Eric Foner’s Spotty Memory

(December 22, 2016) Recently I watched a few of the class lectures about the Civil War and Reconstruction by Columbia University’s history Professor Eric Foner. I quickly observed a sarcastic anti-Southern bias combined with selective factual omissions that would otherwise have revealed his sarcasm to be unjustified. One example is his session about the Compromise of 1850, which permitted California to be admitted as a free state thereby tipping the balance of power in the Senate to a 16-to-15 advantage for the free states over the slave states. It also outlawed slave trade in the District of Columbia.

Since Southerners permitted the Senate balance of power to shift against them and agreed to terminate slave trade in the capital, the Compromise provided a couple of Acts that Southerner’s wanted. One was a Fugitive Slave Act, which was pragmatically necessitated by an 1842 Supreme Court decision specifying that no state could be required to enforce an earlier 1793 Fugitive Salve Act or the Fugitive Slave terms of the Constitution. Enforcement, therefore,  would have to be up to the individual owners, or federal authorities. Another is an Act involving Texas. It is the terms of Texas Act that Professor Foner sarcastically misrepresents. Provided below is what the Pulitzer Prize winning author told his students:

“There’s some stuff about Texas; particularly assuming the state’s debts. Texas owed a lot of debt to various people and they didn’t want to pay. And so they wanted the federal government to pay their bills for them. So, that’s what’s going to happen here.”

texas1836map

As the accompanying map illustrates, Foner neglects to mention that Texas traded rights to lands that it claimed as the Texas Republic in exchange for federal assumption of some of its debts. As a result 120,000 square miles of land presently in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming were given to the federal government. In terms of total area, the forfeited acreage amounts to about 45% of the area within present-day Texas. In exchange, the federal government assumed $10 million in Texas state debts. That equates to about $83 per square mile, or thirteen cents per acre.

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12 thoughts on “Eric Foner’s Spotty Memory

  1. Phil's Blog

    If you’re still plugged in: I’ve lost the Big Picture, please frame Texas giving up land for debt forgiveness in terms of the Southern Compromise, and what this meant for slaves or states rights. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      The Texas Act was a part of the Compromise of 1850. In exchange for donating land to the federal territories, Texas was able to switch some of its debt to the federal government. The map above show that the state gave up a large amount of land. Foner falsely tells his students that the federal debt assumption of was a gratuitous gift to Texas. He fails to mention the land forfeiture. Here’s precisely what Foner said:

      “There’s some stuff [in the Compromise of 1850] about Texas; particularly assuming the state’s debts. Texas owed a lot of debt to various people and they didn’t want to pay. And so they wanted the federal government to pay their bills for them. So, that’s what’s going to happen here.”

      Reply
      1. Phil's Blog

        Mr. Leigh, thanks! How did the Texas land for debt forgiveness fit into the overall act? Any implications re/slavery, was this a move to get Texas to vote for the act?

      2. Phil Leigh Post author

        As noted in the blog post, the Compromise of 1850 permitted California to come into the Union as a free state thereby shifting the balance of power in the U. S. Senate to the free states. Prior to that there was a long standing 50/50 balance between the free and slave states.

        Thus, in order to give the free states the edge in the Senate the Southern sates wanted accommodations in return. One of those was the federal assumption of Texas debts in exchange for Texas land grants to the federal territories.

      3. Phil Leigh Post author

        I am not aware of Foner debating, but its good to know that Ayers might.

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      “Between 1850 and 1871…”

      “The total of public land grants given to the railroads by states and the federal government was about 180 million acres. At the time, the value of this land was about one dollar per acre, which was the average price realized by the government for sales in the land grant states during that period.”

      http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/railroads-federal-land-grants-issue

      Reply

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