2022 Eric Foner
The word preeminent should be used sparingly, but it should not be spared in honoring Eric Foner. No historian has done more over the past fifty years to shape our understanding of the era of the Civil War.
From his early work on the ideological origins of the Republican Party (Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, 1970) to his magisterial Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (1988), to his nuanced portrait (The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, 2010) of Lincoln’s evolving political and moral imagination, to his exposition of the post-war Constitutional amendments (The Second Founding; 2019), he has exerted enormous influence on public understanding of the American past.
If his impact as a scholar has been wide and deep, so, too, has been his influence as a teacher. History departments across the country are filled with his students, whose own scholarship confirms not only the power of his example but also the breadth and openness of his mind. His students are not disciples or acolytes. They work in the spirit—not the shadow—of their mentor.
His generosity to undergraduate as well as graduate students; to colleagues and counterparts; to correspondents (who are often amazed by the alacrity of his response) is, to use another word that should be reserved for those who truly merit it, legendary.
In his subtly personal introduction to a reprint of his own mentor’s first book, Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought, he writes of Hofstadter’s struggle to convey the complex interplay of ideas and their human context. Eric Foner’s work rises to that same challenge—the challenge of writing about ideas without the illusion that they somehow live above the turmoil of social conflict, and about social and political history without dismissing ideas as mere pretexts for the exercise of power. This is a rare accomplishment, and it is especially rare to have accomplished it again and again.
Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University.