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.”


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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4 thoughts on “Eric Foner’s Spotty Memory

    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.”


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