Books: Down with Big Brother Inc. from the Founding Fathers to the National Rifle Association, Americans Love to Argue over Liberty. Hugh Brogan Thinks They Should Now Worry about Monopolies in Their Midst; the Story of American Freedom by Eric Foner Picador, Pounds 25, 427pp
Brogan, Hugh, The Independent (London, England)
OF ALL the grand political abstractions which make some hearts soar and others sink, freedom has for centuries been the most important, at any rate in the West. And "American freedom" has always been that country's proudest boast. So it is an idea which fairly clamours for historical analysis, and it may seem surprising that, so far as I know, Eric Foner's is the first substantial attempt to deal with it in this generation. But the reason is simple. As Foner's every page makes plain, freedom is what W B Gallie taught us to call "an essentially contested concept". There never can be universal agreement on its meaning, and the most favoured definitions are always superseded. Ideologues do not care to confront this difficulty; and scholars are daunted by it. We should be grateful to Professor Foner for having the courage to tackle the job.
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 …
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Publication information: Article title: Books: Down with Big Brother Inc. from the Founding Fathers to the National Rifle Association, Americans Love to Argue over Liberty. Hugh Brogan Thinks They Should Now Worry about Monopolies in Their Midst; the Story of American Freedom by Eric Foner Picador, Pounds 25, 427pp. Contributors: Brogan, Hugh - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: August 7, 1999. Page number: 9. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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