Foner was born in New York City, New York, the son of Liza (née Kraitz), a high school art teacher, and historian Jack D. Foner, who was active in the trade union movement and the campaign for civil rights for African Americans. Eric Foner describes his father as his "first great teacher," and recalls how,
deprived of his livelihood while I was growing up, he supported our family as a freelance lecturer... . Listening to his lectures, I came to appreciate how present concerns can be illuminated by the study of the past—how the repression of the McCarthy era recalled the days of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the civil rights movement needed to be viewed in light of the great struggles of Black and White abolitionists, and in the brutal suppression of the Philippine insurrection at the turn of the century could be found the antecedents of American intervention in Vietnam. I also imbibed a way of thinking about the past in which visionaries and underdogs—Tom Paine, Wendell Phillips, Eugene V. Debs, and W. E. B. Du Bois—were as central to the historical drama as presidents and captains of industry, and how a commitment to social justice could infuse one's attitudes towards the past.
Foner went to Columbia University for his B.A.; he was majoring in physics until he took a year-long seminar with James P. Shenton on the Civil War and Reconstruction during his junior year. "It probably determined that most of my career has been focused on that period," he recalled years later. A year later, in 1963, Foner graduated summa cum laude as a history major. He studied at Oxford as a Kellett Fellow; he received a B.A. from Oriel College in 1965. Foner returned to Columbia for his Ph.D, where he worked under Richard Hofstadter; he finished in 1969.
From 1973-82 Foner served as a professor in the history department at City College and Graduate Center at City University of New York. In 1976-1977 he was a visiting professor of American History at Princeton University. In 1980 he was Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Cambridge.
Appointed the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University in 1988, a chair previously held by his mentor Richard Hofstadter, Foner specializes in 19th century American history, the American Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction. He served as president of the Organization of American Historians in (1993–94), and of the American Historical Association (2000). He is one of only two persons to serve as president of the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians.
Foner has long been considered a leading authority on the Reconstruction Era of American history. In a seminal essay in American Heritage in October 1982, later reprinted in Reviews in American History, Foner wrote,
In the past twenty years, no period of American history has been the subject of a more thoroughgoing reevaluation than Reconstruction—the violent, dramatic, and still controversial era following the Civil War. Race relations, politics, social life, and economic change during Reconstruction have all been reinterpreted in the light of changed attitudes toward the place of blacks within American society. If historians have not yet forged a fully satisfying portrait of Reconstruction as a whole, the traditional interpretation that dominated historical writing for much of this century has irrevocably been laid to rest.
That year, he gave the Walter L. Fleming Lectures in southern history, which were later published as Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy.
In 1988 Foner published his definitive book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. It won the Bancroft Prize, the Francis Parkman Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Avery O. Craven Prize, and the Lionel Trilling Prize.
"Foner has established himself as the leading authority on the Reconstruction period," wrote historian Michael Perman in reviewing Reconstruction. "This book is not simply a distillation of the secondary literature; it is a masterly account - broad in scope as well as rich in detail and insight. "This is history written on a grand scale, a masterful treatment of one of the most complex periods of American history," David Herbert Donald wrote in The New Republic. C. Vann Woodward, in The New York Review of Books, wrote, "Eric Foner has put together this terrible story with greater cogency and power, I believe, than has been brought to the subject heretofore." Foner has continued to lecture widely on Reconstruction and published several shorter versions of his major book, including A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877 (1990) and America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War (1995).
In a 2009 essay, Foner pondered whether Reconstruction might have turned out differently.
"It is wrong to think that, during the Civil War, Lincoln embraced a single 'plan' of Reconstruction," he wrote. "Lincoln had always been willing to work closely with all factions of his party, including the Radicals on numerous occasions. I think it is quite plausible to imagine Lincoln and Congress agreeing to a Reconstruction policy encompassing basic civil rights for blacks (as was enacted in 1866) plus limited black suffrage, along the lines he proposed just before his death."
Foner's most recent summary of his views on the significance of Reconstruction was published in The New York Times in 2015.
In August 2017, in the wake of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Foner argued that Confederate monuments should not be removed, but instead more statues should be installed, including statues of African Americans like Nat Turner.
As a visiting professor in Moscow in the early 1990s, Foner compared secessionist forces in the USSR with the secession movement in the U.S. in the 1860s. In a February 1991 article, Foner noted that the Baltic states claimed the right to secede because they had been unwillingly annexed. In addition, he believed that the Soviet Union did not protect minorities while it tried to nationalize the republics. Foner identified a threat to existing minority groups within the Baltic states, who were in turn threatened by the new nationalist movements.
With Olivia Mahoney, chief curator at the Chicago History Museum, Foner curated two prize-winning exhibitions on American history: A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln, which opened at the Chicago History Museum in 1990, and America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War, a traveling exhibit that opened at the Virginia Historical Society in 1995. He revised the presentation of American history at the Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland. He has served as consultant to several National Park Service historical sites and historical museums.
Foner served as an expert witness for the University of Michigan's defense of affirmative action in its undergraduate and law school admissions (Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger) considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003.
Foner serves on the editorial boards of Past and Present and The Nation.
Foner has written for The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, London Review of Books, and other publications. In addition, he has spoken about history on television and radio, including Charlie Rose, Book Notes, and All Things Considered. He has appeared in historical documentaries on PBS and The History Channel. Foner contributed an essay and conversation with John Sayles in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, published by the Society of American Historians in 1995. He was the historian in Freedom: A History of US on PBS in 2003.
Foner has appeared frequently on popular media to discuss US history:"Eric Foner: Eric Foner says Abraham Lincoln didn't see slavery as a fundamental problem confronting America until well into his career.". The Colbert Report. Comedy Central. 11 February 2011. Retrieved 13 November 2015.
"I's on Edjukashun - Texas School Board: Eric Foner disagrees with the Texas school board's decision to give students a completely misleading view of history.". The Colbert Report. Comedy Central. 11 February 2011. Retrieved 13 November 2015.
"Exclusive - The Weakest Lincoln: In this extended clip, Judge Andrew Napolitano and Abraham Lincoln compete in a numbers game about the true cost of the Civil War.". The Daily Show. Comedy Central. 11 February 2011. Retrieved 13 November 2015.
The professional awards which Foner has received indicate the respect given his work. Journalist Nat Hentoff described his Story of American Freedom "an indispensable book that should be read in every school in the land." "Eric Foner is one of the most prolific, creative, and influential American historians of the past 20 years," according to the Washington Post. His work is "brilliant, important" a reviewer wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
In a review of The Story of American Freedom in the New York Review of Books, Theodore Draper disagreed with Foner's conclusions:
If the story of American freedom is told largely from the perspective of blacks and women, especially the former, it is not going to be a pretty tale. Yet most Americans thought of themselves not only as free but as the freest people in the world.
John Patrick Diggins of the City University of New York wrote that Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, was a "magisterial" and "moving" narrative, but compared Foner's "unforgiving" view of America for its racist past to his notably different views on the fall of communism and Soviet history.
Foner's most recent book Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (2015) was judged "Intellectually probing and emotionally resonant by the Los Angeles Times. His previous book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010) was described by Library Journal as "Original and compelling….In the vast library on Lincoln, Foner's book stands out as the most sensible and sensitive reading of Lincoln's lifetime involvement with slavery and the most insightful assessment of Lincoln's—and indeed America's—imperative to move toward freedom lest it be lost. An essential work for all Americans."
In 1989 Foner received the Avery O. Craven Award from the Organization of American Historians. In 1991 Foner received the Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates. In 1995, he was named Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the British Academy and holds an honorary doctorate from Iona College.
Foner has taught at Cambridge University as Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions, at Oxford University as Harmsworth Professor of American History, where he is also an honorary fellow of the Rothermere American Institute, and at Moscow State University as Fulbright Professor.
In 2007 the alumni of Columbia College voted to give Foner the John Jay Award for Distinguished Professional Achievement. In 2011, his book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery won the Pulitzer Prize for history, the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize.
Foner has been awarded honorary doctorates from Iona College; the State University of New York, Purchase; Queen Mary University of London, Dartmouth College, and Lehigh University.
Foner was inducted as a Laureate of The Lincoln Academy of Illinois and awarded the Order of Lincoln (the State’s highest honor) by the Governor of Illinois in 2009 as a Bicentennial Laureate.
In 1965 Foner married screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, from whom he divorced in 1977.
In 1982 Foner married Lynn Garafola, professor of dance at Barnard College and dance critic, historian, and curator. They have one daughter.
Eric Foner's paternal uncles are the late Marxist labor historian Philip S. Foner (his father's twin brother) and labor activists Henry Foner and Moe Foner.
Foner has frequently explored teaching moments that historians can use. He wrote, "Like all momentous events, September 11 is a remarkable teaching opportunity. But only if we use it to open rather than to close debate. Critical intellectual analysis is our responsibility—to ourselves and to our students."
"[S]uccessful teaching rests both on a genuine and selfless concern for students and on the ability to convey to them a love of history."
"In a global age, the forever-unfinished story of American freedom must become a conversation with the entire world, not a complacent monologue with ourselves."Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press. 1995 . ISBN 0-19-509497-2. Reissued with a new preface.
America's Black Past: A Reader in Afro-American History. New York: Harper & Row. 1970. ,editor
Nat Turner. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. 1971. ISBN 0-13-933143-3. , editor
Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press. 1976. ISBN 0-19-501986-5.
Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press. 1980. ISBN 0-19-502781-7.
Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 1983. ISBN 0-8071-1118-X.
Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper & Row. 1988. ISBN 0-06-015851-4. Political history; and winner, in 1989, of the Bancroft Prize, the Francis Parkman Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Avery O. Craven Prize, and the Lionel Trilling Prize.
A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877. New York: Harper & Row. 1990. ISBN 0-06-096431-6. An abridgement of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution.
A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln. with Olivia Mahoney. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society. 1990. ISBN 0-393-02755-4.
The Reader's Companion to American History. ed. with John A. Garraty. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. 1991. ISBN 0-395-51372-3. , editor
The Tocsin of Freedom: The Black Leadership of Radical Reconstruction. Gettysburg, Pa.: Gettysburg College. 1992.
Slavery and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press. 1994. ISBN 0-19-952266-9.
America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War. with Olivia Mahoney. New York: HarperPerennial. 1995. ISBN 0-06-055346-4.
Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction (rev. ed.). Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 1996. ISBN 0-8071-2082-0.
The New American History (rev. ed.). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1997. ISBN 1-56639-551-8. , editor
The Story of American Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton. 1998. ISBN 0-393-04665-6.
Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World. New York: Hill and Wang. 2002. ISBN 0-8090-9704-4.
Give Me Liberty!: An American History. New York: W.W. Norton. 2004. ISBN 0-393-97872-9. A survey of United States history, published with companion volumes of documents.
Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History, ISBN 0-393-92503-X (vol. 1), and ISBN 0-393-92504-8 (2 vols.).
Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. New York: Knopf. 2005. ISBN 0-375-40259-4.
Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and his World. New York: W.W. Norton. 2008. ISBN 0-393-06756-4.
The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: W.W. Norton. 2010.
Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2015. p. 320. ISBN 978-0-393-24407-6.
Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History. I.B. Tauris. 2017. ISBN 978-1784537692.
Some of his books have been translated into Portuguese, Italian, and Chinese.Foner, Eric (July–September 1978). "Radical Individualism in America: Revolution to Civil War". Literature of Liberty. 1 (3): 1–31.
Foner, Eric (October–November 1983). "The New View of Reconstruction". American Heritage. 34 (6).
Foner, Eric (Spring 1984). "Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?". History Workshop Journal. 17: 57–80. JSTOR 4288545.
Foner, Eric (March 1989). "The South's Inner Civil War". American Heritage. 40 (2). Archived from the original on 2013-12-18.
Foner, Eric (January 27, 2000). "Rebel Yell". The Nation.
Foner, Eric (September 5, 2002). "Changing History". The Nation.
Foner, Eric (December 10, 2002). "The Century, A Nation's Eye View". The Nation.
Foner, Eric (April 13, 2003). "Not All Freedom Is Made In America". The New York Times.
Foner, Eric (June 2, 2003). "Dare Call It Treason". The Nation.
Foner, Eric (June 26, 2003). "Diversity Over Justice". The Nation.
Foner, Eric (September 6, 2004). "Rethinking American History in a Post-9/11 World". History News Network.
Foner, Eric (2006). "Expert Report of Eric Foner: from Gratz, et al. v. Bollinger, et al.". Archived from the original on August 29, 2006.
Foner, Eric (December 3, 2006). "He's the Worst Ever". The Washington Post. Column on George W. Bush.
Foner, Eric (Winter 2009). "If Lincoln Hadn't Died...". American Heritage. 58 (6).
Foner, Eric (October 10, 2011). "The Civil War in 'Postracial' America". The Nation. Archived from the original on October 1, 2011. Retrieved February 7, 2012.
Foner, Eric (November 2012). "The Supreme Court and the history of reconstruction – and vice-versa". Columbia Law Review, special issue: Symposium: The Thirteenth Amendment: Meaning, Enforcement, and Contemporary Implications. Columbia Law School. 112 (7): 1585–1606. JSTOR 41708159. Archived from the original on 2015-11-17. Pdf.
Foner, Eric (January 1, 2013). "The Emancipation of Abe Lincoln". The New York Times.
(Additional articles available at EricFoner.com)