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The Triumph of Liberty: A 2,000 Year History Told Through the Lives of Freedom's Greatest Champions Hardcover – July 4, 2000


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Freedom of Speech by David K. Shipler
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Jim Powell believes that worthwhile abstract ideas are best promoted by the study of the lives of those who embodied them. In The Triumph of Liberty, Powell, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, uses capsule biographies of 65 heroes and heroines as the building blocks for a grand narrative history of liberty, stretching from ancient times to the present. Their stories make clear that liberty begins with an idea: that people are born with a natural right to liberty, the opportunity to pursue one's dream and live in peace.

Powell's list of freedom fighters includes the predictable standard bearers (Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, John Locke, Martin Luther King), as well as a few refreshing surprises. Rose Wilder Lane, for example, known to many readers primarily because of her famous pioneer mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, was one of the most successful freelance writers of the early 20th century. In her writings, she proclaimed the evils of collectivism and advocated natural rights. Friedrich Schiller, the German poet and dramatist, thematically prioritized the importance of freedom in many of his literary works, while Maria Montessori radically declared assisting the individual fulfill their destiny as the purpose of education.

Although Powell exhibits an interdisciplinary perception of freedom (in the forms of literature, music, political science, visual arts, etc.), his perspective remains exclusively Western. Consequently, readers hoping for a broader global examination, including, for example, Ghandi or Cesar Chavez, will find his interpretations limited. Powell's table of contents may also frustrate. Organized conceptually (Natural Rights, Toleration, Peace, Self-Help), rather than chronologically or alphabetically, it fails to assist the reader hoping quickly to locate a particular individual; only his bibliography, located at the back of the book, provides a listing of the individuals portrayed. Nevertheless, Powell's biographies, each six to seven pages, effectively convey to the reader what liberty means and how it is advanced. --Bertina Loeffler Sedlack

From Publishers Weekly

Through 65 pithy, vivid biographical profiles, Powell traces the struggle for freedom from oppression, equality before the law, peace, social justice, toleration of thought, speech and individuality. Along with familiar figures such as Erasmus, Jefferson, Franklin, Locke, Tocqueville, Thoreau and Mencken, he presents liberty-lovers who deserve to be better known, including John Lilburne, an English pamphleteer who attacked taxes, censorship and the notorious Star Chamber; Hugo Grotius, a Dutch antiwar philosopher and father of international law; and Lysander Spooner, a maverick 19th-century American libertarian opponent of military conscription and intrusive big government. Powell, senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute and editor of Laissez-Faire Books, includes inspirational profiles of Raoul Wallenberg, Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Among his eclectic, sometimes debatable choices for this motley portrait gallery are psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, opponent of involuntary commitment of mental patients, and anticollectivist novelist Ayn Rand. Equally unpredictable is the roster of creative artists whose works reputedly spread ideals of liberty: Robert Heinlein, western novelist Louis L'Amour, comic-opera whiz William S. Gilbert, Goya, Rabelais, Victor Hugo, Beethoven, Schiller. On balance, though, this stimulating sourcebook is a rousing testament to the belief that one person can make a difference; hopefully, it will inspire readers to go back to the original writings of these trailblazers. (July)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 574 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; First Edition edition (July 4, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 068485967X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684859675
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.7 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #987,937 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Henry C. Walther MD on July 1, 2000
Format: Hardcover
For anyone with an interest in history and an appreciation for the defining struggle of the 20th century (man against state), these vignettes provide both an inspiration and a warning. The inspiration is from the raw courage, conviction, and strength of these people; the warning is that many paid a heavy price and that the struggle for freedom is renewed with every generation. You don't have to be a libertarian or Republican to enjoy this; the context of these struggles is not always strictly poltical per se, but nearly all these men and women had allegiance to, and drew strength from, a higher ideal then man. Raoul Wallenberg's story alone is worth the price.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 19, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I am so tired of being told what we have done wrong. Here, finally, a historian gives us a narrative of human triumph. After all, we know very well that as a group and as individuals we often behave badly, make mistakes, and choose to pursue grubby, greedy goals. But not always. How refreshing it is to find an historian willing to celebrate individuals who have devoted their lives to pursuing noble ambitions. I liked it for the same reasons that I liked Diana Muir's recent Bullough's Pond with its unabashed celebration of the entreprenurial spirit. I won't quibble with the triumphalist tone, this book is frank about its goals and they are what make reading it fun. I will complain only that the sketches are a bit, well, sketchy. I would have found longer, more thoughtful portraits even more compelling, even if they had given us to understand that even these exemplary men and women were complex, had difficulties and sometimes got it wrong. What is important is that this book holds up for our admiration a group of people who devoted their lives to making our world better.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Jussi Bjorling on July 14, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The subject matter here simply can't be beat. The biographies are universally well-written and often shed light on people you thought you knew well (for example, the Jefferson profile). Powell has also done us a great service by bringing to light some lesser-known individuals whose actions deserve more attention than they get in the usual history books (e.g. Edward Coke). Everyone will disagree with some of the opinions here, but that is only further evidence of the author's originality.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Steve on September 21, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This book is good for basic information, but the best thing, or things about it are the tidbits of information that lead one to further reading. It is a great source for pointing the reader not only to great thinkers, but also to works by great thinkers worthy of further investigation.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By R. WHITTEN on December 3, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Powell deserves great credit for surveying the last two millenia of Western history to find liberty's "greatest champions". I found myself at the end begging for more analytic input from the author to "put it all together". But I am grateful for his compiling this list of the good guys in the struggle to attain the freedom which we all say we want, and are too often willing to sacrifice by pieces to other ends. The book would benefit greatly from better editorial attention to correct obvious syntactical errors and repetitions. Overall, an admirable addition to the literature of classical liberalism.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Terri Dawn on July 11, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book has snippets of biographies of people, maybe 8-10 pages, who have fought for liberty in one way or another. There is no real chronological order. You can choose any biography anywhere in the book. One story is not the basis for another. However, the first story takes place at a time before all the others--Cicero. Only knew him by name before; now I know a lot more. This text can whet your appetite to read a more detailed bio. I love this book. However, he should have included William Wilberforce (Sp?) who spearheaded the end of the slave trade in England in early 1800s. Great book!
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Walker VINE VOICE on March 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
With this book, Jim Powell advances the notion that modern history can best be viewed as a quest for freedom, and even the most cynical among us must agree that "wresting liberty from tyranny's iron fist" is indeed worth fighting for. In a series of short biographical vignettes, Powell looks at the lives of sixty-five historical figures that he deems heroes in this struggle, making for a fascinating and inspiring read. However, any such grouping of people is bound to spark debate, as very few of these individuals would call themselves "libertarian", nor would all libertarians be quick to claim them all as ancestors or heirs.
Historian Paul Johnson may sum up this book best with these words from its foreword: "I do not agree with all of it". That luminaries like Cicero and Thomas Paine belong in this canon is almost without question, but the case for Beethoven, Goya, and Robert Heinlein (among others) requires one to adopt the modern "big L" libertarian perspective in its entirety. I, for one, would prefer to see Margaret Thatcher's place in the book removed, and replaced by a section on Nelson Mandela; economic issues aside, surely most people would place the latter above the former as a champion of liberty and justice in our time.
Thus, the greatest weakness of this book is also its strength: it forces the reader to think, to consider what "liberty" really means. Given the state of the world today, that fact alone merits my recommendation.
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