Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University, is the author of numerous works on American history, including Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War; Tom Paine and Revolutionary America; and The Story of American Freedom, and Our Lincoln. He has served as president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association, and has been named Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities.
Question: Why does Lincoln still have a modern appeal?
Eric Foner: People are fascinated with Lincoln because he does seem to exemplify so many different aspects of what we think of as the sort of quintessential American experience. And, of course, there are a lot of different Lincolns out there and you can decide for yourself which one you want to adapt. There is the great emancipator, the man who freed the slaves, who is the example of using political power for indisputably moral, just ends. There is a sort of equal and opposite reaction. There is Lincoln the racist who really shared the racial views of his time, and not to be seen as the great emancipator. There are people who hold that. There is Lincoln, the man who went from rags to riches or log cabin to White House, who, for many people, exemplifies the promise of social mobility and opportunity in American history. There’s Honest Abe, the politician who didn’t deceive the people and, you know, and really was not like, sometimes when you think of many politicians, scheming and manipulative. On the other hand, there are those who see Lincoln as someone who did manipulate the country into Civil War, who became a dictator. This is generally a Southern point of view, trampled on the Constitution. In other words, no matter what your point of view, you can find Lincoln out there if you look hard enough. And so, he seems to be somehow a lightning rod for people to, you know, depending on what their view of American history is.
Question: What relevance does he have today?
Eric Foner: I think that the issues that confronted American life, American society in the mid-19th century are still with us, so Lincoln is our contemporary and that he was grappling with questions that are right on our agenda today, issues like, well, race in American society. What is the status of African-Americans? Can we achieve genuine racial equality in this country? That was a question of Lincoln’s time also. Relations between the federal government and the States, obviously, still are an important issue. The Constitution in war time, obviously, lately a big, big issue. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus. He set up military tribunals. What happens to constitutional rights in the middle of a war? So, Lincoln grappled with that. We’re still trying to figure that out well over 100 years later. So, Lincoln seems more relevant to us than any other figures of the 19th century. I don’t think you would say Henry Clay was our contemporary or Martin Van Buren was our contemporary or Andrew Johnson or, you know, many other figures of that period. But somehow Lincoln seems to be speaking to issues that are still on our minds today.