The Story of American Freedom: 1776-2005

author: Eric Foner, Department of History, Columbia University
published: Feb. 25, 2012,   recorded: April 2005,   views: 3924
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Although the idea of freedom is nearly ubiquitous in American public discourse -- and perhaps no more so than today – it has been subject to a remarkable degree of flux over the course of the nation’s history. Eric Foner describes it as “a subject of persistent conflict and debate,” from the earliest times. “This country founded with the rhetoric of freedom was also a slave society,” says Foner. “Slave owners insisted that slavery was the real foundation of freedom, because a free individual was a person who was autonomous, not reliant on others for their economic livelihood. Owning a slave enhanced one’s freedom.” Foner believes that battles “at the boundaries of freedom,” by African Americans and other racial minorities, women and workers, “have deepened and extended the meaning of freedom into more areas of life.” After the nation accepted the 14th amendment -- “a nonracial idea of freedom”-- the next battle coalesced around economic freedom. Should an individual be allowed to pursue economic self-interest without outside restraint, or should economic freedom come to mean economic security—a living wage, a safety net? World War II, and the encounter with fascism, helped “reshape the internal boundaries of freedom,” says Foner, and served as the origins of the civil rights struggle in the U.S. The Cold War refocused the nation on free enterprise, central to our global battle against tyranny. And now globalization and terrorism challenge our notions of freedom. Foner deplores the current administration’s belief in a single sustainable model of freedom – our own. This chauvinism, he believes, violates the very notion of an open society, and paves the way for restricting freedoms at home.

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