No idea is more fundamental to Americans’ sense of themselves as individuals and as a nation than Freedom. The central term in our political vocabulary, Freedom or Liberty, is deeply embedded in the documentary record of our history and the language of everyday life. The Declaration of Independence lists liberty among mankind’s inalienable rights; the Constitution announces as its purpose to secure ‘Liberty’s Blessings’. The United States fought the Civil War to bring about a new birth of Freedom, World War II for Freedom from genocide, the Cold War to defend the Free World.
Americans’ love of freedom has been represented by liberty poles, caps, and statues, and acted out throughout history by the burning of stamps and burning draft cards. The quest for Freedom by running away from slavery, and demonstrating for the right to vote. The idea of “Freedom” occupies a more prominent place in public and private discourse in the United States than elsewhere in the world. The ubiquitous American excuse invoked by disobedient children and assertive adults “it’s a free country” is not familiar in other societies. Every man in the street, white, black, red or yellow knows that this is ‘the land of the free’ and the ‘cradle of liberty.’
Perhaps because of its very ubiquity the history of Freedom is a tale of debates, disagreements, and struggles rather than a set of timeless categories or an evolutionary narrative toward a preordained goal. And the meaning of Freedom has been constructed not only in congressional debates and political treatises, but on plantations and picket lines and in city streets and college campuses. If the pursuit of freedom has been a battleground throughout our history, so too has been the definition of those entitled to enjoy its blessings.
The United States, founded on the premise that liberty is an entitlement of all humanity, undeniably deprived many of its own people of freedom. It has been through battles at the boundaries, the efforts of racial minorities, women, workers, and other groups to secure freedom, as they understood it, that the meaning of freedom has been both deepened and transformed. The concept extends now into realms for which it was not originally intended. Time and again in our history, the definition of Freedom has been transformed by the demands of excluded groups for inclusion.
The glorification of Freedom as the essential characteristic of American life opened to door for others to seize on the language of Freedom for their own purposes. Most striking was the civil rights movement, with its freedom rides, freedom schools, freedom marches, and the insistent cry “freedom now”.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. ended his great oration on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with the words, “free at last, free at last thank God almighty, I’m free at last,” he was not referring to getting the government off his back or paying low taxes. Freedom for blacks meant empowerment, equality, recognition as a group and as individuals. Most white Americans believe that Freedom is something they possess, and that some outside force is trying to take away. Most African-Americans view Freedom not as a possession to be defended, but as a goal yet to be achieved.
American ideas of freedom now reverberate throughout the world, promoted by an internationalized mass media, consumer culture, and economic marketplace. The freedom to speak your mind or to publish what you wish, without needing to get the advance permission of any public official, are classic examples of negative freedom.
So also, are the natural rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence, which states that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights,” including the “rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” You might think that we’d have the most freedom in a world without government: With no laws to restrain our freedom, everyone would be free to do as they pleased.
That might be great if men were angels. In the real world, however, the absence of government always leads to the rise of thuggish gangs and brutal warlords. Government is necessary, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration, to “secure” our natural rights. Our ancestors sought political independence from Britain, in part, because King George’s colonial governments did not particularly respect such rights.
But our Founding Fathers wanted more than to be left alone to enjoy their negative freedoms, they wanted to be in charge of their own political destiny. They didn’t just want to be free to make individual choices free from governmental restraint; they also wanted the freedom to make collective decisions about what kind of country we would become.
Rob Mitchell is the Conservative award winning Republican Property Assessor of Rutherford County Tennessee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org