Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America's Founding Ideas

Article excerpt

Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America's Founding Ideas * David Hackett Fischer * New York: Oxford University Press, 2005 * x, 851 pp. * $50.00

David Hackett Fischer's Liberty and Freedom is a sweeping, massive volume (851 pages, 118 chapters, more than 400 illustrations) focused on what the author views as two fundamentally American principles, or principles fundamental to the American national narrative. Treating liberty and freedom as folkways, as American values grounded in "a set of customs, traditions, and folk beliefs" (p. 716), Fischer delves into the ways in which these folkways were invented and then repeatedly reshaped and revitalized throughout the course of American history. Presenting in large part a synthetic overview of the nation's history from the pre-colonial period to post-9/11, Fischer especially focuses on how the principles of liberty and freedom have been envisioned by Americans, or, quite literally, symbolically represented in any number of visual and material culture realms: from the liberty trees, liberty poles, liberty bowls, and liberty bells that flourished during the American Revolution to the iconic Four Freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of worship) illustrated by Norman Rockwell for the Saturday Evening Post during World War II.

In many ways, this project is long overdue. In recent decades, historians have increasingly recognized the crucial roles played by visual and material cultures in the evolution of American national identity, in the formation of national attitudes and the dissemination of national assumptions; indeed, some estimate that we receive some three-fourths of our knowledge today from visual sources. An encyclopedic book of this sort, which illustrates and analyzes the varieties of visual sources that have shaped and directed the American national imaginary, is a valuable contribution to American cultural studies. Liberty and Freedom is also a catalog, written to accompany the exhibition American Visions of Liberty & Freedom, which was organized by the Virginia Historical Society and will travel during 2005-2007 to history museums in Richmond; Pittsburgh; Atlanta; Lexington, Mass.; and St. Louis.

Building on his acclaimed study, Albion's seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989), Fischer sees Liberty and Freedom as the third volume in his ambitious cultural history of the United States (the second volume, American Plantations, is still in progress, as is a fourth and final volume titled Deep Change). This most recently published volume expands on the diverse British and Irish folk-cultures introduced in Albion's seed and considers how concepts of liberty and freedom "flowered in the Revolution, expanded in the early republic, and multiplied" into the twenty-first century (p. …