The history of American freedom features struggles for economic, political, social, and religious rights and freedoms. The American nation in the post-Civil War era was conceived as a liberal nation where all men had equal rights. The American Revolution, the Constitution, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Emancipation Proclamation, among others, sought to protect minority rights and acquire specific freedoms for the oppressed. The conception of freedom varied depending on the dispute and the perspectives held by the opposing sides.
In addition, freedom was conceptualised as either an individual or a political right in a democratic system that allowed Americans to determine their destiny. Therefore, the conception of freedom in the American context has been an ever-changing one. However, in all cases, there have always been two sides to the debate: the proponents and the conservatives. This paper assesses the history and evolution of the American conceptions and practices of freedom.
Freedom and Economic Disputes
One recurrent element in the history of American Freedom is the issue of economic rights. In the pre-American Civil War era, freedom was conceived as an outcome of government policies that favoured economic prosperity. The critics of the reform legislations viewed government interventions as only benefitting the elite while oppressing the majority. As Waterhouse (2013) writes, in the 20th century, high inflation in the US was blamed on the “liberal government and strong labour unions” (p. 457). He further explains that, in the 1960s, over sixty industrialists formed an alliance to stop any attempt to repeal the “right-to-work provisions” as contained in the Labour Management Act of 1947 (Waterhouse, 2013, p. 462). This labour-liberal dispute epitomises the economic disputes that characterised the idea of freedom in American history. For the lobbyists (business people), freedom was the right to protect their businesses from federal or state control. On the other hand, the American consumer and labour movements sought to protect the rights of the workers against exploitation by lobbying for favourable legislation.
Therefore, while some, led by employer associations, held the view that economic policies infringe on individual liberties, others believed that complete freedom is inconceivable without federal or state intervention. Big corporations assumed a conservative position with respect to “labour and social security” and strongly opposed price and wage controls (Waterhouse, 2013, p. 467). Earlier, in the pre-World War II, they endured strict pricing restrictions to curb high inflation during the Kennedy and Johnston administrations (Waterhouse, 2013). Thus, by World War II, Americans recognised the right to free speech and faith as well as the freedom from fear and deprivation.
The freedom of enterprise and ownership rights was also evident during the Civil War, which was largely an economic dispute. It can be argued that the war between the northern and southern states was an economic dispute. The two factions held divergent conceptions of freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation. While the Northern abolitionists fought to free the slaves, the southerners (slave owners) engaged in the war to preserve the economic prosperity of the South that was heavily reliant upon African American labour. Therefore, the South wanted the freedom to control their institutions (slavery) and the freedom from deprivation of property (slaves).
It is clear that the conception of American freedom in a historical context entailed a clash between positive and negative perspectives. The competing ideas of freedom dominated public debates throughout America’s history. On the one hand was the resistance to federal or state interference, which could be construed as negative freedom while on the other was positive freedom that encompassed conditions that enabled citizens to realise their potential. The conditions were either government-led interventions or labour union movements that protected workers or minorities from economic exploitation.
Individual versus Political Rights
Throughout history, freedom has been equated to an inalienable right entitled to all Americans. Individual freedom often contradicts political right in the sense that the power of the latter vest in a democratic majority that represents individual interests while the former does not. Policy debates have featured conflicts between individual and political freedoms. For instance, pro-choice advocates favour the individual right to reproductive choice, while the pro-life oppose this conception of freedom through legislation.
The tension between the two freedoms is also evident in Painter’s (2009) description of Emerson’s claim in the 1770s that the English were “our ancestors while the Magna Carta people were our Saxon ancestors” (p. 978). He argues that the Saxons had already a “system of rights” before the Normans introduced their system of bondage and control (Painter, 2009, p. 981). Evidently, in the late 1700s, the Saxon was associated with freedom, a trait considered peculiar to American Anglo-Saxonism. Therefore, freedoms enshrined in formal legislations tend to curtail individual rights that define the moral norms in society. In contemporary America, the debate about individual versus political freedoms has drawn on the issue of gay rights. The competing notions of freedom present valid arguments; however, some are more persuasive than others are.
The freedom arguments advanced by either faction had substantive merit depending on the perspective one held. The slave owners in the South talked of the individual right of property (slave) ownership, freedom they wanted to retain upon joining the Union. They sought to annul the Missouri Compromise of 1820 by arguing for the freedom to own slaves to resist federal regulation. At the time, the freedom to own property, which included slaves, was considered a right that deserved protection from federal interference. Painter (2009) writes that the Saxons included “black people in the Western Hemisphere” who were considered slaves naturally (p. 984). Thus, the concept of freedom during the slavery era was dominated by a clash between individual and political rights.
Similarly, it can be argued that the segregationists had a valid freedom argument. Individuals or communities have the freedom to choose whom to associate with or admit in their institutions. The argument may not be convincing today because people detest any system that discriminates or belittles certain social groups. However, during the slavery era, both the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions clamoured for liberty. According to Kornblith and Murrin (2005), in the 1760s, white slave owners demonstrated in Charleston chanting ‘liberty’. The slaves congregated in the streets of the town clamouring for liberty. Thus, the individual freedoms of the slaves clashed with the political rights espoused in the majority of the ruling elite. This scenario can be construed to mean that the conception of freedom or the positions taken in this debate depended on the reasons advanced by the liberation movements.
The Scope of the American Freedom
Throughout American history, several movements and events have caused the freedoms to be expanded to include previously unprotected rights. For instance, the right to free expression was the central focus of the labour movement of the early 20th century. In this context, the labour unions fought for the freedom to picket or engage in industrial actions. According to Kornblith and Murrin (2005), President Roosevelt’s economic policies strengthened the labour unions in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the New Deal. A clique of industrialists arose in the 1970s to challenge these economic policies and fight against strict price controls. Because of the 1930s labour movements, the freedom to picket or demonstrate was recognised in law through the First Amendment, expanding the number of individual freedoms entitled to Americans.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s marked another defining event in the expansion of individual freedoms. It expanded the political and fundamental freedoms for the black population, especially the right to socioeconomic equality. The American wars also produced new freedoms for different categories of people. The Revolution brought forth the emancipation of slaves held by Northerners and created the abolitionist movement. On the other hand, the Civil War not only saw the slaves held captive in the South become ‘Freedmen’, but it also gave them the right to political participation. The participation in this war was driven by a “belief in democracy and equal rights” (Waterhouse, 2013, p. 462). An amendment in the 1920s during the First World War led to the women’s suffrage. The Second World War bred the civil rights movement that sought to expand the rights of black citizens. In contrast, the tensions and paranoia that characterised the Cold War occasioned federal actions that curtailed individual rights and information privacy rights (Kornblith & Murrin, 2005).
In all instances, the reasons for engaging in the wars were related to the need to expand the democratic freedoms of the oppressed group. In this regard, it can be argued that America’s perception of freedom was intertwined with the ideologies of democracy and social equity. World War I was fought to expand the people’s democratic rights while World War II sought to dethrone fascist leaderships that curtailed individual freedoms. It must be admitted that the opportunities to practice political and individual freedoms came from either internal or external wars. The women’s suffrage, which was suppressed before World War II, was realised during this war when women begun taking masculine roles in industries and the military. At the same time, the need for more soldiers to fight the war allowed African Americans to join the military, disrupting the racial system that curtailed the freedoms of minorities.
Judicial decisions have also helped expand the freedoms available to Americans. Constitutional actions such as the First Amendment gave Americans the freedoms of assembly, press, religion, and expression. Court decisions tended to favour one side of the debate while infringing on the other. This view is consistent with the argument advanced earlier that either faction of the freedom debate presented valid arguments. Therefore, promoting one form of freedom undermines the rights of others to some extent. The abolition of slavery and segregation was a reflection of the existing attitudes regarding the freedoms that the black population should have at the time. In addition, the idea behind the women’s suffrage movement reflected the 1960s beliefs and perspectives on the right to vote.
The Multifaceted Nature of the American Freedom
Freedom has been the cause of the major struggles in American history. The country, which was founded on the premise of freedom for all, thrived on slavery for some time until the Civil War. This irony indicates that different people conceived freedom differently. While the slave owners’ freedom was built on the continuity of slavery, the slaves’ liberty was conceived as equal rights and freedom from forced labour. Therefore, the conflicting concept of freedom has been the cause of the struggle for individual and political rights. The struggles of minority groups, including blacks, women, religious groups, and workers, led to the idea that freedom is a right or a human entitlement. This notion heightened class antagonism and violent groups, such as the 1760s regulator movements, where each militia sought to implement its own brand of social order in South Carolina (Kornblith & Murrin, 2005). The Civil War and the Reconstruction created a nation-state that promoted liberty for everyone.
However, it can be argued that real freedom may not be realised in conditions of inequality. In the 19th Century, freedom was conceived as the right to own property or enterprise and the economic security of workers. To guarantee economic freedom to citizens, government regulation, through price and wage controls, as needed. As Waterhouse (2013) writes, the government imposed wage/price controls on businesses in the 1970s as a way of taming runaway inflation and protecting workers from exploitation. However, this action precipitated a conflict between workers and their employers. Therefore, for the workers, the notion of freedom was the industrial emancipation through better pay and work conditions. It supplanted the idea of democracy and liberty fronted by the abolitionists during the Civil War and the reformers during the Reconstruction period.
This conception of freedom was the force behind the rise of a laissez-faire kind of system that opposed government intervention in businesses. Corporate leaders believed that the price/wage controls of the 1970s could lead to business failures and losses (Waterhouse, 2013). They opposed the government’s move to tame inflation, arguing that high wages would raise production costs and lead to high prices (Waterhouse, 2013). This assertion shows that business owners favoured the doctrine of government non-interference in business affairs. Thus, to corporate leaders, freedom was the absence of government interventions in a free economy.
President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies sought to turn around the economy after the Great Depression. However, the economic policies were opposed on the grounds that they curtailed freedom. Corporate leaders sought alliances with conservative politicians in the 1960s to challenge the laws, which they believed contravened the tenets of a free economy (Waterhouse, 2013). However, the wage/price controls received support from Americans who re-elected Roosevelt to continue with the reform policies. Thus, the Americans, in the post-Depression era, viewed freedom as a concept that includes economic security. Further, the citizens’ approval of price/wage controls contravened the laissez-faire view (freedom from government interference) held by the business leaders.
The history of freedom in the U.S. features competing arguments for and against particular rights. The existence of positive and negative conceptualizations of liberty means that advancing one freedom leads to an inevitable infringement on the others’ rights. Throughout the post-Civil War era, there have been valid concepts and arguments for black and women’s suffrage, the right to free speech and religion, and economic freedom. Government and judicial decisions have helped protect the freedoms, which conceived as universal and inalienable rights by the Americans.
Kornblith, G. & Murrin, J. (2005). The Dilemmas of the Ruling Elite in Revolutionary America. In S. Fraser (Ed.), Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy (pp. 36-62). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Painter, N. (2009). Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Saxons. The Journal of American History, 95(4), 977-985.
Waterhouse, B. (2013). Mobilizing for the Market: Organized Business, Wage-Price Controls, and the Politics of Inflation, 1971–1974. The Journal of American History, 1, 453-478.