One voice to tell one nation's story of freedom

Give Me Liberty!
June 15, 2007

Eric Foner has written a splendid textbook that can be highly recommended for an introductory undergraduate module in American history.

In recent years, the market in textbooks in American history has become very crowded, mainly with books that have been multi-authored. This has the advantage of providing a greater breadth of expertise but the disadvantage of a tendency for the book to become disjointed. This is particularly the case when such textbooks have gone into later editions and the various authors have added one or two details to show that they are up to date with the most recent research and with the latest politically correct points. It is very refreshing, therefore, to have a textbook by a single author whose distinction gives him sufficient expertise to write with authority on the whole of American history and to present a cohesive theme.

Foner - professor of American history at Columbia University in New York, former president of the American Historical Association and of the Organisation of American Historians and author of several previous books - writes with vigour and presents a very well-organised textbook.

Older textbooks, such as those by Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager or T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current and Frank Freidel, were well written and well organised, but their focus was somewhat narrow.

Textbooks on American history by British historians, such as Maldwyn Jones and Hugh Brogan, were even better written, with very good analyses and perceptive points, but they also seem outdated in their narrow focus and lack of illustrations.

Multi-authored textbooks of recent years have successfully integrated the diversity of American history, incorporating such aspects as gender and the environment as well as political issues, and these textbooks have been enlivened by very good illustrations. They tended, however, to be more factual in their approach, including the use of information boxes along with the text. This is perhaps more suited to American undergraduates, with the greater emphasis in American education on factual knowledge and with assessment methods that require factual answers, such as a quiz with multiple-choice answers. To British students, even in their first year, such an approach seems juvenile and lacking in stimulation. Foner uses illustrations widely, but he does not use information boxes, and his text is characterised by a vigorous style, raising questions and developing themes. This heavy emphasis on raising questions and presenting a clear interpretation makes this book more suitable for British students than other textbooks by US authors.

There are some useful accompanying ancillaries, particularly a disk of the illustrations and a DVD interview with the author, in which he elaborates on his main theme, the development of liberty. Foner is perhaps open to the criticism that he has too much of the perspective of a New York liberal, sympathetic to East Coast liberal and labour movements, which feature prominently in his illustrations of the growth of liberty. Overall, however, he takes a sophisticated, intelligent approach to his theme, which he develops for the most part persuasively.

The one-volume hardback is better value than the two paperback volumes, which divide at the American Civil War. There is a good, brief bibliography at the end of each chapter. At the end of each volume there are useful appendices containing some key documents, tables and a glossary. In a crowded market, Foner's book can be recommended as the best choice for a university-level textbook in American history.

Peter G. Boyle is an associate professor of American history at Nottingham University.

Give Me Liberty!: An American History

Author - Eric Foner
Publisher - W. W. Norton
Pages - 1,131
Price - £32.99
ISBN - 9780393978742

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