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Eric Foner photographed September 2009.

Eric Foner (born February 7 1943 in New York Citymarker) is an Americanmarker historian. He has been a faculty member in the department of history at Columbia University since 1982 and writes extensively on political history, the history of freedom, the early history of the Republican Party, African American biography, Reconstruction, and historiography. Foner is the leading contemporary historian of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. In 2000, he was elected president of the American Historical Association, the highest honor accorded an American historian.


Appointed the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, Foner specializes in nineteenth century American history, the American Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction. He served as president of the Organization of American Historians in (1993-94), and of the American Historical Association (2000).

From 1973-1982, he served as a Professor in the Department of History at City College and Graduate Center at City University of New York. In 1976-1977, he was a visiting professor of American History at Princeton Universitymarker. In 1980 he was Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Cambridgemarker.

Foner earned his B.A., summa cum laude, from Columbia University in 1963; a second B.A. from Oriel Collegemarker, Oxfordmarker, as a Kellett Fellow in 1965; and his Ph.D. in 1969, under the tutelage of Richard Hofstadter at Columbia University.

His father, historian Jack D. Foner, actively supported the anti-fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War, the trade union movement and the campaign for civil rights for African-Americans. In 1981, Jack Foner received an apology from the New York Citymarker Board of Higher Education for an "egregious violation of academic freedom" in 1941 that had resulted in his blacklisting for 30 years. Jon Wiener, professor of history at the University of California, Irvinemarker, wrote that 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."

Eric Foner is married to Lynn Garafola, professor of dance at Barnard Collegemarker and dance critic, historian, and curator. They have one daughter. He was married to screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal.


Foner serves on the editorial boards of Past and Present and The Nation. He has written for The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, London Review of Books, and other publications. In addition, he has spoken about history on television and radio, including Charlie Rose, Book Notes, and All Things Considered, and appeared in historical documentaries on PBS and The History Channel. Foner also contributed an essay and conversation with John Sayles in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, published by the Society of American Historians in 1995. He was the historian in Freedom: A History of US on PBS in 2003.


With Olivia Mahoney, chief curator at the Chicago History Museum Foner curated two prize-winning exhibitions on American history: A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln, which opened at the Chicago History Museummarker in 1990, and America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War, a traveling exhibit that opened at the Virginia Historical Society in 1995. He revised the presentation of American history at the Hall of Presidentsmarker at Walt Disney Worldmarker's Magic Kingdommarker, and Great Moments with Mr. Lincolnmarker at Disneylandmarker, and has served as consultant to several National Park Service historical sites and historical museums.

Foner served as an expert witness for the University of Michigan's defense of affirmative action in its undergraduate and law school admissions (Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger) considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003.


In 1991, Foner won the Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates. In 1995, he was named Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities.[101955] He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciencesmarker and of the British Academy and holds an honorary doctorate from Iona Collegemarker. He has taught at Cambridge Universitymarker as Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions, at Oxford Universitymarker as Harmsworth Professor of American History and at Moscow State Universitymarker as Fulbright Professor. In 2007, the alumni of Columbia College voted to give him the John Jay Award for Distinguished Professional Achievement.


Journalist Nat Hentoff called his Story of American Freedom "an indispensable book that should be read in every school in the land."[101956] "Eric Foner is one of the most prolific, creative, and influential American historians of the past 20 years," according to a write-up in the Washington Post. His work is "brilliant, important" a reviewer wrote in the Los Angeles Times.[101957]

Historian Michael Perman notes Foner's significance as an historian of the Reconstruction era:


Theodore Draper, author of two early classic histories of the American Communist Party (CPUSA), as well as books criticizing LBJ's crimes in the Dominican Republic and Reagan's involvement with the Iran-Contra Affair, saw Foner as "one of our most distinguished historians." But, reviewing The Story of American Freedom in the New York Review of Books, Draper pointed out where Foner had whitewashed the history of the CPUSA in his glowing account, calling him "a partisan of radical sects and opinions."[101958] Another highly respected liberal historian, 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. [101959]

Conservatives have attacked Foner, too. Self-proclaimed "academia-watchdog" David Horowitz described as "anti-American" a Columbia University teach-in that Foner helped organize in 2003; Daniel Pipes named Foner among the "Profs who hate America" (for the historian's vehement opposition to the Iraq War). Foner, in turn, has questioned why modern conservatives such as Gale Norton and John Ashcroft continue to praise the Confederacy.[101960]


"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." - "Rethinking American History in a Post-9/11 World" History News Network

"[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." - Eric Foner, Who Owns History? (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 2002), page 7.

"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." - "American Freedom in a Global Age" Presidential Address to the American Historical Association annual meeting January 2001.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001: "It was a rare commentator indeed who pointed out that Osama bin Laden and the Islamic fundamentalists of Afghanistan were trained and armed by our side during the 1980s or that the list of states that harbour terrorism include some close allies of the United States." London Review of Books

"Events are only inevitable after they happen." -Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World

Works by Foner


  • Reissued with a new preface.
  • ,editor
  • , editor
  • Political history; and winner, in 1989, of the Bancroft Prize, the Francis Parkman Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Avery O. Craven Prize, and the Lionel Trilling Prize.
  • An abridgement of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution.
  • , editor
  • , editor
  • A survey of United States history, published with companion volumes of documents,
  • 'Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History, ISBN 0-393-92503-X (vol. 1), and ISBN 0-393-92504-8 (vol. 2).
Some of his books have been translated into Portuguese, Italian, and Chinese.


Secession and the Soviet Union

In an article in the February 11th, 1991 edition of The Nation Foner addresses the proposed secession of the Baltic States from the Soviet Union. These states claimed “the right to secede in part because they were annexed in 1940 against the wishes of their citizens after more than two decades of independence”.

Foner takes note of political scientist Ronald Suny's opinion that the current crisis (in 1990) that the Soviet Union was facing with respect to these states “reflect[ed] the failure of Soviet nationality policy” which served to “strengthen nationalism in the republics, while the fate of minorities within those political units became extremely problematic.”

Foner wrote of potential problems with the separatist movements by these states:

Foner asked the question, “What is the proper unit for self-determination? What happens to residents who want to remain part of the larger unit.” Drawing an analogy from the American Civil War, Foner noted that West Virginia successfully separated from Virginia and returned to the Union while the Confederate States of America “violently suppress[ed] East Tennessee’s desire to remain within the Union” while Texas treated pro-Union Germans with “extreme brutality”. While visiting in Tbilisi Foner was told that “autonomous regions of non-Georgians within the republic” would not be allowed to secede.


  • Snowman, Daniel, "Eric Foner", History Today Volume 50, Issue 1, January 2000, pp. 26–27 .


  1. Foner's presidential speech to the American Historical Association, titled "Freedom in a Global Age"
  2. Jack D. Foner, Historian and Pioneer in Black Studies, Dies at 88 by William H. Honan
  3. In Memoriam: Jack D. Foner - Perspectives (April 2000) - American Historical Association
  4. Barnard College Newscenter
  5. Eric Foner

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