According to Eric Foner, how has the idea and the practice of American "freedom" changed over the course of the 20th century?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I sense that Foner would argue that freedom has been a changing dynamic based on the existing social and material conditions that have helped to navigate its dynamic.  Part of this would be Foner's analysis or fundamental treatment about the role of government in this dynamic.  At some points in the American historical fabric, government has been the agent of action in expanding freedom.  At other points, it has been the force that has curtailed it.  Freedom, in this light, becomes something that has changed as the governments that have been in power in America have sought to reinterpret it and reanalyze it.  I think that Foner sees moments in which the notion of American freedom has been enhanced by the forces within American government.  The abolition of slavery and expansion of rights to former slaves, the right for women and young people to vote, as well as the passage of Civil Rights legislation are all examples of how government has played a critical role in enhancing the idea and practice of what constitutes freedom.  By the same token, Foner argues that the suppression of free speech at critical points in the nation's history as well as favoring big business at the cost of worker displays of freedom are moments in which government has also served to define freedom by limiting its scope.  In this polemic, Foner argues that American government has played a critical role in defining and interpreting what is meant by "American freedom."


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