"If all difficulties were known at the outset of a long journey, most of us would never start out at all."
Freedom is not easy.
To truly understand freedom, you must realize that freedom is not easy. Simple, yes. Easy, no. Freedom is all-inclusive, constantly adding on, encompassing everything and anything. Freedom involves broad perspective; it involves a wide field of view that connects the myriads of the world together. Freedom is unrestricted in every sense of the word. It is about choice, having every possibility and then being capable of choosing amongst those. America is the land of the free, and as the nation on Earth representative of this freedom, this is what we need to know and this is how we need to be.
But we're not there yet. We've come a long way- a very, very long way, but this journey of ours continues forward, no matter how much kicking and screaming may occur along the way.
To understand where we're going, we need to look at where we've been. At the outset with our Declaration of Independence, we defined the tyranny, cruelty, and oppression executed upon us unfairly and unjustly, denouncing them as such. The Declaration, for all intents and purposes, listed political and economic abuses that could not be tolerated any longer. It was political rationale for why the Founding Fathers were not truly traitors, regardless of the high treason they committed against the crown at the time.
Amongst the reasons for declaring independence was the potential the Founding Fathers saw in the states and colonies at the time, a potential unseen in Europe during the mid-18th century. George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, these were men of the Enlightenment Era which emphasized logic, reason, critical thinking and individualism as opposed to traditional lines of authority. In America, they saw potential, potential for a great future even if such did not necessarily exist at the initial founding of our great nation. It was thus in the Declaration of Independence, the philosophical justification for our very existence, that they threw in one tiny section on the social part of society, a fraction of a document focused on political and economic transgressions.
"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
The importance of this passage cannot be put into words. They were revolutionary at the time, Lockean in part but far greater for the context in which they were used, for our Forefathers realized that America the Great had a long road ahead of them, trials considered unfathomable for a newly formed nation. This passage would thus serve as a beacon of hope, as a constant reminder of what this great nation is all about: humanity.
Less than 100 years later, slavery and the Civil War nearly tore this country apart. It was an issue at the time of our founding and continued to be an issue through the mid-19th century. On the one hand, our Founding Fathers proclaimed freedom, unalienable Rights, and equality amongst men; on the other hand, they bought, sold, oppressed, and mistreated other human beings simply because of the color of their skin. I say this not to besmirch the greatness of these men, but rather to show our nation's evolution and progress over time. The words were to triumph over deed, but our Founding Fathers possessed the wisdom to understand that culture does not shift overnight. There was no quick fix then and even today when it comes to progress and the shift of cultural attitudes, no quick fix will exist. Not in a land where freedom is the pinnacle of thought, word, and deed.
Abraham Lincoln captures this wisdom in a speech he gave in Springfield, Illinois before he was President. The Dred Scott decision, one of the worst decisions ever in the history of our judicial system, was handed down and Lincoln defied it through and through-
"Now this grave argument comes to just nothing at all, by the other fact, that they did not at once, or ever afterwards, actually place all white people on an equality with one or another. And this is the staple argument of both the Chief Justice [Roger Taney] and the Senator [Stephen Douglas], for doing this obvious violence to the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration. I think the authors of that instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal-- equal in “certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They mean simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly everywhere. The assertion that “all men are created equal” was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, nor for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism. They knew the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant when such should re-appear in this fair land and commence their vocation they should find left for them at least one hard nut to crack."
Shortly after this speech, the Civil War came about, a horror I truly wish never occurred. To put the death count into perspective, the 750,000 American lives lost during the Civil War would be akin to the 9/11 attacks on New York City happening 250 times. The war was the greatest test of resiliency our nation, hopefully, will ever face. The United States remained United, albeit somewhat forcefully. And with the unification came steps towards equality as decreed in our Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal. The abolishment of slavery was a good start, but inequality still existed.
What's more, as the nation went through reconstruction and the industrial revolution, other sources of inequality emerged outside of the social injustices at the time. The nation expanded out west, creating new communities formed around like-mindedness, as typically happens when expansion occurs. And with the expansion came new centers for growth. The American dream at the time was one of opportunity, of embracing the potential for greatness through your own hard work on your own land. This idea continued to the early 20th century, at which point most of the frontier was spoken for. Without land and opportunity to survive on your own- growing your own crops, raising your own livestock, building your own house, etc- a shift occurred. Self-employment morphed into tiered employment where those without land and space worked for those with in exchange for an hourly wage or salary. Thus, modern day America is born, with a modern day American dream.
What I propose to you is a vision of the American dream that centers around our unalienable Rights, specifically the pursuit of happiness. This dream of ours is specific to each individual; your dream and my dream are likely not the same unless your dream is also to be a super ninja video gaming paragon. But within the specifics of each of our dreams are principles common to us all. Enjoyment of life, being able to appreciate each other, to embrace and experience our nation and the entire planet wholly; to live, to laugh, and to love; to value the work and struggles of our fellow man; to understand that life is not easy and, rather than being consumed by sorrow, choose to pursue real happiness. This, I feel, is the American Dream, rooted in our Declaration of Independence. To be alive, to be free, and to be given the greatest opportunity for happiness as long as we may be.
All this is possible because of freedom. Our freedom, our liberty, what the Constitution says our government was created for is what gives us that potential. Your potential is your freedom of choice. Some choices may be better than others, but at least you have this freedom. This is one of many elements that makes America great. We're the land of the free, the land of potential, the land where dreams can come true............................ so long as the opportunity exists.
Herein lies one of the main problems facing us today as a nation: the whittling away of opportunity for everyone. With a certain perspective, it seems like the theme for America today is political grandstanding, helping businesses that help one's campaign, and keeping upstarts from changing the status quo. All of these remove opportunity. Our own government, for whatever combination of reasons, is getting in the way of our American dream. This is the antithesis of what Theodore Roosevelt spoke of in his New Nationalism speech-
"In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity. "
Opportunity makes the man. Through the opportunities presented us, we are able to try, fail, learn, grow, and progress through life. Opportunities are important to all, young and old, rich and poor. Each of us as human beings is to be granted opportunity to work hard and better themselves, for bettering ourselves as individuals leads to bettering ourselves as a society, as a nation, as a planet, and as a race. Humanity's success depends on it. Which is why Roosevelt railed against "special interest," the lobbyists and others who sought to eliminate opportunity for others-
"Practical equality of opportunity for all citizens, when we achieve it, will have two great results. First, every man will have a fair chance to make of himself all that in him lies; to reach the highest point to which his capacities, unassisted by special privilege of his own and unhampered by the special privilege of others, can carry him, and to get for himself and his family substantially what he has earned. Second, equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable. No man who carries the burden of special privileges of another can give to the commonwealth that service to which it is fairly entitled."
Opportunity creates potentiality which makes us want to use effort and, thus, engage the path we're on in the pursuit of happiness. It all comes back to maximizing our unalienable Rights. Government by the people, for the people must realize this and act accordingly. Create and secure situations that allow us the opportunity to live, to love, to honor each other, to laugh with each other, and to be free in ways that allow all of us to pursue real happiness down whatever path we might find. This, my fellow Americans, is what I feel the public wants and deserves.
In closing, I want to paraphrase for you part of another speech Abraham Lincoln gave, this time in Chicago in 1856 before he was President. He discusses public opinion because, here, public opinion means the will of the people, what the people wish-
"Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. Public opinion on any subject, always has a "central idea" from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That "central idea" in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, "the equality of men." And although it was always submitted patiently to whatever of inequality there seemed to be as matter of actual necessity, its constant working has been a steady progress towards the practical equality of all men.
Can we not come together, for the future. Let every one who really believes, and is resolved, that free society is not, and shall not be, a failure, and who can conscientiously declare that in the past contest he has done only what he thought best--- let every such one have charity to believe that every other one can say as much. Thus let bygones be bygones. Let past differences, as nothing be; and with steady eye on the real issue, let us reinaugurate the good old "central ideas" of the Republic. We can do it. The human heart is with us--- God is with us. We shall again be able not to declare, that "all States as States, are equal," nor yet that "all citizens as citizens are equal," but to renew the broader, better declaration, including both these and much more, that "all men are created equal.""
This, America, I say to you is the foundation of our nation. This, America, is our core philosophy. Life, liberty, love, honor, humor, and the pursuit of happiness. These unalienable Rights are the crux of humanity. We the people of the United States have declared it so to the world. Now it is time for our government to truly make it so.