Shouting the Battle Cry of Freedom

That title is from a Civil War song that begins

Yes we’ll rally round the flag, boys, we’ll rally once again

Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

We will rally from the hillside, we’ll gather from the plain

Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

Although these lyrics were written for a Union song, there is ironically also a Confederate version, pitting the freedom to own slaves against the freeing of the slaves. Americans claim many shared values, but none is bandied about nearly as much by both sides of issues like abortion, gun safety, wearing masks during a pandemic and the right of the citizens peaceably to assemble and petition for a redress of grievances. (Is that language familiar? It’s in the first amendment.)

July is the month of revolutions—American, French and Cuban.  Freedom was a rallying cry in all three—from oppression, from taxation without representation, from autocratic rule, from gross inequities in access to opportunities and resources.

Freedom is held in higher esteem or at least gets more lip service than any other value in American society.  Freedom has been invoked in claiming rights to gun ownership (the right to bear arms) and the right to an abortion, because both the political right and the political left invoke freedom on opposite sides of the same issue. Freedom is central to the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. They focus on protecting us from government interventions not only in free speech and religion, free press and the right to protest, but also the right to bear arms, to be safe from unreasonable searches and seizures, to refuse to incriminate ourselves in a court of law.  All of these freedoms, however, were not available to enslaved people, and many of those freedoms were not available to Native Americans or women.

Like any abstract ideal, when it comes to freedom, the devil is in the details.  What happens when your freedom encroaches on mine?  What happens when exercising our freedom takes away the freedom of others? What good is freedom without food and a roof over our head?   The four freedoms, made famous by President Franklin Roosevelt in a 1941 speech, are freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear. Those last two freedoms recall the words of Anatole France who famously (and sarcastically) reminded the French in 1894 that “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”   

Freedom conflicts with other values that are also important. Equality (all men are created equal) as well as the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.  The ideal of equality, or its less demanding cousin, fairness, may means that your freedom to keep everything you earn has to be qualified by progressive taxation in order to provide opportunities for others.  The freedom to succeed needs to be accompanied by the freedom to fail, but in practice we provide lots of protections against the actual consequences of failure, at least for corporations, or for debtors other than those who owe student loans.

The right to choose how we govern ourselves was another key part of that document. Today we interpret that to mean fair elections without suppressing or diluting the vote with political gerrymandering, Voter ID laws, too few polling places, or discouraging voting by mail.

Other core communal values are spelled out in the Preamble to the Constitution, which calls Americans to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Note the other values that share the stage with freedom or liberty—justice, domestic tranquility, defense, and general welfare.  

The other two July revolutions had similar vision of the good society. The French revolution’s motto was liberté, egalité, fraternité—freedom, equality, brotherhood. The Cuban revolution had similar goals, although both the French and Cuban revolutions were quickly sidetracked into new forms of oppression.   In this month of revolutions, it may be time for each of us to examine the content of our patriotism.  Where do we stand on the balance of freedom, equality and community (a nonsexist version of brotherhood)?  What limitations on personal freedom—wearing masks, gun safety laws, requiring states to make voting more accessible—do we support in the name of equality and community? As we transition from a month of revolutions to a season of elections, these are important questions to consider.

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