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Limitations of Freedom Throughout American History

Info: 4098 words (16 pages) Essay
Published: 5th Nov 2021 in History

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Throughout American history, whenever this country and its people have felt threatened, the immediate reaction was always to repress and persecute. In retrospect, we come to realize that the denial of civil liberties did not make the country any better. On the contrary, we can now recognize the injustices the American government upheld against various groups of people. The temptation to limit the constitutional protections of the American people must be resisted as, in fact, adherence with the Constitution is not an obstacle to national security. The exclusion of freedoms and rights is central to defining who is able to enjoy it, which is often made along the lines of class, race, and gender. Freedom has clearly had its limitations throughout American history. Since the beginning of American civilization, minorities, such as people of color, immigrants, and women, have been repressed and stripped of their civil liberties.

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An early example of the limitations of freedom in America can be traced back to the treatment of Native Americans in the 1600s. To be specific, a group called the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico faced an extreme amount of racial persecution. The Pueblo population in New Mexico fell from around sixty thousand in the early 1600s to seventeen thousand by 1680.[1] Spanish authorities had insisted that Pueblo Indians pay tribute to the Spanish Crown by offering their labor for encomenderos. The Spanish set up this system in order to aid the development of their mining economy. This system resulted in the widespread abuse of indigenous people, as well as theft of their land.[2] The Spaniards made no effort to assimilate with the Pueblo culture and instead made them learn Spanish and pushed them to abandon their religious beliefs while still expecting them to be subservient and helpful. Many would argue that the Pueblo Indians were not slaves, as they benefited from their relationship with the Spaniards, it is true there was mutual benefit at first. But, the colonists exploited the Indians' labor, they overworked them, forced them to convert and lose their culture. The Spaniards saw the Pueblos as inferior to them, and therefore, limited their rights. The Spaniards saw no reason to allow for Pueblo Indians to enjoy the freedoms they lavished in, because the Spaniards wanted the Pueblos to live their lives in service to the Spanish.

In addition to the harsh treatment of the Spaniards on the Pueblo Indians, another racial minority group that faced cruelty and discrimination in America are African Americans. The legal institution of African slavery defined the lack of freedom America failed to extend towards minorities. Of the migrants to British North American colonies in the 1700s, 151,600 people were free Europeans while 278,400 were enslaved Africans. 400,000 enslaved Africans would be sold into America before the abolishment of the international slave trade. By 1860, the U.S. slave population was at 4,500,000.[3] At the moment that slavery became a dominant institution in the U.S. (from 1810 to 1860), the most important institution in the American South, was the age of Jacksonian democracy. Jacksonian democracy was riddled with paradox and the greatest example of this was the acceptance of white supremacy, best exemplified by African slavery and Indian removal.[4]

The Jacksonian rationale for territorial expansion assumed that all other groups - African slaves, free blacks in the North, Indians, Latinos in the West - were inferior to whites; if they resisted, violence was justified. Andrew Jackson believed in democracy and freedom but he thought these concepts were only applicable for whites. He appealed on his will to fight privilege and provide economic opportunity for white male voters only. The people during the Jacksonian democracy accepted slavery as being progressive for the growth of the economy and their own freedom and well being.[5]

Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs were some of the first enslaved African Americans to create a literary canon, known as the slave narrative. Their narratives were weapons of emancipation for formerly enslaved Africans when neither legislation nor society promised liberation. Douglass's narrative begins with a slave who does not know he is human.[6] As a leader of the abolitionist movement, Frederick Douglass quickly rose to success. His extensive archive of writings and speeches records how much freedom meant to a man who risked everything to procure it. Throughout his life, Douglass was consistently a target to the brutalizations and attacks frequently experienced by African Americans of his era. He suffered at the hands of a brutal slave owner to whom he was rented as a slave. He escaped to the "free" North, only to have his work as a maritime caulker disrupted by racist white rivals. As a traveling preacher of abolitionism, he was regularly evicted from white-only railroad cars, establishments, and lodgings.[7] Leading the abolitionist movement, Douglass became one of the most recognizable Black people of his time. However, events did not have to work out the way they did. He easily could have taken up the quiet life that came with having a common job African Americans in the north usually worked. Instead, he chose the road less traveled by, the path to freedom riddled with criticism and hate. Personal freedom wasn't enough for Frederick Douglass, he needed everyone in the country to be free. His personal experience demonstrated to him the horrors of slavery and how it negated all freedom. Douglass understood that there was no such thing as a content slave that did not face cruelty. He condemned the institution of slavery because of the way that it sought to annihilate the human personality.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself ​ by Harriet Jacobs is perhaps the most symbolic slave narrative written by a woman."Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women", Jacobs wrote.[8] Jacobs's book was one of the first to address the cruel reality of female enslavement. Unlike Douglass, she began her narrative not knowing that she was a slave.9 However, under the will of her master, she quickly learned what it meant to be a female slave. Her slave owner attempted to convince Jacobs that she could have sexual relations with him and still be considered virtuous. He then proceeded to sexually harass her for the duration of her confinement with him. He demanded Jacobs to stop speaking a boy she fell in love with. He bragged about how he would get a lot of money from selling Harriet's children but would never sell her. All these examples and many more show how her master had continuous power over Jacobs from the beginning of her life. She was truly powerless, and she knew it. Harriet Jacobs fled from her master in 1835, surviving for seven years while hiding in a small crawl space in the attic of her grandmother's house, as she was forced to watch her two young children grow up through a peephole, before venturing North to search for safety and freedom.[9]

During the 1840s, slavery became the emblem and character of all sectional discrepancies. The moral and social consequences of slavery shaped every issue to come in terms of what is right and fundamental rights. Alexander Stephens, Confederate Vice President, called slavery the "cornerstone" of the new southern government.[10] Stephens claimed that a black man's natural condition was to serve the superior race of white men. He believed that African Americans could only truly flourish at the hands of the very people who could decide when and under what​ conditions it would be permitted.12 Stephens was among those who judged slavery to be far more​ secure in the union than out of it.

In "On Civil Disobedience", Henry David Thoreau was horrified by the institution of slavery in the American South. In fact, the continuation of slavery in the United States is the most hypocritical aspect of the American government as far as Thoreau regarded.[11] Thoreau believes civil disobedience to be the moral and social obligation of all American citizens. He defines civil disobedience as an act of willful resistance, accomplished through refusing to comply with laws he finds hypocritical.[12]

For instance, an act of civil disobedience is to resist cooperation with the state by refusing to play an active role in it. Thoreau opposes the idea that an individual must compromise or marginalize his or her values for the sake of allegiance to their government. Furthermore, he suggests that if a person serves the government in any way, even by merely respecting its sovereignty as a government, then that individual is complicit in injustices laid down by the government.[13] Therefore, all those that did not actively oppose slavery and stood by​ silently as African Americas had their rights and freedoms be disregarded were all complicit in the cruelty and repression demonstrated by the government. Thoreau emphasized the immediate action against injustices of the American people, any and all American people. In his eyes, limitations of freedom towards any group should not have been and can never be tolerated.

In modern-day America, the legal discrimination experienced by ex-offenders is reminiscent of the experiences of women and African Americans in American history. In that, ex-offenders are unable or have been unable to hold office, serve on juries, vote, own property and serve as their own children's legal guardians. These people attempt to shed this criminal persona and re-establish former identities or move towards new ones, rather than find community in their identity as ex-convicts.

Sadly, our society does not allow for ex-convicts to just simply turn a new leaf and start their lives free from burden and crime. An early example of the discrimination against ex-convicts can be seen from the life of George Appo in 19th century New York. In his autobiography, George Appo reveals that his choice of a life of crime was the result of various​ unfortunate circumstances throughout his life, rather than a selfish desire to maximize profits from the criminal trade. Appo started his life without his father, who had been convicted of murder after defending himself against attacks by his housemate, or his mother and sister, who had died in a shipwreck.[14] It was in these extremely challenging circumstances that Appo began selling newspapers for a living, and in the process, he encountered other children who benefited greatly from pickpocketing. He entered into their profession, and two years later, at the age of 15, was arrested and sent to a boy's prison.[15] Throughout the rest of his lifetime, Appo attempted to rejoin society as a law-abiding citizen countless times. However, the rest of the country could not forgive and forget his misconduct. He was turned away and left with no job prospects. Nevertheless, he needed to find a way to earn income, so he was forced to return to a life of crime.[16]

Because of society's unforgiving nature, George Appo faced limited freedoms and options. There is a noticeable transition in Appo's narrative from a profoundly traumatic, underprivileged upbringing to the emergence of violence and crime to his entrance into the unforgiving prison system. George Appo, and many others in a similar situation, was not taken into a life of crime mainly as a result of a personality defect or predisposition toward violence, as shown by his subsequent rehabilitation and conversion to a life of integrity that occurred after decades of self-perpetuating periods of crime and imprisonment.

Horace Kallen acknowledged in "Democracy Versus the Melting Pot" that someone of a diverse background would ultimately become "Americanized" if they lived in the same place long enough, but it was crucial that they kept their traditions and customs freely.[17] The system of Americanization required different ethnicities having to adapt to an idealistic view of an American. Kallen claimed that the way Americans perceived their roots originated from the first colonists. The majority of the first colonists were white who shared similar beliefs, backgrounds, and physical features that kept them united in the strange new world. To maintain this cohesion, the colonists displayed resistance toward anything or anyone that threatened their homogeneity.

He was against social conformity and proposed a new strategy he dubbed "cultural pluralism", in which people of different backgrounds maintain their cultural differences. Kallen believed that the diverse ethnic communities that emerged in America had significant contributions to make to the American culture.[18] Even though America was prepared to accept these new arrivals, the citizens themselves were aggressive to whomever they considered to be different. The idea of the melting pot was an attempt to join all the different groups into a collective, shared national identity.

This maintenance of unity through ethnicity and race was considered by Kallen an ignorant notion. If fully realized, it would eventually be unsuccessful because similarity in groups did not originate from shared genetics but from a likeness in tradition and culture. Therefore instead of merely excluding all distinctly featured people, Americans tried to rid these immigrants of their ancestry and limit their freedom to practice their own unique traditions and beliefs.

To discuss the other popular American opinion on immigration that highlights the control of rights, in Madison Grant's "America for the Americans", he believed that the racial mixing of "higher racial types," such as Nordic whites, with other "lower" races, as in people of color, would contribute to the decline of the superior white race. [19]He considered the Johnson Act of 1924, which called for the extreme limitation on immigration including the Asian Exclusion Act and the National Origins Act, to be one of the greatest accomplishments of America. 22 Grant called for a country in which white people reign sovereign, while minorities are completely stripped of their rights and freedoms.

Betty Friedan set out to interview female university graduates regarding their schooling, life after college, and general life satisfaction. As she was going through the responses, she noticed an odd, distinguishable undertone, a kind of quiet yet extreme unhappiness identified by women in the golden age of the housewife, that Friedan called "the problem that has no name." [20]In​ Friedan's novel, The Feminine Mystique​ ​, she highlighted the dead-end fate that women of that era faced, the inevitable fate of confinement to one's home. The women she discussed were seen as mothers, wives, cooks, and housekeepers, but were never seen as individuals with opinions and minds of their own. Those women were expected from the moment of their birth to the day they died to submit and provide for the men in their lives. They were not allowed to experience equality in the workforce, to go on birth control, or even to get legal abortions. They did not know freedom, it was a foreign concept to them. They only thought they were free because they had been brainwashed by the men and the authorities in their lives to accept their subservient role in society.

Young girls across the country grew up to believe that domesticity was their only option in life, while the older, already married women in the country grew to learn the profound depression that came with giving up their dreams.[21] The Feminine Mystique​ ​ can be seen as a cornerstone of modern gender politics, as it ignited the second wave of the feminist movement, taught generations how to navigate the life of a woman in American society. At a time when women's importance was reduced to their fertility. Women's only tools at the time were thought to be makeup and cleaning supplies and not their brains. This novel promoted women's reproductive rights, called for better education for females, opposed sexist workplace laws and attitudes towards parenting responsibilities and, above all, supported a woman's right to discuss openly the fundamental question of what it entails to live a full life. Fundamentally, at the root of Friedan's message with The Feminine Mystique​ ​ is a tireless emphasis on the right to pursue one's dreams free from limitations.

Going back to the discussion of race and its significance on the rights it restricts, in Barack Obama's autobiography, he described the experience of belonging to two different worlds that were often at odds. The title of Barack Obama's autobiography, Dreams from My Father​ ​, heralds an intergenerational viewpoint which includes both the passed on of dreams from father to son and the quest for the memory of his father. This viewpoint is further illustrated by the subtitle, A​ Story of Race and Inheritance​, which references Obama's quest for a connection to his African father, who left the family when his son was two years old and then died when Obama was twenty-one, with the pursuit of an identity as a child of mixed backgrounds.[22]

Essential aspects of this struggle are core themes of African American letters: the quest for self-discovery; the hunt for ancestors, the sense of the family, and the power of dreams in the fight for racial equality. Obama's realization that he does not have to choose between being black or white​ finally allowed him to embrace his mixed heritage.[23] America is a nation that takes pride in being diverse, in accommodating people from all walks of life, that come from all backgrounds. Barack Obama grasped the fact that finding his identity did not mean having to give up one part of himself in order to feel closer to the other part. He realized that he should embrace all of his legacies, which is the ideal that America strives for. A nation built and made for all.

America has always been and continues to be a diverse nation. One issue all Americans face is how to ensure that every citizen, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or religion, can enjoy the freedom and equality that the country was founded upon. It has been common in American history to discriminate against groups of people that are seen as "different"; however, if this country is ever to truly flourish, then acceptance and tolerance must be our first response to changes as opposed to repression and persecution.


[1] ​David J. Weber, What Caused the Pueblo Revolt of 1680?​ ​ (New York: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 1999), page 5

[2] Weber, page 3-5​

[3] Timothy Gilfoyle, lecture on "Slavery Part 2", American Pluralism, Loyola University Chicago​ (2019)

[4] Gilfoyle, lecture on "Jacksonian Democracy"

[5] ​Gilfoyle, lecture on "Jacksonian Democracy"

[6] ​Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Writtenby Himselfwith Related Documents​ ​ (1845), David W. Blight, editor, 3rd edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2017), page 47

[7] Douglass, page 150​

[8] ​Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, with Related Documents​ (1861), Jennifer Fleischner, editor (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2010), page 66​ 9 ​Jacobs, page 8

[9] Jacobs, page 122-129​

[10] ​Alexander Hamilton Stephens, "Cornerstone Speech" (1861), page 4 12 ​Stephens, page 4-5

[11] ​Henry David Thoreau, "On Civil Disobedience" (1849), page 24

[12] ​Thoreau, page 10

[13] ​Thoreau, page 25

[14] ​George Appo, The Urban Underworld in Late 19th -Century New York: The Autobiography ofGeorge Appo, and Related Documents​, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, editor (New York: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2013), page 35-36

[15] Appo, page 38​

[16] Appo, page 43​

[17] Horace M. Kallen, "Democracy versus the Melting Pot," Nation 100 (February 18 and 25,​ 1915), page 5

[18] Kallen, page 6-7​

[19] Madison Grant, "America for the Americans," Forum, (Sept. 1925), page 351-353​ 22 Grant, page 354-355​

[20] Betty Friedan, ​ The Feminine Mystique​ ​ (1963), Kristen Fermaglich and Lisa Fine, eds. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013), page 19

[21] ​Friedan, page 29-30

[22] ​Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance​ ​ (New York: Random House, 1995, 2004), page 127-129

[23] Obama, pages 437-439

 

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