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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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... The book is not conceived as a full history of the trade. There is no mention of the part played by other 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 ...

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. And it made Parks, the ‘seamstress ...
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 ...
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. If succinctness ...
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 ...

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. Since Bush the Elder struck ...

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 ...

Enter Hamilton

Eric Foner

5 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 ...
11 January 1990
Oxford History of the United States. Vol. VI: Battle Cry of Freedom, The Civil War Era 
by James McPherson.
Oxford, 904 pp., $35, June 1988, 0 19 503863 0
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Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 
by Eric Foner.
Harper and Row, 690 pp., $21.95, April 1988, 0 06 015851 4
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... the war. But racism also played a more subtle part, for it became a screen through which all other forces were perceived. Racism entered into the processes by which its own operations were analysed. EricFoner, who now holds at Columbia University the DeWitt Clinton chair once held by Richard Hofstadter, makes the very interesting point that, as Northern liberals lost heart for and interest in the ...
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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... profit-oriented entrepreneurs, and argues that the revenues derived from slave labour helped to 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 ...
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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... New York is also a milestone in American labour history. As in Britain, there was a remarkable transformation 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 ...
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. Assaults by structuralists, Post-Modernists ...

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 ...

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 ...

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. But as the historian Steven Hahn recently pointed ...

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