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Demon Cruelty

Eric Foner: What was it like on a slave ship?, 31 July 2008

The Slave Ship: A Human History 
by Marcus Rediker.
Murray, 434 pp., £25, October 2007, 978 0 7195 6302 7
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... European powers, nor does Rediker enter into the long-standing debate, originally inspired by Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944), on the economic causes of abolition. Rediker sees the slave ship as a microcosm of economic exchange and political and military power, the ‘linchpin’ of the world’s first era of ‘globalisation’. Slave ...

Eden without the Serpent

Eric Foner, 11 December 1997

A History of the American People 
by Paul Johnson.
Weidenfeld, 925 pp., £25, October 1997, 0 297 81569 5
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... Paul Johnson is one of the most indefatigable writers on either side of the Atlantic. In the past twenty years, the former editor of the New Statesman turned ardent Thatcherite has produced, among other books, The Birth of the Modern (weighing in at more than a thousand pages), Modern Times, a massive chronicle of the 20th century, and lengthy histories of Christianity and Judaism ...

Divinely Ordained

Eric Foner: Lincoln, 23 October 2003

Lincoln 
by Richard Carwardine.
Longman, 352 pp., £16.99, May 2003, 0 582 03279 2
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Lincoln's Constitution 
by Daniel Farber.
Chicago, 240 pp., £20.50, May 2003, 0 226 23793 1
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... History never repeats itself, but there are uncanny resemblances between policies of the Bush Administration since 11 September and the way the Government under Abraham Lincoln responded to the crisis of the Civil War in the 1860s. Both Presidents assumed powers that went well beyond what the Constitution seems to allow. In both cases, thousands of people suspected of assisting the enemy were arrested and held without charge, and military tribunals were established to circumvent civilian courts ...

Tired of Giving in

Eric Foner: Rosa Parks, 10 May 2001

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Life of Rosa Parks 
by Douglas Brinkley.
Weidenfeld, 248 pp., £12.99, January 2001, 0 297 60708 1
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... On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old black woman who had just completed her day’s work in a department store in Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on a city bus to a white passenger, as required by municipal law. The incident sparked a year-long bus boycott, the beginning of the modern phase of the civil rights revolution ...

Purchase and/or Conquest

Eric Foner: Were the Indians robbed?, 9 February 2006

How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier 
by Stuart Banner.
Harvard, 344 pp., £18.95, November 2005, 0 674 01871 0
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... They fell upon their own knees, and then upon the Aborigines.’ The old quip about the Puritans who settled colonial New England offers a succinct and not inaccurate summary of white-Indian relations in the United States. Despite the twists and turns of official policy – from Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to assimilate Indians by teaching them to farm (even though they had been doing so for centuries), to Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal, Grant’s ‘peace policy’ and Roosevelt’s Indian New Deal – the fact is that whites from the outset coveted Indian land and eventually succeeded in acquiring almost all of it, sweeping aside periodic resistance with brutally effective violence ...

An Agreement with Hell

Eric Foner, 20 February 1997

Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution 
by Jack Rakove.
Knopf, 439 pp., $35, April 1996, 0 394 57858 9
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... The United States must be the only country in the world to have lived for more than two centuries under a single written constitution. In France, monarchies and republics, each with its own constitution, have come and gone. Britain has yet to commit its constitution to paper. Americans revere their enduring Constitution as a symbol of national identity and the ultimate authority for resolving political controversies ...

Separation Anxiety

Eric Foner, 18 April 1996

A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution 
by Theodore Draper.
Little, Brown, 544 pp., £25, March 1996, 0 316 87802 2
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... The American Revolution is the subject of a rich and complex historical literature. In the 19th century, George Bancroft, the father of American historical writing, portrayed it as the culmination of a long, divinely-inspired progress – the triumph of freedom and democracy on the North American continent. The seed of liberty, planted by the earliest settlers, reached its inevitable flowering in national independence ...

More Pasts Than One

Eric Foner, 23 March 1995

Telling the Truth about History 
by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob.
Norton, 322 pp., £19.95, August 1994, 0 393 03615 4
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... Rarely has the study and teaching of history been the subject of such intense public debate as in the United States today. While America’s now-famous ‘culture wars’ originated in disputes over the teaching of literature – the demand that the canon should be expanded to include works by women and non-whites – history has recently taken centre stage ...

Reasons for thinking that war is a good thing

Eric Foner: The death of Liberalism, 27 June 2002

The Strange Death of American Liberalism 
by H.W. Brands.
Yale, 200 pp., £16, January 2002, 0 300 09021 8
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... In the United States at this time,’ Lionel Trilling announced in 1950, ‘liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.’ How things have changed. Today in the US, liberalism seems extinct, except as a term of political abuse ...

The Lie that Empire Tells Itself

Eric Foner: America’s bad wars, 19 May 2005

The Dominion of War: Empire and conflict in North America 1500-2000 
by Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton.
Atlantic, 520 pp., £19.99, July 2005, 1 903809 73 8
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... Is the United States an empire? Only in the US could such a question even be asked. To the rest of the world, the answer is obvious: the US is perhaps the most powerful empire the world has known. Empire means dominion, the desire and ability to determine the fate of peoples near and far. And in every index of power – ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, military, economic and cultural – the US far exceeds all other nations ...

Enter Hamilton

Eric Foner, 6 October 2016

American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 
by Alan Taylor.
Norton, 704 pp., £30, November 2016, 978 0 393 08281 4
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... The racism​ , xenophobia and violence of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is widely seen as an aberration, as if reasoned debate had been the default mode of American politics. But precursors to Trump do exist, candidates who struck electoral gold by appealing to exaggerated fears, real grievances and visceral prejudices. Among Trump’s predecessors are the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings of the 1850s, white supremacist politicians of the Jim Crow era, and more recent hucksters and demagogues including Joe McCarthy and George Wallace ...

Manufacturing in Manhattan

Eric Foner, 1 June 2000

Working-Class New York: Life and Labour Since World War Two 
by Joshua Freeman.
New Press, 393 pp., $35, May 2000, 1 56584 575 7
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... in this subject in the two decades after 1965. Inspired by the work of E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, American scholars redefined a field which had been almost exclusively taken up with the history of trades union to encompass working-class life and culture outside the workplace as well as within it. Practised primarily by historians who came of ...

How a desire for profit led to the invention of race

Eric Foner: Slavery, 4 February 1999

Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America 
by Ira Berlin.
Harvard, 512 pp., £18.50, October 1998, 0 674 81092 9
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The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern 1492-1800 
by Robin Blackburn.
Verso, 602 pp., £15, April 1998, 1 85984 890 7
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... finance Britain’s economic ascendancy in the 18th century. Revisiting an old debate initiated by Eric Williams’s classic Capitalism and Slavery, Blackburn emphasises the centrality of slavery to the Atlantic economy. By 1770, he estimates, profits derived from it furnished up to one-third of Britain’s capital formation. Again like Berlin, Blackburn is ...

Hallelujah Times

Eric Foner: The Great Migration, 29 June 2017

A Mind to Stay: White Plantation, Black Homeland 
by Sydney Nathans.
Harvard, 313 pp., £23.95, February 2017, 978 0 674 97214 8
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... Between​ 1910 and 1930, more than a million black Americans moved from the rural South to industrial cities north of the Mason-Dixon line. Refugees fleeing grinding poverty, political disenfranchisement, inadequate education and the ever present threat of violence (a comprehensive system of white supremacy known by the shorthand Jim Crow), they found employment on the bottom rungs of the burgeoning industrial economy ...

The Embryo Caesar

Eric Foner: After Hamilton, 14 December 2017

The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering The Story of an Early American Crisis 
by James E. Lewis Jr..
Princeton, 715 pp., £27.95, November 2017, 978 0 691 17716 8
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... The current​ territorial shape of the 48 contiguous United States has been fixed since 1853. Nearly a century and a half later, the country’s geographic outline – stretching from coast to coast, with Maine, Florida and Texas sticking out at various angles – is instantly recognisable and so ingrained in our imagination as to seem unquestionable ...

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