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Abolition movement, pt 1: freedom and citizenship

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Interviewer: In what ways did abolitionism lend vision to the anti-slavery movement? How did the abolitionists expand the idea of American freedom and American citizenship at the same time?

Eric Foner: The abolitionists in the 1830s, '40s, and '50s were a very small number of men and women. They certainly were nowhere remotely near a majority of northern public opinion. Nonetheless, they had a powerful enduring impact on ideas of freedom and citizenship because the abolitionists were the first organized group to really put forward the idea of equal rights before the law for all persons regardless of race. That didn't exist; we take that for granted today, but that didn't exist. There was no place in the United States at that time where black people enjoyed equality before the law, not even in Massachusetts, where they came close. But more to the point, the abolitionists insisted that African-Americans had to be recognized as part of the American people, part of the American nation, citizens to be given the same rights as everybody else. The slaves should be freed and incorporated into American life. Now most people at that time when the abolitionist movement began who were against slavery were colonizationists, like Jefferson, and like Lincoln for much of his life. They believed slaves should become free, but they should then be sent out of the country to Africa, to the Caribbean, to Central America. They could not conceive of an interracial society of equals. The abolitionists were the first ones to put forward that ideal as a goal, freeing the slaves and also incorporating them as equals, and therefore redefining American liberty so that it could exist without a racial boundary.

Abolition movement, pt 2: Seneca Falls convention

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Interviewer: What was the significance of the Seneca Falls convention of 1848?

Eric Foner: Seneca Falls, the 1848 convention in upstate New York, is remembered as the first time that the right to vote for women was publicly demanded by a political gathering. People had talked about the right to vote for women individually before then, but this was the first organized women's suffrage gathering and really the beginning, therefore, of a long struggle, which lasted until 1920, for the right to vote for women. So it showed how the abolitionist movement was expanding the idea of freedom for everybody, because most of the women who met there, and there were some men too, were abolitionists. Frederick Douglass was there, Elizabeth Stanton was an abolitionist, Susan Anthony was an abolitionist, but the prospect or the experience of working in the abolitionist movement had made them much more conscious of the right that they also didn't enjoy, and so they extended the abolitionist vision of equality to themselves and that is what really launched feminism as an organized movement in the United States.

Antebellum social reform

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Interviewer: To what degree were the antebellum social reform movements the expression of a primarily Protestant American culture?

Eric Foner: The Protestant Great Awakening, the second Great Awakening, and the religious revivals of the first part of the nineteenth century had a tremendous impact on the Reform movement of that era. Out of the revivals came an impulse to improve society, to cleanse society of sin, the idea of what they called "perfectionism"—that both individual persons and society as a whole could have a new birth and cleanse themselves of past sins and really operate on a moral basis. Roman Catholics, of whom there weren't that many at that time but their numbers were increasing due to immigration from Ireland, didn't hold to this view at all. They believed that sin was endemic in American, in human life. Man was born in original sin; the best you could do was to ameliorate sin. You could assist the poor, you could make slavery less oppressive, but you couldn't talk about a society that cleansed itself of sin altogether. So there was this Protestant ethos in the Reform movements, which was not surprising in an overwhelmingly Protestant country that was going through these religious revivals at that very time.

slavery, pt 6: American politics in the 1840s

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Interviewer: What brought slavery to center stage in American politics in the 1840s and with what effects?

Eric Foner: Slavery entered the center stage of politics because of territorial expansion. There had been debates about slavery off and on in the past. The Missouri debates, the nullification crisis, had a lot to do with slavery, but then the issue would fade away. But in the middle 1840s, because of the Mexican War, because of the acquisition of a large new area of territory from Mexico, the question immediately arose: Will slavery be allowed to spread into this new area? This is the area today consisting of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. There was a big debate, a bitter debate, about whether this area should be kept for free settlers or slavery should be allowed to go into it, and that question of course involved not only the morality of slavery but sectional political power. Which region will gain more representation in Congress and votes because of the status of slavery in that area? That propelled slavery to the center of politics, which it did not leave until the Civil War.

Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus

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Interviewer: How did the Lincoln administration respond to dissent during the Civil War, and could you comment specifically on Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus?

Eric Foner: Well, as in all other wars, the Lincoln administration sometimes found civil liberties an inconvenience. Lincoln was much more careful and cautious about suspending basic civil liberties than some other wartime presidents have been in our history. But, nonetheless, there were certainly violations of civil liberties during the Civil War.

Habeas corpus—that is, basically, the right, if you're arrested, to have a charge lodged against you and to have a trial—was suspended a number of times during the war by the Lincoln administration. Suspending habeas corpus means you can just round people up, put them in jail, and throw away the key, and that's it. Lincoln did that first in Maryland right at the beginning of the war, but that was a military scene. There were riots in Maryland, there were people blowing up bridges to prevent Union troops from coming through Maryland, to protect Washington D.C., and Lincoln ordered the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus along the railroad line so that people who the military thought were saboteurs could just be rounded up. Later on, Lincoln will suspend the writ of habeas corpus throughout the whole North.

Lincoln was cautious, but nonetheless, certainly there were people arrested who were not a danger to anybody, but who were critics of the administration; probably the most famous case was Congressman Clement Valandingham of Ohio, who, after giving a fiery speech criticizing the Lincoln administration and the war in 1863, was arrested by General Burnside in Ohio. Lincoln didn't specifically order his arrest, but he defended it and justified it. Certain newspapers were suppressed temporarily in the North—the Chicago Times, for example, which criticized the administration strongly. Burnside again suppressed it; Lincoln eventually ordered that the Times be allowed to resume printing. There were arbitrary arrests in the North, but it's worth pointing out, of course, that, generally speaking, the press was free, there was tremendous criticism of the Lincoln administration all through the war.

Lincoln never considered suspending elections, even in 1864, when at one point he thought he was really going to lose, he never thought of canceling the election in order to keep the war going. There were violations, but what's different between Lincoln and some of our more recent presidents is that Lincoln discussed this intelligently and candidly in messages to Congress. He didn't just say, I have the right to do whatever I feel like because I'm the president, or because we're at war. He said, look, here's our dilemma: we have these liberties; on the other hand, the exercise of some of these liberties is endangering the whole structure of government. Do we recognize every single liberty and let the government fall, or do we violate one in order to save the government? Now, there are different answers to that question, but Lincoln at least put it out there as a legitimate point of debate, whereas subsequent or more recent governments have basically just said, look, we're just going to arrest people we don't like and that's tough without any philosophical discussion of what this means in a democracy or in a system of the rule of law.

Religion and American reform

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Interviewer: Religion has always been a strong component of the American reform tradition. Would you comment on its general importance and give us a couple examples of how religious reformers have made a difference?

Eric Foner: Religious groups like all Americans, I suppose, have tried to improve society and engaged in organized efforts to reform or deal with things they conceive of as evil. The Abolitionist movement, for example, was deeply inspired on the part of many people by Evangelical Christianity and the religious revivals of that time. They talked about not only perfecting society but also perfecting the individual, purging the individual of sin, and of purging society of sin. That language of sin and evil and good was applied to slavery and became a very powerful tool in attacking the institution.

On the other hand, southerners generally argued that slavery was perfectly compatible with Christian belief and they developed a biblical defense of slavery. Obviously, slavery existed in biblical times and is mentioned in the Bible. Jesus Christ condemned many evils in his world but not slavery and so there’s nothing inherent in Christianity that makes it anti-slavery but one can certainly use Christian principles in order to attack slavery.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s came out of the black churches and was led in many cases by African-American ministers, Martin Luther King being the most famous example, though one among many.

In the late 19th century many Protestant religious groups tried to reform society by pressing for national legislation, for example, to enforce the Sabbath—they contended that there should not be any activity on Sunday—or to try to suppress drinking or prostitution or other evils that they felt were rampant in American life.

At the same time you had the rise of what was called the Social Gospel, inspired by Protestant clerics and others, which tried to demand improvement in the conditions of working people, factory workers, and urban immigrants all trying to claim that Christianity really should inspire the government to uplift people who were suffering at the bottom of society.

One can find many examples of religiously inspired social movements in this country that could be in the left, the right, or the center. All sorts of political tendencies have claimed inspiration from religious belief in our country.