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Eric Foner

Beloved by undergraduates and reviled by right-wing ideologues, Columbia University's Eric Foner is arguably the world's foremost authority on the tumultuous period of American Reconstruction (1865-1877). Taking a page from W.E.B. Du Bois's often overlooked 1935 work Black Reconstruction, Foner's work definitively overthrew the racist apologia and Redeemer discontent of the Dunning School, which had argued for decades that Reconstruction was a cataclysmic morass of misgovernment, corruption, and ineptitude visited upon the defeated South by a vengeful cabal of Northern politicians. Instead, Foner placed newly freed Africans-Americans at the center of the post-Civil War story and, in so doing, illustrated the brief moments of political and social possibility available for Southern blacks before the racial and economic discrimination of Jim Crow was enthroned throughout the "New South."

Contrary to the radical anti-American bogeyman conjured up by David Horowitz and other such fringe-right freak shows, Foner's writing is animated by a deep and abiding passion for America's promise, a passion made all the more potent because it is tempered by an honest and critical appraisal of the times our nation has fallen short of our founding ideals. Those who criticize his work as being "unAmerican" haven't been reading his books very closely (Moreover, people who "hate" America as much as the straw men academics of right-wing nightmares generally don't spend their lives studying American history with as much care and attention to detail as has Foner.) In a sense, Foner's approach to the past and to the discipline of history share some similarities with the "prophetic pragmatic" project of Cornel West: "To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America - this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it."

In sum, whether it be scrutinizing the revolutionary milieu of Tom Paine in Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, describing the harrowing economic plight of freedmen and freedwomen in Reconstruction, or surveying the history of America's most cherished concept in The Story of American Freedom, Foner has illuminated the contours of our shared past with honesty and integrity.

Full Disclosure: I have taken a number of courses with Eric Foner during my graduate work at Columbia, and have found him to be very friendly, personable, humble, and humane - everything one could ask for in both a professor and a public historian. And he's even a Lord of the Rings fan, which goes far in my book.

Eric Foner

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