Eric Foner, a distinguished Columbia University professor, was in town recently to speak to University of Utah history students and faculty about his book in progress, "The Story of American Freedom."
I was intrigued with the topic, so I asked him a question I've been pondering for a long time. I said, "Is the desire for freedom something that is inherent in human beings?"I was thinking of my own study of slavery, for one thing. In Civil War times, when some slaves in the South were freed by clauses in their masters' wills, almost all of them accepted freedom even if this condition was imposed - that they had to go live in Africa.
More recently, when communism fell out of favor in Europe, people who had been oppressed for their entire lives were eager, even ecstatic about the prospects of freedom. So I wondered if people everywhere have a natural need for freedom.
Foner seemed a bit put off by my question. He said, "I don't know - I'm not a philosopher." I thought that would be the end of it. He paused before asking a question of his own: "What IS that freedom that people are desiring that is inherent? A serf in medieval Europe might desire freedom, but his idea of freedom was very different from what you and I would think it is today - or perhaps what people in Aristotle's Greece might think it is."
His mind was still working. Finally, he got closer to my point: "If we put it as simply as slavery vs. freedom, probably the desire NOT to be a slave is inherent in human nature, but there are plenty of people in history who have considered themselves free that we wouldn't consider free today - including probably most women in history."
Foner is examining freedom from every possible angle. Should we identify it with "The Freemen" of Montana who are reacting against government bureaucracy? Or should we keep harking back to the freedom of ancient Greece as representative of all freedom? Is freedom best defined as many 20th century Americans would define it - as simply the act of being against communism?
Foner is especially interested in the notion that "freedom has changed over time and the meaning is always contested. . . . Its meanings have been constructed not only in parliamentary debates and philosophical treatises, but on plantations, in picket lines and in people's bedrooms."
That's why people frequently explain whatever it is they're doing by saying, "It's a free country." According to Foner, "No other society has imbued its citizens with so strong a sense of individual liberty."
Ironically, says Foner, "freedom from its birth was also intertwined with American slavery. In reality, freedom was not universal in this country. It was really limited to certain people."
Foner's book will therefore talk not only about what freedom is, but who is supposed to enjoy it. "The boundaries of freedom are as important as the substance of freedom."
Foner quoted Oliver Goldsmith, the British poet, who said, "They call it freedom when they themselves are free." According to Foner, "This is a good motto for American history, because the expansion of freedom usually comes from the efforts of outsiders to penetrate that imagined boundary. It was they who were excluded from the full benefits of freedom who insisted that freedom was a birthright of mankind."
But Foner's most interesting point is this final one - that "central to black thought in this country has always been freedom as something incomplete, something becoming, something you always struggle for. . . . Blacks are the most creative in thinking about freedom in this country, because most white people think of freedom as something they're born into, something they have that someone might want to take away. Blacks think freedom is something you have to achieve - and that makes you think in much more interesting ways about what freedom is."
I can't wait for him to finish the book.