Daniel Snowman talks to a man who has devoted his long and distinguished career to unravelling the threads of American freedom.
Eric Foner was Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford a few years ago, when he was invited to take tea with Isaiah Berlin and told his little daughter that he was going to meet a famous philosopher. ‘What’s a philosopher?’ she asked. ‘Someone who tries to answer difficult questions,’ Eric began to explain, ‘like – what is freedom? – that kind of thing.’ ‘Well, I’ve got one for him,’ she chimed in. ‘Ask him: if you choose your own master are you free?’
Asking pertinent questions runs in the Foner family. So, it seems, does an interest in the concept of liberty. The first thing that strikes you about Eric Foner’s books is their titles. His first (1970) was Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, while his most recent is The Story of American Freedom. In between, there were books about such icons of liberty as Tom Paine and Nat Turner, works about the Emancipation of Slaves (entitled Nothing But Freedom) and the Reconstruction era that followed, and a Who’s Who of black officeholders during Reconstruction that Foner called Freedom’s Lawmakers. Evidently a man with a rondo theme.