He has carried out his task superbly, as was to be expected of one of America's most distinguished living historians. The book is tough; it demands the reader's close attention. But Foner makes everything as easy as he can. He is incomparably lucid: I cannot imagine anyone losing the thread of his argument, and there always is an argument. This is no ragbag.
With superb command he carries us forward from the American Revolution to the Reagan Revolution, at every stage showing us what freedom meant to the men and, emphatically, women of the time; to whites and to African Americans. Here Foner is on home ground, for his weightiest work has always dealt with the Civil War period. I wish he could have found more than a paragraph for the Indians, but you can't have everything.
The upshot is a book which challenges thought on every page. Paradox, of course, has characterised the subject ever since a nation of slaveholders in 1776 proclaimed themselves apostles of liberty. Freedom turns out to be a truly Protean goddess. Innumerable aphorisms are as contradictory as they are revealing. "Necessitous men are not free men," says Franklin Roosevelt, echoing the 18th century, then committing America to the Four Freedoms: "of Speech, of Worship, from Want, from Fear".
Businessmen felt that he should have added a fifth freedom, "of enterprise"; the National Rifle Association asserts that the first freedom is the right to bear a arms; Tom Hayden demands the freedom to participate in the decisions that shape your life, Timothy Leary emphasises the freedom to expand your consciousness, and Mr Justice Douglas of the Supreme Court says that "the right to be let alone is the beginning of all freedom." A veteran of the Montgomery bus boycott hits the nail on the head. "None of us knew exactly what it meant, but we were saying freedom." And all this from only the past 60 years.
Certain themes emerge. One is the endless recurrence of the same arguments over the centuries. For this and other reasons Professor Foner does not believe that the Americans will ever enjoy the freedom from history that they sometimes claim, but it also leads him to believe that the debate will never end. No definition of freedom, pleasing or not, is ever dead. So Americans need never despair, however unfashionable their views.
Yet there have also been enormous, permanent changes. At the beginning of the 19th century only a man who owned his own farm or workshop was thought to be really free: wages were a form of slavery. Formerly, freedom was identified with republicanism, democracy, and group-interest; nowadays it is claimed as an individual right; the citizen has become the consumer, and the Supreme Court tells us that "at the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence". Ronald Reagan says that freedom means "the right to earn your own keep and keep what you earn". The idea of freedom as co-operation is replaced by idolatry of the free market. Eric Foner makes it clear he does not like this development.
This, then, is an important book; but it is too severe an academic exercise to attain the wide readership which its message deserves. I hope Professor Foner will return to the subject and vulgarise it: American opinion, as always, needs a sharp shock to jolt it out of mediocrity and complacency. If he does, I hope he will also make good one conspicuous lack in his analysis. He nowhere considers the extent to which the great corporations and greedy billionaires of today's America have corrupted the public mind. Yet the worship of the market and "free enterprise" is something that they have diligently inculcated for half a century.
The latest shibboleth which they are foisting upon their countrymen and the world is "free trade", by which they mean that nothing must be allowed to halt the march of US business towards global monopoly. ("Liberty and monopoly cannot live together," said Henry Demarest Lloyd in 1894.) It is a topic well worthy of Eric Foner's attention, and of pressing interest to all shareholders in Monsanto and Chiquita Banana - and everyone else.
Hugh Brogan is professor of American history at Essex UniversityReuse content