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Spheres of Liberty

Spheres of Liberty: Changing Perceptions of Liberty in American Culture

Copyright Date: 2001
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  • Book Info
    Spheres of Liberty
    Book Description:

    Liberty, one of the most consequential words in our language, is one of the most treasured concepts in American thought--and one of the most intensely debated. Its meaning is constantly shifting, changing not only from one culture to another but also, over time, within the same culture. No two definitions of liberty seem alike.

    In this subtle and illuminating work Michael Kammen traces the evolving concept of liberty throughout American history and provides a solid framework for understanding the meaning of the term today. He shows that by the early seventeenth century a tension between liberty and authority was well recognized. Throughout the eighteenth century and especially during the American Revolution a bond between liberty and property was asserted. By the end of the eighteenth century this concept of liberty was so well established that it remained dominant throughout the nineteenth. By the early twentieth century, as the notion of social justice gained prominence, liberty and justice were paired frequently, and by midcentury the two had become allied to general American values. Since the 1960s the union of liberty and equality has been the prevailing notion, and achieving them has proved a major objective.

    In a lively and learned manner Kammen also shows that Americans have subscribed to different definitions of liberty concurrently. Above all, there has been a steady expansion of what is embraced by the concept of liberty. This expansion has created difficulties in public discourse, causing groups to misunderstand one another. On the other hand, interpretations of liberty have broadened to include such concepts as constraints on authority, a right to privacy, and the protection of personal freedoms.

    In a new preface for this Banner Books edition Kammen responds to evaluations of earlier editions and places his views within the context of more recent studies.

    Michael Kammen, a professor of American history and culture at Cornell University, is the author ofAmerican Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the 20th CenturyandIn the Past Lane: Historical Perspectives on American Culture.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-670-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Preface to the New Millennium Printing of Spheres of Liberty
    (pp. xv-xxvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    The purpose of these three essays is to provide a framework for understanding the meaning of liberty in American culture. Several basic assumptions have shaped my schematization, and it may be helpful if I indicate them at the outset.

    The first pertains to the need to differentiate some of the major continuities and discontinuities in American perceptions of liberty. Abraham Lincoln began his Gettysburg Address by specifying that in 1776 “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” However presumptuous it may be to...

  7. Part One Liberty, Authority, and Property in Early America
    (pp. 15-64)

    The concept of liberty did not appear often during the first few decades of English colonization in the New World. Between the onset of the revolutionary crisis in 1763 and ratification of the Constitution in 1788, however, no notion was invoked more frequently. Throughout the intervening generations, from the 1640s until the 1760s, liberty began to be discussed increasingly in the Anglo-American world, though not always precisely or systematically. It seems reasonable to assert that the colonists gradually “discovered” liberty during the seventeenth century, and then became obsessed by it during the course of the eighteenth.

    Unluckily for those who...

  8. Part Two Ordered Liberty and Law in Nineteenth-Century America
    (pp. 65-126)

    Theodore Dwight, a Connecticut lawyer and political journalist, observed in 1794 that liberty was much valued and widely discussed as the new nation sought to find its way and establish an identity. “At the present period,” he noted, “when the principles of liberty are so highly revered, and the practice of them so justly admired, every question, in which they are involved, ought to be discussed by the soundest reason, and established on the most substantial justice.”¹

    Liberty was talked about extensively, to be sure, especially in relation to republicanism and the new Constitution. Having made a Revolution in the...

  9. Part Three Liberty, Justice, and Equality in Twentieth-Century America
    (pp. 127-172)

    Viewed with the help of hindsight, American conceptions of liberty clearly underwent a transformation between 1932 and 1937. When Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned for the presidency in 1932, he was still a captive of the basic nineteenth-century formula. As he declared at San Francisco in the famous Commonwealth Club speech: “Individual liberty and individual happiness mean nothing unless both are ordered in the sense that one man’s meat is not another man’s poison.” And when the widely respected Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, a Progressive turned conservative, spoke on “Constitutional Government” in Washington, D.C., on September 16, 1937, he...

  10. Notes on Liberty in American Iconography
    (pp. 175-180)
  11. Index
    (pp. 181-192)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 193-194)