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Charting liberty from `authority' to `law and order' to `justice'

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Spheres of Liberty: Changing Perceptions of Liberty in American Culture, by Michael Kammen. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 180 pp. ``Liberty'' in America has always been an elusive bird -- as high-flying and difficult to pin down as the American eagle, but also as majestic and distinctive.

Well before colonial patriots formed as the ``Sons of Liberty,'' and through generations of schoolchildren repeating the familiar final lines of the pledge of allegiance (``with liberty and justice for all''), right down to the Statue of Liberty celebration last July 4, ``liberty'' has been the most popular -- if not amorphous -- concept Americans have used to describe their political and civic selves.

In this handsomely published series of distinguished lectures at the University of Wisconsin, historian Michael Kammen attempts to map and chart the concept of liberty as interpreted by politicians, statesmen, and the courts in America from the 18th century to the present. As such, ``Spheres of Liberty'' is a fine piece of readable scholarship -- offering a framework with which to apprehend the ``workings'' of liberty.

In Kammen's analysis, liberty in America can be characterized in two main ways: First, it has been a dynamic, expanding concept -- meaning very different things to different people at different times. Liberty has been defined through political setbacks and triumphs, not theory. Kammen quotes former Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter: ``Great concepts like `liberty' were purposely left to gather meaning from experience.''

Second, liberty is best understood in American history not by itself, says Kammen, but as it relates to some other prevailing concept, such as authority, power, order, justice, privacy. Liberty, as Walter Lippman wrote, is ``contingent on some other ideal.''


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