That This Nation, Under God, Shall Have A New Birth Of Freedom
Freedom restrained by law admits of no absolutes. Seen from a wider perspective than Jefferson's the story of America is how we have come to terms, or failed to come to terms, with that fact. Hence the inherent wistfulness in the quotation from Lincoln which titles this post.
In the heat of grievances against unjust government from England, the absolute philosophical statement of inalienable rights derived from God, of necessity, dodged the question of when does liberty become licence. Jefferson's statement of rights conveniently ignored the doctrine, equally deducable from the Christian background of the Libertarian foreground, of the inherent sinfulness of mankind. For if only God is right, and we are inherently wrong, why should mankind be free? This is why, privately, a much older Jefferson than the fiery young redhead of 1776 trembled with the thought that God was just.
Well, when does Liberty become licence? George Orwell, with his pithy turn of phrase, got it right. When all of us are created equal but some are more equal than others. George Orwell, by the way, is one of the most honest of men who have actually faced and analysed the paradox of Liberty vs. Licence, and his honesty, more than anything, is what we are in crying need of today, if we are not to lose our liberty to bad faith wrapped in the Stars and Stripes.
In practice the hedge against licence in the demand for liberty is equality under law. All of us may, as Jefferson has it, be created equal. And the reason that we are equal may be, as G.K. Chesterton stated, the reason that all British pennies were equal--because they all bore the image of the King. But the pull of some are more equal than others is a heavy one, even in the land of Liberty and Justice for All.
The hundred years between Gettysburg and March on Washington did not match Lincoln's hope of a new birth of freedom. The honesty we truly need to keep what freedom we still have must start from the willingness to admit this fact. America has had two golden ages of both liberty and equality, one from 1820 to 1850 the other from 1965 to 1985. In between, liberty has degenerated into licence because equality has been snuffed in both the interests of the wealthy and the rabid factional hatred of those whose conscience would not permit them to believe that America had already become the New Jerusalem.
Orwell is again helpful here:
Whitman was writing in a time of unexampled prosperity, but more than that, he was writing in a country where freedom was something more than a word. The democracy, equality, and comradeship that he is always talking about are not remote ideals, but something that existed in front of his eyes. In mid-nineteenth-century America men felt themselves free and equal, WERE free and equal....There was poverty and there were even class distinctions, but except for the Negroes, there was no permanently submerged class. Everyone had inside him, like a kind of core, the, knowledge that he could earn a decent living, and earn it without bootlicking. When you read about Mark Twain's Mississippi raftsmen and pilots, or Bret Harte's Western gold-miners, they seem more remote than the cannibals of the Stone Age. The reason is simply that they are free human beings.
Of course, it was only white men who were free and equal between 1820 and 1850, not women, not blacks, not the indigenous natives, but the freedom and the equality for them were real and not poisoned by faction, as they were after the Mexican war. And for our second golden age we can let Dr. Martin Luther King speak, who was one of the few of us as honest and as insightful because of his honesty, as Orwell:
In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
The twenty years of commitment to equality, as well as liberty, which followed speak to the historian in me, as well as the man who grew from boyhood to full maturity during them, as the apogee of the American achievement. They are gone. We have not returned to the licence of slavery or Jim Crow, but we have returned to the fact that some are more equal than others if they have enough surplus income to invest in common stocks, rather than relying on mere wages, as they were between 1870 and 1940. And we are returning to the factional hatred, in the name of "patriotism" and "defense of freedom", of those who would protest this fact.
Where are we headed? Where I hope we do not arrive--at the destination of the authoritarian, military garrison, democracy of Israel, where torture of enemies in the name of "security" is a commonplace; at the rigid "some are more equal than others" economy we have been building for the past 25 years; and at the totally police surveiled and government spied upon public world of Britain.
If this is our future, the words, once again, of Orwell in 1940 about that world of Britain will be equally applicable, with adaptation, of course, to us:
Like it or not, this is the world that Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and Tony Blair between them, have made Britain into. And for us the words of the old song will belie the dream of Dr. King:
England is a country in which property and financial power are concentrated in very few hands. Few people in modern England own anything at all, except clothes, furniture and possibly a house...
The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above....
It is obvious, of course, that even this purely private liberty is a lost cause. Like all other modern people, the English are in process of being numbered, labelled, conscripted, ‘co-ordinated’. But the pull of their impulses is in the other direction, and the kind of regimentation that can be imposed on them will be modified in consequence. No party rallies, no Youth Movements, no coloured shirts, no Jew-baiting or ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations. No Gestapo either, in all probability.
Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.
Nothing ain't worth nothing, but its free.
But feeling good was easy, when Bobbie sang the blues.
Feeling good was good enough for me.
Good enough for me and Bobbie McGhee.