In a speech at midnight on January 1, 2000 (strictly speaking, a year before the twenty-first century actually began), President Clinton proclaimed, “the great story of the twentieth century is the triumph of freedom and free people.” Freedom remained a crucial point of self-definition for individuals and society at large. When asked in a public-opinion survey what they were proudest of about America, 69 percent of respondents answered, “freedom.” Americans were increasingly tolerant of divergent personal lifestyles, cultural backgrounds, and religious persuasions. They enjoyed a degree of freedom of expression unmatched in virtually any country in the world. But their definition of freedom had changed markedly during the course of the twentieth century. Thanks to the rights revolution and the political ascendancy of antigovernment conservatives, the dominant definition of freedom stressed the capacity of individuals to realize their desires and fulfill their potential unrestricted by authority. Other American traditions—freedom as economic security, freedom as active participation in democratic government, freedom as social justice for those long disadvantaged—seemed to be in eclipse. Americans sought freedom within themselves, not through social institutions or public engagement.

It was an irony of late-twentieth-century life that Americans enjoyed more personal freedom than ever before but less of what earlier generations called “industrial freedom.” The sustained recovery from the recession of the early 1990s did not entirely relieve a widespread sense of economic insecurity. Globalization—which treated workers at home and abroad as interchangeable factors of production, capable of being uprooted or dismissed without warning—seemed to render individual and even national sovereignty all but meaningless. Since economic liberty has long been associated with economic security, and rights have historically been linked to democratic participation and membership in a nation-state, these processes had ominous implications for traditional understandings of freedom. It remained to be seen whether a conception of freedom grounded in access to the consumer marketplace and the glorification of individual self-fulfillment unrestrained by government, social citizenship, or a common public culture could provide an adequate way of comprehending the world of the twenty-first century.


1. Why was the year 1989 one of the most momentous in the twentieth century?

2. Describe the different visions of the U.S. role in the post-Cold War world as identified by President George H. W. Bush and President Clinton.

3. Explain Clinton’s political strategy of combining social liberalism with conservative economic ideas.

4. Describe the importance of human rights issues during the Clinton presidency.

5. Identify the factors that, in the midst of 1990s prosperity, increased the levels of inequality in the United States.

6. Assess the composition and impact of immigration in this period.

7. What main issues gave rise to the culture wars of the 1990s?

8. Assess the role of the Supreme Court in the presidential election of 2000.

9. What is globalization, and how did it affect the United States in the 1990s?


1. Discuss the global events of 1989 in terms of freedom.

2. What was the meaning of Newt Gingrich’s “Freedom Revolution”?

3. Discuss the role of human rights in American foreign policy during the Clinton years.

4. Describe several ways in which Americans viewed freedom around the year 2000.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!