A leisurely stroll through American history in search of the elusive and constantly changing concept of freedom. Foner...



A leisurely stroll through American history in search of the elusive and constantly changing concept of freedom. Foner (History/Columbia; Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1988, etc.), a Bancroft Prize--winning historian of the Gilded Age, here examines the growth of the American ideal of personal and political freedom. The two are not necessarily the same, he notes: in our history, there has been a longstanding tension between ""freedom as the power to participate in public affairs and freedom as a collection of individual rights requiring protection against governmental interference."" The generation of the American Revolution believed that freedom was largely the latter, Foner argues: this was exemplified by their estimation of ""the most sacred of rights,"" freedom of religion and conscience. Other generations, such as the free-labor movement of the Civil War era and the freedom-as-utilitarian-good school of thought that held sway during the New Deal years, have seen things differently. Foner is particularly good on the abolitionist movement, which held that freedom as extended by statute to American citizens had to be broadened to include those who were not citizens--namely, slaves and (in later decades) guest laborers brought from places like Mexico to fill in during wartime labor shortages. He observes, with the abolitionist Thomas Higginson, that the history of freedom is not ""a narrative of linear progress"" and that, particularly in the matter of civil liberties for African-Americans, one step forward is often immediately followed by two steps backward. Sometimes competing (often widely varying) notions of freedom mark our history, Foner notes: Thomas Jefferson's ideal of liberty was not necessarily that of W.E.B. DuBois or Susan B. Anthony. But each interpretation has influenced our present ideas of democracy and responsibility, which, Foner observes, continue to spread across the world. A fine introductory text in political history, well written and thoroughly documented.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0393319628

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1998

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