Look up the word "freedom" in the Random House Webster's College Dictionary and you'll find it defined as: "1. the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint. 2. exemption from external control." Neat enough summaries, no doubt, of the concept that underlies our republic from the American Revolution to the Reagan Revolution and beyond.

Ask Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, about the meaning of freedom and you'll get a far more nuanced answer.

"You're talking to someone who's used to lecturing for an hour and a quarter," he jokes.

Actually, in a conversation in Foner's office at Columbia that lasts more than two hours, ranging freely from his new book from Norton, The Story of American Freedom (Forecasts, Sept. 28) to his life as a historian, professor and book editor, Foner never lectures; rather, he involves his listener, as he d s his readers, in a dynamic debate that manages to bring clarity to some very complicated ideas.

In what PW Forecasts called a "sweeping history," The Story of American Freedom presents a "well documented, smartly written and authoritative" picture of "historical reality through the vehicle of one of the country's most precious buzz words." It's a new perspective on familiar themes for Foner, who won the Bancroft and Francis Parkman prizes for what many consider the definitive book on the post-Civil War era: Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 (Harper). Foner has written extensively on labor history, slavery and the history of American radicalism, from Nat Turner to Abbie Hoffman. Whether arguing that the film Amistad is not appropriate for use in the classroom, debating academic standards with Pat Buchanan and Lynn Cheney on CNN, or firing off cultural polemics from his post on the editorial board of the Nation, Foner has helped steer the course of leftist thought in America.

Surrounded by two walls of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves ( an alcove with a long shelf holds multiple copies of his own 14 books), Foner acknowledges that freedom "has been a focus all of my academic career, not just as a philosophical question, but as a practical question." Its meanings, he writes in the autobiographical statement that accompanied review copies of his new book, "have been constructed in congressional debates and political treatises... on plantations and picket lines, in parlors and bedrooms."

Foner believes that freedom is a mutable concept. "It's always being contested, always being changed." The evolution of freedom in America, he says, has not been "onward and upward" but rather a constant battle that demonstrates, he says, "one of my favorite lines" from history -- Thomas Wentworth Higginson's maxim, "`Revolutions may go backward.' There's no linear development in any direction."

What gave birth to The Story of Freedom was his deep frustration, in 1994, at Newt Gingrich's insistence "that his were the `real' ideas of freedom. But there are other ideas of freedom that can't be written out of American history," he says.

In his preface, Foner writes that the title "is meant to be ambiguous or ironic (one might even call it postmodern). A story is both a history of actual events and an invention. Over the course of our history, American freedom has been both a reality and a mythic ideal-a living truth for millions of Americans; a cruel mockery for others."

Citizen Foner

That his book was largely born as a response to a conservative Republican appropriation of the concept of liberty gave Foner a deeper understanding of the ways in which a historian works.

"We go to the past with a set of questions," he says. "We commonly accept that our interest in the past is shaped by our interest in the present -- including my interest in freedom as it relates to African Americans, women, others -- but the present determines the questions, not the answers. If you use history as a soapbox it lessens the chance that your book will be read by people in the future. I write differently for an op-ed piece than I do for a book, but I am a citizen as well as a historian."

Foner's new book comes, he notes, at a moment when the nature of history writing itself has changed. "Earlier generations of historians," he says, tended to "generalize from a small cast of characters. There is virtue, I think, in trying to see history whole and not excluding large groups of people.

"If this book had been written in the 1950s, it would have been Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt," Foner says. "They're there this time. But it also has Margaret Sanger and Frederick Douglass, and others -- her s of freedom -- who expanded the terrain of history."

The book also has a personal dimension. Foner comes from a family of leftists. His father, Jack, was one of four brothers, two of whom were historians and two of whom were union leaders. Family lore has it that his maternal grandfather, a radical émigré from czarist Russia, was visited by Trotsky before the Russian Revolution.

Jack and his brother Philip were among a group of approximately 60 faculty fired by Columbia University in 1941 because of their political leanings. "This was pre-McCarthy -- an investigation of subversive elements, so-called Communist influences. He was blacklisted, basically," Foner says.

Whereas Philip Foner went on to become an editor at Citadel Press and a prolific scholar of labor and African American history, Jack Foner did not hold another academic job for 25 years. "He worked as a freelance lecturer on current affairs, " says Foner. "It was not a lucrative living."

Foner, who was born in New York City in 1943 and raised in Long Beach, Long Island, did not set out to be a historian. "I went to college wanting to be an astronomer, and I spent two years taking physics and math. I had spent my childhood looking through a telescope at the moon. But in college," he says, "I reached the limits of my abilities in math. I hit a wall. Others were moving forward and I was not. I took a course on the Civil War, with James Shenton, and that's how people decide what they want to do: they meet an inspiring professor. I decided I wanted to major in history, study the Civil War and write about it. And that's what I've done."

Foner took his Ph.D. at Columbia in 1969 and returned as a professor in 1982 after a decade at City University of New York. A life-long New Yorker, he says that one legacy of his geography is that "students often say I talk too fast. Sometimes at the beginning of the term, someone will ask, `Do you always talk so fast, Professor Foner?' I say `That's New York, folks.' "

Foner was the first professor to teach a class on African-American history at Columbia, and he has written frequently about slavery since his first book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, based on his Columbia doctoral dissertation, was published by Oxford in 1970. "The existence of slavery," he says, "has so shaped our idea of freedom. Freedom is so often defined by its opposite rather than as an idea. It is constantly changing as its opposite is reshaped."

One of the legacies of slavery is a dichotomy, Foner believes, in the ways blacks and whites think of the word freedom.

"Whites seem to feel freedom is something you're born with and that someone is trying to take it away," says Foner. "Blacks see it as something you're aspiring to, working toward, that is never quite achieved. It comes out of the historical experience. Blacks see the federal government as an agent; whites as a danger to your freedom. The rhetoric of getting the government off your back d sn't resonate with most blacks. Government isn't the only danger to people's rights."

The writing of history, Foner says, "is something I actually enjoy. I get interested in a lot of things and like to write. There are historians who don't like to write -- I'm not mentioning any names -- but I think my ability to write comes from the fact that I studied in England for two years, under the tutorial system" (Foner was at Oxford from 1963 to 1965). "You write an essay every week. Some would say this teaches you to be very glib. But it taught me how to write very fast, not to worry about it, and not to obsess about it. That's what I really learned."

Foner currently teaches two courses a year and supervises doctoral theses. "If you only add up the hours in a classroom, it d sn't sound like much," he says, "but I'd put my hours up against anyone on Wall Street."

Author to Editor to Curator

From 1985 to 1992 Foner was also a consulting editor on the American Century series published by Hill &Wang. Foner remembers that Arthur Wang once told him "there are two kinds of publishers: one is interested in books, the other is interested in money." Wang, of course, was of the first kind. "He loved ideas," says Foner. "We asked, what kinds of books do people need? The series we came up with -- 20 or 25 books -- had a rather large impact. The idea was to bring to students the latest scholarship in an accessible way."

Working on the series, which involved lining up authors with subjects, as well as considerable editing, Foner gained some insights into his fellow writer/historians. "I saw considerable numbers of authors who didn't meet deadlines," Foner says. "And I heard their constant griping about how one more ad [for their book] would make the difference. So I see both sides."

Foner worked without an agent until this book; Sandy Djikstra conducted an auction in 1994 for The Story of American Freedom, with Steve Forman at Norton winning with a substantial six-figure bid. Foner and Djikstra have a history: they attended Long Beach High School together. "I may be the only author who can say that," he says. "I ran into Sandy at a conference a few years ago and we hadn't seen each other in 30 years. She said to me, `You professors are idiots. What's the largest advance you've ever gotten?' I told her some piddling amount -- I got $7500 for Reconstruction -- and she said, `When you do your next book, just let me see the proposal.' And I did."

Despite doing better than "piddling" for his latest book, Foner's ambitions remain the same: making scholarship accessible. Foner even ranges beyond the academy to do so, curating two museum exhibits -- one on slavery for the Chicago Historical Society, another on Reconstruction for the Virginia Historical Society. And, in what Foner terms either "the high or the low point of my career." he rewrote a five-minute history of the United States that introduces the Hall of Presidents at Disney World. This unlikely assignment arose from of a trip to Disneyland with his young daughter, Daria (to whom The Story of American Freedom is dedicated). An exhibit on Lincoln there disturbed Foner enough that he wrote a letter to Disney "saying, basically, that I don't care about Sleeping Beauty's Castle, but if you're saying it's history, you have an obligation. People know `It's a Small World After All' isn't true, but they take at face value what is said about Lincoln, and what they had was based on the idea that America started perfect and got better and better."

Foner, somewhat surprised at the turn of events, estimates that 10 million people hear his presentation each year, and that the voice "they hear it through is Maya Angelou's, which is probably not something another historian can say."

"History," Foner believes, "ought to be good history, whether it's on TV or in museums or at Disneyworld." And historians, he says, "ought to be where history is.""