The Story of American Freedom.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a fresh generation entered the history profession, eager to rewrite the past from the bottom up. Inspired by the movements of the day, we set out to redeem the struggles that had reconstituted the nation. Not only did we aspire to refashion historical studies, we also wanted to craft a new synthesis of American experience and a popular, radical-democratic understanding of the nation's history.
Although we managed to change history departments across the country, we failed to propound a new progressive grand narrative of American history. (Some postmodernists and multiculturalists oppose even trying to do so.)
Nevertheless, many of us refuse to abandon the effort. Prominent among our ranks is Eric Foner. Distinguished professor at Columbia University, former president of the Organization of American Historians, and author of many works, including the award-winning Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, Foner is recognized as one of America's foremost historical scholars. His new book represents a major contribution to democratic historiography.
Laid out in thirteen chapters, The Story of American Freedom recounts the tortuous yet progressive journey from the Revolution to the present. Foner does not tell his story in terms of an unfolding evolutionary process or an incessant march forward. According to him, "freedom" is still at the heart of American experience because Americans fight continuously about its meaning and its implications.
"The meaning of freedom has been constructed not only in Congressional debates and political treatises but on plantations and picket lines, in parlors and bedrooms," writes Foner, who includes politicians, publicists, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, artists, radicals, slaves, farmers, and workers among his protagonists. He articulates the ways that working people, minorities (in particular, African-Americans), and women have taken on the prevailing idea of freedom and advanced ever more democratic conceptions of it. And he records how rebellious working people, encouraged by the words of revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine, transformed English ideas of freedom and extended the boundaries of the new American political nation well beyond the ambitions of the propertied elites.
But Foner also attends to disappointments, even tragedies: "The Revolution inspired widespread hopes that slavery could be removed from American life," he writes. "Most dramatically, slaves themselves appreciated that by defining freedom as a universal right, the revolutionaries had devised a rhetoric that could be deployed against chattel bondage. The language of liberty echoed in slave communities, North and South. Living amid freedom but denied its substance, slaves appropriated the patriotic ideology for their own purposes.... For a brief moment, `the contagion of liberty' appeared to threaten the continued existence of slavery."
Though he never gives us reason to doubt where he stands, Foner does not ignore conservatives and reactionaries, however much their constructions of freedom blatantly deny it to others. For example, he writes of the Confederacy, "those who took up arms for Southern independence understood the conflict as a `struggle for liberty.' White Southerners inherited from the Antebellum era a definition of freedom that centered on local self-government, opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, security of property (including property in slaves), and resistance to Northern efforts to `enslave' their region."
This is not a philosophical book on freedom. "Despite their devotion to freedom, Americans have not produced many abstract discussions of the concept," he writes. He limits his own reflections, as well, though he delineates three concerns that guide his narrative: "The meanings of freedom (political, civil, personal, economic); the social conditions that make freedom possible (questions of coercion, empowerment, and justice); and the boundaries of freedom--the definition, that is, of who is entitled to enjoy it (who is an American?)."
Foner's twentieth-century chapters highlight the conflicts and contradictions that continue to propel our national experience. Turn-of-the-century Progressives emphasized democratic citizenship and the women's suffrage movement. But those advances came in the wake of the massive disenfranchisement of Southern blacks and amid renewed repression of socialists and radical unionists.
Empowered by the working-class demands and struggles of the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal created modern liberalism. It posited economic security as a fundamental element of freedom, politically and legally empowered labor, and redefined the American nation so as to encompass white ethnics. But it consciously deferred to the Dixiecrats on matters of race. During the war, Roosevelt himself enunciated the "Four Freedoms" and proposed an "Economic Bill of Rights," but his own Administration denied Japanese-Americans their liberty.
In the postwar decades, "the language of freedom suffused American politics, culture, and society, [but] the Cold War subtly reshaped freedom's meaning and practice, identifying it with anti-communism, `free enterprise,' and the defense of the status quo," Foner writes.
His final two chapters are entitled "Sixties Freedom" and "Conservative Freedom." He concludes the former by stating emphatically that the Freedom Movement, the Women's Movement, and the New Left made the United States "more open and tolerant," that is, "a freer country." On the conservative ascendance (though he cannot resist occasional sarcasm), he fully acknowledges the New Right's skill in laying claim to the rhetoric of liberty and portraying liberals and leftists as anti-freedom statists and egalitarians.
At this point, Foner disappoints me. He issues no critical commentary, no promising predictions, no stirring calls. He merely says, "All one can hope is that in the future, the better angels of our nature (to borrow Lincoln's words) will reclaim their place in the forever unfinished story of American freedom."
Still, The Story of American Freedom reminds us that in every age Americans have risen--against other, more powerful Americans--to contest the established limits to freedom and to redeem the nation's prophetic memory of liberty, equality, and democracy.
These struggles have not always succeeded, but Foner's narrative makes clear that, with all the tragic and ironic turns, we won our independence, we abolished slavery, we secured women the right to vote, we organized unions, we established civil liberties, we affirmed the civil rights of minorities.
Even the most committed and creative historians cannot compose the grand narrative of the United States by themselves. Such narratives emerge from political, not literary, accomplishments.
But historians can contribute to our understanding of ourselves as a people and cultivate an awareness that the way things are is not the way they must be. Foner definitely has succeeded in doing that.
Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin--Green Bay and the author of "`Why Do Ruling Classes Fear History?' and Other Questions" (St. Martin's Press, 1996).
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|Author:||Kaye, Harvey J.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1999|
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