BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Eric Foner, when did you decide to write "The Story of American Freedom"?
Professor ERIC FONER (Author, "The Story of American Freedom"): Well, I think all my career as a historian, going back now really almost 30 years, I've been interested in this problem of freedom because much of my work has been about slavery, the anti-slavery movement and the Reconstruction period, the emancipation of the slaves and after that. So freedom's been pretty central to my study, but it was only about four years ago that I thought maybe I could try to deal with this problem not just for the Civil War era, for--but for the whole of American history.
LAMB: Where did you first come across the word `freedom' in your life? Do you know?
Prof. FONER: Well, I think everybody in this country comes across it pretty early. You know, it's a free country; that's what we say pretty much whenever we want to explain almost anything we're doing. So I--I don't think I could pinpoint one place. But I grew up in the 1950s. That was a period of the Cold War, when freedom was very much in the public rhetoric and we were fighting to defend the free world against the Soviets. So freedom pervaded American public vocabulary more at that time than maybe at almost any other time in our history.
LAMB: You have a name in your book that we've often cited here from time to time, other authors have cited, who taught you: Richard Hofstadter.
Prof. FONER: Yes.
LAMB: Who was he?
Prof. FONER: Well, Hofstadter was one of the great historians of the previous generation of--of scholars. He wrote many books: "The American Political Tradition," "The Age of Reform," "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life" and others, which are still, you know, seminal works of American history. He--I was fortunate enough to have him as my mentor at Columbia University, both as an undergraduate student--the first published essay I ever wrote was about the Free Soil party, so I guess free--freedom has been with me for a long time. And Hofstadter supervised that as a senior thesis, and then he supervised my doctoral dissertation. So he was, you know, a tremendous inspiration to anyone who studied at Columbia, as I did, in the 1960s.
LAMB: Did he have a theme that he taught through his teaching?
Prof. FONER: Well, Hofstadter was not one of those who tried to mold a school of followers. He--he--I think as a great teacher, he really tried to get the students to do their best in terms of what they wanted to do. But his theme, which in a sense is the same theme as this book, although I do it probably a little differently than Hofstadter would have, is the relationship between American political ideas and the social history and political history of the country. How do ideas influence the history and vice versa?
He was very interested in social movements, like populism or things like that. He was very interested in the rhetoric of political leaders, progressivism. And I'm interested in those things, too. I mean, I guess this is a very Hofstadter kind of book, even though I think the way I go about it reflects my generation and not his.
LAMB: Where do you teach?
Prof. FONER: I teach at Columbia also, so I'm sort of following in his footsteps in a way.
LAMB: You finish this book off with the following sentence: `All one can hope is that, in the future, "the better angels of our nature," to borrow Lincoln's words, will reclaim their place in the forever-unfinished story of Amer--American freedom.' What were you getting at there?
Prof. FONER: Well, that comes at the end of a chapter in which I point out that I think the term `freedom,' so central to our political life, has been in the last generation pretty much appropriated by conservatives, anti-government activists. If you go out on the Internet today, you will find--and search for `freedom,' you will find militia units, anti-government extremists, people who don't want to pay taxes, people who believe in an unregulated free market. Freedom today is often used as just a negative: no government, no restraint, you know, no inhibition.
And what I'm trying to suggest is that there are other ideas of freedom in American history, other concepts which maybe also deserve a second look: freedom as economic security as during the New Deal--that's what freedom often meant; freedom as justice for those who've been deprived in our history. So j--after all, the civil rights movement called itself the Freedom Movement with its Freedom Rides and freedom schools. So I--I'm trying to suggest that there are other ideas of freedom in the American tradition. They don't have to be imported from somewhere else, but maybe they can be revived t--to really confront some of the pro--help confront some of the problems we face as a society.
LAMB: How did the conservatives adopt the freedom issue in the last several years?
Prof. FONER: Well, I think ever since the '60s, liberals and the left have sort of abandoned the notion--the term `freedom.' They've begun to talk more of rights, individual rights, group rights. They've come to rely more on courts to enforce their point of view. And, you know, you don't go to a court claiming freedom. You go to a court claiming rights. And I think conservatives have picked up this ball, which was dropped, and they have used it pretty much as--to reflect limited government, no regulation, things like that. Now those are deeply rooted ideas, but that's not all that freedom has meant in our history.
LAMB: You've got a lot of graphics in your book.
Prof. FONER: I spent a lot of time finding these images, yeah.
LAMB: What's this?
Prof. FONER: Well, that was from the Statue of Liberty centennial celebration in 1986, and it was--I guess coming from New York City, you'd call it a bunch of tchotchkes or just little--you know, little items produced for sale: ashtrays, statues, various replicas of the Statue of Liberty. What I'm trying to suggest there is how, during the Statue of Liberty celebration, the notion of liberty became so commercialized. I mean, they sold the rights to broadcast this Statue of Liberty celebration to a single television network. There were brand-name endorsements, as if liberty can be appropriated by a particular corporation. And that i--that image sort of suggests how the idea of liberty was, at that time, you know, intimately linked with selling things.
LAMB: The Statue of Liberty's all through your book. You see it everywhere. When did it come here?
Prof. FONER: Well, 100 years before that, 1886, it was unveiled. And it became very quickly a very recognizable symbol of liberty. It's in my book in many places because artists, cartoonists, satirists have used the Statue of Liberty to exemplify one sort of idea or another. Now this is a--an unusual one because, there, the s--the woman representing the Statue of Liberty is a little more svelte than usually you--maybe even sexy compared to how we usually think of the Statue of Liberty. It's from World War II. But the point that I emphasize in that picture is she's carrying the Bill of Rights, and it was during World War II that the Bill of Rights, so central today to our ideas about liberty, really became publicly identified as a, you know, central symbol of American freedom.
It wasn't always the case. We--we tend to think the Bill of Rights was revered all the way through our history, but it wasn't. There were many decades when it was pretty much ignored. And it was during World War II that this came to be seen as a central symbol of--or emblem of American freedom.
LAMB: You have...
Prof. FONER: Norman Rockwell.
LAMB: ...Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms." And when did he do this?
Prof. FONER: Well, those were during World War II, and that's a poster--a very popular poster put out by the Office of War Information, which p--visualized--you know, FDR had announced the four freedoms as the Allied war aims: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Today freedom from want has pretty much dropped out of our vocabulary. We d--nobody goes and claims that freedom from want is a genuine freedom, although I think it's something we do need to think about; that the person who is, as Roosevelt said, necessitous cannot be truly free.
But Rockwell, in his paintings, kind of located those freedoms in very easily recognizable family settings and really brought them home to people in a way that was very concrete, not abstract at all. And those paintings became immensely popular and were displayed during the war and traveled around the country to raise money for the war effort.
LAMB: I thought it was interesting that you point out that they were published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943, and then you said that there were three celebrated authors who wrote articles around these freedoms: Stephen Vincent Benet, Booth Tarkington and Will Durant.
Prof. FONER: Right.
LAMB: I just wanted to ask you about Will Durant.
Prof. FONER: Yeah.
LAMB: I've never asked anybody about this.
Prof. FONER: Yeah.
LAMB: He did the big, huge series on civilization?
Prof. FONER: "History of Civilization," right.
LAMB: Did you ever know him?
Prof. FONER: No. I think he's slightly a previous generation. I--of course, growing up, like many other people, we had those "History of Civilization" books in our house, Will and Ariel Durant. It's a kind of writing which isn't done that much anymore. Will Durant was not a professor of history. He was a scholar, a writer, but this is popular history of a pretty high level, but written in a very engaging and, you know, accessible manner and trying to sweep over the whole history of civilization. Today very few historians would really think they'd be capable of doing that.
LAMB: How did you go about writing this book, and what kind of an audience do you want to read it?
Prof. FONER: Well, of course, every author wants as big an audience to read it as possible. It is not written for the academic audience, per se. I do hope that "that audience," we often talk about the general public interested in history, will find it of interest and perhaps agree with me that looking at American history through the lens of freedom enables you to sort of understand some familiar issues in new ways and, also, to uncover some less-familiar aspects of the American past.
But this is a book based on, you might say, s--other historians' work to a large degree. It's not written out of the archives. I've written previous books which used hundreds of manuscript collections. But this covers such a broad time span that, to do that, it would have been--taken decades. The only two manuscript collections that I cite for the 20th century--this probably is the only book you can say this of--are the Norman Rockwell papers, because I was interested in letters he received about his "Four Freedoms" paintings, and the Betty Friedan papers up at Harvard because where--or Radcliffe because when she published her famous book about feminism in the early 19--"The Feminine Mystique" in the early 1960s, many, many women wrote her personal letters saying that they had never quite understand how--understood how their freedom was restrained.
But, basically, this book is based on the scholarship of the last 20, 30 years by scores--hundreds of historians who have really revamped the way we think about American history. And I'm trying to sort of bring that whole new vision of history to bear on a kind of narrative of the American past.
LAMB: Go back to the Constitution because you say there are three different peoples that are talked about in the Constitution: Indians, `other persons,' known as slaves then, and the people, which was only a third of those in the country that enjoyed liberty.
Prof. FONER: Well, the first--yes. The first words of the Constitution, of course, are `We, the people.' And very soon thereafter, they talk about `securing the blessings of liberty,' which is the purpose of the Constitution. But one of the points I make in this book is not only that the meaning of freedom, what people understand freedom to be, has changed many times in American history, but what I call the boundaries of freedom have also changed and been very contested. Who is entitled to enjoy freedom? And in the Constitution, it's very explicit that there are the `We, the people.' But that's not everybody who's here because there's the Indians, who are sort of separated out in their sort of sovereignties, who you deal with by treaty. They're not really part of the political system. And then there's that 700,000 or 800,000 `other persons,' and those are the slaves. And they're not part of `We, the people.'
The framers of the Constitution did not consider it a contradiction to have a Constitution for the blessings of liberty and yet put in clauses securing and strengthening the institution of slavery, because the slaves were not part of the body politic. The Constitution just did not speak for them. So it--it--there was a great struggle, as you well know, over many years in this country to bring African-Americans under the protection of the `blessings of liberty' of the Constitution.
LAMB: Do you think the forefathers knew what they were doing when they wrote
Prof. FONER: Well, the forefathers were very profound thinkers and very shrewd politicians. Lord Acton, the British writer, once said that the Constitution is an effort to avoid settling basic issues. What he meant by it is that it's filled with compromises, ranging from whether all the slaves should be counted or none of them and they end up with three-fifths. Language on many, many points are compromises. But they knew--they knew that they were establishing a sort of precarious experiment. Republics didn't have a very good track record in--in history. Most of them sort of fell apart pretty quickly. Never had there been a republic existing over such a vast area as the United States.
The one thing I think the founders didn't expect is that they were anticipating every single problem that would emerge in the future. They might be kind of surprised today that people think to ex--to deal with problems today, we have to go back and figure out what the Founding Fathers thought about it because, obviously, they did not--they put down bl--guidelines, but not a specific blueprint for every single thing the government should do afterwards.
LAMB: I mean, for instance, would they--if they came back today, would they be surprised by the fact that women can vote, that blacks are full, equal citizens?
Prof. FONER: Oh, many of them would be very surprised by that, of course.
LAMB: Would they have wanted that?
Prof. FONER: Probably not, but that doesn't mean that we, therefore, have to simply re-enact the prejudices of the Founding Fathers. You know, during the bicentennial of the Constitution celebrations in 1787, Justice Thurgood Marshall said exactly that in a famous and somewhat controversial speech. He said, `Look, we revere the founders, but let's not think that they had all the answers and that we have to go back and re-enact all their beliefs.' They certainly believed that women should be outside of the body politic, that women were not suited by, you know, nature to take part in political debate. Abigail Adams wrote a famous letter to John Adams--I quote it in the book--during the Revolution saying, `Well, I hope you'll remember the ladies. You know, what about giving women some rights?' And Adams wrote back saying, `Well, this is the craziest idea I've ever heard.'
And then he went on to say that, you know, `This is just one example of how the Revolution is unleashing all these forces we didn't anticipate. Blacks,' he said, `are demanding their rights. Indians are getting insolent. Students in universities are no longer listening to their teachers.' In other words, this was a revolution, and all sorts of groups were trying to use the opportunity to promote their own rights. And the cause of freedom makes progress because of that.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
Prof. FONER: I don't know. They list them in the beginning of the book.
LAMB: I--I've tried to count them, and I--I--I...
Prof. FONER: Well, a couple of those are edited. I probably wrote, if you call it real books, I don't know, seven or eight, something like that. Then I edited a few others. But I--I've written a good number. I--I don't--I'm not one of those people who has a sort of writing block. You know, I don't find writing difficult. It's painful, as many people find it, but I--or maybe another way of putting it is I'm not a perfectionist. I--I write, I revise and then I want to move on. I don't mull over the thing for years and years and years trying to make it absolutely impeccable in every single way.
LAMB: When did you write your book on Thomas Paine?
Prof. FONER: Well, that was published in 1976 around the time of the bicentennial of the American Revolution. And I'd always been interested in Thomas Paine as a forerunner of many of the social movements and radical ideas of the 19th century and ch--20th century. And I had been fortunate enough, after I graduated from college, to get a fellowship to study in England for two years, and I came to know something about the traditions that Paine had come out of in the 18th century, and that made me even--in England--and that made me even more interested in seeing what happened to him when he came over to the United States and how he got to be such a spokesman for American independence.
LAMB: What would he be today politically if he were here?
Prof. FONER: Hmm. You know, everybody claims Tom Paine as a precursor, and you can do that. Paine was a very protean thinker. He was a--an--he anticipated the welfare state. He put forward a whole series of measures of progressive taxation and old-age pensions and poor relief and free public education, but he also said government is the badge of lost innocence and the least government, the better. And he thought that you could have a world of free commerce without much government at all. So libertarians and conservatives claim him, radicals claim him. He was very close to labor activists in Philadelphia. He--he sort of touches on many different themes that flow out into the modern world and separate, but at the time Paine was in them, they all seemed pretty much congruent with each other.
LAMB: You had a book on Nat Turner.
Prof. FONER: Well, that was an edited book. I also teach African-American history as well as general 19th-century American history, and there was a series of books of little capsule biographies of dramatic figures in American history. And Nat Turner was certainly pretty dramatic as the most significant slave rebel, really, in 19th-century America. And I was very interested not only in Nat Turner himself, but in the country's reaction to this slave revolution, which--or rebellion, which took place in 1831 in which 60 or 70 white people were killed and many, many slaves were killed. And it sort of, you know, dramatized the--you know, the problem of slavery in--in a way which just a bunch of speeches might not really do.
LAMB: Do you have any idea when you got your first real political thought and started to believe in something?
Prof. FONER: Well, I grew up in a very politically alert family. My parents had been very involved in political activism from the 1930s onwards.
LAMB: Doing what?
Prof. FONER: In lab--labor activity, mostly. I mean, I have two uncles who were heads of labor unions when I was growing up, the Fur and...
LAMB: Which ones?
Prof. FONER: ...the Fur and Leather Workers Union in New York and 1199, the Drug and Hospital Workers Union. Civil rights, black rights were very important. I--I grew up, well before the civil rights movement, just knowing that the condition of black Americans was sort of a standing test of the, you know, truth of the professions of this country about liberty and equality. And I also learned very early that some of the rhetoric about freedom in our country doesn't always measure up to reality.
My father was blacklisted for many, many years, one of the victims of McCarthyism and blacklisted for many years. He's a historian; he could not teach because of his political views. No one ever accused him of any illegal act of any kind. He wasn't blowing up any buildings or nothing. He just held views which were unpopular and was, you know, deprived of his livelihood, and that led me to realize, even as a child, I guess--I wouldn't have put it quite in this way then--that, you know, freedom is very precarious. It's one thing to have rights in the Constitution and the laws, but to actually have them infuse our lives a--you know, as--as a people is a little more difficult. And quite frequently we talk about freedom, but violate it.
LAMB: What kind of views did your dad have that had him blacklisted?
Prof. FONER: Well, these were left-wing, you know--what you might call old left views. They were considered subversive, you know. But as I said, most of them had to do with being very involved in labor activism in the 1930s, supporting the Spanish republic, supporting--a--a--and opposition to the Cold War, I guess you would say, later on after--after World War II. But these ideas, which in the 1930s were not very unusual, during the Cold War period came to be seen as very dangerous. Vie--actions and beli--and beliefs which were seen as part of the political spectrum 10 years before suddenly came to be seen as, you know, un-American.
We had a committee, as you know, looking into un-American activities, and people were put in this position of either having to repudiate their views publicly or to name other people--in other words, throw someone else to the wolves in order to save yourself--or to suffer the consequences. And I de--learned a great of respect for people who were willing to stand up for their views and suffer the consequences rather than just chuck someone else overboard.
LAMB: If he was blacklisted, then what did he do for a living?
Prof. FONER: He worked, all the time I was growing up, as a free-lance lecturer, basically, lecturing on world affairs and history to groups of people around the New York City area and the Northeast. It wasn't a tremendously lucrative living, but it--we--we managed to--we ma--managed to make a living, yeah.
LAMB: Where'd you live?
Prof. FONER: In Long Beach, Long Island, the good, typical American suburb.
LAMB: And what'd your mom do?
Prof. FONER: She was a high school art teacher, who retired in the early 1950s for medical reasons. And she paints and has won a good number of prizes if--from National Association of Women Artists and other artistic organizations.
LAMB: And what's their names? Are they still alive?
Prof. FONER: Yeah. Foner--Jack Foner and Leza Foner. They're still alive and healthy, yes.
LAMB: When did you decide, though, that you wanted to be a history professor?
Prof. FONER: Well, you know, the funny thing is, even though my father is a historian, when I went to college, I thought I was going to be an astronomer. I loved--this was my great love when I was a kid: looking at the moon and the stars and the planets through a telescope. In fact, the first book I ever wrote, in a sense, was at age seven when I sat down over Christmas vacation and wrote a book about the solar system, with each planet getting one page. That was a chapter. And then I drew a picture of each one. And I went to college, and for two years, I majored in math and science and astronomy.
And then two things happened: One, I guess you might say I reached the limits of my ability, and I just--I--I guess I reached a wall and I just could not go very much further in all the calculus and advanced math. And second, I had a--this often happens in college. I--I was lucky enough to take a course with a--a professor named James Shenton, a teacher at Columbia, on the Civil War. And he's an--a tremendously inspiring teacher, recently retired. Generations of students have loved him. And somehow taking a course with him just some--I--I just changed my mind. I said, `This is what I want to do.' And somehow, ever since then, I've been studying the Civil War period. I mean, th--this is what a great teacher can do: really turn your interest around. Because of his own love of the subject, he can inspire other people to love it, too.
LAMB: What was the impact--or--or maybe a better way to ask it: You--you talk about Great Britain and what freedom meant there.
Prof. FONER: Right.
LAMB: Let's start with that.
Prof. FONER: Well, in the Colonial period, before the Revolution, Americans--at least the Americans who weren't slaves, you know, were proud to be members of the British empire. Being part of the British empire was being part of the freest political system on Earth. The `rights of Englishmen' was a common phrase in colonial America as well as in Britain, and the rights of Englishmen basically meant, you know, the right to choose your own government, the right not to have an arbitrary authority over you, the rule of law, the common law. But the key thing is these were the rights of Englishmen. It was a parochial idea. Nobody thought that the French ought to have these rights. Nobody thought Africans ought to have them. There was no contradiction between the liberties of the English and enslaving Africans because Africans are, obviously, outside the boundary.
What happens in the Revolution is that this notion of the rights of Englishmen gets universalized, and so the Declaration of Independence doesn't say that `life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' are English rights or American rights. `These are the inalienable rights of mankind.' And the purpose of the American Revolution is not just to get us our rights, but to put forward a beacon of liberty for the whole world or, as Tom Paine says in "Common Sense," `an asylum for freedom.' People from all over the world can come here seeking freedom. That is the--so we have a worldwide significance, not just the rights of Englishmen or French people or others. America stands in a little different relationship to everyone else, and that's sort of the ideological foundations of American political culture and I think it's one of the reasons why freedom has remained such a central part of our vocabulary all the way through u--up to the present.
It's not that other countries don't believe in freedom or people in other countries don't worship freedom, but it's not so central to their language. They have other words which are equally important: e--fraternity, equality, justice. Freedom is the--by far, the central concept in our political thought, all the way from the Revolution to the present.
LAMB: Do you notice your students change from the time you start talking about freedom in the classroom until you get finished with them at the end of the semester?
Prof. FONER: Well, one always hopes students will change; that they will become a little more knowledgeable and they will also question many beliefs that they perhaps had. But, you know, Columbia is a place, as many other universities are, with extremely able students, very hardworking students. And their views change, but, you know, there's a sort of a shibboleth out there now, much exaggerated, I believe, that somehow, you know, universities are controlled by tenure rad--tenured radicals who are trying to indoctrinate students. One thing I've noticed about students is, even if I were trying to indoctrinate them, were I--which I'm not, th--it's not so easy to do that. They think for themselves. If you tell them something they don't agree with, they don't agree with it, as--as is correct.
What you try to teach them is, A, how to support an argument with facts and evidence, not just to say the first thing that comes into your head or to simply give you--receive knowledge, but how to develop a historical argument and use the evidence in order to marshal the facts and bolster your case. But neither I nor anybody else I know in the academic world is trying to impose a single point of view on students.
LAMB: Well, maybe I asked it wrong. Wh--is there a book that you assign your students that changes their lives, one that--above all the others?
Prof. FONER: A single book?
LAMB: Or a--or a--or a course of teaching, you know...
Prof. FONER: Well, I think that--you know, I teach a yearlong course on the civil--on--on the 19th century, the Civil War era, and I think by the end of that, students, even when they've had good, you know, courses in high school and everything, have come to a realization of something that isn't quite emphasized, even now, sufficiently in most teaching of history, which is the centrality of slavery in American history, the centrality of it at the time of the Revolution, the--the economic power of slavery in the first part of the 19th century and, in this sense, the--the centrality of slavery to our ideas of liberty.
Many of our d--our ideas of freedom evolve in contradistinction to slavery. Many slave owners believed that the true freedom was owning a slave and that that gave you a sense of mastership and domination, which actually was essential to true liberty and independence. So I think they do learn that slavery is a rather more important part of American history than maybe they thought. It's not just a little footnote.
LAMB: And what's this?
Prof. FONER: That's actually the cover of a piece of sheet music from the--patriotic sheet music from the Union's side during the Civil War. And if you look very carefully, you will see on top of the flagpole is a cap of liberty. And on top of the woman, representing the public--the Republic, is a cap of liberty. And what I'm trying to show there is how the flag, the--the--the sense of nationalism and patriotism became so closely tied with liberty during the Civil War. The nation became the embodiment of freedom.
Before the Civil War, remember, there was a great deal of hostility to a strong, central government and a feeling that powerful government was a threat to liberty. But the Civil War makes the govern--the national government, as Charles Sumner, the abolitionist, said, `the custodian of freedom.' Through the emancipation of the slaves, the government has sort of come to embody the--the impulse toward liberty, and that drawing sort of represents this fusion of nationalism and liberty, which is brought about by the Civil War.
LAMB: What's this illustration?
Prof. FONER: That's a famous lithograph from Frank Leslie's weekly, one of the--or illustrated newspaper--one of the illustrated publications of the late 19th century. It's one of the very first images that I know of in which the Statue of Liberty is explicitly linked to immigrants coming to the United States, immigrants on a boat entering New York Harbor, seeing the Statue of Liberty. I think that's from 1887, a year--or maybe '88--right after the Statue of Liberty is dedicated.
And even though the poem at the base by Emma Lazarus talks about, you know, `Give us your tired,' etc., `people coming,' when the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, it wasn't really linked to immigration. It was linked to French-American friendship. After all, it was a Frenchman who had devised the Statue of Liberty. It was linked to liberty as the American idea. But that cartoon shows how early it became connected with liberty at--for immigrants.
Now this is--I wouldn't say it's one of my favorite images, but it's certainly one of the more dramatic ones here. And here's another use of the Statue of Liberty. This is from the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1906, and it's a comment on a lynching of three black men near St. Louis. These men--black men accused of some crime or other, were lynched from a lamp post, atop which was a replica of the Statue of Liberty. And this cartoonist, in a very bitter image, shows their bodies hanging from the Statue of Liberty, as if to say, `Liberty is not quite all we think it is in this country.'
Prof. FONER: And this is from the '30s. It's a sculpture, a bas-relief, by an artist in Boston, and it's in that style of the '30s of this realistic style and it sort of sug--it--the--the brawny workers there, you see, ringing the Liberty Bell. And it's sort of--I--I use that to open this chapter in which the freedom of labor or the rights of labor and economic security come to be very central to notions of freedom, of course, in the Great Depression.
There's another unusual one and a--that there, the Statue of Liberty, is metamorphosized into President Theodore Roosevelt with a billy club, and it's sort of to comment on the government's use of repression against immigrant radicals, anarchists and others, who would be arrested and deported. And it's from an Italian-American newspaper, and it's to suggest that liberty doesn't quite exist fully for these immigrant radicals.
Now there's a cute one. This is an immigration--I mean, an Americanization pageant in Milwaukee, I think, in which immigrants are dressed in a--this is a school procedure--immigrants dressed in their native garb meet these two emblems of America, Abraham Lincoln and the Statue of Liberty, and it's part of their becoming American, is to sort of assimilate into that tradition. Now it is said--I'm not 100 percent sure this is true, but it is said that the woman playing--or dressed as the Statue of Liberty is young Golda Meir, later, of course, the prime minister of Israel. She was living in Milwaukee at that time, and I'm not 100 percent sure it is her, but it could well be. She--she was around at the time.
LAMB: How did you find all these illustrations?
Prof. FONER: Well, you have to--it's--it's a lot of work, and I--I spent a lot of time finding these illustrations and sometimes you see them reproduced in another book. Nowadays, you actually can search on the Internet for a lot of illustrations. The Library of Congress and other archives have put a lot of their visual images on the Internet. And then you just--you just keep looking. Wherever you are doing research, you keep your eye out for interesting pictures, photographs, illustrations, cartoons. And it--it's a different kind of research, but it can be very rewarding to see how v--liberty has been visually portrayed as well as through political action and political, you know, treatises.
LAMB: Where do you do your writing?
Prof. FONER: I have a little study at home and that's where I do it, cluttered up with papers. My wife thinks I'm crazy. I--I don't use any particularly ver--efficient filing system. I write from little pieces of--I--I take notes and I cut them up into a little piece of paper and make piles all over the place. So when I'm writing, the floor and desk are completely covered with little piles of paper. And I'm the only one who knows what they represent.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
Prof. FONER: In New York City, right opposite Columbia University in a very nice apartment building on the Upper West Side of New York.
LAMB: Now you dedicate this book to your daughter? Is it Daria?
Prof. FONER: Daria Rose Foner, age, well, of just about 11 now.
LAMB: And you said something in the back--I can't remember what it was. You had a special comment that you made about her in the back if I can find it.
Prof. FONER: Well, in the acknowledgments, I think I said something to the effect that, as with any child, I--I'm sure that this book was a bit of a trial to her. After all, her father spent a lot more time than he should have buried away in his office writing rather than paying proper attention to his daughter. And I just wanted to say that I appreciated the fact that she maintained her good humor and positive attitude toward life through all of this because it is trying for a child to have parents--my wife is also an academic. She's a scholar of dance history. So when you have two parents who are writers, it's--can be a little difficult for a child when they're both working to deadlines.
LAMB: And her name is Lynn Garafola.
Prof. FONER: Lynn Garafola, right. She's written about dance history, yes.
LAMB: The American creed--what is it?
Prof. FONER: Well, Gunnar Myrdal, in--in his great book "The American Dilemma," published during World War II--I don't know that he invented the term `the American creed,' but he certainly pushed it to the forefront of thinking about race relations, and he said there is this American creed, belief in equality, belief in individual dignity, belief in liberty for all. The problem, said Myrdal, was Americans are not living up to their creed. The condition of black Americans is a complete violation of this American creed of equal opportunity for all, and that's the American dilemma. That was the title of the book. And he was an optimist. He said eventually, the United States is gonna have to live up to its creed and change race relations.
Now my book m--it--you might say, deconstructs this American creed a little bit. I'm not quite as optimistic as Myrdal about what the American creed is, or at least I think I've tried to show that those beliefs are out there, but also out there has been, throughout our history, a persistent struggle over the boundaries of that creed, who is entitled to it. We have long excluded one group or another from participation in the supposed universal, you know, right to equal opportunity and dignity and equality, etc. Those battles are an intrinsic part of American history. They're not just a little exception, the fact that one group or another has been excluded. The very nature of liberty in our history is often based on exclusion. The liberty of the slave owner is based on the slavery of the slave. The autonomy of the male head of household at many points is based on the subordination of the female member of this household. So it's not quite as simple, I think, as Myrdal suggested, that there's a single set of beliefs, 'cause within those beliefs are contradictions in and of themselves.
LAMB: You say that this was even controversial when it went up to the top of the Capitol, the Statue of Freedom?
Prof. FONER: Right. It's still...
LAMB: Where did--where did it come from?
Prof. FONER: It's still there. Well, on the right, you see the Statue of Freedom as it now exits, atop the Capitol in Washington, DC. On the left, you see the original design. This is 1855 and the sculptor Thomas Crawford was commissioned to come up with a design for a Statue of Freedom to go on top of the Capitol. Now his original design had Freedom wearing a liberty cap. And the secretary of war, who was financing this at the time, was Jefferson Davis, one of the largest slave owners in the Confederacy and, of course later--in the South and, later, president of the Confederacy. And Davis said, `No way. We can't have a cap of liberty,' because a cap of liberty originated in ancient Rome as a symbol of emancipated slaves, and he said it would be highly inappropriate to have a symbol of emancipated slaves atop the Capitol building in Washington. So Crawford changed it to a woman with a feathered helmet, and that's what's up there now. But again, that shows how slavery shapes people's ideas about freedom.
Now this from the other side is a abolitionist broadside or the top half of it, and the abolitionists challenged the notion that the United States was, indeed, a land of liberty. In fact, you can see in the lower left corner, they have in quotes "The Land Of The Free," their point being, which is pretty good argument, that in a country with four million slaves, you cannot call it the land of the free, and slave market of America, and then they give other, you know, arguments against it. But the abolitionists challenged this notion that Americans could call themselves truly free while they lived in a slave society.
LAMB: You write about two, maybe three Freedom Trains.
Prof. FONER: Yeah. You know, the first Freedom Train, which was a very popular and important event, was in 1947 to '48. This was a ti--this was a--a train which had 133 revered documents of American history from the Mayflower Compact to the Declaration of Independence and others, all originals. And it traveled around the country to hundreds of cities. I mean, it shows you how long ago it was that you could travel to hundreds of cities by train. And people went onto the Freedom Train--there's a picture from Life magazine--and they waited on line to view these documents and then they came off and took a freedom pledge and a freedom scroll, and it certainly showed in the aftermath of World War II the great popular identification with freedom.
But I also used this story to show how, as I show throughout the book, freedom is a very contested idea. There was a lot of debate about what documents should go on the Freedom Train. Eventually, some were thrown off, like the Wagner Act giving the right to organize--to organized labor was evicted from the Freedom Train. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution was put off the Freedom Train. There was very little about blacks on the Freedom Train and their emancipation. But the Freedom Train's organizers did insist that the train be integrated, that you couldn't have segregation going into the Freedom Train, and some Southern cities refused to have the Freedom Train. Birmingham and Memphis banned it because they couldn't separate visitors by race.
Now this picture--very famous, of course--is of the kitchen debate--this is the end of that chapter about freedom and the Cold War period--between Vice President Nixon and Soviet Premier Khruschchev in the American Industrial Exposition in Moscow in 1959. And one of the points of my discussion of that is how, during the Cold War, and after, freedom comes to be very closely associated with consumption, with the ability to purchase goods in the marketplace. And when Nixon gave his speech there at that exhibition, it was called What Freedom Means to Us, but instead of talking about political democracy or civil liberties, what he talked about was that there were 56 million cars in the United States and 50 million television sets. Freedom meant to us, he said, the ability to consume goods in the marketplace. In fact, oddly enough, it was left to Khruschchev to say, `Wait a minute. Isn't there something more than that? Weren't there any ideals that freedom also represents?'
Now here's a rather different vision of freedom just a few years after--after Nixon's speech. This is from '64, I think, from Mississippi. It--it may be a little hard to see, but what it is, it's a wonderful photograph by a--a Japanese-American photographer who lives in Vancouver who was down in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964. A cross was burned by the Klan in front of a civil rights headquarters. Instead of just taking it away, what they did was write the name `free'--the word `freedom' on the cross and leave it there as an act of defiance or as a way of sort of taking the cross and turning it into something else. And I guess the point of the picture is that freedom was the byword of the civil rights revolution with their freedom songs and their freedom schools and their freedom rides and their cry of, `Freedom now.' This was--this was the ul--this was the essential meaning of freedom in the 1960s, the--it--its association with the black struggle for racial justice in this country.
LAMB: What's the cover?
Prof. FONER: The cover is a mural done during the 1930s, sponsored by the WPA, by Ben Shahn. It still exists, actually, in the Jamaica, Long Island, post office, out in--near New York City. I chose it be--even though it's a little busy, because it's one of the very few images I've seen that actually has several different conceptions of freedom all together in one image. At the center is the torch and the hand of the Statue of Liberty, and around it are representations, down in the left, of freedom of speech, freedom of religion--there's a church up there--the right to vote--there's a ballot--freedom of the press--there's a man with newspapers--and ag--and--and, I guess, the right to petition. I think on the right you have a group of men bringing petitions to the government. So you've got a lot of the Bill of Rights in here--and the right to vote, which is not part of the Bill of Rights--as different elements of American freedom, and that's why I like that--that--that--that image, because usually when you see a picture of freedom, it's one i--it's one element of freedom: economic freedom, political freedom, personal freedom. Here, you've got a whole bunch of them in one v--rather striking visual image.
LAMB: By the way, how would you rate our freedom today?
Prof. FONER: Well, I think we have a lot of freedom in many, many areas of our life and--of our lives, and the 1960s and its aftermath has tremendously expanded freedom in certain realms--in personal life, in what we call lifestyle. Women enjoy far more freedom than they did in the past. But I think that, as I suggested at the end of the book, some other elements of freedom are perhaps in eclipse at the moment, particularly a more substantive vision of what economic freedom is as a--just more than simply the free marketplace as the definition of freedom. The notion of economic security, of--of everybody having some sort of economic wherewithal, which used to be very central to what people freedom--felt freedom was, has gone into eclipse.
And so one of the things--one of--I--I quote in--in la--earlier in the book a--one of my favorite comments from the Civil War period by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist, in which he says, `Revolutions may go backward.' Sometimes we gain freedom, sometimes we lose freedom. It's not just a straight line of ever-increasing progress.
LAMB: In the back, in your ac--your acknowledgements, you talk about the fact that you got a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship for senior scholars. How does that work?
Prof. FONER: Well, the National Endowment for the Humanities, much abused in Congress nowadays, unfortunately, is a major governmental agency promoting s--the dissemination and creation of scholarship. It promotes scholarly books like this. I mean, I--I was--you apply. I mean, you know, there are--many, many people apply. You send in a proposal, you have letters of recommendation and there are committees of peers, of other scholars who judge the viability and the--and the worth of these proposals. I proposed to--what I needed the money for was to take a year off from teaching in conjunction with a sabbatical from school, which gives you half of your salary, the National Endowment will supplement that to some degree to enable you to take time off from teaching in order to write. And it's--it's the National Endowment is greatly, you know, revered by scholars without whom--without--without their support, it would be almost impossible for serious scholarship to continue in this country.
LAMB: Do they check your views on any of this stuff? I mean, do they--you have to have a certain point of view?
Prof. FONER: No, I don't think there's a government position, not at all. I think that they promote scholarship of all kinds. Scholars of left, right, center, north and south have gotten grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and they also promote museum exhibitions and they promote the publication of documentary projects and many, many ways of--of disseminating scholarship, not only creating it in the academic world but disseminating it out to a broad public beyond the academy. I--I don't believe there's any political test in the National Endowment for the Humanities as to who--it's peers, it's other professors who are on these committees judging it. It's not members of Congress or members of the Cabinet or people like that.
LAMB: You don't have to submit a story line or anything like that to get...
Prof. FONER: Well, you have to submit a proposal, about four pages. It's not that detailed, but you have to say what you're gonna do, right. And I...
LAMB: They don't check it, though, after you've written it.
Prof. FONER: Well, if they--I don't know if they could get--you mean they might ask for their money back...
Prof. FONER: ...and say, `Wait a minute. This book didn't turn out the way I expected'? Very few books turn out exactly as you expect when you write your four-page proposal, but, no, there are--I've never heard of them checking it. I suppose--I sent them a copy. I hope they're pleased with it. But they're giving it to you because they have confidence in you as a scholar to produce something of value.
LAMB: In 1993-'94, you were over at the University of Oxford teaching American history...
Prof. FONER: Right.
LAMB: ...to British...
Prof. FONER: Bri--British students. Yes, I was what they called a Harmsworth professor. Each year, there is one professor of American history from the US who goes and spends the year in Oxford teaching US history. It--this--this position goes back to the 1920s. It's a considerable honor to be invited to do that. And it--you know, there are a few American Rhodes scholars floating around, but the vast majority of the students are British and it was a great experience.
LAMB: What's the difference between teaching American students American history and teaching British students?
Prof. FONER: Well, there's a lot of difference. Of course, the Oxford students are very bright, as the American students are, but first--I mean, on one level, they don't know as much. They haven't had American history in school the way ours do, so you have to really begin--you have to explain a lot of things. They don't know how our American political system works, they don't know how the constitutional system works. They have their own parliamentary system. There are no--you know, the role of the Supreme Court, for example, has to be explained in some detail. There is no Supreme Court of that kind in Britain.
But also, on the other hand, they don't--they're not American patriots, so to speak, you know. In other words, they don't assume that the United States is ipso facto, you know, on the right side of things all the time. Not that every American student believes that, too, but when we write American history, we are writing the history of the American nation-state very often, and in Britain, the American nation-state is just another country out there. It's not--you know, so--so that you actually can have a more dispassionate point of view about the history of another country than perhaps your own country.
LAMB: Who learned faster--or who leans faster?
Prof. FONER: British or American?
Prof. FONER: I--I don't think there's any difference. I think e--American students and British students are very, very good and, you know, the gap is narrowing. The world is so much smaller now. Most of these--I was--I was a student at Oxford 30 years before. At that time, very few of these British students ha--had ever been in America and knew very little about America. Today, they've all traveled to the United States, they are completely familiar with American popular culture--music, television, movies. So in a certain sense, they're l--much less different than perhaps they were, and the sort of general internationalization of everything is beginning to erode some of those cultural differences.
LAMB: Late in your book, the name Ronald Reagan pops up a lot. It starts early. During the war, you say that he was in a film called "This Is the Army," the most popular film from the war?
Prof. FONER: From World War II, right. Reagan spent the war making films, and one of my points about these films--and this is pretty well-known, of course--is that during World War II, a vision of the United States as a pluralistic society in which each group had a--had an equal share, so to speak, i--in the country was very widely popul--it was very different than World War I, when the emphasis was Americanization, all these immigrants gotta give up their old past and, you know, melt into the melting pot. In World War II, we emphasize the multiculturalism, to use a modern word, of the American population. And these Army movies--you know, every platoon had one Ger--you know, a Jew and a Catholic and a Protestant and sometimes even a black, even though the Army was actually segregated. The--the celluloid Army was more integrated than the real Army. And Reagan was in these movies which sort of promoted brotherhood and pluralism by throwing together all these different Americans and showing how much they all had in common in the end. And this is part of--a sort of form of assimilation in which these older boundaries to freedom began to erode very radically.
Now this is the beginning--although Reagan comes up much later in this chapter called Conservative Freedom, and they--this opens with a picture of a demonstration in the 1960s by the Young Americans for Freedom. We think of the 1960s very often as a radical decade, you know, of Students for a Democratic Society and the Civil War movement and the anti--civil rights movement and the anti-war movement and the counterculture. It was also a decade when a lot of conservative activism took place, and the Young Americans for Freedom was sort of the conservative counterpart of the Students for a Democratic Society. And the last chapter, as I said before, is how since then conservatives have increasingly appropriated the concept of freedom for their own p--pur--you know, political agenda.
LAMB: What do you think of that?
Prof. FONER: Well, I--I think this has happened many times in American history. I don't happen to be a conservative, so I'm not too pleased with it, but I'm not gonna condemn it and say, `No, these guys are doing something out of bounds, foul.' My fear is that, as I say, old--some other ideas of freedom are being lost sight of.
But--now this is the last image in my book and is kind of interesting in a s--now that we're in a vaguely high-tech world. The last thing I did in working on this book was go to the Internet and search for `freedom,' and I came up with some pretty unusual things, and one is the group at the top, the United States Freedom Fighters, rather bellicose-looking, and then the Militia of Montana. These are images off of their Web sites. And the Militia of Montana says th--in there `It's your choice: freedom or slavery.' Now one of the interesting things about the Militia of Montana is that they don't believe in the federal government, but they do believe in copyright laws. So I had to get copyright permission from them to reproduce this image in my book, and I had a very interesting e-mail exchange with the Militia of Montana. I must say they were very generous and courteous. I'm not criticizing them on this front. They even volunteered to come and address any class of mine that I wanted in the future free of charge, but I'm not sure if I'm taking them up on that.
This is an example of the use of the Statue of Liberty in a more satirical vein. It's...
LAMB: I gotta tell the audience that right there it says...
Prof. FONER: `Made in Malaysia.' This is Hans Haacke, the artist. It's called Barbie's Liberty. This is the ubiquitous Barbie doll holding a little thing saying `Made in Malaysia.' In other words, it's a comment on the flight of many jobs overseas to lower-paying areas, as we all know, loss of manufacturing jobs. And even liberty, it seems, is being created overseas now, says--says--says Haacke in that cartoon.
LAMB: You say that Ronald Reagan used the word `freedom' more than anybody either before or after him.
Prof. FONER: Any president. Well, see, this is the kind of research you can do nowadays. I wouldn't call it high-level research. All the papers of all the presidents are on a CD-ROM and you can literally search for the word `freedom' or `liberty.' And if you do so, you will discover that Ronald Reagan used those words more than any other president. Now that doesn't prove lot in and of itself, but it does emphasize this--his very concerted effort to reshape the notion of liberty in his own image, just as FDR did. FDR also--see, liberty, when FDR came into power, was a very conservative idea, associated with the free market and limited government. And Roosevelt redefined liberty to mean economic security and freedom from want and things like this. Herbert Hoover accused Roosevelt of prostituting, literally, the word `freedom' by turning it into a rallying cry for modern liberalism.
Reagan did much the same thing in the other direction. He repudiated the sort of New Deal definition of freedom and, in his use of freedom, he associated it, again, with, you know, lack of regulation, limited government. He--remember what he called the Sandinistas and the Angolan--the--the rebels and the Nicara--the--the--the Afghan...
Prof. FONER: ...the Afghan Muslims fundamentalists. They were the freedom fighters, remember? These groups were freedom fighters because they were anti-Communist. That was another important element of freedom. But one of my objections to this is that it denudes freedom of any real substantive meaning. To call a group of people who want to, for example, deprive women of all their rights, freedom fighters suggests that what is really the definition of freedom is just being on our side, and what they actually do within their own country is of no concern and, you know, we can't measure that. And that, I think, is a loss in our conception of what freedom is.
LAMB: What do you think of the Net? 'Cause you write about it the last.
Prof. FONER: The--the word--the Internet?
LAMB: Internet, Netizens.
Prof. FONER: The Netizens, the citizens of the Net. They are very avid proponents of freedom, of their own freedom and particularly freedom of expression. They are completely opposed to any restraints on free expression on the Internet. They are very opposed to the Communications Decency Act of a couple of years ago, which tried to regulate obscene communication on the Internet. They're also utopians. I--I guess I'm a little more skeptical of whether the Internet is gonna become a substitute for political community and democratic process. And the idea of people living through the Internet strikes me as a little odd, but there do seem to be people who do that. To me, it's a tool, it's a useful research tool that enables you to access things you couldn't, but it's only a tool. It's ni--it's not much more than that.
LAMB: Let me go back to your students again.
Prof. FONER: Yeah.
LAMB: I g--didn't ask it well earlier, but at what time when you're teaching your students do you find them to be--either come to life on the s--on the subject of freedom or get really interested in it? Is there a period in history that they like more than others?
Prof. FONER: Well, I--you know, the funny thing is this book just came--I have never taught a course called the history of freedom. Maybe I will in the future. As I say, mostly what I teach is 19th century American history. That's what I've written about. This is the only book I've ever written that goes into the 20th century. So it was an interesting exercise for me and Ilearned a tremendous amount doing it. But I think one hopes that students are constantly being surprised and constantly learning. And when--a--as I say, I--I--I don't think there's a particular point I can point to, although as I said before, I do think that the--I--I think when they come through my courses, they have a far greater understanding of the centrality of the Civil War, the centrality of slavery and the enduring legacy of that era of Civil War reconstruction in putting forward issues for the national agenda that are still on our agenda today, that it's not just dead history. That's one of the things I always try to emphasize in teaching. This history is alive today. It's alive in debates over the 14th Amendment in the Supreme Court, it's alive in debates over abortion rights. You know, the--the--history has a weight in the present, and that's one of the things you want students to really come to realize.
LAMB: But you did say in this book that--I've lost my th--train of thought I had.
Prof. FONER: Yeah.
LAMB: I t--t--I've forgotten what I was gonna ask. We only have 60 seconds left.
Prof. FONER: Uh-huh.
LAMB: The--overall, how much did war have to do with bringing about new freedoms?
Prof. FONER: War has played a tremendous role both in the use of the notion of freedom to mobilize the population in a war, whether it's World War I or II or the--or the Civil War. But also, these wars give subordinate groups the opportunity to try to seize the idea of freedom for themselves. The Civil War gives the slaves the opportunity to seize their own freedom. World War I, World War II, they give groups which feel that they're deprived of freedom a sort of an opening to--to push forward their own values and aspirations. So wars really kind of destabilize the old boundaries and create the possibility for radical change.
LAMB: Now I know wher--what I was gonna ask you.
Prof. FONER: Yeah.
LAMB: You did say that the '60s made this a freer country.
Prof. FONER: Absolutely.
Prof. FONER: Because I think the '60s expanded the idea of freedom into personal life, into personal behavior, into very intimate areas which it had not been a--applied to before. It tremendously enhanced the freedom of women to move forward in many areas of our lives, it brought African-Americans much more fully into the blessings of liberty. And, you know, there were excesses in the '60s, as there are in any decade. I notice a lot of excesses around today. But the core ideas of the '60s of participatory democracy, of personal freedom, I think, are, you know--have been assimilated into our culture in many ways and really represent a tremendous expansion of liberty in the United States.
LAMB: Professor Eric Foner from Columbia University, thank you for joining us to tell us about this book, "The Story of American Freedom."
Prof. FONER: Pleasure to be here.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1998. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.