“Freedom” is a keyword with a genealogy and range of meanings that extend far beyond the history and geographical boundaries of the United States, even as it names values that are at the core of U.S. national history and identity. From the Declaration of Independence to Operation Enduring Freedom (the name given to the post-9/11 U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan), the term is at the root of U.S. claims to being not only exceptional among the world’s nations but a model that others should follow. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “freedom” in abstract terms as “the state or fact of being free from servitude, constraint, [or] inhibition.” But dictionary definitions cannot reveal the materiality of the specific contests through which freedom has attained its central place in modern Western understandings of self and society. While the term’s etymological roots and core attributes date to the classical societies of ancient Greece and Rome, “freedom” gained its contemporary significance in the context of western Europe’s transition from an ancien régime (comprising passive subjects over whom monarchs claimed divinely sanctioned absolute rule) to the era of the secular state (comprising citizen-subjects who consent to be governed through social contract).

This essay may be found on page 114 of the printed volume.

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