Monday, May 25, 2020

BTRTN: “Freedom” in the Age of the Coronavirus

We are honored today, on Memorial Day, to have another guest post written by our good friend, Charles B. Dew, the Ephraim Williams Professor of American History at Williams College.    

All Americans treasure the concept of freedom—our colonial forbearers’ determination to achieve it gave birth to our country during the American Revolution. Not everyone was considered worthy of the blessings of freedom, of course. To their eternal shame, our Founding Fathers excluded the men, women, and children being held in bondage from its enjoyment, but the Founders justified that by defining Americans of African descent as a brutish and inferior people unworthy of freedom. And, of course, it did not hurt that “this species of property” was worth a staggering amount of money even in those early days. But the majority of white American colonists clearly knew what freedom meant, and they were willing to die to achieve it for themselves.

How did these early Americans define “freedom”?

For the British colonists living in North America in the 18th century, the word had a simple meaning: to be free was to be free from tyranny—free from the tyranny of King George, free from the tyranny of a British Parliament seeking to impose taxes on them without their consent, free from the tyranny of being forced to quarter red-coated British troops in their own homes, the list went on and on. And the American colonists, of course, reacted violently to what they considered tyrannical policies emanating from the mother country (policies, it might be added, driven largely by an effort to raise revenue to meet debts incurred in the defense of those self-same colonists during the French and Indian War).

This concept of freedom was clearly reflected in the words of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution eleven years later. After Thomas Jefferson’s stirring preamble declaring that “all men are created equal,” he went on to enumerate multiple dastardly acts committed by the British crown, “…all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” The careful balance of powers crafted into the Constitution in 1787 was motivated by an absolute determination to prevent a president of the United States from ever becoming another King George, either in the near term or on some distant horizon when a crisis gripped the country and a sitting president might be tempted to say “When somebody is the President of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be.”

This definition of freedom as the absence of tyranny changed over time.

In the 19th century, as Jacksonian America took shape, freedom and equality became linked in the American mind, but not equality of condition—equal opportunity became our watchword, a level playing field for all, with the accident of birth or the actions of the government not acting as a hindrance to individual advancement. Abraham Lincoln was powerfully motivated by this concept, and he extended its reach to include everyone held in bondage in this country—close to 4 million children, women, and men at the moment of emancipation in 1865. Lincoln’s bedrock belief in free and equal thus led to the greatest act of social reform ever carried out in the United States;

In the 20th century, the American definition of freedom again underwent modification. As a new urban and industrial society took shape, Thomas Jefferson’s ideal citizen, the yeoman farmer, guaranteed his freedom and independence by living on the land, no longer defined the vast majority of our population. Freedom increasingly involved not only imposing restraints on monopoly power (the Jacksonian concept) but also took on a new dimension: the guarantee of a basic level of security for each citizen. FDR and the New Deal were the embodiment of this new definition: to be truly free meant one also had to be secure from the multiple ravages of an increasingly complex society—joblessness, hunger, lack of shelter, even the death march of a previously unknown epidemic disease. This new definition, free and secure, clearly could only be underwritten by a dramatic expansion of government.

So where are we now?

It seems to me we are witnessing a struggle between the devotees of the 18th century and the 20th century definitions of American freedom. The heavily armed, Confederate-flag waving, screaming-in-the-face-of-state-troopers demonstrators are convinced they are being oppressed by tyrannical governors who are depriving them of their freedom. Most Americans, according to every poll out there right now, holds to the more recent definition: that freedom and security are joined at the hip, that a government that is keeping them safe is protecting their ability to enjoy the benefits of freedom (not to mention keeping them alive).  Both of these views are deeply rooted in American history. Now might be a good time for us to ask ourselves “which side are you on?” After all, both sides are as American as apple pie.


  1. Given the preference for "progress" in America, I'm leery of labeling this a battle of devotees of the 18th versus the 20th centuries. Even if "both sides are as American as apple pie," the presumption of newer=better leads to judgment.

    The argument to me comes down to the various priorities listed in the Constitution's Preamble.

    We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

    How ought we balance the goals of Union, Justice, Tranquility, general Welfare, and Liberty? Some focus nearly entirely on Liberty. Others choose the general Welfare, defined pursing their understanding of "the greatest good for the greatest number." Others expand an understanding of Justice, often defined as "equality." Some pursue Tranquility, building institutions and practices to reduce conflict.

    The pandemic reveals existing divisions and strains between those who prioritize various values.

  2. I think that the goals of the founding fathers are united under a single trait: the absence, prevention, and foiling of extremism. Right now we are seeing a lot of extremism, in people, in their politics, in their views and in their behavior. It's not a uniquely nationalistic phenomenon. However, the founders were aware of the dangers of extremism and put their efforts into insulating their newly founded government from it. On this memorial day, let us honor those who were lost to extremism, and make up our minds to temper extremism wherever it might flourish. This allows us to deal sanely and concretely with challenges such as those we are facing, knowing the difference between the consequences of extremism and the actual fact of a disease or any other problem.


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