The Spirit of Freedom: Essays in American History
An Excellent Addition to American Historiography
MARCH 01, 1995 by WESLEY ALLEN RIDDLE
Dr. Burt Folsom, Professor of History at Murray State University in Kentucky, has compiled a collection of essays previously published in The Freeman between 1961 and 1992. The 23 essays relating to various themes in American history are authored by 21 different university professors and other professionals. The Spirit of Freedom: Essays in American History is an excellent addition to American historiography and a welcome contribution to a new, emerging consensus about America’s past. Through this book, FEE reinvigorates serious study of political economy, a term rarely entertained of late on American campuses.
The Spirit of Freedom also challenges some Marxist and New Deal revisionism, which is largely responsible for the diminished lexicon in American academia, as well as for a generation of young Americans who cannot name the Father of their Constitution. Much in the way of liberal ideological bent has found its way into historical literature and distorted objective assessment and contextual understanding of American history. Policy decisions have even come to hinge on such disinformation and error. It is because assumptions about the nature of American institutions and interpretations concerning the factual historical record are so crucial that FEE has become a leading foundation for American history education.
The Spirit of Freedom is suitable for course work by college undergraduates, advanced high school students, and homeschoolers. The collection is edited to high academic standards and is both well endnoted and indexed. While one is tempted to label the collection according to the Consensus or Neo-Whig schools of history, it defies easy categorization. Rather, the book is refreshingly free of parametrical confines and looks at history in a number of creative ways, both old and new.
The Spirit of Freedom contains four subsections: (1) Origins of Freedom; (2) Triumph of Freedom; (3) Obstacles to Freedom; and (4) Overcoming the Obstacles. The first section covers America’s founding era from 1620 to circa 1830, with excellent essays on New England and Middle Colony groups; a comparative history essay on the American and French Revolutions; an examination of George Washington’s thoughts concerning the political dialectic of liberty and order; and a wonderful primary source account on public assistance, written by Davy Crockett. One essay on the Pilgrims is intriguing to those interested in intellectual history, in that it traces American libertarian tradition to the Dutch, as opposed to the English. Another essay on Pilgrims develops little known details about socialist land use experiments in the early years of Plymouth Colony.
Part Two picks up in 1869 and includes events to circa 1960. The third section traces contrary historical trends along a chronological path from 1911. The real strength of this book may be the articles in these two sections. Major essays radically reinterpret liberal historical consensus about the Gilded Age, Progressive Era, and New Deal. One essay convincingly re-examines the monopolistic, greedy, and exploitative reputation of so-called Robber Barons. Dr. Hans Sennholz dissects the Great Depression with clarity and insight, proving it to be four consecutive depressions, compounded and prolonged by ill-advised government financial policies from Coolidge to Roosevelt. Essays also introduce important developments in science and technology, as well as in business, economics, and government.
The concluding section offers three short contemporary examples of American success, as well as tentative lessons derived from history. Indeed, the whole book implicitly supports a kind of faith that history does contain positive instruction for present condition and future promise. Having said that, The Spirit of Freedom does not posit an American Utopia that fell from grace. It does, however, purport to isolate and explain certain characteristics that were and are responsible for America’s unparalleled material prosperity and social and political stability (if not always harmony).
After all, America is the oldest fundamentally unchanged government in the history of the world; no nation has reunited so completely after a terrible civil war; diverse peoples live neither as peaceably nor on as equal terms anywhere else. The presumption is that some things are therefore unique about America, that much is right about America, and that much of what is right constitutes an exceptional identity among nations. The Spirit of Freedom is a departure from some modern historiography, which de-emphasizes American exceptionalism and American achievements. Moreover, the book reverses a trend in history away from biography, as if people no longer mattered.
The Spirit of Freedom portrays a number of famous and lesser-known personages—real people in real situations, with real effects which ensue. In a society that languishes from want of good role models, The Spirit of Freedom reminds us that history is replete with them. The essays contain significant cameos of William Penn, John D. Rockefeller, John Arbuckle, James Duke, Edwin Armstrong, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Flagler, Sam Walton, and Frank Perdue, as well as interesting biographical information on a host of other characters.
Dr. Folsom and FEE are to be commended for this valuable collection of essays. The Spirit of Freedom corrects many historiographical distortions, without being doctrinaire or unsophisticated. Indeed, those who prize both scholarship and truth will find this anthology gratifying and useful. Many current and future policy proponents are, in the words of one essay, “oblivious to both economics and history.” The education crisis in the country has produced a situation about which Santayana’s dictum connotes some urgency, since ignorance of the past has never once proven to pardon a people’s mistakes. The book is a pleasure and an education to read. It is also a good guide for those who seek and find wisdom through history—sapientia per historiam. 
Wesley Allen Riddle teaches American History at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point.