Question: In Chapter 17 you write, “Just as American ideas about liberty and self-government had circulated around the world in the age of revolution, American racial attitudes had a global impact in the Age of Empire.” Would you elaborate on that?
Eric Foner: Well, we’d like to think, and correctly, of the world impact of some of our highest ideals—individual freedom, self-government, democracy—and certainly those ideals have inspired people in many other countries. But it’s also important that some of our perhaps less noble ideas and practices have also had a worldwide impact. In this period at the end of the nineteenth century, beginning of the twentieth century, American segregation affected the way the people of South Africa were implementing apartheid; American anti-Chinese legislation was picked up in Australia in what they called the White Australia Policy that they inaugurated in 1901 when Australia became self-governing. Canadians watched our efforts to restrict immigration from Asia and they adopted those policies as well.
The failure of Reconstruction in the United States was seen in these white settler societies as indicating that nonwhite people were not really capable of self-government. People in other countries cited what happened in Reconstruction in the United States to say, look, we don’t need to give black people the right to vote because they tried that in the United States and it didn’t work. This was a distorted view of what happened in Reconstruction, but that distorted view affected racial thinking in other places. So as the American system of Jim Crow, segregation, disenfranchisement of black voters, Asian exclusion is implemented in this country, other countries are watching what we do and are learning racial policy from us as well.