Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020
426 pp., $35 (hardcover)

Books on the history of freedom are surprisingly scarce. The 19th-century scholar Lord Acton never finished his projected History of Liberty; and Orlando Patterson, who published Freedom: Volume 1 in 1991, abandoned the project before releasing volume 2. Herbert Muller published three books on the subject in the 1960s, but not until 1990, with Donald Treadgold’s Freedom: A History, did an author try to encompass the subject in one volume. Students of liberty, therefore, might approach Annelien de Dijn’s Freedom: An Unruly History with high hopes for a thorough and lively discussion of the origin and growth of this precious idea.

They will be disappointed. Far from a history of liberty, de Dijn’s book is a conscious effort to undermine that concept and to substitute in its place what she calls a “democratic conception of freedom,” which, in principle, amounts to collective control over every aspect of individual behavior (2). She pursues this goal through a narrative that combines misrepresentations, omissions, and cherry-picking from twenty-five hundred years of Western culture. . . .


1. Polybius, Histories, in The Historians of Ancient Rome: An Anthology of the Major Writings, edited by Ronald Mellor (New York: Routledge, 1998), 53.

2. Peter T. Manicas, “War, Stasis, and Greek Political Thought,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 24, no. 4 (October 1982): 673–88.

3. John Locke, Second Treatise, § 137 in Two Treatises of Civil Government, edited by Peter Laslett (New York: Oxford University Press, rev. ed., 1963), 405 (emphasis added).

4. James Madison, letter to Thomas Jefferson, October 17, 1788, in Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, vol. 1 (New York: Worthington, 1884), 425.

5. George Washington, letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, August 21, 1790, in George Washington: A Collection, edited by W. B. Allen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988), 548.

6. James Madison, Sovereignty (1835), Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, vol. 4, 393 (emphasis added).

7. Abraham Lincoln, speech in Peoria, October 16, 1854, in Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832–1858, edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Library of America, 1989), 328.

8. Thomas Jefferson, first inaugural address, in The Portable Jefferson, edited by Merrill Peterson (New York: Penguin, 1975), 293.

9. Jefferson, first inaugural address, 291.

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