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Freedom: A History of US
Joy Hakim
Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2002/2003.
£30.00/$40.00, 406 pages, ISBN 0-19-515711-7.

Cher Holt-Fortin
SUNY Oswego, Oswego NY

Joy Hakim has achieved a marvelous thing in her series of books about American History: literate, interesting writing about what is usually considered a dull subject. The latest of that series, Freedom: A History of US fulfills the promise of the earlier books. It is a gorgeous thing from its richly-colored, embossed dust jacket to its excellent selection of illustrations. Ms. Hakim has been a newspaper writer, editor, and elementary school teacher. She holds a bachelor’s degree in government from Smith College and a master’s degree in education from Goucher College.

Believing that “to find the story in a subject is to discover its essence,” (Dust jacket) Hakim has retold American History through stories of its various peoples. She outlines the larger issues such as the American Revolution, then proceeds to bring them alive by telling stories of individuals. Additionally, the book is lavishly illustrated with pictures, cartoons, photos, newspaper ads, billboards, all period pieces. The text is full of sidebars that tell stories of various historical figures such as James Forten, an African American who fought on an American privateer during the Revolution.

One of the best things about this book is its truthfulness. Hakim explores the issues that have troubled our nation since its inception. Regarding the Constitution she rightfully points out that when the framers said “We the People,” they didn’t mean all the people. They didn’t mean women, “Native Americans, or those enslaved” (38). And yet she points out that the Founders, though idealistic, were also practical and that they knew they were writing for the future: “those three small words, ’we the people,’ were powerful; they would keep pushing the nation to include all peoples (38). The ways in which our country has responded over its history to those three small words structures the book as Hakim explores their ramifications.

The history of the Civil War is covered in depth in War, Terrible War, an earlier volume. The war and its causes are presented here because it is the pivotal moment, thus far, of our nation’s history and could not be left out. But Hakim balances it with an honest look at the Industrial Revolution and its effects on the pre-Civil War culture and economy. The cotton gin, the steamboat, and the Erie Canal are presented along with an overview of American trade and its growing textile industry. All these factors come together in the lead up to the Civil War. Additionally, Hakim gives us a clear picture of the first wave of feminists and their attempt to gain rights for women in the 1840s and 1850s.

Under all these seemingly unconnected histories lies the connection of the Constitution and its greatness. As she guides us through a chronological history of the United States, she uses the Constitution as her main stream, detouring into the tributaries of women’s rights, Civil Rights, immigration, the Red Scare, the Scopes Monkey Trial. She is more than fair to Lyndon Johnson, crediting him with the tremendous contribution he made to the Civil Rights movement and perhaps being exceedingly more than fair on his role in the Vietnam War. Very late in the book, Hakim address the right to protest, covering not only Civil Rights but also the rights of women in the second wave of feminism, the rights of migrant workers and native peoples. She always returns to the Constitution as a way of charting the maturation of the people of the United States in relation to a document they were in their infancy not prepared to fully understand.

It is a brilliant scheme and it is lovingly accomplished. I have a minor quibble. She writes in the present tense, in a rhetorical attempt to provide immediacy and to involve the reader, I would guess. Still if one of the aims of the book is to present history, which is always in the past, the present tense distorts that reality. Hakim believes that people learn best from stories and sets out to present our complex history through the medium of telling it as a story. Overall, I love this book and the series of those that came before. It is thoroughly documented and includes a copy of the Constitution. Most importantly, the book provides an excellent overview of the United States struggle with its past and how we have, at least until now, been protected from the worst excesses of our national character by the Constitution.


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