Eric Foner, a member of The Nation’s editorial board, is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (Norton), was awarded the Pulitzer, Bancroft and Lincoln prizes.
Few traditions are more American than freedom of speech and the right to
Editor's Note: One year after the attacks, Eric Foner assessed the impact of 9/11 on the way America tells the story of itself and readjusts its relationship with the world.
All history, the saying goes, is contemporary history. People
instinctively turn to the past to help understand the present. Events
draw our attention to previously neglected historical subjects. The
second wave of feminism gave birth to a flourishing subfield of women's
history. The Reagan Revolution spawned a cottage industry in the history
of US conservatism.
Many years will pass before we can fully assess how our thinking about
history has changed as a result of September 11. While historians ponder
this question, conservative ideologues have produced a spate of
polemical statements on how we should teach American history in light of
recent events. In a speech less than a month after the tragedy, Lynne
Cheney insisted that calls for more intensive study of the rest of the
world amounted to blaming America's "failure to understand Islam" for
the attack. A letter distributed by the American Council of Trustees and
Alumni, which she once chaired, chastised professors who fail to teach
the "truth" that civilization itself "is best exemplified in the West
and indeed in America."
In What's So Great About America, Dinesh D'Souza contends that
freedom and religious toleration are uniquely "Western" beliefs. The
publisher's ad for the book identifies those who hold alternative views
as "people who provide a rationale for terrorism." With funding from
conservative foundations and powerful political connections, such
commentators hope to reshape the teaching of American history.
Historians cannot predict the future, but the past they portray must be
one out of which the present can plausibly have grown. The
self-absorbed, super-celebratory history now being promoted will not
enable students to make sense of either their own society or our
increasingly interconnected world.
Historians cannot choose the ways history becomes part of our own
experience. September 11 has rudely placed certain issues at the
forefront of our consciousness. Let me mention three and their
implications for how we think about the American past: the upsurge of
patriotism, significant infringements on civil liberties and a sudden
awareness of considerable distrust abroad of American actions and
The generation of historians that came of age during the Vietnam War
witnessed firsthand how patriotic language and symbols, especially the
American flag, can be invoked in the service of manifestly unjust
causes. Partly as a result, they have tended to neglect the power of
these symbols as genuine expressions of a sense of common national
community. Patriotism, if studied at all, has been understood as an
"invention," rather than a habit of the heart.
Historians have had greater success lately at dividing up the American
past into discrete experiences delineated along lines of race,
ethnicity, gender and class than at exploring the common threads of
American nationality. But the immediate response to September 11 cut
across these boundaries. No one knows if the renewed sense of common
purpose and shared national identity that surfaced so vividly after
September 11 will prove temporary. But they require historians to devote
new attention to the roots of the symbols, values and experiences
Americans share as well as those that divide them.
All patriotic upsurges run the risk of degenerating into a coercive
drawing of boundaries between "loyal" Americans and those stigmatized as
aliens and traitors. This magazine has chronicled the numerous and
disturbing infringements on civil liberties that have followed September
11. Such legal protections as habeas corpus, trial by impartial jury,
the right to legal representation and equality before the law regardless
of race or national origin have been seriously curtailed.
Civil liberties have been severely abridged during previous moments of
crisis, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to Japanese-American
internment in World War II. Historians generally view these past
episodes as shameful anomalies. But we are now living through another
such episode, and there is a remarkable absence of public outcry.
We need an American history that sees protections for civil liberties
not as a timeless feature of our "civilization" but as a recent and
fragile achievement resulting from many decades of historical struggle.
We should take a new look at obscure Supreme Court cases--Fong Yue
Ting (1893), the Insular Cases of the early twentieth century,
Korematsu during World War II--in which the Justices allowed the
government virtual carte blanche in dealing with aliens and in
suspending the rights of specific groups of citizens on grounds of
military necessity. Dissenting in Fong Yue Ting, which authorized
the deportation of Chinese immigrants without due process, Justice David
Brewer observed that, like today, the power was directed against a
people many Americans found "obnoxious." But, he warned, "who shall say
it will not be exercised tomorrow against other classes and other
September 11 will also undoubtedly lead historians to examine more
closely the history of the country's relationship with the larger world.
Public opinion polls revealed that few Americans have any knowledge of
other peoples' grievances against the United States. A study of our
history in its international context might help to explain why there is
widespread fear outside our borders that the war on terrorism is
motivated in part by the desire to impose a Pax Americana in a grossly
Back in the 1930s, historian Herbert Bolton warned that by treating the
American past in isolation, historians were helping to raise up a
"nation of chauvinists"--a danger worth remembering when considering the
drumbeat of calls for a celebratory and insular history divorced from
its global context. Of course, international paradigms can be every bit
as obfuscating as histories that are purely national. We must be careful
not to reproduce traditional American exceptionalism on a global scale.
September 11, for example, has inspired a spate of commentary influenced
by Samuel Huntington's mid-1990s book The Clash of Civilizations.
Huntington's paradigm reduces politics and culture to a single
characteristic--race, religion or geography--that remains forever
static, divorced from historical development or change through
interaction with other societies. It makes it impossible to discuss
divisions within these purported civilizations. The idea that the West
is the sole home of reason, liberty and tolerance ignores how recently
such values triumphed in the United States and also ignores the debates
over creationism, abortion rights and other issues that suggest that
commitment to them is hardly unanimous. The definition of "Western
civilization" is highly selective--it includes the Enlightenment but not
the Inquisition, liberalism but not the Holocaust, Charles Darwin but
not the Salem witch trials.
Nor can September 11 be explained by reference to timeless
characteristics or innate pathologies of "Islamic civilization." From
the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction to Oklahoma City in our own time,
our society has produced its own home-grown terrorists. Terrorism
springs from specific historical causes, not the innate qualities of one
or another civilization.
The study of history should transcend boundaries rather than reinforce
or reproduce them. In the wake of September 11, it is all the more
imperative that the history we teach be a candid appraisal of our own
society's strengths and weaknesses, not simply an exercise in
self-celebration--a conversation with the entire world, not a complacent
dialogue with ourselves.
The drumbeat now begins, as it always does in time of war: We must accept limitations on our liberties. The FBI and CIA should be "unleashed" in the name of national security. Patriotism means uncritical support of whatever actions the President deems appropriate. Arab-Americans, followers of Islam, people with Middle Eastern names or ancestors, should be subject to special scrutiny by the government and their fellow citizens. With liberal members of Congress silent and the Administration promising a war on terrorism lasting "years, not days," such sentiments are likely to be with us for some time to come.
Of the many lessons of American history, this is among the most basic. Our civil rights and civil liberties--freedom of expression, the right to criticize the government, equality before the law, restraints on the exercise of police powers--are not gifts from the state that can be rescinded when it desires. They are the inheritance of a long history of struggles: by abolitionists for the ability to hold meetings and publish their views in the face of mob violence; by labor leaders for the power to organize unions, picket and distribute literature without fear of arrest; by feminists for the right to disseminate birth-control information without being charged with violating the obscenity laws; and by all those who braved jail and worse to challenge entrenched systems of racial inequality.
The history of freedom in this country is not, as is often thought, the logical working out of ideas immanent in our founding documents or a straight-line trajectory of continual progress. It is a story of countless disagreements and battles in which victories sometimes prove temporary and retrogression often follows progress.
When critics of the original Constitution complained about the absence of a Bill of Rights, the Constitution's "father," James Madison, replied that no list of liberties could ever anticipate the ways government might act in the future. "Parchment barriers" to the abuse of authority, he wrote, would be least effective when most needed. Thankfully, the Bill of Rights was eventually adopted. But Madison's observation was amply borne out at moments of popular hysteria when freedom of expression was trampled in the name of patriotism and national unity.
Americans have notoriously short historical memories. But it is worth recalling some of those moments to understand how liberty has been endangered in the past. During the "quasi war" with France in 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts allowed deportation of immigrants deemed dangerous by federal authorities and made it illegal to criticize the federal government. During the Civil War, both sides jailed critics and suppressed opposition newspapers.
In World War I German-Americans, socialists, labor leaders and critics of US involvement were subjected to severe government repression and assault by private vigilante groups. Publications critical of the war were banned from the mails, individuals were jailed for antiwar statements and in the Red Scare that followed the war thousands of radicals were arrested and numerous aliens deported. During World War II, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans, most of them US citizens, were removed to internment camps. Sanctioned by the Supreme Court, this was the greatest violation of Americans' civil liberties, apart from slavery, in our history.
No one objects to more stringent security at airports. But current restrictions on the FBI and CIA limiting surveillance, wiretapping, infiltration of political groups at home and assassinations abroad do not arise from an irrational desire for liberty at the expense of security. They are the response to real abuses of authority, which should not be forgotten in the zeal to sweep them aside as "handcuffs" on law enforcement.
Before unleashing these agencies, let us recall the FBI's persistent harassment of individuals like Martin Luther King Jr. and its efforts to disrupt the civil rights and antiwar movements, and the CIA's history of cooperation with some of the world's most egregious violators of human rights. The principle that no group of Americans should be stigmatized as disloyal or criminal because of race or national origin is too recent and too fragile an achievement to be abandoned now.
Every war in American history, from the Revolution to the Gulf War, with the exception of World War II, inspired vigorous internal dissent. Self-imposed silence is as debilitating to a democracy as censorship. If questioning an ill-defined, open-ended "war on terrorism" is to be deemed unpatriotic, the same label will have to be applied to Abraham Lincoln at the time of the Mexican War, Jane Addams and Eugene V. Debs during World War I, and Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, who had the courage and foresight to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964.
All of us today share a feeling of grief and outrage over the events of September 11 and a desire that those responsible for mass murder be brought to justice. But at times of crisis the most patriotic act of all is the unyielding defense of civil liberties, the right to dissent and equality before the law for all Americans.
For ten days in mid-May, I lectured in Italy promoting the translated version of my recent book, The Story of American Freedom. Among other things, the book relates how in the past generation US conservatives have "captured" the idea of freedom, identifying it ever more closely with low taxes, limited government and the ability to choose among a cornucopia of goods in an unregulated global marketplace. Little did I anticipate that on the day I arrived, Silvio Berlusconi's coalition of right-wing parties, calling itself La Casa delle Libert (the House of Freedoms), would triumph in Italy's national elections.
Berlusconi's victory was good for me in that it inspired a flurry of interest in the history of the idea of freedom and larger-than-expected audiences for my talks. But it is very bad for Italy. Berlusconi is one of Europe's richest men, with a history of corruption, conflicts of interest and alliance with some of the most retrograde elements in Italian life. For the first time since World War II the country's governing coalition will include parties that consider themselves the heirs of Fascism. But to Americans, what may be most striking is how his campaign's program, tactics and imagery were consciously borrowed from this side of the Atlantic.
Like Ronald Reagan, Berlusconi described himself as a "great communicator" and promised to "revolutionize" Italy by liberating the power of free enterprise. Like Newt Gingrich, he announced with much fanfare a Contract With Italians, which boiled down his campaign to a few simple points, including tax cuts, privatizing state enterprises and law and order (a thinly veiled appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment). And like George W. Bush, he portrayed himself as a compassionate conservative. Berlusconi's contract, unlike Gingrich's, promised to raise state pensions and combat unemployment through highway construction and other public works.
Berlusconi "Americanized" Italian politics in other ways as well. He poured his personal fortune into the campaign, outspending the incumbent center-left Olive Tree coalition ten to one. He mailed a brief autobiography to every family in Italy (some 12 million copies in all). Titled An Italian Story, it was a quintessentially American rags-to-riches tale. Every Italian, he insisted, could follow in his footsteps; his wealth should be an inspiration to others, not a source of concern. But more than specific programs and electoral tactics, Berlusconi brought to Italy the moral-political outlook of American populist conservatism, something quite different from the traditional European right oriented toward state, church and social hierarchy. Like Reagan, Berlusconi rooted his appeal in broadly shared images and values derived from the mass media and consumer capitalism.
It is significant that Berlusconi's wealth rests in large part on ownership of television networks, shopping malls and a major soccer team. For his is a politics that identifies freedom with the private realm of personal wish fulfillment without any sense of public participation or collective empowerment. Far better than his opponents, Berlusconi understands the political dynamics of a society knit together not by traditional organizations like unions and churches rooted in local communities but the dream world of mass culture and mass consumption.
If the Italian right has emulated America, the left in this country might well learn from the problems of its Italian counterpart. Since the end of the cold war, the European left has been almost obsessively concerned to demonstrate its legitimacy and respectability. It has become suspicious of idealism of any kind, considering it naïve, old-fashioned and politically dangerous. In response to Berlusconi's utopia of private freedom, the Olive Tree coalition offered little more than an image of competent, corruption-free administration. The left's aura of managerial competence appealed to middle-class voters in Italy's prosperous northwest, and the Olive Tree did well in the old (and aging) communist strongholds of central Italy. But Berlusconi swept the less economically developed south and did especially well among young voters, who found his vision of a new, privatized Italy more appealing than the left's promise of good government. Young Berlusconi supporters interviewed by the newspaper La Repubblica described the left as old, even "geriatric," and Berlusconi as young and dynamic. "He's one of us," declared an unemployed youth, of Italy's richest man.
As in the United States, the defeated coalition has directed much recrimination toward a small group of independent voters, in this case the Refounded Communists, which remained outside the Olive Tree umbrella and whose 5 percent of the vote exceeded Berlusconi's margin of victory. But in both countries, it is far easier to blame a tiny cadre of voters for the defeat than to look candidly at the weaknesses of campaigns characterized by an absence of courage, vision and idealism or to think creatively about how to regain the political initiative. A good place to start would be to try to recapture the language of freedom--linking it, as it has been in the past, with ideals of participatory democracy, social justice and the willingness to combat the depredations of the unregulated capitalist market. The idea of freedom is too important to be surrendered to the Berlusconis of the world.
Once again, the Civil War has sparked a contemporary political controversy. Two of President Bush's Cabinet nominees--Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft and the prospective Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton--are being asked to explain their praise of the Confederacy.
In a 1996 speech to a conservative group, Norton likened her struggle to preserve states' rights to the Confederate rebellion, saying, "We lost too much" when the Union triumphed. Ashcroft, in a 1998 interview, lauded the magazine Southern Partisan for defending "patriots" like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis and called on "traditionalists" to vindicate the Confederate cause against charges that it represented a "perverted agenda."
What is it about the Confederacy that appeals to so many modern-day conservatives from the party of Lincoln? Neither Ashcroft nor Norton appears to have family roots below the Mason-Dixon line. Ashcroft was born in Chicago, raised in Missouri and educated at Yale. Norton grew up in Colorado. But what is interesting is how conservatives who feel themselves heritage-deficient gravitate to a romanticized memory of the Old South--a usable past that conveniently omits slavery and Jim Crow.
During the 1950s, many conservatives responded favorably to Southern white resistance to desegregation. Moral conservatives saw the white South as a last bastion of traditional Christian civilization in a nation pervaded by individualism and secularism. Many libertarians insisted that federal action to secure civil rights threatened local autonomy, displaying an amazing indifference to the historic denial of blacks' rights by state and local authorities. Then in 1964, Barry Goldwater, who opposed that year's Civil Rights Act, carried five Deep South states, demonstrating that Republicans could strike electoral gold by appealing to white voters' resentment over black gains. Since then, white Southerners have become the backbone of the party's electoral strength.
Over the past two decades, Southern Partisan has carried articles defending apartheid, denying that slavery is contrary to Christian values, calling Lincoln a greater tyrant than George III, insisting that "Negroes, Asians, and Orientals...Hispanics, Latins, and Eastern Europeans have no temperament for democracy" and lamenting that immigration is undermining the "genetic racial pool" of the United States. Yet Ashcroft is hardly the only conservative to identify with the magazine. The advisers and contributing editors listed on its masthead have included Russell Kirk, a founding father of modern conservatism, and Republican politicians like Pat Buchanan and North Carolina Congressman David Funderburk.
Most Republicans appeal more subtly to white Southern voters. Ronald Reagan opened his 1984 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were slain; George W. Bush sent a message by speaking at Bob Jones University. Lauding the Confederacy is part of this symbolic politics.
No one claims that Ashcroft or Norton wants to restore slavery. But at the very least, their statements reflect a remarkable tone-deafness to how praise of the Confederacy is likely to be received outside conservative ranks. They tell us something about the restricted boundaries of the world of modern conservatism.
When it comes to the Civil War, Bush's Cabinet is a house divided. Ashcroft and Norton could benefit from a conversation--perhaps on Lincoln's Birthday--with Secretary of State Colin Powell. To Ashcroft and Norton, the South equals the white South, which equals the Confederacy. Blacks are not real Southerners, the region's white Unionists did not exist and slavery--the "cornerstone" of the Confederacy according to its vice president, Alexander Stephens--had nothing to do with the Civil War. Norton describes slavery as a "bad fact," legal parlance for an irrelevancy that inconveniently muddies the judicial waters, like smog on a day when a corporate polluter is defending itself in court.
Powell, on the other hand, has lectured eloquently about the contribution of black soldiers (nearly all of them Southern-born) to Union victory and the centrality of emancipation to that era's history. He could teach his colleagues something about the complexity of Southern history and the real meaning of the Civil War. Not that he is likely to be asked by the members of Bush's new Cabinet.
The Supreme Court decision effectively handing the presidency to George W. Bush reveals the intensely partisan nature of the Court's current majority. The Court, to be sure, has always been political, but rarely as blatantly as today. Nor are there many precedents for Justices trampling on their own previous convictions to reach a predetermined conclusion.
Chief Justice Roger Taney enlisted the aid of President-elect James Buchanan in persuading Northern Justices to join the pro-slavery majority in Dred Scott. Franklin Roosevelt conferred regularly with Justice Louis Brandeis, and Justice Abe Fortas served as a trusted political adviser of Lyndon Johnson. But never has there been a public statement as partisan as Antonin Scalia's when first suspending the recounts that the Court needed to insure "public acceptance" of a Bush presidency.
If there is a silver lining, it is that the last month suggests an agenda for democratic reform. First, the Electoral College should be abolished. The product of an entirely different political era, when the electorate excluded women, nonwhites and propertyless males, the Electoral College was created by a generation fearful of democracy. Its aim was to place the choice of President in the hands of each state's most prominent men, not the voters. It unfairly enhances the power of the least populous states and can produce the current spectacle of a candidate receiving a majority of the votes but losing the election. At the very least, electors should be chosen in proportion to the popular vote in each state.
Second, the Florida fiasco should lead to the reform of voting procedures. As with schools, roads and public services, the wealthiest districts have the best system of voting. The machines used in poor black precincts of Florida, the Miami Herald demonstrated, are so flawed that they are guaranteed to produce a larger number of spoiled or uncounted ballots than in affluent suburban areas.
One can only view with deep cynicism the Court majority's invocation of "equal protection" in rejecting a recount. Added to the Constitution in the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War, this language was intended to protect former slaves from discriminatory state actions and to establish the principle that citizens' rights are uniform throughout the nation. The current Court's concept of equal protection has essentially boiled down to supporting white plaintiffs who claim to be disadvantaged by affirmative action.
Nonetheless, by extending the issue of equal protection to the casting and counting of votes, the Court has opened the door to challenging our highly inequitable system of voting. Claims of unequal treatment by voters in poorer districts are not likely to receive a sympathetic hearing from the current majority. But Bush v. Gore may galvanize demands for genuine equality of participation in the democratic process that legislatures and a future Court may view sympathetically.
Equally difficult to accept at face value is the majority's disdain for the principle of federalism these very Justices have trumpeted for the past several years. Like the South before the Civil War, which believed in states' rights but demanded a fugitive-slave law that overrode the North's judicial and police machinery, today's majority seems to view constitutional principles as remarkably malleable when powerful interests are at stake.
The next time this Court turns down an appeal by a death-row inmate on the grounds that federalism requires it to respect local judicial procedures, the condemned plaintiff may well wonder why his claims do not merit the same consideration as those of the Republican candidate for President.
American politicians are not noted for their historical self-consciousness.
The recent march in Columbia, South Carolina, demanding the removal of the Confederate battle flag from atop the state Capitol is the latest episode in a long-running debate over the legacy of sl
To the surprise of historians themselves, history--or at least its public presentation--has become big business.
Once before in American history, during the turbulent era
of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, a President was impeached
by the House and tried before the Senate--Andrew Johnson.