Freedom within limits

It's up to us to give freedom a ghost of a chance

It's up to us to give freedom a ghost of a chance

July 04, 2004

All too often, we Americans enjoy our many freedoms without really thinking about our responsibilities as citizens. With Independence Day facing me again, I found myself wondering what our nation's founders and leaders would have said to me if we could have talked. I consulted Bartlett's Quotations online ( on the Web) when writing this column and imagined a meeting with these men.

A rude awakening

Watching TV late at night. Chips and soda on the coffee table. Fireworks popping on the little screen. An orchestra playing John Philip Sousa.

I'm celebrating. It's the Fourth of July.

But it's late. I'm tired. The TV tinkles sweetly, and before long ...


"Ow!" I jump to my feet. "That's my head!" Then I open my eyes. And see before me a tall man in a tri-cornered hat, old-fashioned coat and knee breeches. I blink. "Is this a joke?"

The man points a rolled-up document at me like a sword and waves it under my nose. I retreat behind the sofa.


"I am not a joke, sir, but Thomas Paine, author of 'Common Sense' and promoter of separation from England before the War of Independence," he says. "And you, sir, are a scoundrel!"

"What do you mean, scoundrel?" I say. "I wasn't snoring that loudly, was I? Hey, you know, it is the middle of the night."

"You and all others who take your liberty for granted are scoundrels, sir."

"Hey! - I don't take it for granted!" I protest. "I vote - sometimes. I pay my taxes! I complain about elected officials, like everyone else."

"I speak of freedom, sir! Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must undergo the fatigues of supporting it."

"Fatigues? I'm fatigued, alright. And this is a bad dream."

"You did not exert yourself to gain your freedom," says Mr. Tricorn Hat, "and you believe you can do anything - or nothing - with your freedom! You, sir, are a layabout."

"Maybe I do take freedom for granted. But that's my right! It's a free country. I can do what I want to!"

Then he fades away.

Watching the land of liberty

I stare stupidly where Thomas Paine stood a few seconds ago. What was that about? Did I eat some bad bean dip?

"Sometimes I think ..." says a voice behind me, as I whirl around, "I have not yet met one person who rightly understands freedom."

An old guy with a white beard and long white hair (Santa out of uniform?) sits on my sofa. I swear he wasn't there three seconds ago.

"Don't do that! You startled me," I gasp. "And who are you, anyway? And why are all these people coming into my living room in the middle of the night?"

He looks amused by my outburst.

"Most people entirely misunderstand freedom. To the degraded or undeveloped," he says, looking at me closely, "the thought of freedom is a thought of escaping from law. Which, of course, is impossible. You cannot do, as you claim, literally whatever you want. And I, sir, since you asked, am Walt Whitman, journalist and poet."

"Walt Whitman?"

The figure nods.

"Here in my house?"

He nods again. "But you're dead."

He sighs. "Dead, but not disappeared. Strange it may seem, but those, such as Mr. Paine, who labored for liberty and those, such as myself, who strove to elicit the exercise of freedom among citizens, still watch over the land we love. And we worry. Will our land of liberty last?"

"Of course it will," I say. "You guys made it free long ago. Now we can do what we want."

Freedom comes from laws

Suddenly I see another man standing behind the sofa - a slight man with longish hair surrounding a prominent bald head.

"James Madison at your service, sir," he nods to me. "We specified in the Constitution of the United States the freedoms we believed should be granted to citizens by their federal government: freedom of religion; freedom of speech and the press; freedom to assemble peaceably; and freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

"But there is no Constitutional guarantee that citizens may do whatever they please."

He fades from view.

"But I am an American!" I say, turning back to Walt Whitman. "I have free will!"

"Great - unspeakably great - is the will! The free soul of man!" Whitman says, sadly. "But nearly every man of us - especially the greatest brawlers for freedom - is enslaved. We are slaves to the silliness of local fashions, to the tyranny of narrowness of ecclesiasticism, to party loyalties and, worst of all, to the domination of vices.

"The shallow consider liberty a release from all law, from every constraint. But ours is a nation founded on the Rule of Law, not the dictates of man. Only when citizens understand and obey their laws can they maintain true liberty."

Obey laws in order to be free? This is not exactly my understanding of freedom.

Nurturing freedom

Walt looks at me as if I were a slow student in kindergarten.

"But I thought I was free," I say. "I thought America was a free country."

"Freed from tyranny's heavy hand, I grant you," Walt says. He starts to thin, to become transparent. "But freedom is like a garden. Rain and sun are no guarantee of survival. Weeds, drought, pestilence, ill weather - these are all-too-common threats to a precious flower. The flower of freedom may not seem fragile to you, but it must be nurtured by many gardeners. You are one of the many."

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