Freedom can be applied to movement. Restrictive clothing is not your friend when you are exercising, dancing, or moving swiftly.
Freedom can be applied to adulthood. Slipping the restraints of parents and the family home can open new horizons of adventure and making your own dumb mistakes.
Freedom can apply to the open road. Drive across state borders with no need to show ID, pay a fee, or even slow down.
Freedom is a quintessentially American value.
We didn’t invent the concept, but we have definitely tried to copyright it.
Freedom from Tyranny
The Founders of our country fought a war against the English because we were being treated like a cash cow for the Mother Country. We provided income to England, but we got no say in how that income was spent for our benefit. We had no recourse to open a conversation with our government about fair taxation. We had no representation.
This is the tyranny we fought to free ourselves from. Self-determination as a nation state. The ability to set our own laws, determine our own rights, and govern with people from our ranks--not those born to one family line.
Freedom was Conditional
But never forget that at the same time we were fighting for our ‘freedom,’ we were condoning the slavery of other human beings within our own borders. We weren’t as interested in their freedom, their representation, or their rights. ‘We’ at this time were white male land-owners. ‘We’ did not include women, low-income men, immigrants, or the vast number of people kidnapped from Africa and enslaved on American soil.
Did that mean we felt freedom was not for all people? Did that mean that American citizenship was a racial, gender, and economic condition? The answer, frankly, is yes.
The freedom that seems so sacred to Americans was as exclusive a club as any in the world. Being born here, living your whole life here, working, paying taxes, raising a family here meant nothing to your rights as a ‘citizen’ if you weren’t white, male, and wealthy.
That is the legacy of The Declaration of Independence.
Or, it was the legacy of the Declaration, for a while.
But things started to change in this fertile land where ideas are powerful and ingenuity is rewarded.
Eventually, other groups of people decided that they too would like the same rights afforded to those around them. It wasn’t enough to rely on Citizens to protect non-citizens. These groups wanted the full force of the American government on their side, on their defense team. And why shouldn’t they?
This dream of America is something that tens of millions of people have pursued. They have conquered geographic distance, ethnic barriers, religious persecution, economic hardship, and other hurdles to come to this country and make a life here, become a citizen, and enjoy the same rights and freedoms.
And some of us were lucky enough to be born here.
Equal Protection Under the Law
The fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1868, part of Reconstruction after the Civil War. This amendment guaranteed that everyone born or naturalized in the U.S. was a citizen, including freed slaves. Now, freedom was becoming less conditional.
Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Of course, as with any new legislation or law, reality going forward looks a little different. Prejudice is not wiped away in an instant. Generational hatred and behavior are not just switched off.
But the ideals were there. The structure was enacted. The future was mapped. And with the advent of Women’s Suffrage to gain the vote in 1919 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the United States moved a little closer to that ideal of freedom for all Citizens.
We have the freedom of speech, freedom to assemble peacefully, freedom of the press, freedom of worship, and many other freedoms associated with our ability to live our lives according to our own choices. We have the right to a jury trial, the right to representation, the right to equal protection under our government.
We don’t have the right to infringe on others’ rights.
The Rule of Law
Implicit in our adoption of The Constitution and amendments is respect for the ‘Rule of Law’. Law must mean something in our society. There must be law enforcement, law adjudication, and consequences for breaking the law; otherwise, there is no law.
There is no true freedom without laws to protect those freedoms. Freedom from law is anarchy.
Anarchy is a recipe for ‘might makes right’. The fastest draw and the biggest bully wins in all cases. No one has inherent rights at all. The only rights you can claim are the ones that no one tries to take from you. But in anarchy, everyone wants your rights.
Anarchy is exactly what civilized societies strive to prevent through the structure of laws. Anarchy means constant vigilance against predators. Anarchy is a definitive step backwards in our evolution as a species.
Following Unjust Laws
In the United States if a citizen feels a law is unjust, they have the right to bring a suit to the courts. The Courts can interpret the law and strike it down if they too agree that it is unjust and contradictory to other laws, especially those in the U.S. or State Constitution.
A citizen does not have the right to break a law they don’t agree with and then expect to get away with it. That is not a right of a citizen within a society that follows the Rule of Law.
No one in the United States has the freedom to break laws and not face consequences. No one.
Therefore, freedom is not free. It is purchased by the social contract to observe laws and respect the freedoms and rights of others within the society.
Freedom During COVID-19
Sheltering in place isn’t fun. I have two school-aged children who should be in first and fifth grade. They should be having fun with their friends and learning the social norms of our society through interaction with peers and other adults. They should be stimulated by different environments.
But they are home with me. And I am home with them.
What should I be able to do as an adult American citizen?
Should I be able to leave my house as I please? Should I be able to socialize with anyone I choose? Should I be able to conduct my life according to my values and responsibilities?
I should. But there’s a problem.
There is a plague ravaging our world.
This plague has reached across the whole globe in fewer than six months. This plague has killed hundreds of thousands of people.
So should I be able to disregard the risk to my fellow citizens? Should I be able to ignore the advice of public health and medical professionals? Should I be able to try to convince others to disregard and ignore risks with me?
Is it my right to risk my life? Possibly.
Is it my right to risk other peoples’ lives? Definitely NOT.
It is as simple as that. When you cannot see the risk, when the risk is overwhelming, when the risk is undefined, then I cannot make a sound judgement, on my own, about what risks I am taking or who I am risking.
Living in a society that depends on human interaction to survive means that the health of the herd is the responsibility of each member.
I had the opportunity to sit in on a conference call with Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist yesterday. He said that the great irony of COVID and social distancing is that it reminds us how connected we are, how much we rely on each other, and how much we need each other to step up for the good of us all.
We are in this together.
I cannot choose which laws to obey.
I cannot expect no consequences from breaking laws.
I cannot exercise any ‘rights’ that infringe on the rights of others ー that is the price of freedom for myself.
American freedom is unique; it is not omnipotent. American freedom is enviable; it is not practiced in a vacuum. American freedom is expansive; but it is not a doctrine for anarchy.