Around the County

Freedom and responsibility in America

By Pat Stuart
Posted 11/30/21

Back during my college days, I took a short course called “Freedom and Responsibility and the American Way of Life” given by a nationally recognized professor of American history, Wendell …

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Around the County

Freedom and responsibility in America

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Back during my college days, I took a short course called “Freedom and Responsibility and the American Way of Life” given by a nationally recognized professor of American history, Wendell Holmes Stephenson. At that time, he was nearing retirement, a professor emeritus, and had total discretion on what he wanted to offer.

“The American Eagle,” as he was called by many of us because of his full and longish head of white hair, ran his classes like colloquiums. We did a certain amount of independent reading, then gathered in his living room once a week to debate the ideas we’d assimilated from the books and articles we’d found.

The key question for this class, of course, was the nature of freedom — what it is and what it requires of us. We each began with rather unformed ideas of freedom. For me, a 19-year-old girl from Wyoming, freedom was represented by the stars and stripes ripping around the rodeo arena carried by someone on a galloping horse. It was the Fourth of July with speeches on flag-draped podiums and hot dogs. It was spelled out in the Bill of Rights and defined by the Supreme Court. In short, it was all mixed up in my mind with ideas on government and democracy.

Freedom, I thought going into the class, was “for Heaven’s sake!” what we had. Who needed to talk about it or spend an entire term on it?

I’d read the syllabus, though, and knew from experience that anything Dr. Stephenson offered would be, by definition, stimulating. Thus, I rolled out of bed the morning registration opened, threw a raincoat over my pajamas, added a rain hat, shoved bare feet into ragged tennies, and legged it to the administration building.

No doubt you’re thinking the class looked at historic thinkers. And, we did. I can’t say we delved too deeply into the Greeks, Confucius or the philosophes, but we were expected to have at least read crib notes and be able to discuss their ideas on what freedom meant.

Most of all, we talked about the many natures and definitions of freedom, its limits and where freedom wore a harness for the good of the whole. In short, freedom and responsibility weren’t opposite sides of a coin — they were liberty and her torch as a shining whole. One didn’t exist without the other.

I’d been right in a way about freedom in America being something we’re almost born knowing. The complexity comes in with emotion, with politics, with demagoguery. Above all, there’s that big question. Where does our responsibility as citizens begin and end? 

Every day we exercise responsibilities that limit our freedom. Who even thinks about the hundreds, if not thousands, of ways? Stop for a moment and consider. For the good of the whole, we relinquish our freedom of choice every time we move to the right on the highway, put on clothes in the morning (nakedness being offensive to some), sign a condo association agreement, get our polio shot or take our dog out for a walk on a leash instead of letting him run free. 

Every day in multiple ways we accept limits on our freedom of choice for the good of the whole and the wish or health of the majority. That’s what living in a civil society is all about.

You don’t have to be a Plato or Ghandi or Voltaire or even a college student to get this. 

Which brings us to the contention you hear a lot these days that our basic freedom of choice and our rights can be violated by a law, any law, that gives us a responsibility and limits our choice. Yes? Really?

Which takes me back to Dr. Stephenson and the matched set: freedom and responsibility. The “responsibility” aspect of freedom, to me, is Lady Liberty’s torch. The light, the hope, the promise of freedom for the whole shines only if we accept our responsibilities. 

And, chief among them, is our responsibility to the health and well-being of our neighbors. Think about it.

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