Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World by Eric Foner

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?
— Cicero Orator

Some people run away screaming when a history book is recommended reading. Part of this must be due to their junior high history teachers, you remember the ones who droned on endlessly about the Etruscans, Columbus, or Piltdown man, rambling for weeks on end about dead people and their influence on absolutely nothing an eighth grader cares anything about. Getting caught reading history also has a fear factor attached to it — someone might think the reader is an intellectual or trying to look like one. But history shapes our lives. Undeniably.

What we may not think about is the way history is presented to us, how it is interpreted — and re-interpreted. Each generation, each separate age of man, writes its own history from that time frame’s unique perspective. The next group, while writing their own history, also rewrites the stories of the times before it.

Eric Foner, noted historian and DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, has been writing and lecturing for decades. In his latest collection of essays,Who Owns History, Foner states:

“There is nothing unusual or sinister in the fact that each generation rewrites history to suit its own needs, or about disagreements within the profession and among the public at large about how history should best be taught and studied.”

A historian’s relationship to the past and outlook on the future greatly influence their interpretation of events. Foner examines the effects of international events on the historical consciousness. Essays discuss the historical impact of globalization, the end of South African apartheid, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He also takes a retrospective look at his own earlier ideas and the work he did with premiere historian Richard Hofstadter. The final essays discuss Ken Burns Civil War documentary and the “often misunderstood legacies of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.” In his essay “Blacks and the US Constitution, Foner discusses the “melancholy history” that served as a background for the most famous pre-Civil War Supreme Court decisions, the Dred Scot decision:

In an age of semiotics and deconstruction, not to mention intense debate among historians about the prevailing ideas of the revolutionary era, there is something refreshingly naive, almost quaint, in the idea that any text, including the Constitution, possess a single, easily ascertainable, objective meaning. Of course, the call for jurisprudence of “original intent” is less a carefully thought out intellectual stance than a political rallying cry, a justification for the undoing of modern Supreme Court decisions that have broadened the definition of constitutional rights, especially for black Americans. Whether the Supreme Court should be bound by the “original intent” of the Constitutional text is a political, not historical, question . . .

. . . What swept Dred Scot into the dustbin of history, of course, was not a reinterpretation of the founder’s views but the greatest cataclysm in our history. The Civil War and Reconstruction produced not simply three amendments but a fundamentally new Constitution. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments abolished slavery, established a national citizenship whose rights, enforced by the federal government, were to be enjoyed equally by all Americans, and protected the right to vote of black men. These measures altered the definition of American citizenship, transformed the federal system, and engrafted into the Constitution a principle of racial equality entirely unprecedented in both jurisprudence and political reality before 1860.

Yes, reading over that kind of text might cause someone to break out in hives and re-live those horrible tension-filled essay question moments of long ago, but Foner writes so clearly, precisely, and with such passion, he might just make a fan out of the most reluctant reader.

Foner believes that new scholarship enhances history, creates a long overdue diversification in the intepretation of events. He warns, though, that the rise of what is sometimes called “new social history” could result in a fragmentation of facts, an incoherent narrative with too much focus on one particular phase of an historical event rather than on the event as a whole. He takes Ken Burns to task for Burns’ in-depth look at the Civil War battles from personal perspective and for not including Reconstruction as part of the whole story of the War. The current propensity toward globalization, a common theme in modern day historical and political analysis, Foner argues, is often viewed as a contemporary issue and not within the broader scope of a centuries old historical discussion. “The dream of global unity goes back to the days of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.”

While it may not be the easiest book to read, Foner’s essays are probably not difficult for the average reader to understand. This is a book that’s important, that needs to be read and discussed. History is not boring. Some writers are boring. Foner’s not. Pop culture dictates that interpretations of key events be delivered in two minute dialogues spewed from the mouths of historically inarticulate talking heads with carefully coifed hair and well-practised hand movements. In order to access the validity of statements dictated to the masses by governmental spokespeople, we really need to remind ourselves of the real history behind the words and events. Reading Foner’s Who Owns History is a step in the right direction.

“Who owns history? Everyone and no one — which is why the study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.”