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Historian Eric Foner on "Our Lincoln"
Our Lincoln by Eric Foner
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February 6, 2009

As Abraham Lincoln's bicentennial birthday approaches, Bill Moyers sits down with historian and Lincoln biographer Eric Foner to discuss the legacy and the legend of America's most studied president. Having just received Illinois' highest honor, the Order of Lincoln, Eric Foner is author of LINCOLN: NEW PERSPECTIVES ON LINCOLN AND HIS WORLD and speaks to Moyers about the evolution of Lincoln's image from politician to icon.

In the days leading up to President Obama's inauguration comparison of the president-elect to Abraham Lincoln were everywhere. The power of Lincoln as image probably has no equal in American culture. As Eric Foner notes, not only is he "The Great Emancipator, but: "He's the man who rose from very humble background. He was born in a log cabin in Kentucky to you know, to great success. So Lincoln seems to exemplify things that we consider kind of essential to the American character and American society."

But Foner warns in his conversation with Bill Moyers of what happens when you take a historical figure and place him outside history:

Lincoln was influenced by the ideas of his time, by the changing circumstances. In fact, that's the greatness of Lincoln, I think, is his capacity to grow and change and evolve. Lincoln's ideas when he dies are quite different from what they were earlier in his life. So you have to put Lincoln in the context of his time, the whole spectrum of thinking about slavery and anti-slavery, to really understand how Lincoln, you know, grew and developed. If you pull Lincoln out of context, as, unfortunately, many writers have a way of doing, you know, you're left with a marble man, a statue, but not a real historical figure.
>Find out more about Lincoln's contested historical legacy

Eric Foner

Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, is one of this country's most prominent historians. Photo by Robin Holland

Professor Foner's publications have concentrated on the intersections of intellectual, political and social history, and the history of American race relations. His best-known books are: FREE SOIL, FREE LABOR, FREE MEN: THE IDEOLOGY OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR (1970; reissued with new preface 1995) TOM PAINE AND REVOLUTIONARY AMERICA (1976); NOTHING BUT FREEDOM: EMANCIPATION AND ITS LEGACY (1983); RECONSTRUCTION: AMERICA'S UNFINISHED REVOLUTION, 1863-1877 (1988) (winner, among other awards, of the Bancroft Prize, Parkman Prize, and LOS ANGELES TIMES Book Award); THE READER'S COMPANION TO AMERICAN HISTORY (with John A. Garraty, 1991); THE STORY OF AMERICAN FREEDOM (1998); and WHO OWNS HISTORY? RETHINKING THE PAST IN A CHANGING WORLD (2002). His survey textbook of American history, GIVE ME LIBERTY! AN AMERICAN HISTORY and a companion volume of documents, VOICES OF FREEDOM, appeared in 2004. His most recent books are FOREVER FREE: THE STORY OF EMANCIPATION AND RECONSTRUCTION (2005), and OUR LINCOLN: NEW PERSPECTIVES ON LINCOLN AND HIS WORLD (2008), an edited collection of original essays. His books have been translated into Chinese, Korean, Italian, Japanese, and Portuguese.

Eric Foner is a winner of the Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates (1991), and the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching from Columbia University (2006). He was named Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities in 1995. In 2006, he received the Kidger Award for Excellence in Teaching and Scholarship from the New England History Teachers Association. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the British Academy, and holds an honorary doctorate from Iona College. He has taught at Cambridge University as Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions, Oxford University as Harmsworth Professor of American History, Moscow State University as Fulbright Professor, and at Queen Mary, University of London as Leverhulme Visiting Scholar. He serves on the editorial boards of PAST AND PRESENT and THE NATION, and has written for the NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST, LOS ANGELES TIMES, LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS, and many other publications, and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows, including CHARLIE ROSE, BOOK NOTES, THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART, and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and in historical documentaries on PBS and the History Channel. He was the on-camera historian for FREEDOM: A HISTORY OF US, on PBS in 2003. He has lectured extensively to both academic and non-academic audiences.

Guest photo by Robin Holland.

Related Media:
American history textAmerican History Lessons
Bill Moyers sits down with Columbia University professor Eric Foner, who specializes in political and African-American history, and Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University. (November 11, 2008)

FBI Domestic Spy PosterDouglas Blackmon on Neoslavery
Bill Moyers interviews Douglas Blackmon, the Atlanta bureau chief of the WALL STREET JOURNAL, about his latest book, SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME, which looks at an "age of neoslavery" that thrived from the aftermath of the Civil War through the dawn of World War II. (June 20, 2008)

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Steve Fraser, historian and author of WALL STREET: AMERICA'S DREAM PALACE, discusses the modern parallels and differences to the first Gilded Age, the big disparity between the rich and poor, and the increasing strain on working Americans. (July 18, 2008)

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Historian Nell Irvin Painter examines what history reveals about the current state of inequality in America. Does today's economic disparity indicate a new "Gilded Age" that threatens democracy? (February 29, 2008)

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The historian and author of THOMAS PAINE AND THE PROMISE OF AMERICA discusses the role of whom he calls "the greatest radical of a radical age." (January 11, 2008)

References and Reading:
Eric Foner's Web Page

The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress
Explore Lincoln first-hand. The complete Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress consists of approximately 20,000 documents. Most of the 20,000 items are from the 1850s through Lincoln's presidential years, 1860-65. Treasures include Lincoln's draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, his March 4, 1865, draft of his second Inaugural Address, and his August 23, 1864, memorandum expressing his expectation of being defeated for re-election in the upcoming presidential contest.

New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World
Listen to Eric Foner's presentation to a special panel discussion of Lincoln's legacy. Additional audio highlights include: Sean Wilentz on Lincoln's evolving position in the context of party politics; John Oakes considers Lincoln's views on race and citizenship and also essays on Lincoln's literary style, religious beliefs, and family life.

"Our Lincoln"
Read Eric Foner's January 7, 2009 essay from THE NATION.

In this PBS special which premieres February 11, 2009 (check local listings) Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s quest to piece together Abraham Lincoln’s complex life takes him from Illinois to Gettysburg to Washington, D.C., and face-to-face with people who live with Lincoln every day – relic hunters, re-enactors, and others for whom the study of Lincoln is a passion. The Web site also includes maps of Lincoln sites in the U.S., a Lincoln knowledge quiz, and an interactive timeline.

"Lincoln's Contested Legacy,"Philip B. Kunhardt III, SMITHSONIAN magazine, February 2009.
The article, by the co-author of the 2008 book LOOKING FOR LINCOLN traces the changing view of Lincoln over the past 200 years. Kunhardt notes: "He has been lifted up by both sides of the Temperance Movement; invoked for and against federal intervention in the economy; heralded by anti-communists, such as Senator Joseph McCarthy, and by American communists, such as those who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the fight against the fascist Spanish government in the 1930s. Lincoln has been used to justify support for and against incursions on civil liberties, and has been proclaimed both a true and a false friend to African-Americans." The Smithsonian site also links to a wealth of other bicentennial features.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE has several episodes on Lincoln and his times. "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln" premieres February 9, 2009 (check local listings.) You can also view the entire show online.

Published February 6, 2009.

Also This Week:

Is the old media sustaining the old politics? News and analysis with NYU journalism professor and PressThink blogger Jay Rosen and political journalist and blogger Glenn Greenwald

As Abraham Lincoln's bicentennial birthday approaches, Bill Moyers sits down with historian and Lincoln biographer Eric Foner to discuss the legacy and the legend of America's most studied president.

View a photo essay of America's number one icon.

Bill Moyers will chat online Tuesday February 6, 2009 at Get the details.

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