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Discovery of gold in California and Australia
Interviewer: You’ve introduced a comparative dimension to the discussion of the California Gold Rush of the late 1840s and early 1850s. What important parallels do you see between that event and the simultaneous discovery of gold in Australia?
Eric Foner: Of course it was a coincidence that gold was discovered in both places at the same time; it was not some global phenomenon. But in fact, these two gold rushes in the 1840s and the 1950s did play out in interestingly similar ways. The discovery of gold in California and part of southern Australia, first of all, led to an immense influx of population into both places of people seeking to get rich through gold. From all over the world, from Europe, from Latin America, from Asia, people streamed into these countries and in both places you developed this extraordinarily diverse population. San Francisco was probably the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the world in 1850, because everyone in the world had poured in there, and similarly Melbourne, Australia, had an incredibly diverse population for the same reason. On the other hand, in both places you got immediate racial tensions, and in the 1850s, efforts to push Asians, particularly the Chinese, out of the gold fields. California became very well-known for its anti-Chinese, anti-Asian policies, banning what they called foreign miners and things like that. Similarly in Australia you had efforts to push Chinese miners out of the gold fields. So I think the experience of Australia can reflect something back on our understanding of what happened in the United States to show how similar tensions and developments take place in this very hothouse atmosphere of everybody seeking to enrich themselves through gold.
Slavery, pt 7: expansion of slavery
Interviewer: What were the views of both southerners and northerners on the expansion of slavery into the new territories?
Eric Foner: Southerners felt that slavery had the same right to expand in the new territory as any other form of property. Nobody was telling people they couldn't bring their livestock, their bank notes, their equipment, whatever it was. Any kind of property could be brought if somebody wanted. They said, Slaves are property, they aren't any different. The government doesn't have any rights to distinguish between forms of property. Moreover, southerners had fought in the American army in Mexico. They had died to gain this new territory; what right did the government have to tell them or their relatives that they could not bring slaves there? Northerners of course said, No, slavery is different; it's not just another form of property. Many of them thought slavery was immoral. Many who didn't care about morality said, Slavery retards economic growth. It restricts wide immigration. It creates a hierarchical society that is undemocratic. It stifles education. We don't want this kind of society spreading out into the new western territories. So over this question of whether slavery should be allowed to expand, there was what William Seward, the governor of New York, would later call an "irrepressible conflict" between the North and the South.
Mid-19th century economic development
Interviewer: How did economic development in the period solidify the ties between the Northeast and the old Northwest, and with what political effect?
Eric Foner: Until the 1840s, the old Northwest (and here we are talking about Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, and states like that) was considerably tied to the South economically. They shipped their agricultural produce down the Ohio River, down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, and from there to other markets. Many of the early settlers in the old Northwest came from southern states, from Virginia, from Kentucky, etc., like Lincoln himself, who came from Kentucky and then went to Indiana and then to Illinois. But in the 1850s this was all reoriented; the railroads were now built connecting large eastern cities like New York with centers in the West. The railroads pulled the trade of the Northwest toward the East. No longer were goods being sent down the Mississippi River; they were being shipped much more quickly eastward along the great railroads. Moreover, the population of the old Northwest was changing. Far more northerners were moving there. New Englanders, people from New York, and people from Pennsylvania were now moving in, and fewer southerners. So the complexion of the population and the political complexion of the Northwest was changing radically and becoming much more like the East and much less like the South.
Lincoln's views on slavery
Interviewer: How would you characterize Lincoln's views on slavery and race at the time he took office as president?
Eric Foner: Abraham Lincoln once said, "I think I have hated slavery as much as any abolitionist." Lincoln despised slavery, there's no question about that, but Lincoln was not an abolitionist. Abolitionists were willing to see the country broken up, the Constitution violated in order to attack slavery. Lincoln had too much reverence for the law, reverence for the Constitution. He was willing to compromise with the South. He said we must respect the constitutional arrangements. He said if the Constitution says they must get their fugitive slaves back, we must do that. Lincoln identified the westward expansion of slavery as the key issue. Abolitionists said, No, abolition is the issue. Lincoln said, No, the issue is whether slavery is allowed to expand to the West. Lincoln's racial views were typical of the time. He did not favor equal rights for the blacks in Illinois, he did not favor black suffrage, and he did not favor black and white intermarriage. On the other hand, he always said, blacks may not be equal of rights but they are entitled to the unalienable rights identified by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty (which is why slavery was wrong), and the pursuit of happiness. They have to have the right to compete in the marketplace, enjoy the fruits of their labor just like anyone else. So Lincoln was a creature of his time; he shared many of its prejudices, but what's interesting about Lincoln is, he wasn't an abolitionist. His views on slavery and race were such that it was his election that led the South to fear that slavery was in danger and leave the Union.
Public fascination with Lincoln
Interviewer: Tomorrow is Lincoln’s birthday and between books and films we seem to be in the middle of a Lincoln extravaganza. Why do you think there is such a continuing fascination with the president and the man?
Eric Foner: It is often said, of course, that Lincoln is the subject of more books than any other figure in American history, maybe even in world history in some ways. And there is this remarkable fascination with Lincoln. It’s been over 200 years since his birth in 1809. I think the thing is that Lincoln seems to embody qualities or characteristics that we think of as quintessentially American. He’s the self-made man, the man who rose up from very modest circumstances through the dint of his own labor, intellectual and physical. He’s the frontiersman, really a symbol of the West, which is so important in American history and mythology. And he is, of course, the liberator of the slaves, the politician who uses political power for moral ends, not just for special interests or personal aggrandizement.
Every generation looks back to Lincoln, looking for itself, in a sense. Lincoln is like a Rorschach test—we find in Lincoln what we are looking for. Every political tendency left, right, and center; communist, conservative, segregationist, civil rights activist, has claimed to find in Lincoln an antecedent. Every Protestant religious denomination—Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Unitarian, you name it—has claims on Lincoln. Because his religion was so murky and difficult to define, many different groups claim that he adhered to their views.
And so I think that Lincoln is the sort of essential American and every generation of people who think about American history or study American history feel they have to come to terms with him if they want to understand those tremendous crises: the Civil War, the issue of slavery, and even the broader questions that his life raises, such as the relationship between national power and local autonomy; how diverse the nation should be; what is the nature of American citizenship, the rights that go along with citizenship, who should be entitled to citizenship. These are the perennial questions that are raised by Lincoln’s life and so as long as those questions are on our national agenda, people will continue to study Lincoln, I think.