American Freedom

I recently reposted this picture to my Facebook which had been making the rounds.

It drew a lot of comments and got rereposted. In his response, my good friend and fellow pedagog John F. recommended me one of his favorite history texts, The Story of American Freedom by Eric Foner. According to John, Foner “traces the many meanings and uses [that] the concept of freedom has had in the United States. In the first chapter, Foner goes back to Seneca and Aristotle up through the American Revolution.” I include here a small selection that John graciously shared as well as the link to the first chapter he provided. Good stuff.


The Puritan settlers of colonial Massachusetts, who believed their colony the embodiment of true Christianity, planted this spiritual definition of freedom on American soil. In a 1645 speech to the Massachusetts legislature that epitomized Puritan conceptions of freedom, John Winthrop, the colony’s governor, distinguished sharply between “natural liberty,” which suggested “a liberty to evil” and “moral liberty … a liberty to do only what is good.” This definition of freedom as flowing from self-denial and moral choice was quite compatible with severe restraints on freedom of speech, religion, movement, and personal behavior. Individual desires must give way to the needs of the community, and “Christian liberty” meant submission not only to the will of God but to secular authority as well, to a well-understood set of interconnected responsibilities and duties, a submission no less complete for being voluntary. The most common civil offense in the courts of colonial New England was “contempt of authority” The unrestrained individual enjoying natural rights, whom later generations would imagine as the embodiment of freedom, struck these Puritan settlers as the incarnation of anarchy, the antithesis of liberty. “When each man hath liberty to follow his own imagination,” declared the Puritan minister Thomas Hooker, disaster inevitably resulted, for “all prejudice the public good. 

You can read the whole of Chapter One at the Washington Post by following clicking here.


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