The Story of American Freedom

Eric Foner ( offers a sweep of American history with the idea of freedom as the main subject. He focuses on three major themes: 1) different meanings of freedom, 2) social conditions that made freedom possible, and 3) the boundaries and exclusions of freedom. The main understandings of freedom have been ‘civil liberties’; being free from outside coercion; economic liberty; and the ability to make personal choice.
As these different kinds of freedom ebbed and flowed, their revisions were spurred on by social conditions (and particularly changing public institutions). Importantly, the exclusions of freedom are central to defining who is able to enjoy it, which is often made along the lines of class, race, and gender. The author persuades us of the many contradictions and limitations of movements towards freedom.
Foner begins with the American Revolution as a classic case of the assertion freedom for some while simultaneously entrenching slavery for others. He notes how in the early 19th century freedom was juxtaposed between the Whig view of “positive” freedom (the freedom to actively improve oneself and society) and the Jacksonian view of “negative” freedom (protection from outside coercion, particularly from the government). It was during this period that individualism was on the rise and when race had replaced class a division between free and unfree.
The Civil War had two major effects: expanding the power of the federal government to guarantee freedoms, and citizenship increasingly being defined in terms of equality before the law. Finally, the ‘Gilded Age’ witnessed the rise of ‘freedom of contract’, in which advocates for capitalism and corporations manipulated the idea of guaranteeing worker’s rights to labour in order to exploit them and resist government regulation. In opposition, the labour movement tried to reclaim the language of freedom and the antislavery mantle, even as simultaneously racial lines hardened and contracted after a brief period of expansion during Reconstruction.
In short, the author shows us that American freedom did not drop down glistening and precious from a cloud. It was contested, hammered into different shapes and held contrary meanings for the many groups who espoused it over the centuries.
Check if this well researched and thought provoking work of history is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at




512 pages in Picador

First published 1994

ISBN  978-0330373913


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Eric Foner

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