a land of freedom? What role did racism play in this?

Eric Foner: The South in the nineteenth century developed a number of intellectual defenses of slavery. Southerners had to justify the systems of slavery in a country that talked about liberty all the time, and they developed a number of different kinds of defenses. Probably the most prominent one was simply racism. Blacks, they said, were simply not equal to whites. They were uncivilized, barbaric, and they could not survive in a free society. They could not produce civilization in a free society. It was better for them and it was better for the whole society for them to be enslaved. There were other arguments, there were religious arguments; slavery existed in the Bible, so it was divinely ordained, they said. There was an argument put forward by John C. Calhoun, George Fitzhugh, and others that slavery was actually the best condition for labor of all kinds. In the North, people were the slaves of the marketplace, southerners said. At least a slave didn't lose his job in old age, a slave was never out of work, and at least the slave didn't have to worry where his next meal was coming from, so they said that the free marketplace was actually more oppressive to laborers than slavery was. So all of those arguments were used to justify what seems to be a contradiction: slavery in a land of liberty.

 slavery, pt 5: the abolitionists'' contribution to free speech

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Interviewer: How did the abolitionist movement and the actions of crowds in government against them contribute specifically to ideas of freedom of speech?

Eric Foner: When the abolitionists, in the 1830s, started trying to address public opinion in the North, they did it in all sorts of ways. They published newspapers, they circulated petitions, and they sent speakers out into local communities in order to try to have meetings and to stimulate people to speak out against slavery. There was a lot of proslavery sentiment, not only in the South but in the North. There were many, many Northerners who were economically connected with the slave South, there were many Northerners who feared that, if slavery was abolished, black people would move up to the North, there were those who feared what they called miscegenation, that is, interracial marriage between black and white, and many of the early abolitionist meetings were broken up by mobs; groups would not let them speak.

The most famous incident came in 1837 in Illinois where Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist editor in Alton, Illinois, was killed by a mob that was attacking his printing establishment, breaking up his printing press, and when he tried to defend it, he was shot and killed. Now, the breaking up of abolitionist meetings and the killing of Lovejoy alarmed many people in the North who were not abolitionists, because it seemed that freedom of speech and freedom of the press were under assault, and many people came to the defense of abolitionists' right to speak. They said: we may not agree with what these guys are saying, but here's an example of how slavery is actually interfering with white people's liberty. Slavery is hostile to basic liberties that we take for granted, so the very issue of civil liberties which arises in conjunction with the abolitionist movement actually eventually brings more Northerners into the antislavery realm because they begin to think and to defend our own liberties; we've got to restrict the power of slavery.

Angelina and Sarah Grimke

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Interviewer: Who were Angelina and Sarah Grimke, and how did they support the participation of women in public political debate?

Eric Foner: Angelina and Sarah Grimke were the daughters of a prominent slave-owning family in South Carolina. In the 1830s, they were sent to Philadelphia for education. In Philadelphia, which of course was a center of Quakerism—Quakers were among the earliest abolitionists—they came into contact with antislavery people and became converted to Quakerism and abolitionism. Now, it was rather unusual to have Southerners involved as abolitionist spokesmen. They had grown up in a slave society, they had grown up in a slave household, they knew slavery from personal experience, and they began speaking about their experiences observing slavery.

Now, at that time, it was considered quite inappropriate for women to speak to mixed, male-female audiences. Women were supposed to speak to women; there were female antislavery societies. Now what happened was, when the Grimkes began speaking, men started sneaking into their lectures because they wanted to hear what they had to say, and eventually they started saying, look, our job is to spread the word of abolitionism, we should speak to as many people as we can, and they began speaking to mixed audiences. Well, this led to a lot of controversy. The Massachusetts Congregational clergy issued a statement denouncing them for stepping outside the proper sphere of womanhood, and that led the Grimkes to defend the right of women to speak in public, to move beyond the question of slavery to whether women had the same rights in the public sphere as men did.

Then Sarah Grimke published this wonderful set of essays, published under Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, 1837 I think it was, maybe 1838, in which she claimed all the rights for women that men enjoyed: the right to education, the right to employment, the right to speak out in the public sphere. She didn't really say much about the right to vote, but all these other rights that were restricted for women and that men enjoyed, Grimke said, look, women are equal creatures, they're created by God, they have the same soul, they have the same aptitude. The Grimkes really launched, in many ways, the public demand for full equality for women in American society.