The bastardization of liberty and freedom is nothing new in the United States. It extends far beyond the recent “Liberate” protests in response to pandemic lockdowns, the result of which have borne fruit in an earlier than predicted second wave of Covid-19. It is not confined to just the 21st century, during which all three presidents have directed acts of war against Iraq, Libya, Iran and Venezuela, in part, so that the people there may live in “freedom.” Nor is the specious use of these terms merely associated with tax cuts or the supposed “freedom” of the lobbyist.
It extends back to the earliest days of the British colonies and speeds full tilt ahead from there.
Following England’s 1688 Glorious Revolution, the Royal African Company’s monopoly on British slave trade eroded, following persistent pressure from merchants and colonial planters (p. 44-45). Such “free trade” (p. 43) deregulation caused the number of British colony slaves to exponentially multiple. Disproportionate numbers of black slaves compared with whites led to slave revolts and fear of it, causing the concept of whiteness (p.12) to burgeon at the end of the 17th century (though this remained tenuous due to imperial rivalries with France and Spain, and the rebelliousness of Scots and Irish).
Fast forward to the 1770s, when the desire for independence from Britain was brewing in the 13 colonies. Colonists were fretting about two court cases in Great Britain that seemed to indicate that colonists’ “liberty” to enslave people of African descent would be barred by an increasingly abolitionist mother country.
In 1772, British officers boarded the Gaspee in Newport, Rhode Island to investigate illicit slave trading. Viewing this as an infringement on their trading rights, the colonists rioted. An enslaved black man, Aaron Briggs, was made the chief witness against the rioters in an English court (p.202-203), causing a general clamor in the colonies over the fact that an American black slave was treated on equal footing in Britain. Then there was the Somerset case, where the American slave James Somerset was found in bondage on the Thames River. The abolitionist mood in London helped lead to his emancipation after a contentious trial (p. 209-212).
The pro-emancipation zeitgeist in Britain is an important and often overlooked factor in the US’s founding. Settlers worried that African slaves, who were relied upon for generating much of their wealth, would soon be manumitted by the Crown. To a certain degree, this caused their revolt; and, ironically, the slaveholding colonists themselves often claimed that they were being treated like “slaves” to Britain.
While Americans have long heard the founding mythology that a desire for liberty alone led to the Revolutionary War, the rebels’ contemporary, Samuel Johnson, mused (p. 242), “how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” In other words, how could colonists claim that liberty caused them to revolt against the Crown when they were preventing the liberty of wide swathes of the population because they were black. Exiled Massachusetts colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson wondered, “if the rights were so ‘absolutely inalienable’,” as stated in the Declaration of Independence, then how could people of African descent be deprived of them (p. 238).
Later on, after the founding of the republic, American settlers flooded into the Mexican territory of Texas. After Mexican independence in 1824, the new government soon passed laws to end the slave trade and slavery, but allowed Texas an exemption. Fearing that this exemption would be temporal and they would be deprived of human property (limitations on slavery is cited as Anglo-Texans’ “greatest problem under Mexican rule” in the Republic of Texas Constitution), the Anglo-Texans revolted to maintain “liberty.” As the “Ballad of Davy Crockett” goes, “To the Texas plains he jest had to go / Where freedom was fightin’ another foe.” Once again, the prattle of liberty and freedom was an obfuscation to maintain a system based on the most inhumane form of human exploitation: slavery.
Since then, we have seen liberty and freedom used throughout American history in various efforts towards furthering unfreedom. The Confederate leaders claimed they wanted constitutional liberty to maintained a slave system. William McKinley wanted to bring freedom to Filipinos, just as Lyndon Johnson did for the Vietnamese and Reagan for Chile. With the most pro-lobbying laws in the Western world, US courts and legislators have consistently misappropriated the First Amendment allowing for the legal purchase of politicians with money, culminating in Citizens United in 2010.
Today, with the Covid pandemic, there is unending drivel about liberty and freedom by those who want to reopen everything, without restriction, and who refuse to wear masks in public places. Just as with rebel colonists’ citing of liberty to maintain a slave system and lobbyists’ advocating for free speech rights to diminish citizens’ political power and freedom, the plandemic acolytes act in ways that hasten the spread of Covid-19, causing societal freedoms and well-being to diminish. Yet, unlike slaveholding Texas and colonist rebels who directly benefited from bastardizing the concept of freedom, the plandemic advocates gain next to nothing, other than the ability to walk into a mall, restaurant or bar without restriction.
This may speak to the extent that unreality, untruth and illogicity has inundated many Americans’ minds today. However, in bastardizing the concepts of freedom and liberty, there is a long trail of precedent.
Peter F. Crowley is a Boston-area writer who recently had the book Those Who Hold Up the Earth published by Kelsay Books. His work appears in an assortment of literary magazines, news/opinion websites and academic journals, including Truthout, The Opiate Magazine and Ethnic Studies Review.