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American Civil War, pt 1: lasting influence

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Interviewer: You point out in a new discussion that in the 1860s, modern states throughout the world were consolidating their power and reducing local autonomy. What connections do you make between these global events and the American Civil War?

Eric Foner: The American Civil War arises out of American circumstances—the existence of slavery, the political debate over slavery, questions of states’ rights within the United States, and those aren’t exactly matched in other countries. But on the other hand, it is useful to see that this is also part of this process of what we call state formation, or nation formation. Out of the Civil War emerged a much more powerful national government than had existed before the war when the federal government was very, very weak. The process of mobilizing to fight a giant war like that tremendously enhanced the power of the national government. But all over the world this process is happening in the mid-nineteenth century—the unification of Italy from a bunch of separated local entities into a nation; Germany unified by Bismarck in the 1860s; the Meiji restoration in Japan where the central government is reclaiming power from local warlords and local autonomy. Lincoln falls into that pattern in a sense, of Bismarck, of Cavour, of the emperor of Japan. Not that he’s the same as those people, but he’s someone who’s trying to create a more powerful, centralized nation. And again, it’s useful to know that this is going on in other countries; it’s partly because of the rise of industrialism and the rise of mass communications, which is making possible centralized states that really couldn’t have existed before the industrial revolution of the first part of the nineteenth century.

American Civil War, pt 2: conflicting ideas of freedom

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Interviewer: How is it that during the Civil War both sides were fighting for what they thought of as freedom?

Eric Foner: Well, the idea of freedom was so engrained in American life, in American culture, that everybody, in a sense, tried to appeal to it. And in the Civil War northerners insisted they were fighting for liberty. As Lincoln said from the very beginning of the war, the Union was the last best hope of mankind. It was a symbol of liberty. Now Lincoln meant Americans' political liberty. Self-government, democracy—the Union was a symbol of that for the world. If the Union were broken up it would be a blow to freedom throughout the world. Southerners insisted they were fighting for freedom, self-determination, the same right that led the American revolutionists to sever their ties with Britain and create their own independent nation. The white southerners said, We have the same rights. If the colonies could secede from Britain, why can't we secede and create our own independent nation? Government rests on the consent of the governed; that is the essence of liberty. So both sides insisted they were fighting for liberty, but then, of course, as the war goes on (not at the beginning) it became a crusade against slavery. And so the antislavery impulses were added by the middle of the war, and the war became (as Lincoln would put it) a new birth of freedom for the nation because of the emancipation of the slaves.

American Civil War, pt 3: from preserving the Union to emancipation

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Interviewer: How did the Civil War turn from a fight to preserve the Union to one aimed at emancipation and the end of slavery, and what role did African-Americans themselves play in this process?

Eric Foner: Many factors contributed to the change in the nature of the Civil War. In the beginning of the war, Lincoln insisted that this was a war about the Union. We are not fighting to attack slavery, he said. Our aim is to restore the Union as it previously existed. But as the war went on this became less and less tenable. First of all, the Union was not winning major battles. Many northerners began to say, Let us attack the infrastructure of southern society, the economic base of slavery that enables them to feed their armies and mobilize their resources. From the beginning of the war, African-Americans began to run away from plantations. Whenever the Union army appeared, slaves by the hundreds, then by the thousands, just left the plantations and fled to the Union lines. The disintegration of slavery forced the Union administration, the Lincoln administration, to make policies about slavery that Lincoln didn't want to make at the beginning. So Lincoln was pressured by events, by lack of military success, by radical Republican pressure in the North, and by slaves running away. He was pressured by events to begin to go down the road to emancipation, which of course he did.

American Civil War, pt 4: Lincoln's leadership

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Interviewer: How do you assess Lincoln's leadership during the war?

Eric Foner: Lincoln was a very brilliant military-political leader. He saw his role in the first instance as maintaining the broadest degree of popular support for the war effort. You know, in a war like this, victory is determined not only by who has the most weaponry, who has got the larger army, who's got the largest resources, but by the will to fight, by public support for the war effort. If the northern public tired of the war, all the advantage and population and resources would not make a difference. So Lincoln very brilliantly appealed throughout the war to northern opinion, to the basis of American political culture, to Protestant Evangelism (he got ministers working on his side), to the basic idea of America as a source of liberty, eventually to the idea that emancipating the slaves would actually protect the liberty of the whole country. He was a shrewd politician, he was a shrewd judge of character, he kept his ear to the ground in terms of public opinion, and so he was a very effective political leader in a war crisis in terms of mobilizing support.

American Civil War, pt 5: the legacy of the war

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Interviewer: What was the legacy of the Civil War? What did it settle and what did it leave unsettled?

Eric Foner: Well, the Civil War settled two major issues, at least. One: Would the United States survive as a unified nation? Which of course it did (nobody has talked about secession since the Civil War). Two: Would slavery survive? And, of course, that was determined (slavery was irrevocably destroyed by the Civil War). So those main issues, which had bedeviled American life since the founding of the country, were now settled. But of course those two questions being settled put another question on the agenda, which was: What was going to be the status of those 4 million men and women and children who had been slaves and were now free? Were they going to become full members of society? Were they going to have the same rights as the white people, and if not, why not? What rights were they going to have? So that question, of whether an interracial democracy could be built on the ruins of slavery, was not settled by the Civil War and would go on to become the primary source of debate in the Reconstruction era that followed the war.

American Civil War, pt 6: the Civil Rights Bill of 1866

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Interviewer: Tell us about the provisions and broad significance of the Civil Rights Bill of 1866.

Eric Foner: The Civil Rights Bill of 1866, which is a critical measure in the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War, among other things, is the first significant law of Congress to pass over the veto of a president. President Andrew Johnson vetoed it and Congress passed it by a two-thirds margin, so it became law.

The Civil Rights Bill tried to put into the federal law the victorious Republican North's concept of what the abolition of slavery really meant. It had a number of key provisions. One was, it declared anybody born in the United States a citizen of the United States. Now, today we take that pretty much for granted, but that was not the case up to the Civil War. After all, remember, the Dred Scott decision had said no black person can be a citizen, even if they're born here, even if they're free, even if their ancestors go back 150 years. Citizenship is just for white people, said the Supreme Court. Well, the Civil Rights Bill overturns that. It says, anybody born here is a citizen, or those naturalized from abroad, and this of course applies to everybody, not just to blacks. It applies to immigrants, it applies to Asians, Hispanics, it doesn't matter who you are.

Second of all, it said all of those citizens are to enjoy equally a set of basic rights, and those rights were largely at this point the right of what we call free labor, the right to own property, the right to compete in the marketplace, hold a job, sign a contract, testify in court in order to protect your economic rights. In other words, it's an attempt to empower the former slaves to compete as equal participants in the economic marketplace. President Andrew Johnson had set up these all-white Southern governments that had passed very discriminatory laws against blacks, really trying to force them into a situation almost like slavery: the so-called Black Codes. Well, the Civil Rights Bill overturns all of those Black Codes, and says the laws have to apply equally to black and white people. In other words, you can't have one set of laws for blacks and one set of laws for whites; you can't say black people have to do this, but white people don't have to. So, the Civil Rights Bill creates these basic principles: birthright citizenship, and equal rights before the law for all the citizens of the United States.

Balancing political power and social movements

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Interviewer: In your own work, including The Fiery Trial and Give Me Liberty, you seem interested in always finding the proper historical balance between political power and broad social movements. Would you comment on that in regard to Lincoln and emancipation?

Eric Foner: I think that if one were looking for a theme in my writings, and there is probably more than one, whether it’s a textbook like Give Me Liberty or a scholarly work like The Fiery Trial, I’m interested in how and why change happens. That seems pretty simple but it’s a perennial issue among historians. Is it the great man? Is it leadership? Do you need to have the right people at the helm to bring about significant change? Or is it from below (social movements) or, in the case of Lincoln and slavery, the abolitionist movements? Or slaves themselves running away from slavery during the Civil War to serve in the Union Army? And I think, of course, it’s neither one nor the other.

What interests me is this intersection between political leadership, which is important, and popular movements, because without popular movements, political leadership finds it hard to achieve anything. At each point in our history the balance between political leadership and social movements changes.

In the case of Lincoln and the Civil War, it is an unusual combination because for thirty years before the Civil War, the abolitionist movement had tried to create public sentiment in the North demanding action against slavery. They were a small group, often despised in many parts of the North, but they did help to change public opinion and put this question on the national political agenda. Slaves themselves, by running away from slavery—even fugitive slaves who got to the North before the war—personalized the issue of slavery.  They brought it into northern communities in a way that presented real, live people, not just an abstract issue.

Then, of course, you had people like Lincoln. Lincoln is a politician, not a political agitator, so to speak. He had deep hostility toward slavery but he wanted to work within the political system, within the constitutional system. And so in Lincoln you see this balance between a moral commitment and respect for law; even respect for some of the compromises in the constitution that protected the institution of slavery.

Once the Civil War breaks out, Lincoln is pressured by abolitionists, black and white, and by others to take direct action against slavery. And he does. I think Lincoln grows and changes in his views during the war, and you have to have the ability to do that. Not every president put into a situation of crisis is capable of rising to the occasion. To see the importance of political leadership just compare Lincoln with his successor, Andrew Johnson, who came into the presidency after Lincoln was assassinated. Johnson was completely the opposite of Lincoln. He lacked intellectual curiosity. He was totally stubborn. Once he took a position he would never change it. He did not listen to critics. He had no sense of public opinion. He was deeply racist, also. Johnson was unable to rise to the challenge that was presented by Reconstruction.

This is what we always have to try to figure out: the balance between individual leadership and large social movements, both of which contributed to the end of slavery in the United States.

Republicanism in the antebellum period

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[NOTE: See Eric Foner on Christian republicanism in Chapter 5]

Interviewer: Do you see those ideas [of Christian Republicanism] operating at all in the antebellum Civil War period or had they changed by that time?

Eric Foner: I think that by the Civil War, or pre-Civil War period, the Deism of the founders had been pretty much swept away expect for a pretty small number of people and replaced by the Second Great Awakening. This was an era of very deeply felt religious revivals. The religion of these revivals was completely different from the Deism of the founders. It was emotional. It was based on a very personal relationship with Jesus Christ as a savior.

Jefferson, for example, produced a bible. It’s a weird bible because it takes all of the religion out of the bible. Jefferson certainly thought that Jesus Christ was a very intelligent fellow who put out very important ideas about how to conduct your life but was no more the son of god than anybody else.

By the time of the period before the Civil War you have these revivals of the personal relationship with Jesus, with Jesus as a personal savior, and this becomes an impulse to either attack slavery or to attack other social ills. But it’s a very different notion of how religious conviction ought to be expressed than what was common during the American Revolution. During the revolution, rather few Americans went to church at all. Ministers were very shocked during the early period of the republic that churchgoing was almost nonexistent in many places. Even if people were Christians they didn’t think there was any point in going to church that much.

By the decades leading up to the Civil War, that has changed. The Revivals had really swept large amounts of people, black as well as white, into a much closer connection with religious devotion.