his web site provides a brief overview of American Visions of Liberty & Freedom, an exhibition
organized by the Virginia Historical Society and on display October 16, 2004 through May 30, 2005.
These pages provide a short description of the themes explored in
the physical exhibition, a gallery of selected images and objects on display, tour schedule, resources for teachers,
and information about the book on which the exhibit is based, Freedom and Liberty, by David Hackett
Fisher. The physical exhibition displays more than 200 objects that tell the story of American iconography. The
book discusses more than 400 objects, prints, photographs, and documents.
Most Americans see our history as a story of liberty and freedom. Our
country was founded on these ideas. But not everyone in America has been free, and no one at any time
has been free to do whatever he or she pleases. By looking at the symbols Americans have invented to
represent the ideas of liberty and freedom, we are able to see that these ideas have been both unifying
themes and sources of tension in American history. Americans have had competing and even conflicting
visions of liberty and freedom, and have debated and even fought over them. From this process, the meanings
of liberty and freedom have gradually expanded through time, as each generation of Americans wrestles
with their scope and application.
Liberty versus Freedom
Today, liberty and freedom are used interchangeably and mean essentially the same thing, but the
terms have different origins. Liberty, with its root in Latin, had its origin in words for "unrestricted,"
"independence," and "separation." Liberty separated one from the mass of enslaved humanity and
made one independent. Freedom, in northern European languages, sprang from the same root as
the word "friend," and did not mean separation from, but belonging to a community of free people.
The creative tension between liberty-as-separation and freedom-as-belonging is central to
American history. Some objects in this exhibition fall clearly into one category or the other,
but most combine elements of both traditions, just as they were combined in American history.
"E Pluribus Unum"
To defray the cost of defending the colonies, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which taxed
newspapers, advertisements, and legal documents. Previously, the American colonists had only paid
customs duties and other user taxes. They believed taxation for general revenue could be constitutionally
levied only by their local legislatures. There were widespread protests against the Stamp Act, and later
the Townshend Acts, and the Tea Act. Colonial leaders rallied the people to resist encroachment on
their traditional liberties as Englishmen. Popular symbols of protest were invented and spread from
place to place. When the Second Continental Congress finally declared independence, the new
nation—founded on ideals of liberty and freedom—discovered that it needed unifying symbols
for the American people's diverse interpretations of these ideas.
"A New Birth of Freedom"
The American Revolution swept away hereditary rule and expanded self-government.
By 1800, enlarged ideas of liberty and freedom caused seven northern states to begin eliminating
slavery, which was also forbidden in the Northwest Territory, soon to become six more states.
But it did not end slavery where it was most firmly established, in the southern plantation states.
The southern definition of liberty was self-government and security of property, including
slaves. Like the Revolution, the Civil War began as a debate over the powers of central
government and the limits of local control. When southern states seceded, northerners
fought at first simply to restore the Union. Later the war expanded into a crusade to
end slavery, giving the nation what Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address called
"a new birth of freedom."
"The Golden Door"
In Emma Lazarus's poem "The New Colossus," the Statue of Liberty says "I lift my lamp beside
the golden door." The door was liberty and opportunity, and a persistent question in American history
has been whether the door is opening or closing for average Americans. In the late 1800s the labor
question replaced slavery as the major issue and class conflict threatened a new kind of civil war.
Not until the 1930s, however, was the idea accepted that freedom should include economic security
guaranteed by government. Today, the effects of economic globalization on American society are
entwined with issues of liberty and freedom.
The twentieth century witnessed an explosion of rights. Courts became much more protective of
the rights of minorities. The failure of Prohibition discouraged efforts to regulate behavior, and the
counterculture of the 1960s promoted the idea of lifestyle choice. Courts proclaimed a right to
privacy and broadened free speech to include symbolic actions. Specific groups organized to
gain rights. These movements included the woman suffrage movement and the civil rights
movement, the latter of which spawned the feminist, gay rights, and Native American
movements. Today there are also many single-issue movements that have invoked liberty
and freedom over issues such as drug and tobacco use, abortion, and gun control.
"To Make the World Safe for Democracy"
There is inevitable tension between freedom and security, especially in wartime. Wars cause violations
of civil liberties in the short run—against the Loyalists in the Revolution, Copperheads in the Civil War,
leftists in the Cold War, and innocent bystanders in the war on terrorism. But many American wars have
enlarged freedom in the long term. The Revolution fostered the antislavery movement and encouraged
the idea that American women, to bring up their children as good citizens, needed more education. The
Civil War ended slavery and produced the great Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution. Women's
work in World War I won them the vote. World War II resulted in the G.I. Bill. The competition with
Russia in the Cold War caused many Americans to support the civil rights movement, and during the
Vietnam War a Constitutional amendment ensured that eighteen-year-olds young enough to die were
old enough to vote.