By Betty Mills
My first inkling as a child that there was such a condition as “freedom” and that not everybody had it, came as a result of reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe. But then I had no first hand knowledge of slavery either except that President Abraham Lincoln had signed a proclamation ending it in our country during the Civil War.
Beecher Stowe’s classic novel is not listed because of the quality of the writing in the usual sense such as Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street” or “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her book is considered a classic because it changed our world by portraying the evils of slavery in the stark tragedy of what it did to a single human life and thus by implication to a whole race. Beecher Stowe’s book helped bring on the Civil War and thus ultimately the end of legal slavery in our country, a vital first step in the liberation of blacks in the southern states.
Actually there is a rather diverse list of interpretations for the word freedom in that old classic, Webster’s Dictionary. For example, “the absence of necessity, coercion or constraint in choice of action.” That pretty much covers a lot of “have to” in our daily lives if we take those definitions literally. “I have to go to work, have to pay the rent, the mortgage, get the kids to school.”
But the definition applies also to those brave ancestors of ours whose audacious behavior gave us the independence from Great Britain we celebrate on the Fourth of July each year. It was an enormous gamble with their very lives at stake since had they lost their bid for freedom, they would have been hanged as traitors.
Another Webster definition is “liberation from slavery or restraint from the power of another.” Refugee camps around the world are populated with modern day examples of people risking their lives to obtain such liberation, and divorce courts contain examples within our own borders.
Freedom: “the quality or state of being exempt from or released from something onerous.” My dear departed husband would have listed mowing the lawn and shoveling the walk under those categories, but onerous has more deadly implications that are generally not acceptable in polite conversation or in the presence of children.
Maybe we have denigrated the word freedom by its overuse in ordinary conversation. “I really felt a new sense of freedom when I got my own car.” “I gave her the freedom to paint the room any color she wanted.” Or how about “What happens to freedom when your parents lay a 9 p.m. curfew on you?”
On the other hand, freedom comes in smaller doses, too, like shedding the weighty clothes of winter for the lighter garb of summer, the sleek smooth pleasure of skinny dipping, or spending a carefree day doing nothing at all more useful than simple survival. The underlying essence is that we manage our lives so they contain the option to choose.
So this Fourth of July, celebrate the great gift of freedom that is ours, sing the national anthem and toss in a verse or two of “America the Beautiful.” Then polish it off with a chorus or two of “Don’t Fence Me In.”
Betty Mills is an avid reader and belongs to several book clubs. She is a longtime writer and co-author of “Mind if I Differ?” She also enjoys crosstitch.