Liberty may not be something you think about too much. After all, we live in America, we’re free, liberty is our birthright. Throughout history, however, most humans have not lived in a free country. Liberty, the ability to do with our lives what we want, as always been a battle.
Liberty is what made America America in the first place.
For centuries, with a few exceptions here and there, people had no choice over who governed them. Very early those with land and money ruled those who had neither. As mankind evolved, individuals and families claimed dominion over territories and those who lived in them and thrones were claimed and then fought over. Some monarchs were benevolent, allowing their subjects to more or less go about their business as long as taxes and tributes were paid, while others were tyrants. Attempts to remove these shackles were costly and often unsuccessful.
Our first recorded attempt to govern ourselves came in ancient Greece, in the fifth century BC. Voting was for citizens, with citizenship reserved for – and this will surprise you – adult males, specifically those who had completed their military training. Citizens voted on everything, both legislative acts and executive decisions, acting as a rather large legislature.
The English had one of mankind’s earliest attempts at removing the shackles of monarchy. In the 13th-century some English barons got their shorts in a knot over the reign of King John with their rebellion resulting in the Magna Carta, in essence, a peace treaty that guaranteed, among other things, church freedoms, freedom from illegal imprisonment and limits on payments to the crown. Nobody really paid much attention to it, however, and over time it lost some of its practical significance.
But not its moral significance. The Magna Carta’s influence continued over the centuries, including its profound influence on our own Constitution.
The United States, of course, earned its independence from Great Britain following the Revolutionary War. Ever since the word ‘America’ has been synonymous with liberty, representing not only a place but the idea that all men are created equal, that we all have the inalienable right to do with our lives what we want, provided we don’t bother anyone else while doing it.
What’s funny is the United States’ record on liberty is decidedly mixed. For centuries blacks were held as slaves and for a long time the blessings of liberty were available only to white, land-owning males.
Not only does America as a nation have a mixed record regarding human liberty, so do some of this nation’s most revered figures. Two of my favorite examples are Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
Thomas Jefferson, of course, was the author of one of mankind’s seminal works, The Declaration of Independence. He was also the third president of the United States, the founder of the University of Virginia and a slave owner.
That Jefferson owned slaves is not a bulletin. Like you probably do, I remember being taught this in school. We were told, well, yes, kids, Jefferson did own slaves, but that’s the way it was back then: whites owned slaves and Jefferson didn’t have much choice in the matter; he was merely a product of his times. Even modest reading into Jefferson the slave owner, however, shows this wasn’t entirely true and significant reading makes it crystal clear: Jefferson worked his slaves hard, disciplined them as needed and generally used them to live a comfortable life.
Heck, Jefferson was not only a slave owner, he was a slave innovator as well, one of the first to use his slaves as collateral for a loan and to force his slaves to become skilled artisans and tradesmen, thereby further reinforcing their bondage.
The Declaration of Independence notwithstanding Jefferson, frankly, never did much of anything to either end slavery in his country or on his plantation. Despite the fact he used his slaves to build a comfortable life for himself, Jefferson remains a revered figure, regarded as one of History’s preeminent spokesmen for human liberty.
Abraham Lincoln presided over one of this nation’s most tumultuous times, the Civil War. From the start, Lincoln decided he was going to save the Union and that he was going to do whatever it took to do this. And he did, both using and ignoring the Constitution as he saw fit
To save the Union Lincoln engaged our country in a brutal civil war. Lincoln realized the Union had significantly more young men to sacrifice than the Confederacy did and as long as he was able to keep General Robert E. Lee from visiting the White House he could continue to send troops into battle until the South ran out of men. The death toll on both sides remains a staggering figure.
Lincoln also ignored the Constitution when it suited him. Lincoln imposed martial where he saw fit, curtailed a free press and had arrested those he felt needed to be arrested and held them without trial, all measures not in accordance with human liberty and there have always been those who consider Lincoln to be nothing more than a despot.
Despite this, Lincoln also remains a revered figure, not only in the United States but worldwide, often thought of by those as the man who ended slavery in the United States. We can still remember seeing a statue of Lincoln in Tijuana, Mexico depicting Lincoln holding a broken chain in his right hand.
These examples were made not to disparage two former presidents, or to show that I’ve been to Mexico, but to illustrate the battles we have fought over the years. Despite every obstacle our country has mustered – slavery, discrimination, intolerance – America has always meant something both to her citizens and to the rest of the world, providing the opportunity to build a good life, the results dependent only on the effort you were willing to put forth into making something good happen for yourself and your family.
The Bottom Line: The American Way was and remains liberty. Incumbent in that are concerned and participating voters holding ourselves and our leaders accountable.