David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.
In 1765, American colonists, enraged over the Stamp Act promulgated by the British Parliament, gathered under an old elm in Boston, a meeting place that became known as the Liberty Tree. Eleven years later, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’’
From the start, liberty and its handmaiden, freedom, were amulets of the American creed. The early colonists crossed the Atlantic in search of religious freedom. The Revolutionary War was fought to win freedom from British tyranny. The United States entered the War of 1812 over the “freedom of the seas,” and the Americans who poured across the Niagara River to fight at Queenston Heights were full of the high rhetoric of liberty and liberation.
For centuries Americans have battled others, and each other, in the name of freedom, sometimes weaponizing the word, sometimes twisting the notion out of recognition.
And so the protesters gathering outside state capitols and filling the air with shouts of “freedom” are expressing an enduring American idea.
Mustered in large measure by conservative groups, and defiantly standing shoulder-to shoulder without masks, these demonstrators are demanding particular forms of freedom: freedom from restrictions forcing them to remain at home; freedom from government decisions keeping them from work; and above all, freedom from the doctrines and dictates of an elite corps of commentators and medical experts who believe ending physical distancing and prematurely reopening businesses pose grave dangers to public health.
These demonstrators, to be sure, are not hurling demands for Canadian-style “peace, order and good government.”
The Lansing, Mich., rallies were organized by a group called, pointedly, the Michigan Freedom Fund, whose mission statement speaks of engaging in “fights to champion conservative policies.” One of the placards there read: “Freedom Trumps Safety and Communism.” Representative Justin Amash, a one-time Grand Rapids Republican, now officially an Independent, supported the rally in citing his “constitutional duty to ensure states don’t trample on the rights of the people.”
In Harrisburg, Pa., the demonstrations were organized by Chris Dorr, a gun activist from across the state line in Ohio who created a Facebook group called Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine.
His explanation: “This is a free country, right?” The reaction from Rachel Levine, the state’s top health official to the prospect of a mass demonstration without physical distancing: “They will be more at risk for contracting the dangerous virus.”
These statehouse protests grow out of the same impulse that fuels the drive to overturn Obamacare – an effort to be free from orders from Washington requiring Americans to have health care from their employers, private plans or government-created health exchanges.
The animating theory of the 2010 law was to provide universal health care. The animating theory of its opponents is to free Americans from an overbearing central government.
Thus the tweets from President Donald Trump (“LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”), and the cries from protesters, and the presence of American flags at these demonstrations, drawing the President’s observation: “I have never seen so many American flags.”
The freedom to exaggerate is an American tradition, too. As a young man, Abraham Lincoln told some whoppers, including one about a prize hog on the loose.
But Lincoln spoke in his Gettysburg Address about “a new birth of freedom,’’ in reference to the country finally offering freedom for the enslaved – a goal that reached back to colonial New England and took the form of “freedom petitions” filed by enslaved people in the era of rebellion against Britain. One of them, from 1777, published less than six months after Jefferson’s invocation of “Liberty” that set the Revolution on its path, described itself as a “petition of A Great Number of Blackes detained in a State of slavery in the Bowels of a free & Christian Country” and argued that they possessed “in Common with all other men a Natural and Unaliable Right to that freedom which the Grat Parent of the Unavers hath Bestowed equalley on all menkind.”
The U.S. entered the Spanish-American War of 1898, in part, to support Cubans’ struggle for freedom, and didn’t join the First World War until the freedom of the seas was jeopardized for American vessels, a doctrine that became the second of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points for peace at war’s end. Wilson, after all, had run for the White House in 1912 on a platform called The New Freedom. In his 1917 “War Message” before Congress, he spoke of the conflict as a crusade to “make the world itself at last free” and argued that the country was “privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth.”
Freedom was a vital element of the rhetoric of Franklin Roosevelt, still remembered for his “Four Freedoms” address on Capitol Hill in 1941. John F. Kennedy could hardly deliver a speech without speaking of “freedom” or “free men.” In his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner“ speech of 1963, he referred to “the advance of freedom,” and, standing in front of the Rathaus Schoeneberg, he argued, “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.’’
That speech reflected the tensions in perhaps Kennedy’s greatest domestic address, delivered two weeks earlier, when he seemed embarrassed that “we preach freedom around the world ... but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes.”
Today there is a shopping entrepôt in Danvers, Mass., known as the Liberty Tree Mall. There is a Freedom Village Shopping Center both in Charlotte, N.C., in Eldersburg, Md., and a Freedom Square mall in Cranberry Township, Pa.
They all are closed, but shouts for freedom echo across the land, and across the centuries. But for those with placards and chants in the time of the novel coronavirus, the conjunction in the famous 1775 patriot invocation by Patrick Henry is in danger of being changed to “Give me liberty and give me death.’’
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