How did the Founding Fathers understand the word freedom?
Freedom is not easy to obtain. Yes, it requires the right for an individual to move undisturbed (this is an important part of it). But it also requires a just society—ruled by a just government. Why is this so?
Freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of commerce, and the freedom to participate in politics, among many others, all depend on a society that does not encroach upon the lives of its citizens. They also depend on citizens adhering to the laws. John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, brilliant theorists of democracy, affirmed that we can only enjoy complete freedom when we subject ourselves to legitimate civil laws—not when we live in anarchy. And, as Theodore Roosevelt aptly put it, “Freedom is that state in which no man is above the law and no man below it.”
We value the ability to live uncoerced and under a just government that distributes meaningful freedom equally. However, our nation has been divided since our founding on the best way to achieve that while avoiding tyranny. According to The Federalist Papers—that towering work of American political science—tyranny is avoided through a vast territory, a division of powers, and federalism. The losing side of the constitutional debates of 1787—the Jeffersonians—shared with the federalists this concern with tyranny; however, they thought that in order to avoid it, a small republic and less distance between citizens and officials were necessary. Naturally suspicious of bureaucracies, they believed that when the people are too far removed from the daily business of government, they run the risk of loosing too much control in favor of a faceless government. A quite noble concern, for sure.
Both solutions continue to play themselves out. Recently, we have witnessed mixed developments regarding the enjoyment of our most precious liberties in the United States. In June, a Supreme Court conservative majority invalidated a pivotal section of the legendary Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed federal oversight of changes in electoral rules for states historically affected by racial bias and discrimination. This decision sadly comes at the expense of decades of arduous work aimed at ensuring that all Americans, irrespective of race, have the opportunity to exercise their most essential political freedom: the right to vote. However, it is not all bad news for freedom. The freedom to decide whom to marry and love was asserted as constitutionally permissible by the same court (although not entirely since difficult questions of state sovereignty regarding the recognition of same sex marriages still remain unresolved). In a monumental step forward towards equal rights and liberties, more Americans can now begin to believe that society treats them with respect and dignity.
But are civil and political rights all there is to freedom? Not quite. As former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” His grand proposal for a “Second Bill of Rights” in America evoked that notion pristinely well: True freedom is not only freedom from coercion and legal exclusion, it is also freedom to live a decent life, which includes access to a dignified livelihood, to an education, and to healthcare. After all, the liberty to live as we please becomes futile when we can’t enjoy the basic conditions that enable us to carry out our plans.
Although the promise of this Second Bill of Rights was not formally fulfilled, its legacy lingers on in the form of valuable institutions that Americans hold dear such as social security, Medicare, and—much more recently—expanded healthcare. We may disagree about the particular aspects of how to properly run and implement these structures but we should not have to defend their existence against those who wish to see them go. Not if we care for freedom, that is. The freedom to live with dignity.
On occasion of the 4th of July, we would do well in reflecting about the conditions of true liberty. They are various. They are costly. But they are worth it.