Freedom Freely Imagined

    Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America's Founding Ideas by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press, 851 pages, $50.00)

George W. Bush used the word “freedom” 24 times during his second inaugural address. After the president's handlers rushed out and denied that he was looking to start more wars, George Bush Senior clarified the point of his son's speech. “It's about freedom,” he explained.

David Hackett Fischer has a stern message for snickering Democrats: “For three centuries, American movements that lost interest in liberty and freedom succeeded only in removing themselves from the main currents of American life.” Today the stakes are especially high. American freedom, argues Fischer, rests on a rich diversity of ideas; it is threatened whenever passionate, single-minded, born-again apostles of a narrow view press their own vision of freedom while repressing others. That recurring danger, concludes Fischer, is “happening again as this book goes to press.”

Liberty and Freedom is a long and dazzling call to arms. The book begins by asking what Americans mean by the two terms in the first place. Does George W. Bush have the same thing in mind as, say, Francis Scott Key, Martin Luther King Jr., or Bob Dylan? Liberty and freedom form a two-word American anthem passed down across the generations; the words reflect folk tradition with deep roots and commonsense meanings. How can we get at those meanings? Fisher's answer is to rummage about the national attic and reflect on the stuff he finds: paintings, posters, powder horns, ceramics, coins, bells, bumper stickers, buttons, flags, spittoons, and more.

Fischer begins with a brilliant bit of etymology. “Liberty” comes from the Latin libertas and means unbounded, unrestricted; it denotes separation. “Freedom” comes from the languages of northern Europe (Norse fri, German frei) and suggests full kinship rights in a community; it denotes connection (as in “friend”). At the core of our political culture lies a dynamic tension between liberty (separation) and freedom (connection).

The opening chapters are the most riveting. Fischer traces the origins of our multiple traditions of liberty and freedom by examining revolutionary signs, each rooted in a different early American community. In Puritan New England, tight bands of Calvinist saints aspired to a “well-ordered” liberty symbolized by liberty trees. The telling New England totem -- great, organic, trees deeply rooted at the heart of the community -- adorned battle flags, crests, coins, and silver bowls.

In contrast, New York has featured 16 generations of ethnic tensions, class conflict, political turbulence, and economic competition -- not to mention “abrasive manners and abusive speech” (of course Fischer lives near Boston). New York's revolutionary emblem was the liberty pole -- a rootless, mobile, human construction that resembled a ship's mast and suggested both artisans' handiwork and class consciousness.

Quaker Philadelphia aspired to the Golden Rule. The Friends, comments Fischer, “were among the few people in the world who extended to others the rights they claimed for themselves.” The Liberty Bell -- heard by everyone in town -- symbolized “universal liberty and freedom.” The bell, however, eventually clashed with a different American fixation. Though it developed small fractures in the 1840s, taxpayers objected to buying a new bell and rang the old one until it cracked from lip to crown. Fischer cheers its “second career as a silent symbol of liberty and freedom,” but we might also remember the jagged crack as an emblem of dubious tax resistance -- a beloved symbol of liberty ruined by tightfisted public finances. Ironically, George W. Bush ended his second inaugural address recalling that the Liberty Bell once “rang as if it meant something.” Thanks to a reckless 19th-century fiscal attitude, it will never ring again.

Virginia's rulers understood liberty as gentlemanly privilege. The colony's carefully graduated ranks ran from free nobility to African slaves. Virginians adorned their first state seal with classical allusions celebrating abundance, independence, and leisure. Perfectly fitting for gentleman slaveholders, perhaps, but when Thomas Jefferson passed the emblem around at the Continental Congress, the New England Yankees reacted scornfully. John Adams suggested that Virginians add a “lascivious lady called Sloth.” The early exchange proved prophetic: The abolitionists' most effective argument scorched slavery for enervating Virginia's ruling class -- “cruel to the slave,” as Tocqueville would put it, but “fatal to the master.”

The most famous revolutionary image came from the backwoods borderlands in the West. To these rude settlers, liberty meant the right to live independently. Their battle flags pictured a rattlesnake with the maxim “Don't Tread on Me” -- the perfect symbol, comments Fischer, for a warrior ethos that despised government, cherished personal independence, lived apart, and settled differences in private. The rattlesnake is solitary, vigilant (no eyelids), never attacks without provocation, never wounds without notice, and never surrenders. The laissez-faire border spirit, still rooted in the West, remains a robust contemporary attitude; and the U.S. Navy brought back the old rattlesnake flag in 2002 and flies it from every vessel. The maxim carries a more ominous connotation when it is fluttering not above ragged rebels defending their homes but atop the most powerful warships in history as they glide around the globe.

Each region developed emblems that reflected its own distinctive vision of liberty and freedom. Fischer's narrative traces the way they combined and evolved. No single vision of liberty is sufficient; taken alone, some can be repressive. America's glory lies in the dynamic mixing of the traditions, the constant flux and clash of freedom visions.

Liberty and Freedom gathers velocity as it moves across American history until it becomes a kind of manic slide show. Brief descriptions, riveting stories, interesting folk objects, and sharp insights about liberty and freedom tumble across the pages -- fast, fascinating, and occasionally frustrating. Individual episodes are brief -- Fischer is covering four centuries -- so the nuance sometimes drops out. For example, Prohibition evenly divided the nation but soon taught us “the limits of moral regulation in a free republic.” A closer look suggests that the noble experiment collapsed only after the Depression shifted the entire political framework. The losers never learned a cheerful lesson about limits; they remained true believers as the Depression pushed them out in 1930, and jumped right back into the business of moral regulation when they returned to power a half-century later. (We arrested nearly 750,000 people for smoking marijuana last year thanks to a criminal-justice framework originally organized during Prohibition.) Still, Fischer would point to Prohibition's bottom line: The more robust American view of liberty won out. As usual.

Fischer draws a controversial conclusion from his grand narrative: “Every American generation without exception has expanded the meaning of liberty and freedom.” The sheer multiplicity of our liberty and freedom traditions impels us relentlessly forward. The trouble with this argument (historians call it “Whig history”) is that it implies an inexorable liberalizing process rather than the constant, perilous struggle to win and maintain our liberties. And there's no better caveat to Whig history than Fischer's honest agitation about the Bush administration. The progress that no doubt seemed so robust when Fischer started writing this magisterial volume now looks to be in peril as the Bush administration defies the dynamic pluralism of America's freedom traditions.

Liberty and Freedom ends with the hope that American foreign policy will continue to spread liberty by constructing “constitutional democracies, free-market economies, and open societies.” Alas, there are as many versions of the market as there are traditions of freedom. What we're pushing today is our own increasingly bare-knuckle, inegalitarian economics -- unleavened by public interest or visions of solidarity. The war on terrorism only steels the harsh perspective. Still, every war began by undermining liberty and ended by extending it. If Fischer got that American dialectic right, the Republicans will adjust their attitudes or get buried along with their pinched vision of freedom. I hope he's right. But, never mind Whig history, there's nothing inevitable about liberty or freedom. Every generation has to win them all over again.

David Hackett Fischer's luminous epic reminds us that we've been here before, that we've beaten back worse threats to our freedom. But even a glorious past and a rich set of traditions cannot secure the future. Those of us who cherish America's traditions of liberty and freedom are in for the fight of our lives. Again.

James Morone is a political-science professor at Brown University and the author, most recently, of Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History.