Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas

David Hackett Fischer, Brandeis University
October 30, 2004

Liberty and freedom: Americans agree that these values are fundamental to our nation, but what do they mean? How have their meanings changed through time? In this seminar, David Hackett Fischer will discuss his new volume of cultural history, which shows how these varying ideas form an intertwined strand that runs through the core of American life.

Fischer examines liberty and freedom not as philosophical or political abstractions, but as folkways and popular beliefs deeply embedded in American culture. Tocqueville called them “habits of the heart.” From the earliest colonies, Americans have shared ideals of liberty and freedom, but with very different meanings. Like DNA these ideas have transformed and recombined in each generation.

The book arose from Fischer’s discovery that the words themselves had differing origins: the Latinate “liberty” implied separation and independence. The root meaning of “freedom” (akin to “friend”) connoted attachment: the rights of belonging in a community of free people. The tension between the two senses has been a source of conflict and creativity throughout American history.

Liberty and Freedom studies the folk history of those ideas through more than 400 visions, images, and symbols. It begins with the American Revolution, and explores the meaning of New England’s Liberty Tree, Pennsylvania’s Liberty Bells, Carolina’s Liberty Crescent, and “Don’t Tread on Me” rattlesnakes. In the new republic, the search for a common American symbol gave new meaning to Yankee Doodle, Uncle Sam, Miss Liberty, and many other icons. In the Civil War, Americans divided over liberty and freedom. Afterward, new universal visions were invented by people who had formerly been excluded from a free society——African Americans, American Indians, and immigrants. The twentieth century saw liberty and freedom tested by enemies and contested at home, yet it brought the greatest outpouring of new visions, from Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms to Martin Luther King’s “dream” to Janis Joplin’s “nothin’ left to lose.”

Illustrated in full color with a rich variety of images, Liberty and Freedom is, literally, an eye-opening work of history——stimulating, large-spirited, and ultimately, inspiring.

David Hackett Fischer is renowned as one of America’s most gifted and creative historians. He is University Professor at Brandeis University, and author of such acclaimed volumes as Albion’s Seed, The Great Wave, Paul Revere’s Ride, and Washington’s Crossing. Fischer is co-editor, with James M. McPherson, of the Pivotal Moments in American History series published by Oxford University Press. Fischer was born in Baltimore, Maryland and earned his AB at Princeton University and his Ph.D. at John Hopkins University. He and his family divide their time between Wayland in Massachusetts and Mount Desert Island in Maine.

Focus: Do liberty and freedom mean the same things? How have their meanings changed through time and what similarities and differences appear in the era of the American Revolution, Civil War, the Depression and the New Deal, the 1960’s and our time? What are the causes and consequences of these patterns for American history? How could one work with these visual materials in the classroom?


  • David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom(New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2005) — Photocopied Reading Packet (You will receive the book at the seminar.)
    • Introduction “A Conversation with Captain Preston” (pp 1-15)
    • The Loyal Nine and the Liberty Tree “New England Visions of Collective Rights and Individual Responsibilities” (pp 19-36)
    • The Sons of Neptune & the Liberty Pole “New York’s Pluralist Vision of a Free America” (pp 37-49)
    • Isaac Norris and the State House Bell “Quaker Visions of Reciprocal Liberty and Freedom” (pp 61-67
    • Three Gentlemen and a Goddess “Virginia Visions of Hierarchal Liberty”
    • William Moultrie’s Liberty Crescent “Lowcountry Visions of Liberty, Opportunity, and Fortune” (pp 68-74)
    • Rattlesnakes, Hornets, and Alligators “Backcountry Visions of Liberty as Individual Autonomy” (pp 75-84)
    • Col. Middleton & The Bucks of America “African American Images of Liberty as Emancipation and Freedom as Belonging” (pp 85-89)
    • Fig Trees and Freedom Birds “German Images of Freiheit von and Freiheit zu” (pp 90-93)
    • The Civil War as a Clash of Symbols “Liberty and Independence Against Freedom and Union” (pp 312-314)
    • Emblems of the Southern Cause “A Plurality of State Symbols” (pp 315-321)
    • Northern Visions of Freedom & Union “New Meanings for the Eagle, Old Glory, and Uncle Sam” (pp 322-327)
    • Greater Freedom, Greater Security “Franklin Roosevelt’s Vision of a New Deal for Americans (pp 481-487)
    • The Liberty League “Conservative Visions of Constitutional Liberty” (pp 488-494)
    • Boomers: Bill Clinton & George W. Bush “Visions of Freedom and Liberty for a New Generation” (pp 696-705)

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