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Oh, say can you see?

Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, co-edited with Greil Marcus "The Rose and The Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad."

Fifty years ago, in the introduction to his masterly “The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R.,” Richard Hofstadter described his subject as America’s “political culture,” a term not then in vogue. He wanted to examine not the familiar political story of the Populist and Progressive eras but the cultural forms of those politics -- the powerful myths, tics and moods that pervaded court decisions, party platforms and pieces of legislation from 1890 to 1940.

Today, the study of American political culture has expanded beyond anything Hofstadter could have imagined -- and no historian since has explored the field with greater ingenuity than David Hackett Fischer. In a style reminiscent of the Annales school of 20th century French historians, Fischer combines the methods of history and cultural anthropology. His imposing “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America” (1989), traced the Old World origins of distinct regional cultures from the Colonial era -- Puritan New England, the Cavalier royalist Chesapeake Bay, the Quaker Delaware Valley and the Scots-Irish backcountry -- and tracked their enduring influence, especially in politics.

A work as graceful in its execution as it was audacious in its conception, “Albion’s Seed” moved nimbly from world-historical themes such as migration, assimilation and the birth of democracy to the smallest details of daily experience, including architecture, cuisine, sex and dress. Fischer offers “Liberty and Freedom” as the second installment in what he promises will be a comprehensive four-volume history of American culture. 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.

The book consists of several dozen profusely illustrated brief essays, each devoted to a particular artifact or clutch of items from which Fischer extracts larger historical meanings. The artifacts come from across the country and form a span from the American Revolution to Sept. 11, 2001. They include paintings, cartoons, photographs, flags, campaign buttons, song lyrics, coins and odder items, like a vitreous porcelain toilet, circa 1900, emblazoned with an American eagle.

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At first glance, it looks like a fascinating museum jumble of Americana. (The book, in fact, accompanies a traveling exhibition organized by the Virginia Historical Society.) Although Fischer places the objects in chronological order, they can easily be perused at random. Civil War buffs may wish to jump to the middle, where Fischer discusses the iconography of Union and Confederate flags. Admirers of the Founding Fathers can start with George Washington’s figurative transformation into a national demigod by the early American right -- turning him into an exemplar of moderation, virtue and deference against the egalitarian Jeffersonian Democrats. Feminist symbols, fascist symbols, the “Stone Free” life of Jimi Hendrix, even the sometimes impudent imagery of the Greatest Generation (in a fine little section on military emblems and GI graffiti during World War II) -- every important American political moment and persuasion gets its due. You crane your neck closer to the pictures, read Fischer’s commentaries and come away informed and stimulated.

Better, though, to start at the beginning -- for Fischer has carefully arranged his displays to sustain a sophisticated historical argument: Americans’ thinking about power and politics, he contends, has always clustered around the terms “liberty” and “freedom.” The first, he says, connotes autonomy, independence and separation from authority; the second, the rights that go with full membership in a particular community. Both words have deep roots in Western culture, but Fischer claims they acquired a new dynamic in the Anglo American world -- sometimes connoting a single idea, sometimes serving as interchangeable terms, sometimes marking off privileges available to some and not others.

As ever, Fischer is impressed by the stubborn continuities of old British folkways in American life despite all that has changed over the last four centuries. But he now interprets those continuities from a different perspective, more conventionally historical than anthropological -- and more sensitive to the power of ideas as well as culture. “The tensions and contradictions in [America’s] heritage,” he writes, “have inspired new visions of liberty and freedom and a great fertility of thought.”

Fischer’s preoccupation with continuities and what the Annales historians called the longue duree (the historical long term) has helped him rediscover distant legacies and regional variations that affect all Americans, including those of us whose ancestors arrived long after the Revolution. The current, much-debated cultural and political differences between red and blue America, on everything from gun control to the status of women, derive at least partly from clashes that appeared among the Colonial British American cultures that Fischer describes. When pressed too far, however, his retrospective anthropology can become a doggedly schematic form of cultural history that effaces ideas and material interests.

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The weaknesses can be particularly severe with regard to politics. “Albion’s Seed” was no doubt correct in claiming that Andrew Jackson’s democratic passions owed a great deal to his Scots-Irish backcountry heritage, but the rise and consolidation of Jacksonian democracy involved political ideas that elude Fischer’s ethnic and religious categories. The Civil War was certainly, as Fischer argues, a clash of sectional cultures, but slavery, its intellectual defenses and its practices (including those of the slaves) did more to shape those cultures, and to trigger Southern secession, than age-old differences between Puritans and Cavaliers.

In “Liberty and Freedom,” Fischer corrects for these weaknesses by shifting his emphasis and highlighting political ideas more volatile, contradictory and ambiguous than the heavy inheritances of tribal loyalty and religious faith. At the nation’s founding, he observes, Americans used terms like “liberty” and “freedom” to articulate their yearning for independence. From the start, however, Americans differed sharply about what those capacious words meant, which led to the bitter political struggles that brought Thomas Jefferson to the presidency in 1801. Thereafter, abolitionists and slaveholders, New Dealers and America Firsters, civil rights workers and segregationists, all spoke of liberty and freedom, yet redefined the terms to suit very different visions. Except during the Civil War, a shared vocabulary has given Americans the appearance of cohesion. But the conflicts have been as enduring as the commonalities.

Fischer’s story line will be familiar to readers of other recent histories of American political ideologies, including Eric Foner’s “The Story of American Freedom” (1998), which Fischer repeatedly cites. The idea that America’s politics involves bitter contests over shared ideas is not new: “We all declare for liberty,” Abraham Lincoln observed, three years into the Civil War, “but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.”

Fischer’s experiments in visual history work best when he focuses hardest on a particular object, for instance, the figure of a fierce woman glowering into the distance topping the U.S. Capitol dome. Who the woman is and what she stands for is not immediately apparent. But as Fischer tells it, the statue’s history is a symbolic and paradoxical enactment of the Civil War era.

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The original design, submitted by an Irish American sculptor with anti-slavery loyalties in 1855, seemed much too pacific for the supervisor of the Capitol’s construction -- Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Davis commissioned a substitute from the same artist, who sent back a new design with the lady now wearing a liberty cap, the old Roman emblem of a freed slave. Furious, Davis dictated a design for a helmeted Minerva-like figure -- an Amazon goddess of war and wisdom better suited to his Southern planter’s view of liberty. Cast in Rome, the huge bronze figure had to be shipped to Washington in sections -- and the only person around skilled enough to reassemble Davis’ harridan was, ironically, a Maryland metalworker who happened to be a slave. In a final twist, the statue was installed only at the end of 1863 -- after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation -- and deliberately mounted to face southward and stare down the Confederacy being led to defeat by Davis himself. “The figure of ‘Armed Liberty’ that a militant slaveholder had demanded,” Fischer writes, “had become an emblem of conquest over a slaveholder’s rebellion.”

Fischer’s large history of political ideas grows organically from the little stories of his artifacts. That weirdly patriotic porcelain toilet from around 1900, he explains, was part of a wider movement by private businesses to identify their products (and what would later be called “free enterprise”) with the American Way -- an effort Booker T. Washington scorned for turning the flag into an “emblem of the dollar, rather than an emblem of liberty.” The busty, leggy women painted on the B-17s and B-29s of the Second World War are irreverent emblems of a profane politics: Liberty neither as Minerva nor as the colossal, enlightening lady of New York harbor, but as an All-American pin-up girl, stripped naked by citizen soldiers who knew their next mission might be their last.

When the organic connections falter, as they tend to do in the later chapters, Fischer’s images serve as mere illustrations to his essays. The images of the candidates from the 1912 election add little to Fischer’s discussion of the political conflict in the Progressive era. The pictures of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, in the chapter on the Beats’ ideas about American freedom, are nothing special. (I’d have thought a close reading of the photograph of Ginsberg in a cardboard, star-spangled hat would have been more to the main point of the book.) There are grounds for quibbling with some of Fischer’s other choices. Going back to the Declaration of Independence, “equality” has been at least as contested a term in our political vocabulary as “liberty” and “freedom.” So, since the 1830s, has “democracy.” Nor have “liberty” and “freedom” always carried the contradictory but positive connotations that Fischer emphasizes. Liberty and freedom can be burdens as well as opportunities, leading to hubris and desperation -- and, often enough, to moral chaos and mayhem. Hawthorne’s politically inflected novels of sin and unbounded human pride capture these aspects, as do Melville’s “Moby-Dick” and “The Confidence-Man,” as do popular murder ballads as far-flung in time as the ancient “Pretty Polly” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska.” Fischer is adept at showing how words we cherish have at times been used to advance contemptible political causes, but less so at exploring all the ways that liberty and freedom can drive some Americans around the bend.

Yet if liberty and freedom have their dark sides, Fischer’s powerful book affirms that without these basic values, and our conflicts over them, we are lost. Americans have interpreted liberty and freedom in numerous ways, he argues, but those Americans who have conceded the words to their opponents have been doomed. The most hidebound of the Federalists who denounced “infant liberty nursed by mother mob,” the reactionary fringe of the Deep South secessionists, the American Communists and Fascists of a later century, the bewildered post-Vietnam left -- all, Fischer suggests, have foundered because they either abandoned or lost touch with core American political ideals. More than 50 years ago, a more old-fashioned political historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., called this core “the vital center.” “Liberty and Freedom” offers a full and sometimes brilliant account of where the vital center came from -- and how it has persisted as a habit of Americans’ hearts. *

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