On September 16, 1947, the 160th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, a traveling exhibition known as the “Freedom Train,” bedecked in red, white, and blue and carrying one hundred thirty-three historical documents, began a sixteen-month tour in Philadelphia that would take it to more than three hundred cities across America. Sponsored by the American Heritage Foundation, whose board of trustees, dominated by bankers and industrialists, was headed by the chairmen of Chase Manhattan Bank, the “Freedom Train” was promoted by an elaborate advertising campaign designed to “re-sell America to Americans.”
Yet some Americans were skeptical. Paul Robeson remarked: “I want freedom itself, not a Freedom Train.” When the train stopped in Mississippi, the poet Langston Hughes asked, “will it be made plain/ everybody’s got a right to board the Freedom Train?” The fact that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech had been omitted by the conservative sponsors demonstrated, in the words of historian Eric Foner, that “the meaning of freedom remained as controversial as ever.”
The account of the “Freedom Train” is but one of the many revealing events Foner chronicles in The Story of American Freedom. Covering American history from Independence to the Internet, Foner passionately explores the idea of freedom, what historian Carl Becker called this “magic but elusive word.” For its author, the book is “a tale of debates, disagreements, and struggles rather than a set of timeless categories or an evolutionary narrative toward a preordained goal.”
Foner readily admits that a book of this sort “inevitably reflects the personal interests and choices of the author,” and there is no doubt that, far from writing hagiography, he is interested in examining “how dissenting voices, rejected positions, and disparaged theories have also played a role in shaping the meaning of freedom.”
Yet this is no narrow Marxist polemic. On the contrary, Foner has succeeded in a single manageable volume to cover the colorful and perplexing sweep of American history though the matrix of the notion of freedom. He is intent on showing “how at different periods of American history, different ideas of freedom have been conceived and implemented, and how the clash between dominant and dissenting views has constantly reshaped the idea’s meaning.” In particular, Foner focuses on three interrelated themes: the meaning of freedom; the social conditions that make freedom possible; and the boundaries of freedom, that is, who is and is not entitled to enjoy it.
Foner appreciates the irony and ambiguity of his title: “A story is both a history of actual events and an invention.” He convincingly demonstrates that over the course of our history, freedom has been “both a reality and a mythic ideal—a living truth for millions of Americans; a cruel mockery for others.”
An overarching question posed throughout the book is whether freedom is achieved by limiting or empowering government. In other words, is the goal freedom from government or freedom through government? Foner is adept at identifying those times when government has been the friend of freedom (for example, the enactment of civil rights legislation) or its foe (for example, the enactment of laws authorizing injunctions against labor strikes or suppressing dissent during both world wars).
Keenly attuned to the persistent gap between the rhetoric and reality of freedom, Foner frames his story around the struggles of blacks, women, workers, and dissenters. He finds little of interest in the freedom enjoyed by those already privileged by their wealth, race, or gender, whose ancestors have always known, and whose progeny will know, political, social, and financial freedom.
The Story of American Freedom devotes considerable attention to the struggle of African Americans to achieve freedom in a society to which they were introduced as slaves. Drawing on rarely cited black sources, including slave narratives and a wide variety of writings, sermons, and speeches by black authors, clergy, and political leaders, Foner gives voice to the insistent demand that America live up to its lofty ideals. In 1776, the year of American independence, Lemuel Haynes, a black member of the Massachusetts militia and later a celebrated minister, argued that if liberty were truly “an innate principle, even an African [had] as equally good a right to his liberty in common with Englishmen.” By 1790, after the nation—the white male nation—had enjoyed years of independence, the half-million slave population of 1776 had grown to some 700,000. It is no wonder that years later, Frederick Douglass would proclaim that “this Fourth of July is yours, not mine.” Foner observes that in their yearning for real freedom, as compared to the self-satisfied hypocrisy of white Americans (for whom, according to Lincoln, freedom meant “the liberty of making slaves of other people”), “the slaves were truer to the nation’s underlying principles.”
“Both sides fought the Civil War in the name of freedom,” writes Foner. Lincoln observed in 1884 that “[w]e all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.” From the perspective of the late twentieth century, it is difficult to fully comprehend that slave-owning Americans deeply believed that they had a fundamental birthright to own slaves and that their freedom depended on the perpetuation of slavery. “I am engaged in the glorious cause of liberty and justice,” wrote an Alabama corporal in 1862; “with no sense of incongruity,” adds Foner.
That the right to own slaves was ultimately abolished by no...
(The entire section is 2388 words.)