Today Americans take many of their freedoms for granted. We have become accustomed to speaking our minds, forming our own beliefs, and pursuing our goals and dreams at our own will. Unfortunately, it was not always this way. Many of the first Americans left their homelands to escape various forms of persecution. Freedom formed a new type of life for these people, a better life, and a life that they were willing to protect under any circumstance. Freedom has established a place in every American’s heart, and, although we share a common belief, the significance of that belief varies greatly from one person to the next.
In John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” he discusses freedom in terms of religion. The Puritans claimed that their beliefs provided a better way of living than those of the Church of England. The law, however, prohibited such practices. Fortunately, an opportunity presented itself in traveling to the New World. Here the Puritans would experience a freedom that they had never known, the freedom of religion and the freedom to believe in what one knows rather than what they have been told.
In “What is an American,” Crevecoeur writes about what it means to be an American. Europe was a land ruled by the noble and the rest of the population was forced to work. People were not even allowed to select a trade of their choice, but were required to continue practicing the trade of their family. America gave European immigrants an opportunity to own property and control everything that they produced. For these people, freedom was the ability to control their own fate rather than be restricted by their ancestors or their inheritance.
Benjamin Franklin wrote about the events of his life in order to show the people of America that they too could succeed. Franklin’s life was far from perfect. He chose to follow his own inclinations and, in turn, encountered a number of setbacks. However, Franklin did not let that stop him. From these set backs he gained knowledge and experience that could be used down the road to avoid further misfortune. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin demonstrates to its readers not only their ability to succeed, but it also provides proof of their freedom to try. America truly is a land of possibility!
Washington Irving’s view on freedom is quite similar to that of Crevecouer and Franklin. They are all primarily concerned with the notion of the “Self-Made American Man.” In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving writes of a man, named Ichabod Crane, who dreams of becoming a wealthy farmer. However, Crane attempts to obtain his dream through marriage and inheritance. In the end, his plan fails and Crane moves to New York City where he works hard as a lawyer and, eventually, becomes a judge. Rip Van Winkle, on the other hand, simply had no real desire to succeed or become wealthy. He was satisfied with the very minimum, surviving. Irving uses both of his stories to explain freedom. The first is used to show Americans that they have to make things happen on their own rather than depend on other people. The second simply demonstrates that you must have a desire to succeed in order to become successful. In other words, one must have the desire to take advantage of freedoms in order to become a success.
Emerson and Thoreau were two of a kind. Not only were they neighbors and friends, but they shared a lot of the same ideas as well. Emerson discussed the concept of “Self-Reliance.” He focused on the importance of resisting conformity and standing up for ones own ideals. Emerson claimed, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” The only way to accomplish this is to act in accordance with your own beliefs, rather than those of society. Thoreau put many of Emerson’s ideas to action. For instance, in “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau follows his ideals by refusing to pay his poll tax. This tax was being used to support a government that was waging a war that he thought was unjust. As a result, Thoreau was forced to spend time in jail, but he knew he was there for the right reasons and this brought him peace.
Fredrick Douglas also wrote about freedom. His experiences, however, allowed him to look at freedom in an entirely different light. Douglas was a slave who experienced oppression at its worst. Many of the rights and freedoms discussed by previous writers were not even known to exist. Douglas was beaten, starved, separated from family and friends, deprived of an education, sold, disgraced, etc. He could own nothing and what he did make was given to his, so called, owner. Fredrick Douglas took freedom to a whole new level simply because he was exposed to cruelties that most people had never known. Freedom was taken for granted by most of America. Only those, such as Fredrick Douglas, could possibly understand the true meaning of freedom.
All of the writers encountered in this module were interested in freedom, including those that were not mentioned. Freedom contains a number of meanings. It could be the right to speak your thoughts openly, to believe whatever you would like, to own property, to maintain ownership of what you make, or even just being allowed to spend your life with the people you love. Fredrick Douglas would have felt privileged to possess only a few of the rights permitted to an average American. He showed America how unfair life really could be, and helped us gain a tremendous amount of respect for a nation that has given its people so much.