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The Meaning of Freedom

Columbia historian Eric Foner traces the shifting definition of American liberty in USC’s sixth annual Law and Humanities Distinguished Lecture.

The Meaning of Freedom

When it comes to freedom in America, there’s no single lasting definition, according to world-renowned historian Eric Foner.

Although it’s a concept central to the nation’s history and identity, its meaning shifts over time, as one group’s freedoms expand at the expense of disenfranchising others — and, increasingly, as political rhetoric targets new enemies beyond the country’s borders.

On Nov. 8 at Town and Gown, Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, delivered this year’s Law and Humanities Distinguished Lecture, a program of the USC Center for Law, History and Culture. The center brings together faculty from USC College and the USC Gould School of Law to sponsor a wide range of scholarly and cultural activities.

During his talk, Foner highlighted significant shifts in how freedom has been defined in the U.S. throughout the country’s history. (To hear the lecture, press play at right.)

“The history of freedom is a tale of debates and disagreements and conflicts and controversies,” he said. “And the meaning of freedom has been fought out, battled over, at every level of society.”

One example Foner presented was the 1947 Freedom Train, a celebration that sent important historical documents on a tour of the nation.

Notably, the organizers did not allow segregated viewing when the tour visited the South. (Two cities refused to comply, and tour stops were canceled.) Nascent civil rights efforts got a boost in this case because, coming out of World War II, American freedom was exemplified by a toleration set in opposition to the horrors of Nazism.

On the other hand, Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech was left off the tour due to business interests’ concern over his reference to “freedom from want.” With the Cold War coming on, any hint of socialism was suspect, and “free enterprise” and consumerism gained currency as exemplars of liberty in the U.S.

Foner pointed out how slavery and the subjugation of women in the past delineated the “boundaries of freedom.”  His lecture took on the contradiction of the Founding Fathers’ ownership of slaves; industrial-age ideas of economic freedom; interest in civil liberties emerging during WWII; the famous kitchen debate between Nixon and Khrushchev; the personal becoming political as a result of the civil rights movements; and the War on Terror and its implications for civil liberties.

“Freedom became the sort of all-purpose explanation for both the attack of Sept. 11 and the ensuing war against terror,” Foner said. He took issue with administration claims that the U.S. was targeted for attack specifically because of its freedom, noting that “this notion that ... the other side is the enemy of freedom is both very powerful and very old, really, in the discourse of American history.”

In a question-and-answer session following the lecture, participants queried, and in some cases challenged, Foner about competing ideas of freedom that are tied to religious belief, as well as other topics related to his talk.

Past speakers for the Law and Humanities Distinguished Lecture include philosopher Judith Butler, MacArthur fellow Patricia Williams and Harvard English professor Elaine Scarry.

Foner is one of the most influential historians and commentators on race, politics and society in 19th century America, and the author of several important books. His Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (1988) won the Bancroft Prize, the Parkman Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Award and other honors. Among his other respected books are Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (1983), The Story of American Freedom (1998) and Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (2002). His most recent is Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction (2005).

He has taught in Columbia’s history department since 1982. Last year he received Columbia’s Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching, and in 1991 he was awarded the Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates. He has also taught at CUNY, Cambridge University, Moscow State University and Oxford University.