Analysis Of Eric Foner’s Novel Forever Free: The Story Of Emancipation & Reconstruction

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Eric Foner’s novel Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation & Reconstruction focuses on a central idea that the Reconstruction Era was America’s greatest and possibly only chance to achieve racial equality; However, its failure, argued by Foner prevented the post-Civil War wounds from healing and to this day keeps oppressed groups from receiving equal opportunity. Another idea discussed in his book is the bare bone facts we are taught in grade school at a young age about the Reconstruction Era and history in general that can alter our perception. Foner thinks the truth is much more complex which he uncovers.

Forever Free opens with the origins of slavery and extends to the Civil War and Reconstruction Era and finally finishes with the establishment of Jim Crow. Although, the focus is about the Reconstruction Era. This book offered perspectives from all different backgrounds of people living during this time such as the elite white plantation owners, former slaves, and Northerners. One aspect of the book that added a lot of value to the points made by the author was the addition of “visual essays” after the chapters. These visual essays are illustrations that appeared in the newspaper during late 1800s and consisted of engravings, portraits, caricatures, and more. These illustrations would likely have had a powerful impact on society and the shaping of their opinions on the issues at hand; mainly against African-Americans during Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

America’s greatest opportunity to achieve racial equality that turned out to be an immense disaster is a central idea that is proven throughout this book. Near the beginning of the book Foner states “The struggle for equality in America, like that of the ancient Israelites, is of biblical proportions. The story of four million slaves and their transformation from bondage to citizenship is one of the great and inspiring events in world history… Yet this critical moment in our nation’s history has failed to establish itself in the national memory, at least with any accuracy or full depth of understanding.” I believe this was a strong opening by Foner; with this oversight he believes that problems related to this persist to this day. This was a very new and eye-opening idea to me. Although the North had won the Civil War, the South won overall in terms of rights being denied for African-Americans. The promises of equality and freedom for African-Americans offered from the ratification of the 13th, 14th, & 15th amendments and further support from the government during the Reconstruction Era was a bold attempt to reshape the nation into a multi-racial democracy. However, these promises crumbled and instead created the most brutal era for African-Americans which lasted for decades. From what I have learned about this period in history and reading what Foner writes I would strongly agree with his position on this argument, and he promotes a deep understanding on the topic.

Foner’s secondary argument about how society is taught very broadly about periods in history especially the Reconstruction Era which can misconstrue our opinions on the topic. From my understanding, Foner believes that most school children believe the Reconstruction era is about scalawags, carpetbaggers, and ignorant easily-manipulated freed blacks who were lazy and susceptible to committing crimes. However, from historical archives we know the truth is much more complicated. Foner explains that African-Americans were doing everything in their power to create a better living for themselves. Freed slaves were being denied their own land as they had been promised such as in this case described by Foner “in Field Order 15 lay the origins of the phrase “forty acres and a mule.” Which would reverberate across the South in the next few years and continues to echo today in debates over reparations for slavery.” (64) “Forty acres and a mule” was a part of this Field order issued by General Sherman which was intended to address the immediate problem of dealing with so many black refugees who had joined Sherman’s march in search of protection and food. This is just one example of many that had been promised to freed men and women but later was taken without any reparations.

Furthermore, in Forever Free, the author describes the many ways how African-Americans and their white allies fought hard together, to create systems for education and political leadership but were attacked, suppressed, murdered and eventually shattered by the Southern leadership. Foner explains how the government leaders in the South used everything in their power and influence to punish African-Americans and ultimately achieve a state of slavery again. I agree with the initial argument by Foner about how our society now-a-days is taught very discreetly about historical topics which misconstrues our perception. Reading deeper into historical events with perspectives from all groups in a situation like this is crucial for getting a nonbiased complete story. From there we can form our own opinion on what occurred. The past month of this history course has been eye-opening to me about the story of the Reconstruction Era and Jim Crow with a lot of previously unknown details that I had not learned from grade school.


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