In a free society, the stronger the effort at repression, the greater the resistance that it inspires. That resistance in turn inspires more repression. "Liberty and Freedom: A...

Share story

“Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas”

by David Hackett Fischer

Oxford University Press,

851 pp., $50

Every American should read this book. Unfortunately, few probably will. At nearly five pounds, it’s a chore just to pick it up. The 118 chapters and 851 pages of “Liberty and Freedom” take a big investment of time and effort to read. Most people would probably rather sit around watching “Desperate Housewives.”

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

Too bad. The country needs this book.

David Hackett Fischer has fashioned an elaborate history of American liberty and freedom — where those ideas have come from and where they may be going. Much of his focus is on the iconography of liberty and freedom: flags, photos, statues, songs, posters, cartoons, paintings, campaign buttons, military shoulder patches, quilts, ceramics, even a porcelain toilet sporting an image of the American eagle. Many of these symbols are illustrated in the book.

But Fischer goes well beyond these symbols to explore the ideas that gave them meaning. In prose rich with historical anecdotes, he probes the roots of nearly every “ism” conceived in this country.

Much of what he says is relevant to today’s events. “Every American generation has struggled with the question of what to do about aliens and dissenters who use the open institutions of a free society to attack liberty and freedom,” Fischer writes. “In quiet times, the great republic has tended to adopt Jefferson’s hopeful rule that error should remain free where truth can correct it. But in critical moments many Americans have gone the other way. When they believe that their republic is in mortal danger, they have never hesitated to suppress opinions, groups and movements that they regard as a menace to a free society.

“Other Americans have opposed these efforts at suppression. For them, an effort to preserve a free society by restricting liberty and freedom is not merely mistaken but absurd. They believe that such an effort destroys what it seeks to defend. Both parties to this old American argument believe deeply in their cause, and each grows by reaction to the other …

“These trends have created a powerful rhythm in the American history of liberty and freedom, always for the avowed purpose of protecting a free society. These repressions inspired a reaction that revived and expanded liberty and freedom.”

Something to look forward to, perhaps.

Fischer maintains a historian’s careful objectivity throughout most of the book, but near the end, as he begins describing the administration of President George W. Bush, his pent-up feelings boil over:

“Since the Second World War, every Democratic and Republican president had favored international alliances and agreements to promote peace, democracy, human rights and free markets [but] George W. Bush went a different way … He refused to join international efforts to protect the environment, promote human rights, restrict bacteriological and chemical warfare, stop illegal arms sales, and limit the deployment of new ballistic missiles. In many of these instances, the United States was alone in refusing to participate … [Bush’s] vision of liberty in foreign affairs meant an idea of lone star diplomacy that set him apart from every president in 50 years.”

There’s more — lots more — but you get the gist.

Fischer offers three models for the future of liberty and freedom. One suggests that American culture represents the shape of things to come, that constitutional democracies, free-market economies and open societies will spread throughout the world. Another offers a dark vision of “mortal conflict among irreconcilable civilizations, leading to a global apocalypse.” The third suggests a new definition of liberty and freedom. Fischer notes these ideas are “growing in many nations but never twice in the same way … Every nation (without exception) has created new visions of liberty and freedom.”

What of the United States? “If a free society is ever destroyed in America, it will be done in the name of one particular vision of liberty and freedom,” Fischer says. “Many single-minded apostles of a narrow idea of a free society have become tyrants in their turn … It is happening again as this book goes to press with other high officeholders.

“These men are passionate in their defense of a free society, but America’s tradition of liberty and freedom is broader than their thoughts about it.”

Steve Raymond reviews American history for The Seattle Times. His most recent book is “Blue Upright: The Flies of a Lifetime” (Lyons Press).