Freedom: A History of US

Aired: May 29, 2011

Image from Uncle Tom’s Cabin courtesy of Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Freedom is one of the defining concepts of American history and culture, embodied in our founding documents and mounted on our national monuments. Yet, freedom means something different for various social groups, which had led to clashes where both sides invoke the term to justify their position. In this episode, Dr. Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and the author of The Story of American Freedom (1998), and Dr. Beryl Satter, professor of history at Rutgers—Newark, discuss how the idea of freedom has changed in the U.S. over time. From slave owners who argued that slavery was a source of freedom, to Supreme Court decisions about the legality of restricting housing by race, freedom has been a continual source of debate and conflict. Both Dr. Foner and Dr. Satter are speakers for the tour of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s exhibition, Freedom: A History of US, which will be at the Springfield Public Library, Springfield, New Jersey, June 25-July 21, 2011.

What does freedom mean in a democratic society? Freedom for one person often relies on limitations being placed on another’s actions, making freedom a term with no set definition. Instead, as Foner explains, its meaning must be understood historically. He also asks what happens to our freedom when a society is threatened. From World War I to today’s global war on terror, the question of how our freedoms expand and contract—and whether they should—is critically important.

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in Jones v. Mayer, that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution barred racial discrimination in the sale or rental of property. As Satter explains, this case offers an example of clashing definitions of freedom. While the decision gives minorities greater freedom to choose where to live, it simultaneously limits the freedom of property owners in deciding to whom to rent or sell. As Foner argues, nobody’s freedom is absolute.

When the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920, women were granted the right to vote. But did suffrage give women freedom? In this clip, Satter discusses the history of the women’s movement, from its roots in abolitionism to its post World War II contours. In each era, the issues that women fought for changed, but, she argues, while gains have been made politically, the fight continues as women contend with issues like childcare.

It’s an often repeated phrase, attributed to many figures in American history: the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Foner and Satter agree, and, in this clip, they talk about lessons from our nation’s past that demonstrate how easily rights and freedoms can be eroded. From fewer women being physicians in the 1960s than in the early 20th century to the institution of Jim Crow after Reconstruction, specific instances prove freedom’s fragility


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