Freedom and Unity

America was founded by immigrants from many nations of diverse political ideals, disparate religious beliefs, social backgrounds (French aristocrats, Irish serfs, Chinese coolies), different races (white, black, oriental), and a multitude of linguistic groups. They shared only one thing in common that bound them to one another – a common quest for liberty, a love of freedom.
They discovered that freedom in the New World in a measure never before imagined or realized elsewhere: political freedom to speak whatever they chose and elect their own leaders at a time when monarchy still reigned supreme in Europe, the right to vote was confined to three percent of Englishman, and candidates for Parliament came almost exclusively from the upper class; religious freedom to believe, speak and worship according to their own dispositions – be they Puritan, Quaker, Anabaptist, Mennonite, Jesuit, Anglican, Lutheran, Huguenot, Catholic, Jewish, Calvinist, Methodist, or a host of others; economic freedom where anyone could become anything and rise from rags to riches within a lifetime, where huge chunks of land were given almost free for the asking, where wages rose to ten times the level prevalent in Europe due to the perennial shortage of workers; social freedom from class discrimination, where an impoverished boy born in a log-cabin and self-educated could rise to become the President of the country at a time when the European society was still dominated by an aristocracy and landed gentry that occupied all senior positions in government, church, military and universities; and cultural freedom from discrimination based on birth and lineage that still marked an English or Frenchman according to his family of origin and his linguistic accent.

So great was the freedom in America that a visiting French prison administrator, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote his famous book Democracy in America in 1832 marveling at what to Europeans was unimaginable, and a century later his fellow countryman Charles de Gaulle (not known for his excessive love of America) was compelled to proclaim the same while walking the streets of New York. Freedom and freedom alone united these diverse people and molded them into a nation that multiplied rapidly in numbers and expanded rapidly in space until they reached across the continent to the Pacific Ocean.

Yet, it was also the issue of freedom that divided America and Americans from the country’s very inception, when slave-owning southern plantation owners refused to join the newly established United States of America without assurances that their black slaves would be regarded under law as personal property, rather than as human beings. Jefferson’s famous declaration that ‘All men are created equal’ was modified in practice to mean all white men – not blacks who were merely property, not even white women, who did not attain the right to vote till 135 years after the Declaration of Independence. Many of those who had fled to America in quest of liberty were unwilling to extend the same gift to others, if they could benefit from depriving others of the same privileges they enjoyed. The Southern economy rose and prospered for a time on the strength of slave labor, as wealthy monarchs and emperors had ruled elsewhere in the past on the strength of the sacrifices of their people.

The dispute over freedom was a slim crack in the original constitution of the country which gradually widened into a fissure and broadened into a chasm that threatened and nearly succeeded in destroying the confederation of states and splitting it asunder. The American Civil War – the first modern war and bloodiest ever fought until that time – began in 1861 to determine whether that fracture would become a permanent division of the nation into two or more independent countries or whether the original flaw in the union of former colonies would be permanently eliminated. The war was won and political freedom granted to the slaves due to the leadership of a remarkable man and great leader, Abraham Lincoln, who ardently believed in the sanctity of these two apparently contradictory and irreconcilable goals – freedom for all and unity for the nation – and was willing to risk all and sacrifice everything else for the sake of realizing them.

The outcome of the war ruled for Freedom and Unity. Slavery was abolished from the continental USA, as it had already been abolished throughout Europe. The loosely bound confederation of states was forged into a tightly knit federation with a strong federal government empowered to ensure freedom for all Americans. In the following decades America fulfilled its manifest destiny of incorporating all the territories between the Atlantic and the Pacific. It enjoyed the most rapid economic growth in its history and of any nation up until that time. Before the end of the 19th century, it had become the most prosperous nation in the world.

Yet the quest for real freedom had only been won in principle, not in fact. For freedom remains an empty promise unless it encompasses not only the right to vote, speak and worship, but also assures the right to work, to a steady income and economic security, to social acceptance and mental development. Political freedom is the foundation on which economic, social and psychological freedom are to be attained and assured. The rapid spread of higher education widened economic opportunities for many Americans, but for long the blacks were virtually excluded from access to the best schools and higher institutions of learning. Having attained in principle equality before law, they were still oppressed by social and economic discrimination. It took another 100 years or more to translate the promise of political freedom for the blacks into a modicum of social and economic equality. That struggle is still playing itself out today.

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