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Fighting Words

THE STORY OF AMERICAN FREEDOM.\o7 By Eric Foner (W.W. Norton: 422 pp., $27.95)\f7

October 11, 1998|FRED ANDERSON | Fred Anderson teaches early American history at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is the author of "A People's Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years' War."

The American revolutionaries never chose their words with more care than when they named "liberty" as one of their inalienable rights. Two centuries later, we continue to rank freedom as our most cherished national possession. Pull any random hundred citizens off the street and ask them what freedom is, though, and you're likely to get a couple of dozen different answers, if not a shouting match or a brawl. Eric Foner's brilliant, important book, "The Story of American Freedom," shows how, having invoked liberty to justify their independence in 1776, Americans have fought ever since over what that freedom means and over who may enjoy its blessings.

Our enduring ability to disagree over the meaning of a term that is central to our national identity makes freedom, according to Foner, "an essentially contested concept"--an idea the very existence of which compels debate. Our disagreements have been structured, at the intellectual level, by the fact that definitions of liberty tend to fall into one of two categories: "negative" freedom (the absence of external restraints on citizens' actions, with the state acting as no more than a referee) and "positive" freedom (the empowerment of individuals and groups to achieve what would otherwise be impossible, with the state taking an activist, enabling role). Unlike previous writers, who have treated freedom as a timeless ideal that we have striven to realize, Foner maintains that the history of American liberty is not linear and progressive but dialectical in character. What we call freedom bears the stamp of every group that has sought to stake its claim to citizenship--and thus to a share in the blessings of liberty--as well as the impress of those who have resisted the extension and expansion of liberty's realm.

Foner's achievement, and the reason that his book deserves a wide audience, is to make clear the terms on which excluded groups have gained admission to the body politic, and the ways in which the concept of freedom helped or hindered them in doing it. To describe these processes and to put them in the context of political events and socioeconomic change, he synthesizes a vast range of scholarship into a masterful narrative: a highly readable story in which the partisans of many visions of freedom have long maintained the upper hand. Thus those who looked to the nation-state as the propagator of liberty--such advocates of positive freedom as Federalists, Whigs, Radical Republicans, Progressives, New Dealers and Great Society liberals--have exerted as profound an influence on American liberty as those who recoiled from state activism--Jeffersonian Republicans, Jacksonian Democrats, Gilded Age Republicans, Southern Democrats and Reagan Revolutionaries. Although negative definitions of freedom predominate, especially in that crucial component of politics that deals with economic life, Foner's story should caution today's Republicans against assuming their victory is complete and permanent and encourage the remaining liberals in the Democratic Party not to despair.

British colonists understood freedom in terms of privileges granted by the crown or rights inherent in common law. Such "Englishmen's liberties" included the right to consent to taxation, the privilege of habeas corpus and many other protections that we still cherish. These narrowly focused liberties belonged to a political community that was almost exclusively white, male, Protestant and propertied. Property ownership defined both citizenship and liberty: Free men were those who did not live at any other man's command. They were independent producers, not wage earners; household heads, not the wives, sons, daughters, apprentices, servants and slaves who lived as their dependents. Freedom could be claimed only by men in mature life, who understood it as something that had to be earned--and something that could be dissipated as easily as an estate. Most of all, however, colonists understood freedom by its opposite, slavery.

Because slavery was both the starkest form of dependency and a condition that left the slave powerless to defend himself, the Revolutionaries found in it the perfect metaphor for tyranny. They did not understand their own possession of slaves as ironic. Slavery seemed less to contradict liberty than to illuminate its value, and American understandings of freedom were thus strongly racialized. Although free blacks had been present in the colonies from the beginning, nowhere in the new United States were they accorded full citizenship. The qualifications for participation in civil society began with whiteness.

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