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American Idols

Reviewed by Philip Kennicott
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page BW03


A Visual History of America's Founding Ideas

By David Hackett Fischer. Oxford Univ. 851 pp. $50

In 1774, a committee established by the Continental Congress approved a design for a new seal, meant to give the nascent American cause symbolic and visual form. The design was a hodgepodge of signs that had been floating around during the last years of British rule: a marble column topped by a liberty cap resting on a copy of the Magna Carta, supported by 13 hands reaching in from the sides. The hands suggested unity, the Magna Carta recalled the tradition of limiting the sovereign's absolute rights, and the liberty cap, or pileus, was a classical reference to the rituals of freeing slaves from bondage. The elements all had good pedigree and clear meanings, but something went wrong in the execution. A soft-pointed liberty cap atop an upright marble column produced an image so clearly phallic that it brings a blush to the cheeks even today.

The seal of 1774 hasn't lasted; nor, for that matter, has the liberty cap, which was all the rage in the 18th century but is recognized today only by dutiful students of iconography. Recovering such details, and placing them in context, is the successful aim of David Hackett Fischer's Liberty and Freedom. Fischer's new book is the third in a series he is devoting to the cultural history of the United States (volume two is still in the works). It follows and builds on the central thesis of the first volume, Albion's Seed: that the early United States was the product of four great migrations from the British Isles -- Puritans, Royalists, Quakers and hardscrabble types from Ireland and the Scottish borderlands. Fischer doesn't reargue that bold claim, but he does rely on these distinctions to organize the sprawling contents of the new work.

And it does sprawl. At 851 pages, Liberty and Freedom is a big book, and a very loose-jointed one. The words "another," "also" and "others" recur again and again at the openings of Fischer's chapters, a rhetorical concession to a topic so huge that no single narrative or theme can really contain it. "The North also searched for emblems of its sacred cause," reads a typical transition, from a chapter that covers the Confederate flag and an anti-Union spittoon used in the South, to a chapter featuring an eagle named Old Abe who was used as a live mascot by a Union regiment from Wisconsin. The story of Old Abe's sad demise (in a fire years after the Civil War ended) is one of the book's many captivating digressions.

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. He argues that liberty and freedom were distinctly different understandings of the American project and that we have, throughout history, vacillated between conceiving our national ideal in limited, legalistic ways and more organic, responsible ones. Liberty, he writes, is built on the idea of being free from restraint, with what we think of today as rights conceived of more as privileges, granted and protected by the state. Liberty is a fundamentally Roman and usually hierarchical concept. Freedom, on the other hand, was derived from northern Europe and based on a more communal sense of equal rights and responsibility among all people. The two concepts are often used synonymously, Fischer acknowledges. "But ancient differences between liberty and freedom were not so easily erased," he argues. Occasionally, as in the images and ideals of liberty championed by Tory elites and loyalists, or the reciprocal rights championed by the Quakers, he can find the concepts clearly differentiated. But most of the time, they are intermingled or indistinct.

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. It offers the author a chance to fact-check and retell some of the great stories of American history (Francis Scott Key and "The Star-Spangled Banner," Betsy Ross and the flag) and dredge up icons that have been sadly forgotten. Among these is Brother Jonathan, a personification of the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries in the same vein as the British John Bull, or Yankee Doodle and Uncle Sam. Brother Jonathan was a bumptious sort who morphed, over time, into a figure of violence, hypocrisy (during the slavery debate) and nationalist myopia. To critics outside America, he was a nasty character and an apt representation of U.S. foreign policy. Inside this country, the author argues, he lost currency after the Civil War, in part because of increasing urbanization. And yet, with many in the United States roundly criticizing this country for precisely the things that Brother Jonathan once stood for, why has this particular folkway run dry?

There are, perhaps, larger conclusions to be drawn from the wealth of material Fischer has collected. It's interesting to see how little a role religious imagery plays. When religious meanings creep in, they tend to have a nasty edge: a satanic figure dictating the Emancipation Proclamation to Abraham Lincoln, or devil wings and horns drawn onto the image of the women's rights crusader Victoria Woodhull. It's also fascinating to note how vital a sense of grievance is to the perpetuation of a visual symbol. The Confederate flag survives because Southern resentment is still strong. Liberty trees and liberty poles, icons that emerged in Northern states during the Revolutionary era, have all but disappeared. In 2002, the U.S. Navy brought back the old "Don't Tread on Me" flag, with its angry serpent -- revivifying an old icon during a time of post-Sept. 11 anger.

Fischer mostly avoids the temptation to make these larger kinds of conclusions. He is interested in local context, close reading and connecting threads. He calls the books in this series "braided narratives," and while there are times when the braid is very loose, there are hundreds of fascinating strands in this volume, each of them worth tugging at. •

Philip Kennicott is culture critic of The Washington Post.

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