In Eric Foner’s book, The Story of American Freedom, he writes a historical monograph about how liberty came to be. In the book, his argument does not focus on one fixed definition of freedom like others are tempted to do. Unlike others, Foner describes liberty as an ever changing entity; its definition is fluid and does not change in a linear progress. While others portray liberty as a pre-determined concept and gradually getting better, Foner argues the very history of liberty is constantly reshaping the definition of liberty, itself. Essentially, the multiple and conflicting views on liberty has always been a “terrain of conflict” and has changed in time (Foner xv).
Foner focuses, specifically, on how the definition of liberty has been molded over time. He describes how other factors played a role in the change of liberty using three interrelated themes. The first theme, as he describes it, covers the dimensions or meanings of freedom. The dimensions include “political freedom, or the right to participate in public affairs… civil liberties, or rights that individuals can assert against authority…[and] moral or ‘Christian’ ideal of freedom,” the freedom to act morally or ethically good (Foner xvii). It also includes personal freedom or being able to make individual choices free from coercion, and “economic freedom…[which covers how] the kinds of economic relations constitute freedom for… [individual’s working lives]” (Foner xviii). All these dimensions are looked at individually as they play a role in reshaping the definition of freedom or liberty.
Foner not only focuses on the dimensions of freedom, he also focuses on the second and third theme as well. The second theme covers the social conditions which makes freedom possible; for instance, this may include “governmental authority, social pressures for conformity, bureaucratic institutions” or even the time period that may affect how the definition of freedom has changed. This also relates to the third theme which covers the limitations or boundaries of freedom, “those entitled to enjoy its blessings” (Foner xix). The limitations in regards to race, gender, and class are looked at in the way who is entitled to enjoy freedom and those who do not. Throughout the book Foner focuses on how the limitations have expanded and simultaneously excluded others through the social conditions during the different time periods.
In chapter 1, Foner focuses on how the dimensions of freedom has changed from the pre-revolution to the post-revolution. Starting from the 18th century (pre-revolution era), the ideas of freedom originated from Britain freedom conceptualizing two contradictory ideas: republicanism and liberalism. For republicanism, being active in political affairs was the “very essence of liberty…[and a] man reached his highest fulfillment in setting aside self-interest to pursue the common good” (Foner 7). While republicanism spoke in favor of the entire community, “liberty…meant not civic...