All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 1973

Freedom… What Is That?

Mr. Bradford is well known as a writer, speaker, and business organization consultant. He now lives in Ocala, Florida.

My elderly and somewhat crusty friend had read that I was to address a local service club, and he asked me what my theme would be.

Rather absently, for my thoughts were elsewhere, I replied that I had not yet prepared the address, but that I would try to talk about the importance of freedom.

He squinted an eye at me for a moment, then tossed off the question which I’ve been trying since to answer — not for him, but for myself: “Freedom, eh… and what is that?”

We do use the word rather loosely, don’t we? It sounds good to the ear; it tastes good on the tongue; it evokes pleasant feelings; it tingles the spine; it has patriotic overtones — we live in “the land of the free.” It is a good word, freedom… but what, exactly, does it mean?

I once thought freedom meant independence — national independence, that is, as when our American colonies separated themselves from England. As a boy I gloried (and still do) in the achievements of Washington and the other colonial leaders and soldiers who wrested the political direction of their lives from the British crown.

And yes, that was freedom… in a limited contexture of the term. It was an aggregate freedom, a wholesale change of status. The people of the former colonies where thereafter “free” in the sense that they would henceforth make their own rules and regulations, write their own laws, determine their own policies, elect their own governing bodies, impose their own taxes. They were “a free nation.”

They were also individually “free” to the extent that the original concept of the Founders was adhered to — namely, the idea of a government of and for and by the people, with limited powers and defined responsibilities. They were also “free,” and became increasingly so, in the matter of the suffrage.

Denials of Freedom

But even within such a framework there were denials of freedom from the start. Slavery, for instance, had become a part of the colonial economy; and while some early leaders clearly understood and explicitly denounced its evil nature, to many people there was nothing incongruous in having slaves in a nation which, in fine rhetoric, had based its very reason for being upon the principle of individual freedom.

Also, forces were soon at work which have always signalized the diminution, if not the outright denial, of freedom. Such forces are many, but they can be expressed generally as the effort of people, acting singly or in organized groups, to obtain from government advantages which are not accorded, and may indeed be disadvantageous, to others. Under the incessant onslaughts of such privilege-seekers, government becomes a battleground of special interests. The fine abstractions of liberty are replaced by the demands of and for privilege. Freedom becomes secondary to the question, What-can-I-get-out-of-it? In our country as in all others these demands have multiplied, and their gratification has become, in the minds of many, synonymous with freedom itself. As a result it is now rather general practice to refer to freedom always in the plural. We are no longer blessed with the great boon of freedom; we are the beneficiaries of numerous “freedoms.” The result of this has been to cheapen the concept of freedom by counterfeiting its significance. Instead of holding freedom up, not only as a noble abstraction, but as a condition indispensable to the development of a whole man, this practice splits it up into an aggregation of social and economic benefits, advantages and privileges.

Liberty or License?

Thus we hear talk about freedom from fear, freedom from want — and so on through a number of highly desirable objectives — objectives which can be obtained in full measure only under the essential condition of freedom, but which, if provided through the compulsions of statism, may in the long run help destroy the very freedom they are supposed to supplement.

The tendency to confuse liberty with license is strong, pervasive — and ancient. Today it evinces certain new manifestations, certain demands that are based on supposedly modern social and economic needs; but counterpart demands can be identified back to earliest times. The history of government has been the story of shifts from the minimum authority necessary to protect citizens in their rights, to the maximum of bureaucracy that results when government has been expanded to gratify the universal desire to secure what is mistakenly believed to be “something for nothing.” Whether in Rome or Athens or Memphis or Lagash, the pendulum of government has swung from an early Jeffersonian simplicity to an apotheosis of statism… and then to stagnation, decay and ruin.

Freedom is a timeless torch, Blazing in the dark.

So wrote a minor American poet some years ago.’ He meant, I’m sure, that freedom is one of the great realities by which men live — like faith, like virtue, like honor. He meant that freedom is not just a desirable political condition under which to live, but a principle of life and growth for which to live.

Even in stilted dictionary terms there is an inspirational content in the definition of freedom. The condition of being free, says Webster’s, is to be “not subject to an arbitrary external power or authority; not under despotic government; subject only to fixed laws which defend from encroachment upon natural or acquired rights.”

Responsible Citizenship

It is clear that the highest concern and duty of good citizenship is not to be fretting about a number of so-called “freedoms,” but to be alert that men shall progress toward the fulfillment of their highest potential; to be zealous that men shall be truly free — not with four freedoms, or six, or a dozen, as though human liberty could be cut up into segments like a pie, but free in the essential meaning of human liberty, which is to be one’s self, to express one’s self, to possess one’s self. That is the measure of responsible citizenship.

A man named Saul of Tarsus once long ago was arrested by the Romans and put in irons. When he demanded to know if that was any way to treat a Roman citizen, the centurion in charge ran to call the chief captain. The latter was amazed that this prisoner should be a Roman, and he said, “With a great price did I purchase this freedom” — meaning his Roman citizenship, which at that time could be bought if one had the money. And Saul replied proudly, “But I was born free!”

Born free! So are most men these days, in the political sense, especially those of the Western World. But like the centurion, those who would remain free must pay the price — a fact that many, alas, have not learned. That price is the eternal vigilance that was enjoined upon free men by John Curran long ago. But vigilance against what? Against whom? External enemies, those who would subject us to “an arbitrary external power or authority?” Yes, to be sure. Against internal plotters and subverters who would bring us “under despotic government?” Of course. But especially against ourselves! Against businessmen who want Washington to insure their prosperity; against labor leaders who demand the legal status of special privilege; against farmers (including large corporate agriculturists) who want to be subsidized for producing nothing; against educators who lobby for Federal funds and are willing to submit to Federal control; against community organizations that work to wangle wealth from Washington. To the extent that any or all of those special interests are gratified, they will have helped fasten upon the whole people more debt, more inflation, more assertive bureaucracy, less real and general prosperity — and less freedom.

The mere recital of such practices emphasizes how far we have departed from the dream of those who founded our nation. That dream was based upon the faith that they could build in the new world a society where men were free. Why else did they leave the relative comforts of Europe and come out to what was then the American wilderness? Were they fleeing from wicked kings, who might whimsically chop off their heads? Not at all. The power of sovereigns in matters of life and death had long since been curbed. There were courts, there was trial by jury and the right of habeas corpus; and to a far greater extent than most people now realize there was representative, parliamentary government.

They Came to Be Free

Why then did men flee to America? As time passed various motives were at work — to avoid debt, to escape going to prison, to evade military service, to seek fortune and adventure. But for the greater part men left the older countries simply because in most of them the powers of government had been extended — by parliamentary process, be it remembered — to the point that men of spirit and initiative could no longer endure dictation by the state as to the minutiae of their daily lives. They did not flee to America because the king might chop off their heads, but because the king’s ministers were taxing them beyond endurance. They fled because they did not want their employments, their wages, their profits, and the terms and conditions under which they might work, to be controlled and directed by the state. They fled, in simplest terms, from too much government. They wanted freedom.


Did they find it here? Never wholly, for man is seldom completely free from one inexorable tyrant — himself. His ultimate battle for liberation is with his own selfishness, which has so often destroyed him; and on this continent he suffered from that oppressor, as elsewhere. And by a strange paradox of human behavior, even some who were willing to brave the wilderness seeking freedom for themselves did not scruple to deny it to others, as Roger Williams, Anne Hutchison and eventually several million slaves could woefully testify!

But here, to a greater extent than anywhere else on earth, men were politically free. They had economic opportunity. They had religious freedom. They could worship God as they pleased, or not at all. And especially they were liberated, for a time at least, from the nagging and repressive supervision of the state. There was a newness, a largeness. And there were abundant natural resources.


But in time the prairies were spanned, the mountains scaled, the hidden resources opened up and exploited. Eventually this country reached a new stage: urbanization. Now the farm shrinks; the village decays; the cities fester; megalopolis looms — and beyond the moon Mars beckons. War has eaten up our wealth, increased our debt, divided our people, weakened our pride and lessened our faith. The academy, too often, has become the seedbed of revolution. And despite a general prosperity never exceeded, the doctrine is being preached by many in position to influence our youth that the American economy is spent, and that it can survive only if it is allowed to be directed by a coterie of leftist economists in the nation’s capital. All this represents a radical shift in spirit and emphasis from individualism to collectivism… and away from freedom.

An Ancient Fallacy

A fallacy of our times is the bland assumption that the idea of a governmentally “managed” economy is novel and “modern.” On the contrary, such ideas are very old, and have been put into practice many times as the centuries have gone wheeling by.

The Romans, in the 3rd Century B. C. had farm loans, crop management and wage and price controls. Under the Emperor Domitian grape vines were uprooted to prevent overproduction of wine. Under Diocletian, in order to combat a rise in the cost of living, both wage and price controls were decreed. Under Vespasian, to help maintain employment a ban was laid on mechanization. Under Alexander Severus the government made loans to enable people to purchase land. Also, all commercial concerns that operated on accumulated capital were put under state control. In time, as a result of external military upkeep and other overseas expenditures, Rome experienced an unfavorable trade balance vis-a-vis the rest of the world. Needless to say, as a consequence of all this, Rome had a vast bureaucracy, unbalanced budgets, enormous debt, inflation… and of course, a devalued currency. At one time the denarius had its content progressively reduced, and the weight of the gold coin was cut by 50 per cent. Does all this sound faintly familiar? But it happened over 2000 years ago. The Romans were enlightened — and modern. They had a managed economy!2

Up and down the ages men, who know they must be governed for their own protection, have set up their forms of social and political management. Being essentially creatures of nature, they have always begun simply. Loving their freedom and personal liberty, they have instituted first those minima of restraint and control necessary for their safety from aggression by their fellows, or by enemies outside their tribe or nation. But being also covetous and acquisitive, sooner or later in the mad search for an imaginary free handout, they have expanded their governments into bureaucratic monstrosities… and sacrificed their freedom in the process.

The disastrous experiments that were tried out in the bureaucracies beside the Tiber had been long before enacted in the lower Tigris valley, and in the gloomy palaces along the Nile. And they were to be echoed with variations many centuries later in the repressive guild systems of Europe.

It was this ultimate heritage of self-imposed tyranny, this stifling of initiative and smothering of freedom’s spirit, that caused men of vision and courage to leave the tired economies of Europe and seek new opportunity and enlargement in what they fondly called the New World.

In that New World they worked out what came to be known as the American Dream; they created what is referred to poetically as the American Heritage. In part that heritage consisted of a vast new continent, enormously rich in natural resources. But other continents had the same riches —Africa, South America. What made the difference? Freedom! Not just political and religious freedom, not just freedom eventually from colonialism (actually, in a physical sense they prospered under colonialism); but economic and personal freedom — freedom for growth through freedom from too much government.

Special Interests

That was the American dream as expressed finally in the Constitution. But almost from the beginning, as we have seen, the new government was beset, as governments always are, by the demands of those who were not content to be protected in their persons, but who wanted something — something special, that is, for themselves, their business, their industry, their union, their farm organization, their state, their city, their community.

For a long time this was resisted. Even as late as 1890 Grover Cleveland was asserting that it was the duty of the people to support the government, not of the government to support the people. And 22 years later Woodrow Wilson was writing: “The history of liberty is a history of limitations of governmental power, not the increase of it.”

A Sacred Ideal

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perhaps freedom is in the mind of those who discuss and try to define it. Certainly freedom seems to vary with the bias, knowledge or prejudice of the speaker or writer who has it under discussion. There was a time, within the ready memory of most Americans, when freedom didn’t need definition or defense. It was a slogan, a shibboleth; like beauty, it was its own excuse for being. To invoke the name of freedom was a clincher in most any argument about the condition under which men should live. It was an idea that transcended analysis or question.

But today it is weighed, debated, analyzed, compared — and denied. It is alleged by some to be a relative thing. Ask of them whether the Russians are free and you get an equivocal hedge to the effect that it depends on what we mean by freedom. Ask, are the Chinese free under Mao? For reply you get something like “well… things are relative. In our society we place major emphasis on individual achievement and progress, and by our values the Chinese might be said not to be free. However, their system does not center about the individual, but exalts the State. In such a society it is no denial of freedom to make the individual completely subordinate to the State.”

Those who support such ideas of freedom are usually the same people who profess to be disenchanted with traditional American values. To them, it is wrong to be competitive, evil to be ambitious, foolish to be patriotic, wasteful to be industrious, stupid to be frugal. All material values, to such people, are worthless. America has gone off after false gods. Our civilization is grossly materialistic; success is a delusion; our system of production and exchange is without heart or vision; and the whole fabric of American life — its legends, its traditions, its achievements — all this, in terms of real human welfare, is a gigantic swindle. The history we have been taught, the patriotism we have imbibed, the pride of citizenship we have inherited — it is all a fantastic and deceptive fable so they allege.

A Matter of Contrast

No one who has observed the American scene fails to recognize the deficiencies of the American economic system, or indeed of representative government itself. But judgments upon the faults of our country are valid only when measured against its corresponding merits, and when all this is weighed in turn against the performance of other systems, such as communism in Russia and its satellites, or in China, and socialism in Sweden and Chile. But this is seldom done. Instead, we are fed a torrential catalogue of leftist peeves against the American society — criticism of a sort that would bring immediate literary excommunication, if not sudden death, in many other lands.

But here, in the country they defame, they can get away with it. And the reason is simple: We are free! The crass, soulless, heartless, materialistic American society rises above its detractors, and guarantees their right… to destroy it! Such is at once the Quixotic and sublime nature of freedom. And perhaps it needs no better definition.

So… what is freedom? It is a thing of law and constitutional right, to be sure. It must be guaranteed and preserved in the basic structure of government if it is to have meaning. But it is more than a legalism, more than a Bill of Rights. It is a condition of the human spirit.

“You Can’t Eat Freedom”

But “you can’t eat freedom.” So runs a leftist cliche of a few years ago. It was meant to imply that there is a conflict between freedom and physical welfare. This, of course, is nonsense. You can’t eat sunlight, either; but you soon die without it. You can’t eat beauty or truth or honor, but they are the leaven of life, nonetheless. Actually, we can and do “eat” freedom, in the sense that it is the essential condition for human welfare, achievement and progress. Even on the level of food, clothing, shelter and the conveniences of life, experience has shown that these material comforts are found in greatest abundance where men are most free from the inhibiting compulsions of statism.

Deeply and inherently men know this. They understand, of course, that no man can be completely free. His freedom, in an organized society, is necessarily limited by the like freedom of others; and so he relinquishes a small part of his freedom of action in exchange for protection and the greater good.

But he has always hedged this about with basic limitations upon the power he will concede to his government. And always, alas, sooner or later he will diminish his freedom by multiplying the bureaucracies of his government. And finally — he destroys it! That is because as his demands increase his vigilance weakens, and his sense of responsibility, or accountability, dies.

Human society is built, and can only be built, upon a foundation of citizenship accountability. The strength of a nation is not its legal machinery, but the moral stamina and courage of its people. The law is but the codification of their conscience. There are not enough laws, and never will be, to keep a society stable if its members no longer will it. There are not enough policemen, courts, judges or prisons, nor ever can be, to prevent the death of a civilization whose people no longer care. Law enforcement is for the criminal few; it collapses if it must be enforced against the many. When the sense of personal accountability is no longer present in robust majority strength, then no legal device known to man can hold the society together.

Freedom is a timeless torch,
Blazing in the dark.


1 The author refers to himself. The quote is from his book Heritage, published in 1950 by Judd & Detweiler.

2 See A History of the World in 300 Pages by Rene Sedillot, pages 99-101.

  • Mr. Bradford was a noted poet, writer, speaker and business organization consultant.