Foner is a leading contemporary historian of the Reconstruction period, having published Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 in 1989 and more than 10 other books on the topic. His online courses on "The Civil War and Reconstruction", published in 2014, are available from Columbia University on ColumbiaX.
Foner was born in New York City, New York, the son of Jewish parents Liza (née Kraitz), a high school art teacher, and historian Jack D. Foner, who was active in the trade union movement and the campaign for civil rights for African Americans. Eric Foner describes his father as his "first great teacher," and recalls how,
deprived of his livelihood while I was growing up, he supported our family as a freelance lecturer. ... Listening to his lectures, I came to appreciate how present concerns can be illuminated by the study of the past--how the repression of the McCarthy era recalled the days of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the civil rights movement needed to be viewed in light of the great struggles of Black and White abolitionists, and in the brutal suppression of the Philippine insurrection at the turn of the century could be found the antecedents of American intervention in Vietnam. I also imbibed a way of thinking about the past in which visionaries and underdogs--Tom Paine, Wendell Phillips, Eugene V. Debs, and W. E. B. Du Bois--were as central to the historical drama as presidents and captains of industry, and how a commitment to social justice could infuse one's attitudes towards the past.
After graduating from Long Beach High School in 1959, Foner enrolled at Columbia University, where he was originally a physicsmajor, before switching to history after taking a year-long seminar with James P. Shenton on the Civil War and Reconstruction during his junior year. "It probably determined that most of my career has been focused on that period," he recalled years later. A year later, in 1963, Foner graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in history. He studied at the University of Oxford as a Kellett Fellow; he received a BA from Oriel College in 1965, where he was a member of the college's 1966 University Challenge winning team, though he did not appear in the final, having already returned to the US. After graduating from Oxford, Foner returned to Columbia where he earned his doctoral degree in 1969 under the supervision of Richard Hofstadter. His doctoral thesis, published in 1970 as Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, explored the deeply rooted ideals and interests that drove the northern majority to oppose slavery and ultimately wage war against Southern secession.
Writing on the Reconstruction Era
Foner is a leading authority on the Reconstruction Era. In a seminal essay in American Heritage in October 1982, later reprinted in Reviews in American History, Foner wrote,
In the past twenty years, no period of American history has been the subject of a more thoroughgoing reevaluation than Reconstruction--the violent, dramatic, and still controversial era following the Civil War. Race relations, politics, social life, and economic change during Reconstruction have all been reinterpreted in the light of changed attitudes toward the place of blacks within American society. If historians have not yet forged a fully satisfying portrait of Reconstruction as a whole, the traditional interpretation that dominated historical writing for much of this century has irrevocably been laid to rest.
"Foner has established himself as the leading authority on the Reconstruction period," wrote historian Michael Perman in reviewing Reconstruction. "This book is not simply a distillation of the secondary literature; it is a masterly account - broad in scope as well as rich in detail and insight. "This is history written on a grand scale, a masterful treatment of one of the most complex periods of American history," David Herbert Donald wrote in The New Republic. C. Vann Woodward, in The New York Review of Books, wrote, "Eric Foner has put together this terrible story with greater cogency and power, I believe, than has been brought to the subject heretofore."
In a 2009 essay, Foner pondered whether Reconstruction might have turned out differently.
"It is wrong to think that, during the Civil War, President Lincoln embraced a single 'plan' of Reconstruction," he wrote. "Lincoln had always been willing to work closely with all factions of his party, including the Radicals on numerous occasions. I think it is quite plausible to imagine Lincoln and Congress agreeing to a Reconstruction policy encompassing basic civil rights for blacks (as was enacted in 1866) plus limited black suffrage, along the lines he proposed just before his death."[failed verification]
Foner's recent short summary of his views was published in The New York Times in 2015.
Secession and the Soviet Union
As a visiting professor in Moscow in the early 1990s, Foner compared secessionist forces in the USSR with the secession movement in the US in the 1860s. In a February 1991 article, Foner noted that the Baltic states claimed the right to secede because they had been unwillingly annexed. In addition, he believed that the Soviet Union did not protect minorities while it tried to nationalize the republics. Foner identified a threat to existing minority groups within the Baltic states, who were in turn threatened by the new nationalist movements.
The professional awards which Foner has received indicate the respect given his work. Journalist Nat Hentoff described his Story of American Freedom "an indispensable book that should be read in every school in the land." "Eric Foner is one of the most prolific, creative, and influential American historians of the past 20 years," according to The Washington Post. His work is "brilliant, important" a reviewer wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
In a review of The Story of American Freedom in the New York Review of Books, Theodore Draper disagreed with Foner's conclusions:
If the story of American freedom is told largely from the perspective of blacks and women, especially the former, it is not going to be a pretty tale. Yet most Americans thought of themselves not only as free but as the freest people in the world.
John Patrick Diggins of the City University of New York wrote that Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, was a "magisterial" and "moving" narrative, but compared Foner's "unforgiving" view of America for its racist past to his notably different views on the fall of communism and Soviet history.
Foner's most recent book Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (2015) was judged "Intellectually probing and emotionally resonant by the Los Angeles Times. His previous book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010) was described by Library Journal as "Original and compelling. ... In the vast library on Lincoln, Foner's book stands out as the most sensible and sensitive reading of Lincoln's lifetime involvement with slavery and the most insightful assessment of Lincoln's--and indeed America's--imperative to move toward freedom lest it be lost. An essential work for all Americans."
His inspirational work and comforting way of writing has led to the development of a California-based student fan club. He is revered for his educational writing.
Foner was inducted as a Laureate of The Lincoln Academy of Illinois and awarded the Order of Lincoln (the State's highest honor) by the Governor of Illinois in 2009 as a Bicentennial Laureate.
In 2020, Foner was awarded the Roy Rosenzweig Distinguished Service Award from the Organization of American Historians which goes to an individual or individuals whose contributions have significantly enriched our understanding and appreciation of American history.
Foner was married to screenwriter Naomi Foner (née Achs) from 1965 to 1977. Since 1982, he has been married to historian Lynn Garafola. They have a daughter.
Comments on teaching
Foner has frequently explored teaching moments that historians can use. He wrote, "Like all momentous events, September 11 is a remarkable teaching opportunity. But only if we use it to open rather than to close debate. Critical intellectual analysis is our responsibility--to ourselves and to our students."
"[S]uccessful teaching rests both on a genuine and selfless concern for students and on the ability to convey to them a love of history."
"In a global age, the forever-unfinished story of American freedom must become a conversation with the entire world, not a complacent monologue with ourselves."
Foner, Eric, "The Corrupt Bargain" (review of Alexander Keyssar , Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? , Harvard, 2020, 544 pp., ISBN978 0 674 66015 1; and Jesse Wegman, Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College, St Martin's Press, 2020, 304 pp., ISBN978 1 250 22197 1), London Review of Books, vol. 42, no. 10 (May 21, 2020), pp. 3, 5-6. Foner concludes (p. 6): "Rooted in distrust of ordinary citizens and, like so many other features of American life, in the institution of slavery, the electoral college is a relic of a past the United States should have abandoned long ago."
Katz, Jamie. "Freedom Writer: Pulitzer Prize-winning Columbia historian Eric Foner '63, '69 GSAS personifies the great teacher and scholar who approaches his calling with moral urgency," Columbia College Today, Winter 2012-2013. online
Snowman, Daniel, "Eric Foner", History Today Volume 50, Issue 1, January 2000, pp. 26-27.
Kennedy, Randall, "Racist Litter" (review of Eric Foner, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, Norton, October 2019, ISBN978 0 393 65257 4, 288 pp.), London Review of Books, vol. 42, no. 15 (July 30, 2020), pp. 21-23. Kennedy quotes Foner (p. 23): "A century and a half after the end of slavery, the project of equal citizenship remains unfinished."