October 26, 2003
I was very much struck by Tony’s Inaugural Address earlier today, and so I wanted to follow up on a couple of the themes that he touched upon.
I want to do so by starting with two words that are extraordinarily powerful in the American vocabulary. Tony made the case that we is perhaps the most powerful word that we have, but I would say that liberty and freedom rank right with it. In fact, if you start with the We in We the people, you get to liberty pretty quickly. But I am using liberty and freedom synonymously. They are words that we refer to, use and hold in a meaningful way all the time. We sing about them. “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside let freedom ring.” They are there in the Declaration of Independence. They are there in the Preamble to the Constitution. They were invoked by Lincoln in November 1863; 100 years later, standing at the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked them again in that marvelous “I have a dream” speech. You remember the phrase at the end, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last.”
So freedom is really quite a powerful thing that we have to come to terms with in some way. It’s not enough to say that it means different things, as indeed it does. Intellectual historians have found about 200 different meanings, including Janis Joplin’s version, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
Whatever freedom means to us, it’s really quite powerful. I want to read you a passage from one of the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass. This is the first one, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself. It’s very important that he lets us know that he wrote it himself. That was unheard of.
You remember that Frederick Douglass was born a slave on a Maryland plantation. At the age of about eight he was sent to Baltimore to live with a family there, slave owners. And he writes this paragraph: “Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the abc. After I had learned this she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words further, he said, if you give a nigger an inch he will take a mile. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master; to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now, said he, if they teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable and of no value to his master. As to himself it could do him no good but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.
"These words,” writes Douglass, “These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new, a special revelation explaining dark and mysterious things with which my youthful understanding had struggled in vain. I now understood what had been, to me, a most perplexing difficulty; to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”
Now Mr. Auld was right, as you recall. Though his wife ceased to teach Frederick Douglass how to read, he learned on his own from that point forward and before long had run away, hidden away, stowed away on a boat and gone to New York and started to become the Frederick Douglass that we know. So this bit of self-liberation through reading, through learning, has two meanings: He left physically, he defeated chattel slavery; and he also began to make himself into the person that he wanted to be. And that’s a kind of freedom that most Americans cherish.
Now, I believe that when he wrote these words (they were published for the first time in 1845, so he was writing them at the age of about 26), Douglass knew exactly what he was doing. He knew that he was creating a persona. He was not only creating himself, but he was portraying someone in print. I believe that because of the way it is written, but also because shortly before Douglass wrote this, William Ellery Channing had published in 1838 a book called Self-Culture, a set of lectures that he had been giving to working-class men, mostly emphasizing not the rags-to-riches myth, but the self-mastery myth: how to live a moral life and make yourself into the person you want to be. So in that context, Douglass knew what he was doing.
Now that theme of Self-Culture—making oneself into a new person all the time—is one that’s right at the heart of the American identity; it’s not the only part of it, but it’s there, and it is bound to call to mind that first American self-creator, Benjamin Franklin, who in his autobiography describes how he came to Philadelphia as a teenager with no money. By the age of 41 he had retired from business as a wealthy man and spent the rest of his life in public service. This is curious, because Franklin also is quite self-conscious about making himself into this gentleman, and he advises people about how to get wealthy. You recall that he said that to become wealthy you had to very industrious. And then he said, “Of course, it’s important to be industrious, but it is even more important to appear to be industrious.” So he is manipulating us all the time.
So it is somewhat of a surprise to me to see that Franklin spent the rest of his life in public service. And he gave some advice that I think is quite useful for us, advice about education. This is from his essay “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania.” It’s the last paragraph after he describes a curriculum that’s very pragmatic for its time, in 1749. You have to listen carefully because it’s written in that 18th-century language:
"The idea of what is true merit should also be often presented to youth, explained and impressed on their minds as consisting in an inclination joined with an ability to serve mankind, one’s country, friends and family, which ability is, with the blessing of God, to be acquired or greatly increased by great learning which should, indeed, be the great aim and end of all learning.”
So here Franklin is an apparently somewhat cynical self-creator and manipulator, advising us that the aim of learning should be to equip people not only with the ability but also with the inclination to be of service to humanity; to be of public service. And indeed, he went away and spent the rest of his life in public service, much to the detriment of his own fortune, which depleted a bit.
This leaves me with a puzzle, though: Aside from altruism, why should one follow Franklin’s advice? What’s in it for us? It’s very nice to say that we should all be of service to humanity—and I think we should—but aside from morality, is there any other reason?
Very briefly: Yes, there is. And the reason would be something like this. It has shades of Thomas Hobbes in the War of All Against All. But it also recalls George Soros, the billionaire American benefactor and financier, who is trying to bring democracy to the lands of the former Soviet Union. At one point Soros wrote, “An unregulated market doesn’t breed democracy, it breeds thugs.” A little bit more eloquently, Isaiah Berlin made the same point by saying, “Complete freedom for the wolf is death for the lamb.”
What they are saying here is that freedom (whatever it is), liberty (which we love and cherish) is not something we have by ourselves. Liberty is a community project, if you will, a community thing. If we don’t live in a community, a society, that treasures freedom and that provides it in great measure—whether it’s freedom from, or freedom to, or one of various other complications about freedom—if the society doesn’t cultivate it and keep it alive as a collective enterprise, it doesn’t exist for anyone. That is why each of us as individuals needs to go forth and be of service to humanity, to build a society in which we all have that sort of freedom.
And that’s also why colleges such as Amherst should encourage their students to do the same thing.