Founding Fathers Defined Freedom Differently

Jul 4, 2012
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

And on this day, when we celebrate our independence, we now consider the meaning of freedom. If you've been listening to our political discourse of recent times, right up to last week's Supreme Court ruling on health care, you've been hearing a lot about freedom, especially from the political right.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Let's preserve freedom. Strike it down.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Freedom is under assault here. I mean, they are taking away Americans' freedom.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN: This is a turning point in American history. We will never be the same again with this denial of liberty interests.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What do you want?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: When do you want it?


RUSH LIMBAUGH: Greetings. Welcome back. Rush Limbaugh here on the cutting edge of societal evolution. Our freedom of choice just met its death panel.

SIEGEL: It seems that the definition of freedom depends a great deal on who's defining it, and this reminds me of the thesis of historian David Hackett Fischer in his 2005 book "Liberty and Freedom." Fischer wrote this: What made America free was not any single vision of liberty and freedom, but the interplay of many visions. Together, these many ideas made America more free than any one American ever was or wished to be. David Hackett Fischer joins us. Welcome back.

DAVID HACKETT FISCHER: Thank you, Robert. It's a pleasure.

SIEGEL: What do you mean by the idea that each of us is somehow more free than any one of us individually would wish to be? Let's pursue that idea a little bit.

FISCHER: Well, I think some of my colleagues have said that early America was an open country dotted with closed enclaves. And what they meant was that many of these groups who came over in pursuit of liberty and freedom for themselves often denied it to others. That happened to the Puritans with religious dissenters. It happened with the cavaliers and their servants and, later, slaves. And it happened in the backcountry as well, where these people who wanted to be left alone did not welcome strangers. Then as these groups began to try to find ways to get on within the framework of the Constitution, I think most of these ideas of liberty and freedom began to grow.

SIEGEL: You've just alluded to a thesis that you developed in a great book, "Albion's Seed," which is that we had these four big migrations in colonial America of Puritans to New England and cavalier, royalists, I guess, to Virginia and Quakers to Pennsylvania, and then these northern English kind of border Scots to what, I think, was the piney woods of Appalachia.

FISCHER: No, much bigger than that...

SIEGEL: Much bigger.

FISCHER: ...reaching to Texas, to Missouri, to Oklahoma.

SIEGEL: And each of those four groups brings with it different traditions of how you name kids and what you eat and what you wear, but also different ideas of what freedom and liberty mean.

FISCHER: Yes. And often combined in the early years, and I fear even to our own time, with intense intolerance...


FISCHER: ...for others who have a different idea of liberty and freedom. And I think tolerance may be the key to all of this.

SIEGEL: Let's just tick off these four groups and what FDR didn't mean by four freedoms, four different concepts of freedom. The Puritans were here to form a religious state.

FISCHER: And to build it of small communities, which were their towns and churches. They spoke of soul freedom, liberty of conscience, but it didn't extend even very far to other Protestants within that culture.

SIEGEL: And the cavalier culture of Virginia?

FISCHER: Very hierarchical, top down, liberty and freedom as a system of rank with people at the top having much, people at the bottom having nearly none.

SIEGEL: The people at the bottom...

FISCHER: Being slaves, first indentured servants. Eighty percent were indentured servants and then slaves.

SIEGEL: And the Quakers, their idea of freedom?

FISCHER: And the Quakers were more, I think, reciprocal. Their symbol was the bell that we remember as the Liberty Bell. It was commissioned by a Quaker assembly in 1752. Around the crown of the bell, they put a verse from Leviticus: Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof. And they were serious about that. They really extended to others the liberty that they claimed for themselves. And it was William Penn who was the driver of that, and the inspiration were the four Gospels, the Golden Rule.

SIEGEL: And the symbol of those Northern Britains. it wasn't the bell.

FISCHER: It wasn't the bell. It was a snake. It was a rattlesnake. It was don't tread on me. And it's interesting to see that it was cast in the first person, singular.

SIEGEL: Not don't tread on us. Don't tread on me.

FISCHER: That's right.

SIEGEL: So when we celebrate this 236th anniversary of the country, what we're celebrating - it's not the power of a single idea or a simply described idea. It 's the ability to bridge between, encompass, have a huge compromise about it - it's about many different ideas.

FISCHER: It was an exercise in studied evasion. It was a wonderful creation by the committee that put it together. And it's interesting to see that phrases were in the draft that had to be removed because they offended one of those groups or another. Jefferson and Franklin and John Adams worked very hard at that. They said that they were not guided by John Locke or any treaties but were trying to get an expression of the American mind, in Jefferson's exact words. The problem was there were so many American minds. And it was a very difficult political feat.

SIEGEL: Professor Fischer, thanks a lot for talking with us once again.

FISCHER: It's a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Historian David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis University.

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