Freedom: The History of an Idea

We live in a moment that is as critical for freedom as the American Revolution, the American Civil War, or the days following Pearl Harbor. In each of those moments, America moved the cause of freedom forward. In the Revolution, we declared our independence from the greatest empire of the day, fought for and won that independence, and then went on to establish a constitution that still gives us liberty under law more than two hundred years later. In the Civil War, we removed the great moral wrong of slavery. After Pearl Harbor, we shouldered the burden of World War II and the subsequent Cold War.

Sept. 11 represents a time just as critical in the history of the freedom. As we judge the generations of the American Revolution, the Civil War, or Pearl Harbor by their heroic response, so we shall be judged. We are engaged in what I believe is a noble crusade to bring freedom to the world. But that crusade is faltering now, in part because we have failed to ask some very fundamental questions.

This essay is intended to ask the most fundamental of those questions: Is freedom a universal human value, which all people in all times and places desire?

History of Freedom

Our foreign policy since the time of Woodrow Wilson has been based in the belief that freedom is a universal value, one that is wanted by all people in all times. But why, if freedom is a universal value, has the history of the world been one of tyranny, misery, and oppression?

Socrates taught that our first task in any discussion is to define our terms. Thus, the starting point here is identifying what we mean by freedom. We never disagree, Socrates tells us, about empirical questions; it is about values that we disagree. No value is more charged with meaning than that of freedom.

If we carefully examine the ideal and reality of freedom throughout the ages, we come to the conclusion that what we call “freedom” is, in fact, an ideal that consists of three component ideals: (1) national freedom; (2) political freedom; and (3) individual freedom.

National freedom is freedom from foreign control. This is the most basic concept of freedom. It is the desire of a nation, ethnic group, or a tribe to rule itself. It is national self-determination.

Political freedom is the freedom to vote, hold office, and pass laws. It is the ideal of “consent of the governed.”

Individual freedom is a complex of values. In its most basic form individual freedom is the freedom to live as you choose as long as you harm no one else, Each nation, each epoch in history, perhaps each individual, may define this ideal of individual freedom in different terms. In its noblest of expressions, individual freedom is enshrined in our Bill of Rights. It is freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, economic freedom, and freedom to choose your life style.

In the United States, we tend to assume that these three ideals of freedom always go together. That is wrong. History proves that these three component ideals of freedom in no way must be mutually inclusive.

You can have national freedom without political or individual freedom; Iraq under Saddam Hussein and North   Korea are examples. In fact, this national freedom, this desire for independence, is the most basic of all human freedoms. It has frequently been the justification for some of the most terrible tyrannies in history: Nazi Germany had national freedom but denied individual and political freedom in the name of this national freedom.

It is quite possible to have political and national freedom but not individual freedom. Ancient Sparta had national and political freedom, but none of the individual freedoms we expect today.

The Roman Empire represents two centuries that brought peace and prosperity to the world by extinguishing national and political freedom, but in which individual freedom flourished as it never had.

From the Declaration of Independence to the First World War, the history of our own country provides a dramatic example of the separation of these three component ideals of freedom. After 1776, the United States had national freedom. Adult white males also had political and individual freedom. White women had a considerable degree of individual freedom but no political liberty until 1920 and the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Until after the Civil War, African-Americans possessed neither political nor individual freedom. In 1857 the Supreme Court formally ruled that African-Americans did not have the right to individual or political freedom. The soldiers of the Confederacy fought valiantly for their political, individual, and national freedom while defending their right to deny individual and political liberty to a considerable proportion of their population.  

Thus, clearly, throughout history, these three components ideals of freedom have not been mutually inclusive.

Had we learned this lesson of history, Americans might have avoided crucial mistakes in our recent foreign policy in the Middle East.

History demonstrates that one of the most basic human feelings is the desire for national freedom. You may hate your government, but if someone invades you, you may very well fight in defense of your country. Napoleon learned this in Spain. History should have taught us to be skeptical of the claim that we would be welcomed as liberators in Iraq.

A second lesson of history we should have pondered is that freedom is not a universal value. Great civilizations have risen and fallen without any clear concept of freedom. Egypt—the civilization that built the pyramids, that created astronomy and medicine, did not even have a word for freedom. Everything was under the power of the pharaoh, who was god on earth. Ancient Mesopotamia had a word for freedom, but that word had the connotation of liberties. It was something that the all-powerful king gave to you, like exemption from taxes, and that he could also capriciously take away from you.

In fact, it can be argued that the Middle East, from the time of the pyramids down until today, has had no real concept of freedom.

Russia from the time of Rurik, the first Viking chieftain of Russia in the ninth century, down to Vladimir Putin, has never developed clear ideas of political and individual freedom. Thus we should not have been surprised when the Russian Revolution led not to freedom but to Stalin and one of the bloodiest despotisms in history.

China has no tradition of political or individual freedom. The noble teachings of Confucius are all about order, not freedom.

In fact, the very beginning of civilizations in the Middle East around 3000 BCE and in China around 1700 BCE represented the choice of security over freedom. Civilization began with the decision to give up any freedom in order to have the security of a well regulated economy under a king. Time and again throughout history people have chosen the perceived benefits of security over the awesome responsibilities of freedom.

History thus teaches that freedom is not a universal value. Our Founders knew and acted upon the lessons of history. The Founders, unlike us, thought historically. They used the lessons of the past to make decisions in the present and to plan for the future. They understood that tyranny and the lust for power, not freedom, is the great motivating force of human action and of history. But the Founders also believed that the United States could chart a unique course in history

Our country does have a unique legacy of freedom. That is both a cause for hope and a caution as to whether our unique ideals of freedom can be transplanted to the rest of the world. For in the U.S. we have achieved a unique balance of national, political, and individual freedom.

We have never been conquered; we simply cannot imagine what it would be to be under the rule of a foreigner. Our experience is very different from that of France, for example, or Germany.

We take political freedom for granted. We have regular elections no matter what the circumstances. In 1864, in the midst of the greatest war in our history, we held elections. The Europeans wondered after 9/11 what would happen to America; we went ahead with another election. In a way it is a good thing we are so secure in this freedom that we take it for granted. With that comes our deep love of the Constitution. Of course, Americans may not know what is in the Constitution, but they know it is good and resent any effort to tamper with it.

As to individual freedom, where could one have so much of it, including the basic freedom to create a better life for yourself and your children? People clamor to get into America, because individual freedom opens up a whole new world.

So how did we come to this unique legacy of freedom? Again, history is our guide. Our American legacy of freedom is the product of a unique confluence of five historical currents.

First, there is the legacy of the Old Testament, the idea that we are a nation chosen by God to bear the ark of the liberties to the world. Our Founders believed that deeply. Abraham Lincoln believed it deeply. Franklin Roosevelt believed it.

The second current comes from classical Greece and Rome. The legacy of Greece and Rome is the very basic one of self-government, consent of the governed. The kings of Babylon were chosen by God, Saul was chosen by God. The pharaoh was God on earth. But in Greece and Rome, men said “We are free to govern ourselves under laws that we give ourselves.”

Thirdly, Christianity took the idea of Natural Law from Greece and Rome and turned it into the belief that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The freedom that for the Greeks and Romans had been limited to the citizens of Athens or Rome now became a universal proclamation under Christianity.

Fourthly, England gave us the notion that government is under the law, no matter how powerful that government is. In the Watergate hearings, Sen. Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.) quoted the old saying that “the wind and rain might enter the cottage of a poor Englishman, but the king in all his majesty may not.” The law governs the king himself, and our Congress, senators, and president. As Harry Truman said, any time an American president gets too big for his britches, the people put him back in his place.

Fifthly, there is the contribution of the frontier. From the very beginning, America has been about the frontier. It is what led men and women to Jamestown and Plymouth. The frontier was the vast, seemingly endless land stretching before us. The frontier meant equality of opportunity. Even the best ideals of Greece or Rome or England could never flourish, because they were always cramped. But here there was land and the ability to start over again. This mattered more than all the ancient hatreds and class frictions that had existed under the old world. We cannot understand why Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats speak the same language but kill each other. Their hatreds have been festering for centuries, but here they pass away. That has been the unique gift of the frontier.

The existence of these elements in other nations and civilizations only underscores the uniqueness of the American experience of freedom. Russia has the tradition of Greece and Rome, Christianity, the tradition of the Old Testament; and it has a frontier. But it lacks that English sense of government under the law. So the frontier in Russia becomes the home of the gulag. Latin America has the tradition of Christianity and the Old Testament, and of Greece and Rome, and of the frontier. But Spain lacked the powerful English concept that government is under the law. Thus Latin America, despite its industrious and intelligent population and its natural resources, has never developed a stable basis for political and individual freedom.

Our heritage of freedom has been forged in war and hardship as well as in prosperity. Our national independence was proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. Name another nation in history founded on principles. An Italian or German will say you are an Italian or German because you speak Italian or German. Traditionally, you were born an Englishman; you were geographical accident. But in America we have said from the start that everyone can come here from wherever they wish. They can speak whatever language is their mother tongue and practice whatever religion they want. They become an American by adopting our principles.

The principles proclaimed in 1776 are the noblest of all principles: we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the unalienable right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The proclamation of these ideals in the Declaration of Independence is based on the belief in absolute right and absolute wrong. You can deny that today. We seem to have a society that believes there is no such thing as truth. Ethics is all a matter of circumstances. But the Founders believed in eternal truths, valid in all places and all times. And they believed that governments are instituted among men to achieve those goals. That is the purpose of government. And if a government does not fulfill those goals, you have not only the right but the duty to overthrow it.

The absolute truths of the Declaration of Independence are founded on a belief in God. God appears four times in the Declaration of Independence: “Nature’s God,” the “Creator,” “Supreme Judge of the world,” “Divine Providence.”

Thus our national freedom is founded on absolute truth and upon a belief in God. 

As the Declaration of Independence is the charter of our national freedom, so the Constitution is our charter of political freedom.

When that constitution was brought forth in Philadelphia, we were thirteen straggling republics along the eastern seaboard. If Benjamin Franklin or George Washington wanted to go somewhere, they went in the same way Cicero or Caesar did: they walked, rode, or sailed. If they wanted to communicate, they did it the same way Caesar or Cicero did. George Washington received inferior medical care to what a Roman gladiator got in the first century CE. And yet that same constitution gives us liberty under law and prosperity in a world of technology that Benjamin Franklin could not even have imagined and when we are superpower of the world. We should never take this extraordinary achievement for granted.

The American people in their wisdom would not ratify this constitution without the promise of a bill of rights. It seems to us extraordinary today that the first Congress kept its promise; and in short order set down and produced the Bill of Rights, which still guarantees these fundamental freedoms of individual liberty.

But there was still slavery, written into the Constitution. God is not mentioned once in the Constitution, but slavery was made the law of the land. To remove that wrong of slavery we fought the bloodiest war in our history, in which 623,026 Americans died. It produced men of great honor and integrity on both sides. It was finally resolved at Gettysburg.

When Abraham Lincoln went to Gettysburg to redefine our mission, he started with the Declaration of Independence. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It was unique because it was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. In one sentence he told Americans why they were fighting the war, to see whether any nation so conceived and dedicated could long endure. In all the rhetoric we had about Vietnam and all that we have heard about Iraq, we have not been told so simply why we were at war.

Lincoln then went on to state that this civil war was a challenge laid upon this nation by God. The more Lincoln grappled with why this terrible war had come, the more convinced he had become that it was sent by God to punish us for the fundamental wrong of slavery. He told Americans that we must resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain and that this nation under God should have a new birth of freedom. And that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

So this war that had cost so many lives was resolved in a way that no other nation would have. The Confederates simply pledged their word not to take up arms and to go home. The reconciliation began. I think that too is unique in history.

With the Civil War we see the growth of democracy, the move towards extending the franchise to women, 18 year olds. They all become part of this political freedom.

This nation has continued in a unique course of freedom. In World War II we fought and won the war in the name of democratic freedom. We could have withdrawn the way we did after World War I. But we recognized that isolationism had been a mistake. So we shouldered the burden of the Cold War.

Now we have been called again, and the question is, will we find the leadership to tell us why this great challenge is there? Will we find the will to resolve this struggle? Will we find the understanding among ourselves to see the great task that, as Lincoln said, is still before us?

I speak to you not only the legacy of America, but of destiny. I believe that no people in history have ever been more magnanimous, generous, courageous, willing to forgive and forget, and willing to help the world than have the Americans. So after World War II, we raised Germany and Japan up. This remains our greatest foreign policy triumph. We took those two nations that had no long tradition of freedom and made them into viable, prosperous democracies.  

Today, because of the United States, more people throughout the world live in freedom than any time in history. If we are willing to accept the challenge, it may yet be our destiny to change the course of history and to establish freedom as a universal value.