The Story of American Freedom. By Eric Foner. (New York: Norton, 1998. 422 pp. $27.95, isbn 0-393-04665-6.)
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Reviewed by Larry Pahl
as part of the "Teachers as Scholars Colloquium" for the Learning and Teaching American History, sponsored by The Professional Development School Network and Illinois State University for Session 1, November 29, 2001, held at McLean County Historical Museum, 200 North Main Street, in Bloomington, Illnois.
Americanís military forces are currently being placed in harmís way in Afghanistan, we are told, "to defend our freedoms." It is good at such times to place in perspective the freedoms for which Americans are dying. The burden of Eric Foner in this work is to chronicle the changing face of the words "liberty" and "freedom" in various periods of American history.
Fonerís work is a largely dispassionate chronicle of the meaning of liberty from the nation's founding to the present. His work sketches not only the idealistic glory, but also the self-serving and even chicanery associated with the concept throughout the unfolding of Americaís story. The framework of organization which Foner has chosen to house his story is chronological, using a chapter to cover each major epoch of American history. The choice of eras is traditional, beginning with the founding and moving through the Jacksonian development, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded and Progressive eras, World War I, the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, the Sixties developments and the rebirth of conservativism a generation later. Within each chapter he uses three themes to guide his examination. First is that of how Americans have understood the idea of freedom. He looks at responses from political, economic, personal and Christian perspectives. Secondly he looks at the social conditions of freedom. Is it delimited by governmental authority, social pressure, or economic power? Under what conditions does it seem to prosper or suffer restriction? Thirdly he looks at who the people are who are entitled to enjoy the blessings of American freedom. Or, as he says, "Who is an American?"
In my mind, the work suffers from one massive exception. Foner has no treatment of the period preceding the Revolutionary era. Considering the title word "Story," how could Foner neglect the story of Bradford and the Mayflower? Where is the gripping drama of Roger Williamsí banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with all its implications for liberty and Americaís future? Though Foner confesses his personal bias in the choices that had to be made in such a survey as this book project presents, he offers not a word of lament or explanation for ignoring this foundational and pivotal period. Almost every Presidential hopeful quotes from the "city built on a hill" metaphor which connects to the Pilgrimsí self-conception from this period. I would like to have seen his sketch of liberty's vita during Americaís period of colonial infancy.
Foner admits that his title, with its use of the word "Story," may be considered "postmodern," and as such, may imply he is not really doing history at all, except as one realizes that history is made by those who write about it, not by the actual events being written about. Foner allows his title to carry that ambiguity, even though his commitment to the craft of history is nobler than postmodernists would allow, because beyond its actual historical content , "freedom" is also a "mythic ideal." Since Foner realizes this mythic potential he is willing to allow a possible postmodern tag. Ultimately this is his admission that the subject he is pursuing, the vaunted and perpetual American ideal of freedom, is ultimately larger than any story written about, no matter how pure the historiography is. The promise of freedom is mythic because it is larger than the sum of all its parts, grander than the permutations of the individual pages in the American annals.
While Fonerís style and tone is a steady stream of detached third-person narrative, his ink sizzles with perspective when he writes, "It is tempting to view the expansion of citizenís rights during Reconstruction as the logical fulfillment of a vision articulated by the founding fathers but for pragmatic reasons not actually implemented when the Constitution was drafted...Yet...Reconstruction represented less a fulfillment of the Revolutionís principles than a radical repudiation of the nationís actual practice for the previous seven decades." If his title is purposed to leave some room for myths to reign, they have been dethroned here. For Foner, freedom is not making some grand, ever-advancing manifest development in America, but a maze where a pinball sometimes causes lights to flash, but sometimes goes down the hole.
It is a conviction of mine that nations, in their birth, rise, and fall, do not follow a history far dissimilar to that of any individual. While many people may have curricula vitae which appear zigzagged and rag-tag, I believe there is a development of the whole life and whole personality which defines each person and carries an interconnected life thread, a solitary life story. We may speak of the "mature Shakespeare" or the "early Roosevelt." In this sense I think it would be possible to sketch a history of the concept of freedom in the unrolling saga that is American history, which does reveal a maturing and unified development of "liberty." I would have liked to see more of this in Foner.
Though I am one who likes to view the history of freedom in this country as some species of a story of forward advance, I have benefited from the debunking pen of Foner. I salute him. His history has made me think and helped me grow, with the future and ultimate result that my students will be similarly affected. By being exposed to the changing nuances of the concept of freedom, they will become wiser in applying its promise to their generation.