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On Civil Liberties and the Redefinition of Freedom

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An appreciation of the civil liberties and basic freedoms enjoyed by the American individual, according to Eric Foner, would be impossible without a knowledge of how the American people—generation after generation—struggled to define and demarcate the boundaries of freedom and liberty.

In “The Story of American Freedom,” Foner (2002) successfully applies a mélange of analytical framework ranging from structural analysis, marxist dialectical and historical materialism; to feminist and postmodern criticism to prove that “freedom has always been a terrain of conflict, subject to multiple and competing interpretations.” By analyzing freedom from a historical narrative, he aims to show “how at different periods of American history different ideas of freedom have been conceived and implemented, and how the clash between dominant and dissenting views has constantly reshaped the idea’s meaning.’’ And because of this, the discourse of American civil liberties—borne from the American people’s love affair with the idea of freedom—will only gain relevance by identifying the "the meanings of freedom; the social conditions that make it possible; and the boundaries of freedom -- the definition, that is, of who is entitled to enjoy it (Foner, 2002)."

“The Birth of Civil Liberties”

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Indeed, the notions of civil liberties in a given society are necessarily intertwined with its cherished concept of freedom. In the book’s eight chapter, entitled “The Birth of Civil Liberties,” Foner shows that the inception of the idea of civil liberties was the outcome of the tumultuous events and crisis prior and after the World War I: the United States’ participation in the war, the  paranoia produced by the emergence of Socialist Russia, and the Great Depression following shortly after the war ended. It was at this period, with the widespread poverty amidst the growth of the United States as a major Capitalist economy; and Progressivists’ disenchantment with the illusions of state benevolence after the whole scale arrest of left-wing intellectuals, that the paradigm shift from the dominant “freedom from” into “freedom to” occurred. The ideas of social scientists as Herbert Croly, John Dewey, and William Willoughby, formed the basis of the new definition of freedom as one that does not only protect the individual from aggression, but one that actually permitted him to do things. Foner (2002) narrates the ensuing contradiction between the dominant progressivism and the emerging modern liberalism:

“Effective freedom,’ wrote John Dewey, who pondered the question from the 1890s until his death in 1952, was far different from the ‘highly formal and limited concept of liberty’ as a preexisting possession of autonomous individuals that needed to be protected from outside restraint.”

For effective freedom to crystallize, it was realized,  certain conditions first had to be met. Human beings (at this stage meaning White Men), for instance, though “by nature” imbued with the freedom to live comfortably, could not do so if they were impoverished. Freedom therefore required that a human being be economically secure, which meant that unemployment and starvation were seen as infringements to freedom.

“The New Deal and the Redefinition of Freedom”

By the 1930’s, the belief that economic security was a critical condition for exercising individual freedoms had gained significant acceptance. This is reflected in the way that the state, led by then Pres. Roosevelt,  implemented the New Deal from 1933-37, the pre-cursor of the establishment of welfare in the United States which implemented “relief,” “reform,” and “recovery” by intervening in the market and granting the demands of groups from a variety of the political spectrum. Seeking to cushion the impact of the Great Depression on the starving and unemployed majority of the American people, as well as pacify the restless from succumbing to socialist ideology, the New Deal showed the transformation of progressivism into modern liberalism, which espoused Keynesian economic models and personal freedom based on the four Rs: freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Fighting for Freedom

And so it is with the rhetoric of freedom that the United States would camouflage its interests in going to the Second World War and in declaring the cold war against the socialist bloc of the USSR. Noting the irony when Pres. Roosevelt promises the world a Global New Deal based on the four freedoms while declaring its participation in the war,  Foner echoes  Dewey’s lament when he wrote in “The Meaning of Freedom in the Age of Emancipation” that: “in our own time, we have witnessed the putative division of the planet into free and non-free worlds (with the former including many nations that might be seen as lacking in freedom) invoked to justify violations of individual liberties at home and interference with the right to self determination (Foner, 1994)”

This startling realization, that “American freedom has been both a reality and a mythical ideal -- a living truth for millions of Americans; a cruel mockery for others," influenced the formation of racial, gender, ethnicity, and class-based reform and radical abolitionist movements whose basic slogan was that of equality and the recognition of marginalized groups, such as those for the citizenship of the Blacks, women’s suffrage in the 1960s, and the people’s right to state-sponsored provision of social services in the 1930s. Foner describes the development of emergent concepts of freedom in  the 20th century which tested and challenged the status quo: "feminists sought to recast gender relations in order to afford women the same freedom as men, and Americans divided over whether poverty and lack of economic security should be seen as deprivations of freedom that the government had an obligation to alleviate.”

The women’s vocal demands for their right to vote  and the Black and immigrant movement for civil recognition, were therefore significant efforts to redefine the inclusive and exclusive meanings of freedom since “categories of freedom defines the categories of unfreedom.”  Foner affirms the relevance of such movements by stating that, "those who adopt a purely 'negative' view of freedom as the absence of external coercion, rather than, for example, economic autonomy or political empowerment, must identify what constitutes illegitimate coercion."

It is with this contention, that “freedom has not simply been a linear progress toward a pre-ordained goal,” but rather a complex and conflicted—and sometimes even violent— struggle between the contradicting interests of groups; tainted by class, race, ethnicity, gender, and even religion, that Foner  challenges and dares his reader to attempt to redefine the confined, claustrophobic spaces of America’s state-sponsored concepts of freedom.


Foner, Eric. The Story of American Freedom. New York: Norton, 1998. pp. 163-236

Foner, Eric, “The Meaning of Freedom in the Age of Emancipation.” The Journal of American History 81, no. 2 (Sept. 1994) p. 4.

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