Title: The Story of American Freedom
Author: Eric Foner
Categories: Synthesis, Overview, Intellectual History
Place: United States
Time Period: 1783-1998
Eric Foner writes a synthesis encapsulating all of American history through the lens of "freedom". He focuses on three major themes: 1) Different meanings of freedom, 2) Social conditions that made freedom possible, and 3) the boundaries and exclusions of freedom. Foner argues that freedom has meant different things to different Americans at different times, but broadly breaks freedom into several categories, from freedom of political participation to a "civil liberties" conception of protecting individuals from authority, to a personal freedom of being able to make choices freely without outside coercion, to economic freedom. As these different kinds of freedom ebbed and flowed, their revisions were spurred on by social conditions (and particularly changing public institutions). Finally, the exclusions of freedom are central to defining who is able to enjoy it, which is often made along the lines of class, race, and gender. Overall, Foner excels at highlighting the tensions of expanding freedom not as a teleological upward trajectory, but one of fits and starts - he constantly reminds us at the contradictions and limitations of any movements towards freedom. Finally, he constantly observes how progressive activists co-opted the language of freedom to assert their goals - from abolitionists to women suffragists.
Foner chronologically moves through American history and often highlights the tensions of expanding freedom and its persistent restriction. He begins with the American Revolution as a classic case of asserting freedom while simultaneously entrenching slavery more strongly than before. In the early republic, free institutions such as the popular press and white male suffrage greatly expanded, even as slavery became an oppositional way to define freedom. Foner notes how in the early 19th century freedom was juxtaposed between the Whig view of "positive" freedom (the freedom to actively improve oneself and society) and the Jacksonian view of "negative" freedom (protection from outside coercion, particularly from the government). It was during this period that individualism was on the rise and when race had replaced class as the primary line of difference between those who could enjoy or not enjoy freedom. The Civil War, meanwhile, had two major effects: expanding the power of the federal government to guarantee freedoms, and citizenship increasingly being defined in terms of equality before the law. Finally, the Gilded Age witnessed the rise of "freedom of contract," in which advocates for capitalism and corporations manipulated the idea of guaranteeing worker's rights to labor in order to exploit them and resist government regulation. In opposition, the labor movement tried to reclaim the language of freedom and the antislavery mantle, even as simultaneously racial lines hardened and contracted after a brief period of expansion during Reconstruction.
***Note: only read first half of the book through the 19th century***
Key Themes and Concepts
- Contingency of what freedom meant
- Importance of government support for freedom
- Exclusions and boundaries of freedom as central to defining it
- Radical groups co-opting language of freedom
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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