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A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas

A-LibertyFreedomAmericans inherited powerful ideas about liberty and freedom from Europe and its founding fathers. But what have these ideas really meant in specific historical contexts? In this graphic survey of American history, Fischer explores how Americans have expressed these abstract ideas with flags, coins, campaign posters, and other material icons. He takes us from colonial times to the present, through the pinnacles of American history and lesser-known events, to show how these symbols have changed over time. Each generation’s images—the Liberty Tree, Uncle Sam, Yankee Doodle, the New Deal’s Blue Eagle, and Martin Luther King—reflect how groups have interpreted, then reinterpreted, our cherished ideals.
Oxford. 851 pages. $50. ISBN: 0195162536

Seattle Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Every American should read this book. … Fischer maintains a historian’s careful objectivity throughout most of the book, but near the end, as he begins describing the administration of President George W. Bush, his pent-up feelings boil over." Steve Raymond

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Another tour de force, it is, however, in tone and texture, very different from its predecessor. Here, he has written a kind of folk history of political ideas, on the presumption that images and objects have done more to shape and express the thinking of ordinary Americans than the written discourses of prominent controversialists." Sean Wilentz

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"... while rattlesnake flags and B-29 pinups might seem slender props for [political] 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." Michael Kenney

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Even Fischer’s title, and his brief effort to sketch a broader argument about liberty and freedom, don’t give the contents much overarching unity. … Despite this, and despite Fischer’s reliance on the questionable idea of a collective memory or ‘folkways’ that transmit symbolic meanings down through the ages, the book is endlessly entertaining." Philip Kennicott

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"The closer the book gets to the present, the less it discusses popular culture or visual symbolism." Virginia Postrel

Critical Summary

Fischer, author of Washington’s Crossing ( 4 of 5 Stars May/June 2004) and Albion’s Seed, offers Liberty and Freedom as part of a four-volume history of American culture. Focusing on material culture rather than philosophical texts, he argues that we pass down ideas about liberty and freedom from one generation to the next, altering them as some groups simultaneously struggle against forms of repression. Fischer’s stories span well-known anecdotes about Betsy Ross, Frederick Douglass, and Jimi Hendrix to near-forgotten tales about the meaning of the Alabama flag’s rattlesnake banner of liberty. Although interesting, the sprawling narrative often fails to coalesce into a broader argument. In addition, while Fischer exhaustively explores older symbols, he doesn’t delve as deeply into present-day icons (such as the gay liberation rainbow). Nonetheless, Liberty and Freedom is an important visual survey of where we’ve been—and possibly where we’re headed.