Freedom and Its Discontents

Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, and formerly Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford, is one of our most distinguished historians. He is a past president of the Organization of American Historians and is president-elect of the American Historical Association. Foner’s books have been mainly devoted to the nineteenth century of the United States, of which the best known is his Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877, which won many prizes, including the Bancroft Prize.

His latest book takes him into new ground. In form, it is a survey of American history from the country’s origins to the present, whose central concern is with the development of freedom. Fluent and engaging, it seems written both for the general public and for students. It is, however, not a substitute for traditional American historical surveys; it passes over too much and seems to be driven too much by the author’s predilections. It barely mentions the three foreign wars of the nineteenth century—the second war against Great Britain in 1812- 1815, the war with Mexico in 1846, and the war with Spain in 1898. The “Great Triumvirate” of the early nineteenth century, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, get one passing mention apiece; Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist, merits eleven, and W.E.B. Du Bois gets five.

Foner treats his subject as a historian, not as a philosopher or political scientist. Americans, he notes, have not produced many abstract discussions of the concept of freedom, and he does not venture any. He seeks to tell of the “debates, disagreements, and struggles rather than a set of timeless categories or an evolutionary narrative toward a preordained goal.” He sees freedom as both an idea and a practice, and he prefers to emphasize the latter.

The problem of freedom in American history is paradoxical. Much depends on whether the story is told from the top down or from the bottom up. In the first half-century after independence, African-American slaves suffered at the bottom, and to this day their emancipation has been only partially realized. Women were relegated to the household, deprived of the right to vote, and employed, if at all, in menial, low-paying tasks.

If the story of American freedom is told largely from the perspective of blacks and women, especially the former, it is not going to be a pretty tale. Yet most Americans thought of themselves not only as free but as the freest people in the world. Frances Trollope and other foreign visitors were struck by the American tendency to boast of their “liberality and the love of freedom.” At the end of the nineteenth century, Lord Bryce, a much friendlier observer, noted that “Americans cherish the notion that they are the only people who enjoy true political liberty.”

Why did so many ordinary Americans think they were peculiarly blessed with freedom, while so many others lacked many of its attributes? This question never arises in Foner’s book because he largely ignores ordinary Americans—manual workers,…

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