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Truth is its [justice’s] handmaid, freedom is its child, peace is its companion, safety walks in its steps, victory follows in its train; it is the brightest emanation from the Gospel; it is the attribute of God… Sydney Smith, Lady Holland’s Memoir

Eric Foner is about as far to the left as a Columbia professor can get without actually moving to Moscow and his writings reflect his bias and a careful reading shows them not to be history at all but rather justifications for his social view points. We would recommend this book only as an object lesson in what history isn’t!

We realize that publisher’s descriptions are written to sell books which is why reviews are necessary to find out what the author is really doing. In reviewing another work of his, The Story of American Freedom, James A. Nuechterlein explains his approach comprehensively as follows:

History in recent years has become a minimalist enterprise. Although large interpretative takes on the meaning of it all are hardly unknown, in the postmodernist academy they have for the most part given way to ever more rarefied inquiries into ever more restricted slices of the past. Where perspective is everything, and perspectives can be infinitely multiplied, the idea is not easily entertained that there might be something called, say, “the American experience,” or that generalizations might usefully be made about it. Anyone contemplating such an exercise risks immediate suspicion that he (or, of course, she) is, as they say, “privileging” a hegemonic narrative that by definition marginalizes the voices of the non-privileged.

How is it, then, that so impeccably credentialed a person of the Left as Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University and a member of the Nation editorial board, can hope to get away with so hegemonic-seeming a project as The Story of American Freedom? He does so by joining to a mostly old-fashioned progressive treatment of his subject the requisite obeisance to contemporary academic idols.

Thus, Foner modishly informs us in his introduction that the title of his book “is meant to be ambiguous or ironic (one might even call it post-modern).” A “story,” after all, “is both a history of actual events and an invention.” So also with the meaning of the word “freedom,” a “protean” concept that “overspills the scholar’s carefully constructed boundaries.” If, in probing the ambiguities of his subject, Foner focuses on categories of “race, gender, and class,” this is not, he hastens to assure us, “as a fashionable mantra” but because (and now the postmodernist meets the progressive) “non-whites, women, and laborers experienced firsthand the paradox that one person’s freedom has frequently been linked to another’s servitude.”

Here we come upon Foner’s major theme. While often invoked to justify the status quo, freedom, he writes, has also served more hopefully as a “protest ideal,” exposing “the contradictions between what America claims to be and what it actually is.” In his exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) survey of the various meanings—political, economic, personal, moral—that Americans have attached to freedom from the Revolution until today, there can be no doubt that Foner himself clearly prefers eras of protest and reform to their conservative counterparts.

In the end, Foner’s problem is that he is unsympathetic to the type of freedom that the majority of Americans embrace. Freedom comes in many versions, but from the Revolution onward its dominant form in this country has been “freedom from”: from the threat of overweening government, from intrusive public regulation of private economic activity, from interference by virtually any external agent in the definition and pursuit of one’s preferred manner of life. “Don’t tread on me” is, for better and for worse, the distinctively American way of freedom.

Foner, by contrast, prefers a more expansive version of freedom, one that encompasses “freedom to” as well as “freedom from,” or, to adapt Isaiah Berlin’s terms, positive as well as negative freedom. Foner speaks glowingly of “freedom as economic security, freedom as active participation in democratic governance, freedom as social justice for those long disadvantaged.” Where most Americans, most of the time, have looked askance at government as an enemy of freedom, Foner admires those periods — the Civil War and Reconstruction, the New Deal, the liberationist 1960′s — when activist governments in pursuit of grand and sometimes coercive visions presented themselves as freedom’s ally.

But those more statist moments have been the exception, not the rule. Foner himself ruefully notes that most Americans, when asked to choose between freedom and equality, opt for freedom, and by percentages far higher than anywhere else in the industrialized world. Given that fact, it is not surprising that The Story of American Freedom has so equivocal a tone and ends on so dyspeptic a note.

Forever free : the story of emancipation and Reconstruction    New York : Knopf, 2005  Eric Foner ; illustrations edited and with commentary by Joshua Brown United States Race relations History 19th century Hardcover. xxx, 268 p. : ill., ports. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 239-244) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

From one of our most distinguished historians, a new examination of the vitally important years of Emancipation and Reconstruction during and immediately following the Civil War–a necessary reconsideration that emphasizes the era’s political and cultural meaning for today’s America.

In Forever Free, Eric Foner overturns numerous assumptions growing out of the traditional understanding of the period, which is based almost exclusively on white sources and shaped by (often unconscious) racism. He presents the period as a time of determination, especially on the part of recently emancipated black Americans, to put into effect the principles of equal rights and citizenship for all.

Drawing on a wide range of long-neglected documents, he places a new emphasis on the centrality of the black experience to an understanding of the era. We see black Americans as active agents in overthrowing slavery, in helping win the Civil War, and – even more actively – in shaping Reconstruction and creating a legacy long obscured and misunderstood. Foner makes clear how, by war’s end, freed slaves in the South built on networks of church and family in order to exercise their right of suffrage as well as gain access to education, land, and employment.

He shows us that the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and renewed acts of racial violence were retaliation for the progress made by blacks soon after the war. He refutes lingering misconceptions about Reconstruction, including the attribution of its ills to corrupt black American politicians and “carpetbaggers,” and connects it to the movements for civil rights and racial justice.

Joshua Brown’s illustrated commentary on the era’s graphic art and photographs complements the narrative. He offers a unique portrait of how Americans envisioned their world and time.

Forever Free is an essential contribution to our understanding of the events that fundamentally reshaped American life after the Civil War – a persuasive reading of history that transforms our sense of the era from a time of failure and despair to a threshold of hope and achievement.


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