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A sharp exploration of paired political ideas

Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas, By David Hackett Fischer, Oxford, 851 pp., illustrated, $50

Consider -- better yet, sing -- ''My country, 'tis of thee," and note two phrases in the first stanza: ''sweet land of liberty" and ''let freedom ring."

So familiar, but also, in the conjunction of ''liberty" and ''freedom," an example of what historian David Hackett Fischer identifies as the uniquely American pairing of those two political ideas.

For, Fischer writes, most Americans do not think of ''liberty" and ''freedom" as abstractions, or as ''a sequence of controversies" -- although they have certainly been that over the years -- but ''as inherited values that they learned early in life and deeply believe."

Or as Alexis de Tocqueville, the French observer of the early years of the Republic, put it, liberty and freedom were ''habitudes du coeur" (habits of the heart) so deeply ingrained as to be considered not as policy or theory, but as ''moeurs libres," by which, Fischer writes, Tocqueville meant '' the customs, beliefs, traditions and folkways of a free people."

Readers familiar with Fischer know that in addition to scholarship, he's interested in the physical circumstances of events, and he conveys them in the sharpest visual terms -- in his book ''Paul Revere's Ride," the moon shadow that ''miraculously shrouded" Revere as he was rowed across to Charlestown past an anchored British warship; in this year's ''Washington's Crossing," the cold front that ended a January thaw, freezing the slushy roads and enabling the Continental Army to advance on Princeton.

In his latest work, Fischer, a Brandeis University professor, explores the ideas of liberty and freedom through the ways they've been expressed in words, but more significantly, in flags, paintings, campaign paraphernalia, and other visual mediums.

The events that Fischer explores, in sharply focused discussions of rarely more than a half-dozen pages, all accompanied by aptly chosen illustrations, range from the obvious landmarks of American history -- the Liberty Tree of the Revolution, the antislavery movement and the Civil War, the Depression and the New Deal's Blue Eagle -- to the ''irreverent" and often profane ''visions of a free world" crafted by the GIs of World War II -- as in the torch-holding version of the Statue of Liberty ''wearing nothing but a happy smile of freedom" on the nose of a B-29.

Then there's a surprising and somewhat startling discussion of the use of ''Liberty and Freedom" as slogan and the Liberty Bell as symbol in George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.

One example, to convey a sense of Fischer's methods, is provided by one of the less well-understood -- at least for a New Englander -- subjects, the ''Emblems of the Southern Cause," the iconography of the Confederacy.

When the North searched for emblems, Fischer writes, it found them in such traditional symbols as the eagle and the Stars and Stripes, in the process linking them ''to large ideas of national union and universal freedom."

Similarly, Fischer writes, the Confederate states ''revived many emblems of liberty" -- but note, symbols of ''liberty," as in ''independence," not ones of ''freedom."

Of particular interest is the Alabama flag, which carried, on the front, a blond goddess of liberty holding a naked sword, and the motto ''Independent Now and Forever"; on the reverse side was ''a lush green cotton plant" with a rattlesnake ''poised as if to strike" emerging from the foliage. ''Here in the southern highlands," Fischer writes, ''was an updated, modernized, romanticized, slaveholding version of the old backcountry rattlesnake banner of liberty."

''Liberty and Freedom" goes beyond historical investigation into political analysis. And while rattlesnake flags and B-29 pinups might seem slender props for such analysis, the fact that there's been a consistent use of certain symbols from the eve of the Revolution to the present suggests that Fischer's discussion is firmly grounded.

''Developing very powerful visions of liberty and freedom" has been ''the key to [the] success" of political parties and ''to long periods of political hegemony." For examples, Fischer offers the Jeffersonian Democrats, the Republicans through the post-Civil War period, and the liberal Democrats from Roosevelt to 1952 -- and predicts the success of conservative Republicans at the present.

The results ''[have] always been fatal," Fischer argues, for political parties -- and individual presidents -- when they have ''drifted away from ideas of liberty and freedom and allowed their opponents to take possession of these ideas."

In a conclusion that'll be subject to partisan debate, Fischer suggests that could be the fate of the Democratic Party ''when one of the mistakes of the left [has been] to allow the right to claim the mantle of liberty and freedom" -- as found in the iconography of the 2000 Bush campaign.

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