Columbia’s Pulitzer Winner Prof. Eric Foner on Lincoln, Slavery, & Reconstruction

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on

This week on The Learning Curve, guest cohosts Charlie Chieppo and Alisha Searcy speak with Dr. Eric Foner, Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University and Pulitzer Prize-winning author on Lincoln, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. They discuss what educators and students today need to know about the post-Civil War era, Reconstruction, and the legacy of slavery. Professor Foner talks about emancipated slaves’ quest for economic autonomy and equal citizenship, and the importance of studying and understanding the Reconstruction Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. He closes the interview with a reading from his book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.

Stories of the Week: Charlie discussed a newly released paper from Pioneer Institute in which researcher Ken Ardon chronicles the declines in public school enrollments that were accelerated by COVID-19 but seem to be persisting well after the pandemic. Alisha cited a paper from McKinsey & Company, K-12 teachers are quitting. What would make them stay? The paper notes a survey showing that nearly one-third of K-12 educators are thinking of leaving their jobs.


Dr. Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, and one of this country’s most prominent historians. His publications have concentrated on the intersections of intellectual, political and social history, and the history of American race relations. His best-known books are Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American SlaveryGateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad; and, most recently, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. His books have won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for History, Bancroft Prize, Parkman Prize, Lincoln Prize, and Los Angeles Times Book Award. Prof. Foner has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, London Review of Books, and many other publications. He received his doctoral degree from Columbia University.

Get new episodes of The Learning Curve in your inbox!

TheLearningCurve_EricFoner CF

[00:00:00] Charlie: Well, welcome to this week’s version of the Learning Curve. My name is Charlie Chieppo and I’m a senior fellow at Pioneer Institute. And I’m pleased to be joined today by another guest, co-host Alisha Searcy. Alisha is very interesting to me. She ran a very good campaign, very close campaign for superintendent of education in the state of Georgia just last November. And also I recently found out was the youngest person and the first African American ever elected to the state Georgia State legislature from Cobb County. So, welcome Alisha. Tell us a little bit more about yourself.

[00:00:38] Alisha: Well, thank you, Charlie. I am happy to be here and thanks for that great introduction. I, as you said, former Democratic nominee for state school superintendent here in Georgia and spent 12 years in the legislature prior to that, and my whole focus has been on K-12 education. So whether I’m elected or not I’ve al spent that time doing that. I’m also a former superintendent here in Georgia. Ran a network of all girls schools. So I love all things public education. I’m a mom of three school-aged children. Some people may recognize that I have a new name. It was formally Morgan. But I have a new name now, Searcy. And with that marriage came two beautiful children along with my 16 year old.

[00:01:22] Alisha: So now we have three school-aged kids. My husband is a retired state trooper. We live in Georgia and run a couple of businesses and make sure that we spend some time traveling and focusing on raising good humans.

[00:01:37] Charlie: You are a busy woman, Alisha, and I like your priorities. So, I think we’re gonna go into each of our stories of the week That we have for this week. And Alisha, if it’s okay with you, I’m gonna, start and then have you talk about yours. So, being a senior fellow at Pioneer mine [00:02:00] is about a paper that Pioneer just released which is about Massachusetts public education, public school enrollments.

[00:02:07] Charlie: And I gotta tell you, I, I have to give a credit to my good friend Jamie Gass, who runs the education issues at Pioneer and. He has done something that I learned along the way is very wise, which is for certain things he has repeated studies on them over time so we can get a longer view on what’s happening.

[00:02:27] Charlie: And this is the third paper on Massachusetts public school enrollments at Pioneer has released in Jamie’s time. There. And it’s very interesting because again, by seeing o over a longer time period we’re getting to see some, what I think are very interesting trends, basically starting back in around 2010 there are earlier than that actually the, the previous decade public school enrollment in Massachusetts was pretty stable. And it was going down at a pace of maybe one half of 1% per year over the decade. I know this must sound odd to you, Alisha, in Georgia, where things are growing much faster than they are here. Yeah. And, the same was true for the next decade, 2010 to 2019.

But what was interesting about that decade, particularly in the context of what is happening today and what’s happened, especially since the pandemic, is that even though overall state enrollment was stable we saw a lot more variation within the state. For example, 68. Cities and towns lost more than 20% of their students, which I found amazing.

[00:03:38] Charlie: And, 33 saw enrollment jump by more than 10%. So you’re starting to see, or, you know, in the last decade, kind of more I don’t wanna say instability, but, a lot more movement. And then of course came the pandemic and that kind of changed everything, right?

[00:03:57] Charlie: And what’s very interesting in [00:04:00] Massachusetts is that, so between 2019 and 2020 and in Massachusetts, the way we do things, the official counts, if you will, are taken on October 1st. So it would be October 1st these years. Public school enrollment fell by 31,000 people, or about 3.3% which is not too much of a surprise.

[00:04:21] Charlie: But what’s interesting is that it declined by another half a percent the following year which would’ve been 21. But what I was really taken by was that the following year, by the following year, which was last year it had only gone up. By about two tenths of a percent.

[00:04:38] Charlie: So the question is where are the kids? Yeah. Who are these kids and where have they gone? Yeah. Right. And so we, you know, we don’t really know the answer to that, although it, it seems as though a lot of the students who left public schools during the pandemic a lot of them switched to homeschooling.

[00:04:56] Charlie: Yes. Which is very interesting because that is, has in [00:05:00] the past, not. Been a big option or something that a lot of parents have done in Massachusetts, unlike in many other parts of the country. Mm-hmm. We also know that the decline was biggest among the youngest students. and now that’s sort of making its way through through the system.

[00:05:16] Charlie: So, It’s fascinating to me cuz it says, you know, all these students so far have not come back. Which maybe tells me that they found something that maybe they like better. Whatever it is, I, you know, time will tell. But obviously it has a whole lot of other impacts on school districts in terms of finances, staffing, facilities all those kind of things.

[00:05:37] Charlie: And there’s a couple other things I think that it will really, a few other things I want to just mention that I think it will really impact one of course is someone who spent many years doing college admissions it’s gonna affect higher ed obviously. Right. Another thing I’ve been in very, very involved with lately it has me thinking about this as well, which is that, you and I think we saw this with the, much bigger variation even before [00:06:00] the pandemic in terms of some districts really losing a lot of students, other districts really gaining a lot of students.

[00:06:05] Charlie: And that’s that people are a lot more mobile. And this has really been on my mind because in Massachusetts we just recently passed a millionaires’ tax last November. And, Massachusetts has been losing people. And there are fears now that. With the increased mobility that has happened in the wake of the pandemic, there are fears now that, that mobility is going to increase and even more people are gonna leave.

[00:06:31] Charlie: And I wonder if that increased mobility is playing a role in these, school district enrollments being much more un unpredictable than they’ve been in the past. And then, the other thing that I’m really thinking about, Boston Public Schools, of course, have been in the news for a lot of the wrong reasons lately, but with some other work I’ve done in my career in writing, I’ve done I became very aware of this issue of going back to the fifties of, schools amid [00:07:00] falling enrollment being a real third rail in politics and, one of the places where enrollment is dropping very quickly has been Boston.

[00:07:09] Charlie: And, the US Department of Education is, saying that these drops, these decreases in enrollment are gonna continue at least through the rest of this decade. And we’ve already got far more capacity in terms of school facilities in Boston than we do students. And it sounds like this is gonna really increase and intensify.

[00:07:28] Charlie: Yeah. And I wonder if it’s gonna set up a situation in which we’re gonna have that issue on which many political careers have been sacrificed which is the attempt to close schools and to kind of right size the district.

Alisha: Don’t say it!

[00:07:40] Charlie: I know, I know. Because, I, I gotta tell you this one I feel very strongly about because I just. education, public education dollars are so precious, and when I, and I realize the disruption when you have to close schools. But boy, the thought of all this money, yeah.

[00:07:58] Charlie: Going to keep open,[00:08:00] largely empty schools, this is a really tough issue. And so that’s why I think this enrollment issue is an important one. And I suspect one that not only people in Massachusetts are looking at.

[00:08:11] Alisha: Oh, you’re absolutely right. And I think what Massachusetts saw is what the rest of the country saw, a steep decline in enrollment.

[00:08:18] Alisha: I think it’s coming back up somewhat in Georgia, but you asked the right question. I think not enough people are asking where did those students go and why did they leave? And I think some of that has to do with, at least in the last couple of years, Covid and parents realizing that perhaps the quality of the education that they thought their children were getting not so much.

[00:08:41] Alisha: And so they’re, you know, exploring other options, whether it’s. in the charter school space or private school, as you mentioned, homeschool. And so I think those of us who care about this and wanna make sure that all kids have access to a high quality education, we need to be finding out where these kids went, right?

[00:08:58] Alisha: And, if families were [00:09:00] unhappy, what we need to do to address the system. Because we, need to understand the problem, the challenges here, right? And what caused this and how we make sure we get those families back if there are social issues happening. Or that if there’s something that the systems aren’t offering, that we can do that for families.

[00:09:18] Charlie: Yeah, and I think it was an interesting peak into parent psychology, speaking as a parent myself too. You know, that it was only when, really students were I don’t wanna say forced out of the system, but, you know, really in a difficult situation because of Covid that a lot of students left and many of them have stayed away.

[00:09:34] Charlie: And it really speaks to this issue that, you know, as parents, boy, we really do wanna believe that our kids are getting a good education. it’s only when we, come face to face with, in, you know, in some cases, certainly not in every case that there are real issues there that.

[00:09:49] Charlie: We see the kind of displacement that we’ve seen here. But Alisha, what do you have to teach us today?

[00:09:55] Alisha: Well, I came across this article from McKinsey. You know, they do these [00:10:00] great reports and they’re always so timely, I think, on so many people’s minds are conversations about teachers, about retention, attrition, and of course compensation.

[00:10:13] Alisha: so in this report, it actually surprised me because we know that over the years , research has said that teachers leave their profession or leave their school because of leadership. But this new research that was done at the end of last school year 21, 22 tells us that teachers are leaving now because of compensation, inadequate compensation.

[00:10:36] Alisha: And so I think it’s very interesting and I hope that this report leads again to a lot of questions within the system because we expect teachers, I think, to go into this profession because they’re passionate about children and they wanna teach and they wanna make a difference. And obviously that is important.

[00:10:56] Alisha: But I think we now have hit the point in our country [00:11:00] where teachers are like, love this job, passionate about the children. But I am tired of working three jobs in order to make ends meet. Yeah, I’d

[00:11:09] Charlie: like to have a little time to spend with my own children.

[00:11:11] Alisha: Yes. Those are real issues. And so according to this survey that was done and they had 1,644 respondents.

[00:11:23] Alisha: 55% of those teachers said if they were planning to leave inadequate compensation was the number one reason, followed by unsustainable work expectations. And so there are a number of other categories that they could choose from. Uninspiring leadership, lack of wellbeing, lack of career development, workplace and flexibility, unsupportive colleagues, inadequate resource availability, lack of community support, meaningless work and the list goes on.

[00:11:52] Alisha: And so I, I really want us. As a country and those of us who care about education to think differently about [00:12:00] how we attract, retain, and compensate teachers, I think this information tells us a lot. And I believe the number was maybe 30% of teachers according to this survey are planning to leave.

[00:12:13] Alisha: And so when we think about all of the vacancies that are now all the vacancies that exist across the country, Particularly because you have Covid money, right? The districts are trying to spend, they’ve created these new positions, so you have more positions than you do people, and you have teachers who are leaving because of compensation, because of, unreasonable work conditions.

[00:12:39] Alisha: There’s a lot going on. We’re, we’re doing a lot to teachers and I think what. This research does not point out. And I would say as a parent, as someone who’s in education, and I talk to educators a lot who are in classrooms, they’re also not talking about how challenging it is in classrooms these days, right?

[00:12:57] Alisha: You’ve got mental health issues that are entering the [00:13:00] classroom more now than ever because of Covid and because of just the world and what’s happening around kids. You’ve got issues of violence, right? When you have an elementary kid who’s shooting a teacher and six year old who six years old, right?

[00:13:17] Alisha: Yes. imagine what it’s like to be a classroom teacher these days and to have all of these pressures on top of all the things that we ask them to do, right? They’ve gotta be the nurse, the mama, the counselor. They’ve gotta make sure they’re have high test scores. That’s a lot to deal with. And so you can understand why there’s appearing to be this mass exodus across the country.

[00:13:40] Alisha: So it’s a really, I think it’s a wake up call for us to think about. What ways do we attract teachers? How do we retain them? Clearly, we need to compensate them more. We’ve gotta rethink the compensation models. I think gone are the days of. The 30 year teacher who’s waiting around for the [00:14:00] pension. And I know that’s a little controversial to say, but again, if you look at the research, you know, teachers are staying now three to five years.

[00:14:07] Alisha: Right? what if we think differently about compensating them more on the front end than saving all this money, for their pensions 25, 30 years from now when they’re not gonna be around?

[00:14:18] Charlie: it’s very interesting. when society changes and certainly the pandemic and technology has, increased the pace of change, there’s no doubt about that.

[00:14:28] Charlie: when we have this sort of conflict between a fast changing society and bureaucracies and not just public education. I mean, you know, there are many, many bureaucracies that by nature are not nimble and don’t change easily or quickly. But I think a lot of the transformations that we’re seeing in our society are really gonna.

[00:14:50] Charlie: Force us to change. a lot of what we do within public K through 12 education and hopefully it will cause us to [00:15:00] really value teachers and value. Good teachers. Yes. So let’s, take an optimistic look at that.

[00:15:07] Alisha: Absolutely. I’m with you on that. And one of the things that I was really hopeful about through the pandemic, obviously it was a very challenging time for the world and certainly the US and we’ve, you know, seen a lot of tragedies through that.

[00:15:19] Alisha: But I also saw life change for us. The way we use technology, the way we value relationships, you know, there’s a long list of things that we can say were the positives that came out of the pandemic. And I was hoping, and I’m still going to be hopeful that in education, that we’ve embraced some of that change and look forward to some of those ways that, you know, as you said, we can be more nimble and change the way we deliver education, right?

[00:15:48] Alisha: The way we engage parents. what education even means these days. Yes. So, I’m, I’m hopeful that we’ll continue those conversations and we’ll continue to see leaders at the school board level, [00:16:00] superintendent level, parents and advocacy organizations who’ll keep pushing for those kinds of changes.

[00:16:05] Charlie: Well, I think that is very well said, Alisha. I could not agree more. Thank you. And thank you for bringing it to that, to our attention. Cause that’s a very good issue. Yes.

[00:16:21] Charlie: Dr. Eric Foner is Dewitt Clinton, professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University and one of this country’s most prominent historians, Professor Foner’s publications have concentrated on the intersections of intellectual, political, and social history and the history of American race relations. His best known books are Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863 to 1877, the Fiery Trial.

[00:16:47] Charlie: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery Gateway to Freedom, the hidden history of the Underground Railroad, and most recently the second founding, how the Civil War and Reconstruction remade the Constitution. His [00:17:00] books have won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for History, Bancroft Prize, Parkman Prize, Lincoln Prize, and Los Angeles Times Book Award.

[00:17:09] Charlie: Professor Foner has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, London Review of books, and many other publication. He earned his doctoral degree from Columbia University and we are thrilled to have Dr. Foner here with us today. Let’s get right into it. We have a lot of ground to cover.

[00:17:27] Charlie: You are certainly among the greatest scholars on the Civil War President Lincoln Slavery reconstruction. You’ve said that civil war and reconstruction transformed American society in numerous ways. Would you briefly share with us what educators and students today should know about this Pivotal era in our history?

Professor Eric Foner: I think the first thing students or anybody should know about that era is that it laid the foundations for the world we’re living in, the society we’re living in now in other words, the issues [00:18:00] of that time are still being debated and fought over who should be a citizen.

[00:18:05] Eric: And that was, put into the constitution in reconstruction in the 14th Amendment. That anyone born in the United States is a citizen, which is still a controversial principle in some areas who should have the right to vote? That was a critical issue after the end of slavery, whether black men should have the right to vote or not.

[00:18:25] Eric: And as you know today the right to vote is also contested. In many states. There are states trying to limit in one way or another, people’s ability to vote. The whole question of the relationship between political democracy and economic democracy also comes out of that era of slaves or freed slaves after the war is, everybody’s heard the phrase, 40 acres in a mule.

[00:18:49] Eric: They use that to demand that freedom includes some kind of economic wherewithal. 40 acres in a mule to black families would be a sort of compensation for the [00:19:00] labor of slavery, and also enable them to enjoy some modicum of economic freedom along with the personal freedom that they gained as a result of the end of slavery.

[00:19:10] Eric: Of course it didn’t happen. Land was not redistributed. And the result was that the large number of former slaves were kind of locked into rural poverty for many decades after the Civil War. So, the final I think, point that people ought to realize about that era is that it tells us that.

[00:19:30] Eric: Our history, like the history of any other country, is a complicated checkered one. It’s not just a story of endless growth, of freedom, liberty, et cetera. Rights can be gained and rights can be lost. After the Civil War, three new amendments to the Constitution greatly expanded the rights of African Americans.

[00:19:51] Eric: But in the decades later, in the late 19th century, most of those rights were sort of whittled away by the courts, especially the Supreme Court.[00:20:00] In other words people have to be vigilant. Rights in the Constitution are not self-enforcing. I guess that’s the point. And the Civil War reconstruction era where you saw a great expansion of people’s rights and then a great retreat from, you know, a great backlash against that also is a warning to us to take our rights seriously and not let them be eroded as seems to be happening in many places today.

[00:20:26] Charlie: Well, yeah, and I’m really taken by. By how effectively you weave together these events of the 19th century and what’s

[00:20:34] Eric: happening today. That happened a lot in the late 19th century. By the end, by 1900 or slightly after the right to vote for black men had been given and then taken back the right to equal treatment in public accommodations, hotels railroads, you know, transportation theaters.

[00:20:54] Eric: Had been granted and was taken back the right to protection against [00:21:00] violence. Remember, this was an era of the Ku Klux Klan and racist lynch violence in many places. Lynching. The right to federal protection against that was legislated by Congress and then taken back again. So, you can’t be satisfied unfortunately, with just achieving the passage of some of these measures, cuz you have to make sure that they’re enforced.

[00:21:22] Charlie: That’s fascinating. I do not realize that some of those rights. Had been granted, in reconstruction, you know, I always think being somewhat of my era that, you know, a, a bunch of these. Uh, Accommodations and those kind of freedoms, came with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

[00:21:37] Charlie: You know, it varies. Yeah.

[00:21:38] Eric: That, that meant That is a good point. Yeah. In fact, the 1875 Civil Rights Act was in some ways a stronger measure than the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the Supreme Court invalidated it. In 1883, they said that the constitution only applies to actions [00:22:00] by the government.

[00:22:00] Eric: In other words, if the government discriminates against you, ah, to the 14th Amendment, that’s not that, that’s not good. But the but individual private action not letting a black person into a theater, for example that the federal government can’t police that, not barred by the 14th Amendment.

[00:22:18] Eric: It took a hundred years almost for the Supreme Court to get around to the principle that, oh, actually we can ban private discrimination in the, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was upheld eventually by the Supreme Court. Yeah. The previous law had been declared unconstitutional.

[00:22:37] Charlie: Interesting. Well, let’s get around to some of the, the politics, which is the way that a lot of these things are determined, in your Pulitzer Prize winning book, the Fiery Trial, Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, that book traces the evolution of Lincoln’s ideas and policies about slavery from his early life through his presidency and during the Civil War.

[00:22:58] Charlie: Now, I think we all have [00:23:00] this kind of 30,000 foot view of Lincoln and who he was and what he did. Right. But Right. You know, as someone who is a history fanatic and also kind of a political junkie what do we need to know about Lincoln as a pragmatic politician and, you know, what his sort of on the ground views were and how his growth on slavery reshaped

[00:23:20] Eric: the country.

[00:23:21] Eric: Yeah. Well, you know, Lincoln was a politician. I emphasize that just because today politicians are generally not held in high regard, but Lincoln was proud to be a politician. He was a loyal member of the wig party until that party disappeared. Then he joined the Republicans and he was a strong member of the Republican Party.

[00:23:41] Eric: He thought that it was through party politics, that improvements in life could be legislated, that you know that the country would be governed. he was very pragmatic. A friend of mine is writing a book called Boss Lincoln about how Lincoln sort of, was, key political [00:24:00] organizer in Illinois in the period right before the civil War.

[00:24:04] Eric: That’s not how you think of Lincoln as a political boss, but I think he makes a good case that that is correct. but the, the point really is, That Lincoln in my book, as I think you mentioned, I try to argue that Lincoln. What made him a great leader, a great political leader, was not so much pragmatism, but growth, capacity for growth.

[00:24:26] Eric: by the time he died or was killed his views on slavery on race had Evolved enormously. Lincoln was not a great egalitarian before the Civil War. He hated slavery. He did not support greater rights for the free black population of Illinois, the state he was living in. He came eventually to embrace black suffrage, equal black citizenship.

[00:24:49] Eric: by the end of his life, he was definitely ahead of the curve in terms of white. Attitudes about race in the United States. You know, Lincoln only had one [00:25:00] year of formal schooling in his entire life. It really makes me wonder whether, or, well, I never knew that. Well, it makes me wonder whether my profession is needed, even do you need, but no.

[00:25:14] Eric: He was totally self-educated. Wow. He was able to be self-educated, and that’s when I talk about in a class about Lincoln, I tell them, this is what you should learn from Lincoln. Never stop learning. Mm-hmm. Keep reading, keep expanding. He was always interested in, new ideas. He didn’t mind it.

[00:25:34] Eric: You know, our politicians today, some of them have, let’s say they have thin skins. They don’t like criticism. Lincoln didn’t mind at all. People would come to the White House and meet with them and say, Lincoln, you’re all wrong. You’ve done this completely wrong. You have to deal with slavery differently.

[00:25:50] Eric: Did he kick them out? No, he said, Hmm, let me think about that. In other words, he learned right from other people. He listened to them and it’s that open-mindedness. He [00:26:00] wasn’t locked into an ideology at which he could never, depart from. So that’s the form of fragment that his I idea, especially in a crisis like the Civil War, you have to be flexible.

[00:26:13] Eric: You have to have an open mind. old ideas, old policies may not work anymore because the world has changed so much. those are the kind of qualities I think that were the essence of Lincoln’s greatness.

[00:26:24] Charlie: Interesting. Yeah. You know, it’s funny, we certainly are seeing today where, longstanding ways of thinking and approaching things can certainly get out of date very quickly and society that’s changing fast.

[00:26:37] Charlie: So,

[00:26:38] Eric: what he said in one of his addresses, the dogmas of the past are, I’m paraphrasing here, are. Not appropriate to the current moment. Yes. You know? Right, exactly. You’re in the middle of the greatest crisis in the history of the country. You can’t just come back and say, oh, well let’s just keep doing everything as we did it in the past, you know?[00:27:00]

[00:27:00] Charlie: Of course, the other side of that is that you, you gotta figure it out. You don’t have a, you know, you don’t have a road, you know what to do.

[00:27:07] Eric: You try out different things. Yeah, yeah. and in his presidency, he was an experimenter, like, remember I mentioned 40 acres in a mule? General Sherman down in Georgia, set aside farms of 40 acres for black families after he had conquered Savannah.

[00:27:26] Eric: Unfortunately, it didn’t, they didn’t keep that land. But I sometimes people ask me, well, what did Lincoln think about general Sherman’s policy here? And I, my answer is, We don’t know what he thought. He just let it happen. He didn’t say, this is my policy. He said to himself, let’s see what happens here, right? And these former slaves run their own farms, et cetera, et cetera. He neither opposed it, nor favored it. He just sat there and said, I’m gonna see how this works out. And that’s another kind of political pragmatism. In

[00:27:58] Charlie: President Lincoln’s second [00:28:00] inaugural address, which as a writer I have to point out is one of the shortest and most eloquent inaugural addresses in history. And I think those two things may be connected. He said every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another, drawn with the sword. The Civil War killed approximately 625,000 Americans, another 405,000 were wounded, A total of over a million people. Average daily deaths were around 600, which far exceeded daily deaths during World War II. What should teachers and students better understand about Lincoln’s commitment to this enormous loss of life? To preserve the union and to end the moral evil of slavery?

[00:28:39] Eric: Lincoln did not want war. But he was willing to risk war rather than give up. It wasn’t. It was partly of course, the preservation of the union, but he also said, I want to save the union, but must it. It must be a union worth saving, In other words, if the secession crisis just led to [00:29:00] more slavery, slavery expanding into the west, slavery being further solidified, that wasn’t the kind of union that Lincoln wanted.

[00:29:08] Eric: So he was willing to take the risk. He felt that the country had reached this crisis. It was a democratic election. He was elected according to the. Methods of the Constitution, and he said, if after an election the losing side threatens to break up the country then we don’t have a democracy anymore.

[00:29:28] Eric: A democracy means the loser accepts the fact that they lost. Of course, not everyone accepts that nowadays either, but

[00:29:35] Charlie: now there’s one of those outdated

[00:29:36] Eric: thought he, he was not. Thirsty. In fact, he was very depressed because of all this bloodshed. He pardoned all sorts of young soldiers, you know, who desertion was punished by death, death penalty.

[00:29:51] Eric: But Lincoln basically didn’t want to see a lot of deserters executed. He wasn’t a blood thirsty guy. On the other hand, he [00:30:00] did preside over this bloodbath and he could have said, well, we’re given up, you know, we’ll, let’s negotiate. Let’s see what we can do. He said, no, absolutely. We are not gonna give up the basic principle of union and democracy.

[00:30:12] Eric: And then as the war progressed of ending slavery itself, well, toward the end of the war. Some Republican leaders came to him and said, look, Lincoln, you’ve got to rescind the Emancipation Proclamation. it’s prolonging the war. The South is gonna fight and fight and fight.

[00:30:28] Eric: If they think that they must give up their slaves, if they lose you should say, yeah, well, we’ll, we’ll let you back in with slavery. Lincoln said, no, I cannot do that. To promise people freedom and then take away the promise. He said, I would be damned in time and eternity. Another great phrase of Lincoln, yes, and I returned to time and eternity if I rescinded the promise of freedom.

[00:30:56] Eric: So the war continued and Lincoln was willing to face [00:31:00] that. Hmm, interesting.

[00:31:02] Charlie: Wow.

[00:31:03] Alisha: So this has been one of the most fascinating history lessons ever. So thank you for joining us, professor. I have a couple of questions for you, and one of them is, as I’m looking at your body of work, which is just incredible first of all, I’m very interested to know what has inspired you to really study this body of work and to contribute this way in our nation’s history.

[00:31:27] Alisha: So that’s my first question.

[00:31:29] Eric: Yeah. Well, historians are not very self-reflective. I dunno, we study other people but not ourselves. But, you know, I was in college and then graduate school in the 1960s at the height of the civil rights revolution. And that affected all of us who were young then and idealistic and so are the country going through this crisis.

[00:31:51] Eric: And many people interested in history like myself. We want. Where does this come from in our history? the kind of history I learned in high school didn’t talk about [00:32:00] African Americans, didn’t talk about civil rights, barely mentioned any black person at all in American history.

[00:32:06] Eric: That was the way history was taught. Suddenly uh, This crisis is taking place. And we said, well, where does this come from? what is the impact of slavery on American history? How did we get this Jim Crow system in the south that hadn’t been taught very much in history classrooms, but, People like myself wanted to know more about the historical background of what was going on in the streets. .

[00:32:30] Alisha: that’s so fascinating because you don’t, I’m in my forties. You don’t really think about. What’s being taught in a way that helps you understand what’s happening in the moment.

[00:32:41] Alisha: And so your curiosity has helped a lot of us have a better understanding of our history. And one of the things that I wanna ask you about, you mentioned, you know, what we’re learning in school. When I think about learning about the Underground Railroad, It’s almost like mm-hmm. Folklore, you hear one or two [00:33:00] figures, Harriet Tubman, you see images.

[00:33:03] Alisha: And so you’ve written a whole book about it. in Gateway to Freedom, you talk about the 3000 enslaved people that were freed. But I don’t think there’s enough of those. Stories or facts have been offered. So can you talk more about the Underground Railroad and maybe share some of the things that most of us hadn’t learned yet?

[00:33:24] Eric: Yeah. Well the Underground Railroad is a great. Story of in American history, it’s, a story of black and white people working together for a noble cause that is helping people escape to freedom. But there’s a lot of mythology around it also. I mean, in a way uh, The very name is perhaps misleading.

[00:33:43] Eric: Yes. A railroad suggests a fixed set of, roots. You know, a railroad always goes on the same path, right, It suggests fixed stations that, you’d stop at different places and along the way that’s not what it was like, it was [00:34:00] not nearly as organized as that suggests. I describe it as a, a bunch of local networks e Now my book is mostly about New York State and then New England and the Atlantic Coast, but you had little enclaves of people.

[00:34:15] Eric: Not a hell of a lot. You know, we shouldn’t think of the Underground Railroad as a giant operation. But worked to assist runaway slaves. They. Helped them get to the north, they helped them to get to Canada. It was dangerous. It was against the law. The federal law, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had strong penalties against people helping fugitives to escape.

[00:34:38] Eric: The Underground Railroad is a great story and there’s still plenty of it that needs to be dug up because by definition it was illegal. And so it didn’t publicize all the time, the, various efforts that were being made. So it’s, yeah. Harriet Tubman. I don’t mind people learning about Harriet Tubman.

[00:34:55] Eric: She’s a great figure. I think other leaders of the Underground [00:35:00] Railroad who were not nearly as well known mm-hmm. Uh, William Still, for example, others also deserve the kind of attention that Tubman gets. Absolutely.

[00:35:09] Alisha: So, I’m interested in learning more about that. One of the things you’re quoted as saying is that maybe one of the most tangible legacies of the Civil War and reconstruction era are the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments of the US Constitution. Can you summarize the reconstruction amendments and why they deserve greater focus among teachers and school children than they often receive.

[00:35:33] Eric: Yeah. Well, my most recent book was called The Second Founding, and it’s about those three constitutional members.

[00:35:40] Eric: The 13th abolished slavery fully. I mean, the Emancipation Proclamation had freed many slaves, but not all of them. 13th Amendment ends slavery. 14th Amendment. The longest amendment ever added to the Constitution is complicated, to say the least, but its core is the first section which defines [00:36:00] anyone who is born in the United States as a citizen.

[00:36:03] Eric: Remember, before the Civil War, Black people could not be citizens, even free black people. The, the Supreme Court dread Scott decision said citizenship is only for white people, no black. So, but now birthright, citizenship, anybody born in the country, doesn’t matter what race you are, what religion et cetera, what the status of your parents is, you are a citizen.

[00:36:25] Eric: And then it goes on to say that all those citizens are entitled to the equal protection of the law. The 14th Amendment puts the concept of equality into the Constitution for the first time. The word equal does not appear in the original Constitution, except in some very obscure little thing about elections.

[00:36:46] Eric: it made the Constitution. What it had not been before, which was a vehicle that people who felt they were being denied equality, they could use the Constitution to challenge their inequality, which you [00:37:00] couldn’t do before the war. So it really did change the whole nature of American government.

[00:37:05] Eric: Finally, the 15th Amendment. Tried to guarantee the right to vote for black men, not women. No state, north or south at this moment. Allowed women, unfortunately to vote, but black men was supposed to be getting a guarantee of black suffrage. This was a radical step. Also before the Civil War, only five states, all of them in New England allowed black men to vote.

[00:37:29] Eric: And so now the body politic, you might say, changes by admitting African Americans as voters, as office holders et cetera. But unfortunately, as I mentioned before, the right to vote was taken away in the south. Under the Jim Crow system around the 1890s and 1900, and it took until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to restore the what was supposed to be guaranteed by the Constitution.

[00:37:59] Eric: Gosh, [00:38:00]

[00:38:00] Alisha: I don’t know about you, but I’m just you, Charlie. I’m just sitting here like, just all I can say is wow, just learning so much and thinking about how much we still have to

[00:38:09] Charlie: learn. Well, that is so true, and I gotta tell you selfishly I’m thinking how come they made it so complicated in law school and he’s made it so simple, right?

[00:38:20] Eric: Yes. Um, I’ve never been in law school, so I can’t speak for them.

[00:38:25] Alisha: your book, reconstruction America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863 to 1877, arguably remains the landmark volume on an era of wide complexity. I’d say so. And so can you briefly talk about.

[00:38:40] Alisha: Again, what educators and students should know about Lincoln’s and President Andrew Johnson’s approaches to reconstruction particularly as it relates to emancipated enslaved people’s quest for economic autonomy for equal citizenship, and some of the ways a federal government was empowered to [00:39:00] remodel, if you will, Southern society to establish equal rights for all Americans.

[00:39:05] Eric: Well, the first thing I want to emphasize, because many as Australians I think don’t quite realize this, is that Lincoln. Did not have one plan of reconstruction. As I said before, Lincoln is a pragmatist. Lincoln is always learning open-minded. He put forward ideas about reconstruction, but we shouldn’t say, okay, this was his blueprint and he’d never change his mind.

[00:39:28] Eric: Because that’s not how Lincoln operated. But Andrew Johnson, who was the vice president who took over as president when Lincoln was assassinated, Johnson had strong inflexible views, unlike Lincoln Johnson. Could not compromise, could not deal with Congress was deeply, deeply racist. And his idea was, look, blacks are free.

[00:39:49] Eric: Absolutely no question about that. But they should just go back to work on the plantation. The voting was for white people. Office holding was for white people, citizenship was for white people. He didn’t [00:40:00] think blacks really had much of a role in reconstruction. But Congress had many Republicans, including the radical Republicans, who were committed to trying to create a much more equal society with slavery having been destroyed and in a long complicated process, they passed laws.

[00:40:19] Eric: They adopted these constitutional amendments to try to create a interracial democracy. That’s the thing about reconstruction. It’s the first. Intellectual democracy in American history where people of all backgrounds, races, et cetera, take part equally in the political system. And that was a tremendous change in American life.

[00:40:43] Eric: And indeed, it was such a big change that it stimulated or caused a violent. Counter reaction, a backlash as we call it today. The Ku Klux Klan and similar groups, the Knights of the White Camelia, the white league [00:41:00] organized to try to overthrow these new governments, new reconstruction governments in the South.

[00:41:06] Eric: There were riots, there were massacres there were assassinations. Now, of course you mentioned economic wherewithal and neither Lincoln nor Johnson had a clear idea of what. economic status, the newly freed slaves would, have? Johnson thought they should just work on the plantation as if they were slaves.

[00:41:26] Eric: Lincoln said very little about the economic aspects of reconstruction. We don’t know, you know, obviously Lincoln was still alive. When reconstruction began, he was assassinated. We don’t know what Lincoln would’ve done a year later, two years later, four years later. That’s not history. That’s speculation.

[00:41:44] Eric: It’s fun, but it doesn’t tell us much about what really happened.

[00:41:48] Alisha: Right. So I wanna follow up on that. This is my last question and then I’m gonna ask you to read from one of your books, and I’m excited to hear what you would consider to be your favorite. But okay. In your [00:42:00] book, the second founding you explore how Reconstruction era reversed the priority of the original Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and authorize the federal government to enforce the privileges of citizenship.

[00:42:11] Alisha: So can you talk about, we, I think you kind of alluded to this, but can you talk about why reconstruction is so often viewed as being unsuccessful or incomplete?

[00:42:21] Eric: Well, unfinished was the subtitle of my book on reconstruction. Yeah. I mean, I think it is because we still haven’t solved all the problems or answered all the questions posed by reconstruction.

[00:42:34] Eric: As I said before, It’s so important to learn, you know, how did we get to 2023 and people are still fighting over who should have the right to vote, you know, that surely we could have solved that by now. Or how did we get to here and we are still fighting over who should be a citizen and who shouldn’t be a citizen that sort of thing.

[00:42:54] Eric: So, that’s one of the key reasons. People’s students, others should know about, reconstruction. [00:43:00] Cause the issues that are on the front pages of our current newspapers. I say that even though I know nobody reads the newspaper anymore, they look at their phone. But I’m old school and I pick up the newspaper.

[00:43:11] Eric: But anyway. You’re four

[00:43:12] Charlie: a day. I get four a day, professor. I’m with you.

[00:43:16] Eric: All right. The issues federating, the front pages of our newspapers are reconstruction issues very often. The reconstruction amendments changed. One other way. They changed the Constitution. Very important is they made the federal government the protector of people’s liberties.

[00:43:32] Eric: the Bill of Rights originally only applied to the federal government. Congress shall make no law. That’s the first amendment. A bridging the freedom of speech, et cetera. States could do it, states could stop your speech. They states could have an established religion if they wanted. But the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, each one authorizes Congress to enforce it.

[00:43:55] Eric: they now limit the power of the states and they make the [00:44:00] federal government for the first time what one senator called the custodian of Freedom. And so that’s a shift in what we call the federal system, the balance of power between the states and the federal government.

[00:44:15] Alisha: Wow. another helpful lesson I never really thought about. Obviously words matter. Right. And I served in the legislature for 12 years, so I know that yes, they do. Oh, but thinking about the difference between the responsibility, if you will, of the Congress versus states, I think it explains a lot of what’s happening in this country.

[00:44:35] Alisha: And so yeah, absolutely. With that, absolutely. what an honor it is to have you with us. If you could close us out by reading for us an excerpt from one of your many books that you would consider one of your favorite, we would appreciate that.

[00:44:49] Eric: Well, this is toward the very, very end of my book on Lincoln and slavery, and I just mentioned I chose it.

[00:44:56] Eric: It’s hard to choose which paragraph you prefer of your own [00:45:00] writing. It’s like saying, which of your children do you like the most, you know? But I chose this because it illustrates what I try to do in terms of connecting the war itself. the activism of black people seeking their freedom and the way in which the end of slavery opens up all these questions of the rights of newly freed people.

[00:45:22] Eric: So here it is On April 2nd, 1865, Robert e Lee’s army finally abandoned Petersburg, the road to Richmond, 20 miles to the north. Now, lay open. As the government officials fled the defenseless city and a fire raged out of control destroying much of the business district union forces led by the all black fifth Massachusetts cavalry entered the capitol of the Confederacy scenes never before witnessed on this continent followed throng.

[00:45:56] Eric: The streets singing slave chain [00:46:00] done broke it last. Garland White, the chaplain of a black regiment was called on to make a speech. He proclaimed for the first time in that city, freedom to all mankind, after which the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open and thousands came out shouting and praising Father Abe.

[00:46:22] Eric: The next day, Lincoln walked the streets of Richmond, accompanied only by a small detachment of sailors. The colored population wrote t Morris Chester of Black War. Correspondent was wild with excitement and every step Lincoln was perceived. My emancipated slaves who fell on their knees and hailed him as the Messiah or pressed forward to kiss his hand.

[00:46:48] Eric: I know that I am free. One black woman exclaimed or I have seen Father Abraham. The city’s white residents remained indoors having always considered their slaves loyal and [00:47:00] contented. They were stunned by the reception the black population gave to Lincoln and the Union Army. Charles Sumner, the radical senator hoped that Lincoln’s reception in Richmond would affect his ideas about reconstruction he saw with his own eyes.

[00:47:16] Eric: Sumner wrote that the only people who showed themselves were Negroes, never was I more convinced of the other impossibility of any organization that is any reconstruction, which is not founded on the votes of the Negroes. So that’s my little paragraph toward the end of Lincoln’s life.

[00:47:37] Charlie: That is so powerful.

[00:47:40] Alisha: Powerful moment, moment history.

[00:47:41] Charlie: Incredible. Thank you so much, professor. It was fantastic.

[00:47:45] Eric: Okay, my pleasure. I always enjoyed talking about these aspects of history. Well, you are

[00:47:51] Charlie: extremely good at it. Yes,

[00:47:53] Alisha: you are. Thank

[00:47:54] Eric: you. Thank you. Okay. Thank you. [00:48:00]

[00:48:00] Charlie: this week our tweet of the week comes from Rick Hess, who some of you out there may know. He’s the head of a e i education in Washington.

[00:48:10] Charlie: And we are pawn somehow. I can’t believe it, but we are, at the 40th anniversary of a nation at risk, which seems amazing for an old man like me. It’s about, you know, six months ago. But anyway. Rick has tweeted A Nation at Risk is mostly remembered today as the impetus for decades of school reform focused on choice testing and standards, and yet in its recommendations.

[00:48:34] Charlie: Those topics mostly took a backseat to time teacher quality and graduation requirements. Mm. So interesting. I don’t remember the specifics well enough, but I have to look at this. Education week kind of retrospective on the 40th anniversary of a nation at risk that they have published, I think in the current, issue.

[00:48:52] Alisha: Yeah, I have to read the article, but his tweet as always, I, I really appreciate the way Rick has seized the world and he’s [00:49:00] really challenged my thinking on a lot of things. One of my favorite books is Cage Busting Leadership from Him. Yep. But I think he’s right in so many ways. I serve in the legislature from 2003 to 2014, and so a bulk of that was during the Obama administration.

[00:49:17] Alisha: I felt like during that time, We were really focused on choice, right? Particularly around charters and, other public school options. I think we were moving away from this hypersensitive focus on testing. and that was probably a good thing. I’m not one of those people who believed that no Child left behind did nothing for us.

[00:49:37] Alisha: I think it. Brought forth a lot of positive things. One of them is, disaggregating data and helping us look at all types of subgroups in the way that they’re performing.

[00:49:46] Charlie: I double down on testing to a point that was, Too much. I think we did too much stay in retrospect.

[00:49:53] Alisha: Yep. I would agree.

[00:49:54] Alisha: And it, we’re still dealing with that, right? It’s part of why teachers feel so much pressure. But I think he [00:50:00] makes, a great point. We kind of know the things that we need to do to fix education, but somehow we get distracted on those things that aren’t the right lovers. And so going back to your article that you talked about with the enrollment in Boston.

[00:50:18] Alisha: Or Massachusetts. it makes me think about graduation rates. And again, sometimes I can say things that may ruffle some feathers, but in Georgia in particular, you about friends Sierra, Alisha, don’t worry. Thank God, thank God. But you know, we, we’ve gotta tell the truth and at least make observations when we have them.

[00:50:37] Alisha: But in Georgia in particular, and I’m, I don’t know if it’s happened in other parts of the country, we’ve seen the highest graduation rates in history. But how do you have the highest graduation rates at the same time that you have these declines in enrollment? Yes. Right. So it makes me wonder the kids who are not here, Where are they and is that why the numbers are now higher in terms of [00:51:00] graduation? And so I, I love, that he makes us think and he pushes us to really reconsider. I’m in my forties, so I don’t quite remember the report.

[00:51:09] Alisha: But I’m looking forward to reading this article. And I think just thinking about what he’s saying, and again, going back to what we’ve been talking about for the last few minutes, we have to rethink how we’re delivering education. We have to rethink what our priorities are. And if we’re so focused on time in an era where everything is digital, are we focused on the right things?

[00:51:30] Alisha: Right?

[00:51:31] Charlie: So in short, Alisha’s in her forties, so she doesn’t remember a nation at risk and I don’t remember my forties. But with that, we’ll move on. All right. Well, thank you for joining us today. Gerard and Kara will be back next week. It’s been a pleasure to co-host with you today, Alisha, in their place.

[00:51:48] Charlie: It’s been fun. Yes. And next week the guest will be Dr. Howard Fuller, who is a distinguished professor of education and the founder, director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in [00:52:00] Milwaukee,

[00:52:00] Alisha: and one of my favorite people on the planet. So amen. That’s gonna be a great interview.

[00:52:05] Charlie: Amen.

Tweet of the Week: