Thursday, October 5, 2023

Freedom is Dynamic

Is the concept of "Freedom" limited to what was envisioned in 1776?

I saw a North Carolina licence plate recently, and it gave me a start.  North Carolina was famous for its "First in Flight" license plates, honoring the Wright Brothers, who were from Ohio.  But now, they read, "First in Freedom!  1775-1777" or some such nonsense.  I guess the great State of North Carolina wants to etch its legacy in license plates as predating the Declaration of Independence by a year.

No sale, here - for a variety of reasons.

"Freedom" isn't a static thing, and what passed for "Freedom" in 1776 (or 1775) was a vastly different thing than what we have today.  Back then, "Freedom" meant only freedom for wealthy, land-owning white men, who controlled things.  Blacks were slaves and women not only didn't have the right to vote, in many cases, they could not even own property.  Freedom was a limited thing. Some people want it that way again.

But our "Founding Fathers" who owned slaves and treated their women little better, foresaw a future where things would be different.  They created a Constitution which had a mechanism for Amendment. They knew that changes were coming and that "Freedom" was not a static thing, but something that would change over time - something that would expand, not contract.

You read about these "Founding Fathers" and realize they envisioned a future without slavery and a future where women would have a say in political matters - if not as exact equals, at least closer to.  They didn't know how or when these things would happen, so they left a mechanism in place for later generations to alter the very form of our government.

Indeed, the Constitution was immediately amended to include a 10-amendment "Bill of Rights" which reflected the issues of the day.  Quartering of soldiers may not be a burning issue today, but it had great resonance with Colonials who had to harbor British soldiers, even as they were oppressed by them.  Freedom of the press was freedom to publish scandalous pamphlets mocking British administrators.  And the right to bear arms was directly linked to the need for organized militias.

Freedom of religion?  Put that in context with the religious wars - Protestant versus Catholic - that swept through England at the time. Colonials wanted no part of the senseless slaughter on the Continent and in Great Britain, over theological differences.

Those were the issues of the day, not commandments cast in stone.  Today, "quartering of soldiers" seems kind of quaint - and very specific to a particular era.  Since then, we've added (and subtracted) a few other "freedoms" including the abolition of slavery, the outlawing (and later, legalization) of alcohol.  The latter bears more examination, as it illustrates how the pressure to restrict freedoms, by certain groups, is a constant historical pressure.

George Washington would not have been surprised by the 13th Amendment freeing the slaves.  He would have been shocked by the 18th Amendment outlawing alcohol.  You see, Washington liked to drink, and back in his day, getting drunk was a regular habit.  In a museum in Alexandria, we saw a bill sent to George during one of his election campaigns before he was President.  The staggering amount of alcohol consumed at these political rallies shows that even back then, you could buy votes.  But moreover, Washington owned a grist mill (which has been rebuilt and open to the public, just South of Mt. Vernon) and it was used to grind corn to make whiskey, which was a commodity item back then.

Washington was involved in the "Whiskey Rebellion" as well - protests against liquor taxes after the revolution.  Seems everything old is new again - people bitching about taxes, it never seems to go away.

But we experimented with restricting freedoms and it backfired in a big way and the 18th Amendment was rescinded by the 22nd Amendment.  Since then, there have been fewer attempts at limiting freedom and more attempts at expanding it.  The Equal Rights Amendment, for example, stood for the simple proposition that women are people, too.  Sadly, the far right and Phyllis Schlafly, torpedoed the Amendment, spreading rumors that it would require all women to become hairy-legged lesbians, or something to that extent, I guess.

Thus, over the decades and indeed, centuries, our Constitution has been amended, again and again, in part to re-define this freedom.  Today, Senators are now elected by popular vote. Women have the right to vote,as do Blacks, after slavery was abolished.  Freedom has a different meaning today than in 1776.

And it hasn't stopped changing or expanding since. Today, we are grappling with freedoms our founding fathers never envisioned - but provided for in their Constitution.  Maybe having transgender kindergarten teachers is a reach for our fore-fathers, but it illustrates how far our concepts of  "freedom" have changed.

We can debate this - and should.  But some are arguing in bad faith.  They want to preserve "Freedom" as envisioned by the "Founding Fathers" - where slavery was legal, women were chattel, and only rich, white, men were allowed a say in how things were run.  And this is not hyperbole - it is lock stock and barrel of the positions held by an increasing number of members of the far-right, who pine for a "tradwife" and argue that slavery wasn't so bad, and in fact, was good! (And they want to bring it back, too!).

Maybe that was the standard of "Freedom" in 1776, but not today.  And our "Founding Fathers" wanted us to expand freedom over time, not contract it or limit it to what was in place in the 18th Century.  They would be sorely disappointed in efforts to restrict freedom, even if they would have struggled with comprehending issues like gay marriage or "trans rights." I can say with confidence that they would have favored the expansion of freedom and not the contraction of it.

Indeed, isn't that the definition of freedom?

Sadly, this is lost on a new generation which cries for "Free-Dums!" without knowing what even the word means.  Freedom to drive a house-on-wheels and pay 99 cents a gallon for gas?  Freedom to discriminate against minorities?  Freedom to rig elections through gerrymandering and if that doesn't work, just take over the government by force?  A lot of what people are calling "Freedom" these days, sounds a lot like tyranny.  Who in their right mind advocates for a dictatorship in the name of "Freedom"?

A lot of people, apparently.