On July 20, 2016, the day after Donald Trump accepted the presidential nomination of the party whose origins Eric Foner chronicled in his first book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men (1970), I met with the distinguished historian, professor, and longtime Nation board member in his office at Columbia University. A longer version of this interview appears in Foner’s new book, Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History, available here.
The Nation: How did you come to be acquainted with The Nation?
Eric Foner: I grew up in a left-wing household, so The Nation and I.F. Stone’s Weekly came to our house. It was on my radar screen, but I can’t say I had any particular connection to it until 1977, when the magazine’s publisher, James Storrow, called me out of the blue and asked for something on the 50th anniversary of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Once Victor Navasky became editor shortly after that, he got me interested in becoming more involved in The Nation, and then at some point I was invited to join the editorial board.
The Nation: One of the early pieces in your new collection of essays is a review, written with Jon Wiener, about the Smithsonian’s exhibit on American art and the West. It’s both a response and a contribution to the culture wars. A lot of people say those battles are over, and we won.
Foner: Well, they should look at the Republican National Convention if they think the culture wars are over! By the time that piece was published, I had somehow serendipitously developed a part-time vocation in museum exhibitions. I was into the question of museums and how they can present a more up-to-date history. And then, to the surprise of historians, history became a ground for the culture wars, largely through the efforts of Lynne Cheney to torpedo the National History Standards in 1994. The argument became: “Why are historians tearing down our national ideology? Why are they trying to say bad things about our great leaders of the past? Why are they emphasizing slavery and the fate of Native Americans, all these depressing things? We have to gird ourselves for the great struggles ahead. We need history to promote patriotism among our young people.” One of the high—or low—points of my career was debating, in 1995 or so, Lynne Cheney on Pat Buchanan’s TV show, Crossfire. That was a lively occasion, with us yelling at each other the whole time.
Those wars are not over. There’s certainly a wider acceptance today of a more sophisticated, complicated view of American history than people like Lynne Cheney wanted to promote back then. The country is much more diversified, and people are aware of that, in a way, and that has helped to diversify our history. But these debates are continuing.