Eric Foner Goes A Bridge Too Far

(January 9, 2017) From the first of his 212 YouTube Civil War lectures Dr. Eric Foner emphasizes:

The opinions of historians…[have] a practical impact on our lives…An earlier view of Reconstruction…was used to justify the exclusion of black people in the South from political rights.

He provides one example in his 207th lecture segment when endorsing an accusation that “racist” white Southern congressmen deliberately excluded blacks from benefits when Old Age Social Security was formed in 1935. “How do they do that?” the professor asks. “They eliminate the largest areas of black employment: agricultural laborers and domestic workers…representing 80% of black workers.”

Even allowing for Foner’s habitual anti-Southern spin, the accusation is a bridge too far.


First, three-quarters of the 20 million workers excluded from Social Security in 1935 were whites.

Second, agricultural and domestic workers (household servants) were excluded because the Internal Revenue Service doubted that it could enforce the required payroll tax in those sectors. Many such workers were—and preferred to be—paid in cash. The IRS worried that poor tax compliance in such large sectors might trigger widespread non-compliance elsewhere.

Third, an administrative committee of President Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet—not Congress—designed the Social Security bill. Although the committee originally recommended that agricultural and domestic workers be included, Connecticut resident and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. cited the IRS objections and advised against their inclusion when he testified before the House Ways and Means Committee.

Fourth, Southerners did not control the two pertinent congressional committees. They represented only 6 of 21 Finance Committee members in the Senate. Similarly, they accounted for only 4 of 18 Way and Means Committee members in the House. Both committees approved Social Security and the applicable exclusions with almost no dissent.

Fifth, even though Jim Crow still predominated in the South fifteen years after the 1935 Act, agricultural and domestic workers were brought into the program in 1950.

Sixth, initially after the 1935 bill was passed many—perhaps most—workers and employers wanted to be excluded. Almost all of the early lawsuits, protests, and disputes were attempts to gain exclusion.

As late as 1955, The Wall Street Journal reported that few domestic workers and their employers wanted to comply. A St. Louis housewife said, “I’m not going to pay it until someone yells.” As late as 1993 Connecticut lawyer and visiting Yale scholar Zoe Baird failed to win appointment as President Clinton’s first Attorney General because she did not pay the tax for her domestic servant.

Seventh, Foner exaggerates a little when claiming that 80% of blacks were excluded from the 1935 Act. The fraction was actually 65%, which was slightly below 66% exclusion ratio of other non-whites.

In sum, Dr. Foner’s habitual one-sided interpretations of the Civil War and Reconstruction underscore the old adage, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail” as well as the corollary, “The protruding nail gets pounded down.”

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Source: Larry Dewitt, The Decision to Exclude Agricultural and Domestic Workers from the 1935 Social Security Act


9 thoughts on “Eric Foner Goes A Bridge Too Far

  1. Ron Walker

    Eric Foner is so fake and should be writing for….I don’t know. NY Times, Washington Post, Fake News, Inc.

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      It’s as certain as fleas on a yard dog that the Internet is changing media. One of my greatest concerns is that the Foner Brigade is taking charge of the Wikipedia. When I posted comments on the Wikipedia article about Nat Turner’s Rebellion, they were promptly removed even though each point was supported by authoritative citations. Although there is a process for challenging the censorship, I don’t understand it.

      Even more significantly, some Wikipedia topics like “Robert E. Lee” and “Ulysses Grant” are locked and cannot be edited except by some amorphous priesthood of Wikipedia editors. I suspect that any edits suggested by Joseph Rose about Grant, who is a Grant expert that commented on the thread, would be rejected.

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      I share your frustration and appreciate the encouragement. Cyberspace, as you must know, is full of those who will try and shout down anyone who criticizes Foner.

    2. josepharose

      Jessie, I’m a “Yankee” historian, as well (at least, coming from the North), but I agree with Phil that too many of the defenders of the “standard” viewpoint try to censor and shout down anyone who disagrees with them. I am in a constant struggle with the “pro-Grant” crowd.

      1. Phil Leigh Post author

        Whether the historian comes from the North or the South is not the determining factor defining his/her objectivity. As you note, I have seen your well documented minority opinions on Ulysses Grant viciously, sarcastically, and overwhelmingly attacked on Internet discussion groups. The protruding nail gets pounded down.

      2. 9thmississippicalvary

        Sir notice I said lying [Northern] historians and I don’t believe you fall into that category.Thank you for standing up for truth.


        As you seem to recognize, the geographic location of an historian is not the determining factor in his or her objectivity.

        Many non-objective historians are acolytes of influential men like Eric Foner who does happen to be a Northerner and ,unfortunately, appears to be hostile to most people associated with the Confederacy including her white descendants. It looks like that Foner’s biased interpretation of Reconstruction was set at least as early as his 9th grade when he challenged his teacher about her interpretation. She gave him a chance the next day to lecture the class on his interpretation as summarized by Foner himself in the link below.

  2. josepharose

    I would like to hear Dr. Foner’s response to this and, if he’s wrong, I would like to hear him admit it. Academic historians have a responsibility to change their conclusions when the facts compel it. Yet, I see a grave tendency for members of that community to dig in their heels (individually or collectively) when confronted with evidence sufficient to overturn their findings.


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