We’ve always had this problem with freedom—this problem of what do we think we mean by it? Especially, what do we think we mean by it when we are slaveholders?
It jumps right out at you, after all. It can’t help it. Right there at the beginning, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Oh, and we are slave-owners. We declare that all men (a.k.a. people) are created equal and we (some of us, but the Declaration of Independence is meant to speak for and about all of us) enslave people. Well, which is it? All men are created equal, or we own slaves? Pick one! You can’t have both!
It didn’t go unnoticed at the time. There were murmurs—not so much from people who agreed with the rights claim as from people who thought it was grandiose nonsense. Tory Samuel Johnson asked, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” It’s a good question. I’ve never understood how the Enlightenment heroes who drew up the Declaration solved the problem in their own minds.
One way to square the circle is what Thomas Jefferson did in Notes on the State of Virginia. He took a look at the slaves he knew—that is, the ones who slaved on his farm and enabled him to buy all those books and bottles of French wine—and decided with surprising confidence that they were just not as high-quality as White people. He did admit the possibility that enslavement had something to do with the imputed inferiority, but he still felt confident enough to offer such insights as “In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.” So, does that mean they were not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, including Liberty? Or that they were, but slaveowners are entitled to ignore that Right? Jefferson is the man who wrote those inspirational words, yet it’s not clear whether or not he actually believed them.
In a way, it’s not particularly fair to expect the rest of us to live up to some words. Jefferson wrote them more than two centuries ago—we didn’t write those words, so why should we have to live by them? But in another way, it is fair, because those words are at the core of the national self-image—our mythology, our collective idea of what it is to be American. A collective mythology is an idea, not a thing, but it’s a very powerful idea.
We all live under the umbrella of this idea, even if we dissent from it, so it does matter how coherent it is, how honest it is. The reality is what Johnson said: the national mythology is a pretty brazen lie. It’s almost Trumpian in its shamelessness. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and have certain unalienable rights, including life and liberty. Oh really? Oh, do you? Well, explain yourselves then. What’s up with the two-and-a-half centuries of slavery? Followed by a complete failure to compensate the former slaves for generations of stolen labor, and in fact a continuation of forced unpaid labor via Jim Crow laws that made it a crime to be unemployed, seek higher wages, or travel to find a better job? What’s up with turning a blind eye to slavery by another name for another century after the Civil War? What’s up with all those underfunded schools in Mississippi and Alabama? What’s up with Whites-only public libraries? The civil-rights hero Rep. John Lewis went to his local library in Troy, Alabama, as a child to apply for a library card and was told library cards were for White people only. What’s up with all of that?
What’s up with the fact that the only way to prod President Kennedy into doing anything about the attacks on the Freedom Riders was to tell him it made us look bad on the world stage? Raymond Arsenault writes in Freedom Riders:
It was no secret that America’s long and continuing association with racial discrimination posed a potential threat to the State Department’s continuing efforts to secure the loyalty and respect of the so-called Third World. If movement leaders could find some means of highlighting the diplomatic costs of Jim Crow, the administration would be forced to address civil rights issues as a function of national security.
Why is that what it took? Why wasn’t it enough to expose and demonstrate the personal, social, real-life costs of Jim Crow? Why did it require a foreign affairs angle to pierce Kennedy’s indifference?
The upshot is we’re all hat and no cattle, as they say in Texas. For a nation founded on the claim that all people have the unalienable right to Liberty, we’ve done a lousy rotten job of living up to it. We’re still not living up to it, nearly sixty years after the Freedom Rides.
We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. We do very little to help minority and working-class students get to college, and instead have a system of student loans and for-profit universities that trap millions in debt for decades. We throw asylum seekers and immigrants into detention centers on the southern border, where some die of illness or heat stroke.
Meanwhile, the great freedom struggle in pale America right now is for the freedom to ignore social distancing rules; the freedom to pack into churches to sing in a crowd, thus spreading the virus with maximum efficiency; the freedom to refuse to wear masks; and the freedom to carry assault rifles into a state legislature (as long as you’re not Black).
We’re not living up to our purported ideals as well as we might be.