Power  /  Book Review

Whose Freedom?

Tyler Stovall demonstrates ways that people have conflated freedom with whiteness but pays too little attention to the force of freedom as a concept.

Stovall, a distinguished historian of France and the French Empire who has served as president of the American Historical Association, offers a new version of this radical critique in White Freedom. “Freedom can be and historically has been a racist ideology,” he writes. “The dominant concepts of freedom that emerged from [the revolutionary] era bore the unmistakable stamp of whiteness and white racial ideology.” The book, intended for a general audience, provides a lucid if familiar history of American race relations from the eighteenth to the late twentieth century, emphasizing the ways so many Americans equated freedom with whiteness and acted to enshrine this equation in law. Stovall ably surveys the bleak narrative that runs from the arrival of slaves in the Americas to the exclusion of African-Americans from citizenship (notably in the Dred Scott decision) to the establishment of Jim Crow to contemporary racism, drawing in most cases on well-known secondary sources.

White Freedom’s originality lies elsewhere. First, Stovall treats the American story as only a part of a larger Western one. He is particularly astute on the similarities between the US and France, two republics that share common histories of revolution, slavery, and systematic racial discrimination. Both countries, he notes, ended one phase of their histories of racial oppression by abolishing slavery in the mid-nineteenth century. (France did so after the Revolution of 1848.) But both soon afterward inaugurated new forms of “white freedom”: the US with the end of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and France with the establishment of a vast overseas empire in Africa and Asia that denied fundamental rights to the indigenous inhabitants.

Second, Stovall puts a strong emphasis on collective psychology as a driving force behind this history. After his brief introduction, he does not move directly to the French and American events but to a chapter on pirates, children, and cultural depictions of them (focusing especially on a work that brings the two together: Peter Pan). These groups, he argues, represent a wild, “savage” ideal of freedom as complete independence from all authority—an ideal that modern liberal societies fear and strive to suppress. They have done so, he continues, by associating proper, measured, civilized forms of freedom with whites, and the savage forms with a racialized, Black “other.” Not surprisingly, these societies reacted with particular horror to the world of early modern sea piracy, in which a “rough racial democracy prevailed.”

In other words, political and racial concepts developed in tandem, with racism as a crucial element in the emergence of a modern, “domesticated” version of freedom that “limited the autonomy of the individual for the effective functionality of the collectivity.” Stovall devotes little attention to freedom as a formal concept or to its deep historical roots (as recently explored, for instance, by Annelien de Dijn in Freedom: An Unruly History, which begins in ancient Greece). And by tying the emergence of modern racism so closely to the history of liberal democracy, he ends up putting less emphasis than most historians do on its roots in American slave systems.