Eric Foner was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for history for The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (W.W. Norton).
He is the author of (among many other books) The Story of American Freedom and was elected president of the American Historical Association in 2000. Here is an excerpt from his presidential address, “American Freedom in a Global Age”:
Today, at least in terms of political policy and discourse, Americans still live in the shadow of the Reagan revolution. “Freedom” continues to occupy as central a place as ever in our political vocabulary, but it has been largely appropriated by libertarians and conservatives of one kind or another, from advocates of unimpeded market economics to armed militia groups insisting that the right to bear arms is the centerpiece of American liberty. The dominant constellation of definitions seems to consist of a series of negations—of government, of social responsibility, of a common public culture, of restraints on individual self-definition and consumer choice. Once the rallying cry of the dispossessed, freedom is today commonly invoked by powerful economic institutions to justify many forms of authority, even as on the individual level it often seems to suggest the absence of outside authority altogether.
Foner has always thought seriously about the relationship between history and contemporary events. In 2003, he wrote an essay titled “Rethinking American History in a Post-9/11 World”:
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. Explanation is not a justification for murder, criticism is not equivalent to treason, and offering a historical analysis of evil is not the same thing as consorting with evil. . .
In the wake of September 11, it is all the more imperative that the history we teach must be a candid appraisal of our own society’s strengths and weaknesses, not simply an exercise in self-celebration – a conversation with the entire world, not a complacent dialogue with ourselves. If September 11 makes us think historically — not mythically — about our nation and its role in the world, then perhaps some good will have come out of that tragic event.
We are now almost a decade beyond that fateful event. The question is, have we even begun to lessons history can teach us?