Give Me Liberty! An American History is a survey of American history from the earliest days of European exploration and conquest of the New World to the first years of the twenty-first century. It offers students a clear, concise narrative whose central theme is the changing contours of American freedom.
I am extremely gratified by the response to the first two editions of Give Me Liberty!, which have been used in survey courses at many hundreds of two- and four-year colleges and universities throughout the country. The comments I have received from instructors and students encourage me to think that Give Me Liberty! has worked well in their classrooms. Their comments have also included many valuable suggestions for revisions, which I greatly appreciate. These have ranged from corrections of typographical and factual errors to thoughts about subjects that needed more extensive treatment. In making revisions for this Third Edition, I have tried to take these suggestions into account. I have also incorporated the findings and insights of new scholarship that has appeared since the original edition was written.
The most significant changes in this Third Edition reflect my desire to place American history more fully in a global context. The book remains, of course, a survey of American, not world, history. But in the past few years, scholars writing about the American past have sought to delineate the connections and influences of the United States on the rest of the world as well as the global developments that have helped to shape the course of events here at home. They have also devoted greater attention to transnational processes—the expansion of empires, international labor migrations, the rise and fall of slavery, the globalization of economic enterprise—that cannot be understood solely within the confines of one country’s national boundaries. Without in any way seeking to homogenize the history of individual nations or neglect the domestic forces that have shaped American development, the Third Edition reflects this recent emphasis in American historical writing. Small changes relating to this theme may be found throughout the book. The major additions seeking to illuminate the global context of American history are as follows:
Chapter 4 includes a brief discussion of how the Great Awakening in the American colonies took place at a time of growing religious fundamentalism in many parts of the world. Chapter 5 now devotes attention to the global impact of the American Declaration of Independence, including how both colonial peoples seeking national independence and groups who felt themselves deprived of equal rights seized upon the Declaration’s language to promote their own causes. Chapter 8 discusses how the slave revolution in Saint Domingue, which established the black republic of Haiti, affected the thinking of both black and white Americans in the early 1800s. The chapter also contains a new section on the Barbary Wars, the first armed encounter between the United States and Islamic states.
In Chapter 10, I have added a new section discussing the response in the United States to the Latin American wars of independence of the early nineteenth century, and the similarities and differences between these struggles and our own War of Independence. Chapter 11 contains a new section discussing the abolition of slavery elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere and how the aftermath of emancipation in other areas affected the debate over slavery in the United States. Chapter 13 compares the California gold rush with the consequences of the discovery of gold in Australia at the same time, and also adds a discussion of the “opening” of Japan to American commerce in the 1850s. And in Chapter 14,1 added to the discussion of the Civil War a comparison of its destructiveness with that of other conflicts of the era, and also an examination of how the consolidation of national power in the United States reflected a worldwide process underway at the same time in other countries. In that chapter, too, reflecting the findings of recent scholarship, there are new discussions of the war’s impact on American religion and on Native Americans. Chapter 15, dealing with the era of Reconstruction, now compares the aftermath of slavery in the United States with the outcome in other places where the institution was abolished.
In Chapter 16, a new section places the westward movement in the United States in the context of the settlement of frontier regions of other countries, ranging from Argentina to Australia and South Africa, and discusses the consequences for native populations in these societies. Chapter 17 expands on the acquisition by the United States of an overseas empire as a result of the Spanish-American War, and includes a new section on the Global Color Line— the worldwide development of national policies intended to guarantee white supremacy. I have strengthened, in Chapter 19, the discussion of the aftermath of World War I by examining the impact around the world of President Woodrow Wilson’s rhetoric concerning national self-determination, and the disappointment felt when the principle was not applied to the Asian and African colonies of European empires. Chapter 22 now includes a section on black internationalism—how World War II led many black Americans to identify their campaign for equal rights with the struggle for national independence of colonial peoples in other parts of the world. In Chapter 23, I have expanded the discussion of the idea of human rights to indicate some of the ambiguities of the concept as it emerged as a major theme of international debate after World War II. There is a new section in Chapter 24 on the global reaction to American racial segregation and to the stirrings in the 1950s of the civil rights movement. I have strengthened the treatment of the 1960s by adding a discussion of the global 1968—how events in the United States in that volatile year occurred at the same time as uprisings of young people in many other parts of the world.
And in Chapter 28, the hook’s final chapter, I have significantly expanded coverage of the last few years of American history, including the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, the continuing controversy over the relationship between liberty and security in the context of a global war on terror, and the global economic crisis that began in 2008.
As in the Second Edition, the Voices of Freedom sections in each chapter now include two documents; I have changed a number of them to reflect the new emphasis on the global context of American history. I have also revised the end-of-chapter bibliographies to reflect current scholarship. And I now include references to websites that contain digital images and documents relating to the chapter themes.
This Third Edition also introduces some new features. Visions of Freedom, a parallel to the Voices of Freedom document excerpts that have proven useful to instructors and students, highlights in each chapter an image that illuminates an understanding of freedom. I believe that examining this theme through visual as well as written evidence helps students to appreciate how our concepts of freedom have changed over the course of American history. The Visions of Freedom feature includes a headnote and questions that encourage students to think critically about the images.
The pedagogy in the book has been revised and enhanced to give students more guidance as they move through chapters. The end-of-chapter review pages have been expanded with additional review questions, many more key terms with page references, and a new set of questions on the freedom theme. The aim of the pedagogy, as always, is to offer students guidance through the material without getting in the way of the presentation.
I have also added new images in each chapter to expand the visual representation of key ideas and personalities in the text. Taken together, I believe these changes enhance the purpose of Give Me Liberty!: to offer students a clear, concise, and thematically enriched introduction to American history.
Americans have always had a divided attitude toward history. On the one hand, they tend to be remarkably future-oriented, dismissing events of even the recent past as “ancient history” and sometimes seeing history as a burden to be overcome, a prison from which to escape. On the other hand, like many other peoples, Americans have always looked to history for a sense of personal or group identity and of national cohesiveness. This is why so many Americans devote time and energy to tracing their family trees and why they visit historical museums and National Park Service historical sites in ever-increasing numbers. My hope is that this book will convince readers with all degrees of interest that history does matter to them.
The novelist and essayist James Baldwin once observed that history “does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us,... [that] history is literally present in all that we do.” As Baldwin recognized, the force of history is evident in our own world. Especially in a political democracy like the United States, whose government is designed to rest on the consent of informed citizens, knowledge of the past is essential—not only for those of us whose profession is the teaching and writing of history, but for everyone. History, to be sure, does not offer simple lessons or immediate answers to current questions. Knowing the history of immigration to the United States, and all of the tensions, turmoil, and aspirations associated with it, for example, does not tell us what current immigration policy ought to be. But without that knowledge, we have no way of understanding which approaches have worked and which have not—essential information for the formulation of future public policy.
History, it has been said, is what the present chooses to remember about the past. Rather than a fixed collection of facts, or a group of interpretations that cannot be challenged, our understanding of history is constantly changing. There is nothing unusual in the fact that each generation rewrites history to meet its own needs, or that scholars disagree among themselves on basic questions like the causes of the Civil War or the reasons for the Great Depression. Precisely because each generation asks different questions of the past, each generation formulates different answers. The past thirty years have witnessed a remarkable expansion of the scope of historical study. The experiences of groups neglected by earlier scholars, including women, African-Americans, working people, and others, have received unprecedented attention from historians. New subfields—social history, cultural history, and family history among them—have taken their place alongside traditional political and diplomatic history.
Give Me Liberty! draws on this voluminous historical literature to present an up-to-date and inclusive account of the American past, paying due attention to the experience of diverse groups of Americans while in no way neglecting the events and processes Americans have experienced in common. It devotes serious attention to political, social, cultural, and economic history, and to their interconnections. The narrative brings together major events and prominent leaders with the many groups of ordinary people who make up American society. Give Me Liberty! has a rich cast of characters, from Thomas Jefferson to campaigners for woman suffrage, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to former slaves seeking to breathe meaning into emancipation during and after the Civil War.
Aimed at an audience of undergraduate students with little or no detailed knowledge of American history, Give Me Liberty! guides readers through the complexities of the subject without overwhelming them with excessive detail. The unifying theme of freedom that runs through the text gives shape to the narrative and integrates the numerous strands that make up the American experience. This approach builds on that of my earlier book, The Story of American Freedom (1998), although Give Me Liberty! places events and personalities in the foreground and is more geared to the structure of the introductory survey course.
Freedom, and the battles to define its meaning, has long been central to my own scholarship and undergraduate teaching, which focuses on the nineteenth century and especially the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877). This was a time when the future of slavery tore the nation apart and emancipation produced a national debate over what rights the former slaves, and all Americans, should enjoy as free citizens. I have found that attention to clashing definitions of freedom and the struggles of different groups to achieve freedom as they understood it offers a way of making sense of the bitter battles and vast transformations of that pivotal era. I believe that the same is true for American history as a whole.
No idea is more fundamental to Americans’ sense of themselves as individuals and as a nation than freedom. The central term in our political language, freedom—or liberty, with which it is almost always used interchangeably—is deeply embedded in the record of our history and the language of everyday life. The Declaration of Independence lists liberty among mankind’s inalienable rights; the Constitution announces its purpose as securing liberty’s blessings. The United States fought the Civil War to bring about a new birth of freedom, World War II for the Four Freedoms, and the Cold War to defend the Free World. Americans’ love of liberty has been represented by liberty poles, liberty caps, and statues of liberty, and acted out by burning stamps and burning draft cards, by running away from slavery, and by demonstrating for the right to vote. “Every man in the street, white, black, red, or yellow,” wrote the educator and statesman Ralph Bunche in 1940, “knows that this is ‘the land of the free’... ‘the cradle of liberty.’”
The very universality of the idea of freedom, however, can be misleading. Freedom is not a fixed, timeless category with a single unchanging definition. Indeed, the history of the United States is, in part, a story of debates, disagreements, and struggles over freedom. Crises like the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Cold War have permanently transformed the idea of freedom. So too have demands by various groups of Americans to enjoy greater freedom. The meaning of freedom has been constructed not only in congressional debates and political treatises, but on plantations and picket lines, in parlors and even bedrooms.
Over the course of our history, American freedom has been both a reality and a mythic ideal—a living truth for millions of Americans, a cruel mockery for others. For some, freedom has been what some scholars call a “habit of the heart,” an ideal so taken for granted that it is lived out but rarely analyzed. For others, freedom is not a birthright but a distant goal that has inspired great sacrifice.
Give Me Liberty! draws attention to three dimensions of freedom that have been critical in American history: (1) the meanings of freedom; (2) the social conditions that make freedom possible; and (3) the boundaries of freedom that determine who is entitled to enjoy freedom and who is not. All have changed over time.
In the era of the American Revolution, for example, freedom was primarily a set of rights enjoyed in public activity—the right of a community to be governed by laws to which its representatives had consented and of individuals to engage in religious worship without governmental interference. In the nineteenth century, freedom came to be closely identified with each person’s opportunity to develop to the fullest his or her innate talents. In the twentieth, the “ability to choose,” in both public and private life, became perhaps the dominant understanding of freedom. This development was encouraged by the explosive growth of the consumer marketplace (a development that receives considerable attention in Give Me Liberty!), which offered Americans an unprecedented array of goods with which to satisfy their needs and desires. During the 1960s, a crucial chapter in the history of American freedom, the idea of personal freedom was extended into virtually every realm, from attire and “lifestyle” to relations between the sexes. Thus, over time, more and more areas of life have been drawn into Americans’ debates about the meaning of freedom.
A second important dimension of freedom focuses on the social conditions necessary to allow freedom to flourish. What kinds of economic institutions and relationships best encourage individual freedom? In the colonial era and for more than a century after independence, the answer centered on economic autonomy, enshrined in the glorification of the independent small producer— the farmer, skilled craftsman, or shopkeeper—who did not have to depend on another person for his livelihood. As the industrial economy matured, new conceptions of economic freedom came to the fore: “liberty of contract” in the Gilded Age, “industrial freedom” (a say in corporate decision-making) in the Progressive era, economic security during the New Deal, and, more recently, the ability to enjoy mass consumption within a market economy.
The boundaries of freedom, the third dimension of this theme, have inspired some of the most intense struggles in American history. Although founded on the premise that liberty is an entitlement of all humanity, the United States for much of its history deprived many of its own people of freedom. Non-whites have rarely enjoyed the same access to freedom as white Americans. The belief in equal opportunity as the birthright of all Americans has coexisted with persistent efforts to limit freedom by race, gender, class, and in other ways.
Less obvious, perhaps, is the fact that one person’s freedom has frequently been linked to another’s servitude. In the colonial era and nineteenth century, expanding freedom for many Americans rested on the lack of freedom— slavery, indentured servitude, the subordinate position of women—for others. By the same token, it has been through battles at the boundaries—the efforts of racial minorities, women, and others to secure greater freedom—that the meaning and experience of freedom have been deepened and the concept extended into new realms.
Time and again in American history, freedom has been transformed by the demands of excluded groups for inclusion. The idea of freedom as a universal birthright owes much both to abolitionists who sought to extend the blessings of liberty to blacks and to immigrant groups who insisted on full recognition as American citizens. The principle of equal protection of the law without regard to race, which became a central element of American freedom, arose from the antislavery struggle and the Civil War and was reinvigorated by the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, which called itself the “freedom movement.” The battle for the right of free speech by labor radicals and birth control advocates in the first part of the twentieth century helped to make civil liberties an essential element of freedom for all Americans.
Although concentrating on events within the United States, Give Me Liberty! also, as indicated above, situates American history in the context of developments in other parts of the world. Many of the forces that shaped American history, including the international migration of peoples, the development of slavery, the spread of democracy, and the expansion of capitalism, were worldwide processes not confined to the United States. Today, American ideas, culture, and economic and military power exert unprecedented influence throughout the world. But beginning with the earliest days of settlement, when European empires competed to colonize North America and enrich themselves from its trade, American history cannot be understood in isolation from its global setting.
Freedom is the oldest of cliches and the most modern of aspirations. At various times in our history, it has served as the rallying cry of the powerless and as a justification of the status quo. Freedom helps to bind our culture together and exposes the contradictions between what America claims to be and what it sometimes has been. American history is not a narrative of continual progress toward greater and greater freedom. As the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson noted after the Civil War, “revolutions may go backward.” Though freedom can be achieved, it may also be taken away. This happened, for example, when the equal rights granted to former slaves immediately after the Civil War were essentially nullified during the era of segregation. As was said in the eighteenth century, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
In the early twenty-first century, freedom continues to play a central role in American political and social life and thought. It is invoked by individuals and groups of all kinds, from critics of economic globalization to those who seek to secure American freedom at home and export it abroad. I hope that Give Me Liberty! will offer beginning students a clear account of the course of American history, and of its central theme, freedom, which today remains as varied, contentious, and ever-changing as America itself.