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The Origin of Freedom in the ‘Land of the Free’

Whenever people attempt to secure freedom, they set up rules and regulations. The aim of these rules is to prevent anyone from attaining absolute power, and to allow people to believe they have a say in the (particularly) political rumblings of their country. Whether or not this comes through in actual day to day life is another matter entirely. However, this article does not set out to provide a critique on freedom in any country. It merely seeks to go back to the roots of the regulations securing the freedom of the United States of America. Writing about freedom, or lack thereof, is bound to be a slippery slope. After all, we all have our own convictions of what it is to be free. What do we even mean by freedom? Is it freedom of religion? Freedom of speech? Freedom from enslavement? Freedom of choice? This article will not answer any of these questions, simply because they cannot be answered satisfactorily. And since it is not its intention to step on anyone’s toes, this article will only outline the foundations that led to America’s claim of being 'the land of the free'.

The freedom of the United States of America is primarily realized through the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Although you could say their freedom began at the signing and delivering of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution actually provided validity to their governmental system and it was designed with maintaining the people’s freedom from the start. Therefore, it is the Constitution of the United States of America (written in 1787, taken into effect in 1789) that is the main source of the guidelines of freedom. The Bill of Rights, originally part of the Constitution, was ratified and presented as a separate document on 15 December 1791. Together, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights do not only provide the foundation for the U.S.A., they are also the best kept historical sources of it. Both documents, when ratified, amended, or otherwise changed, keep the former articles intact. In other words, nothing is ever deleted from either of the two documents to ensure a well-kept overview of the political changes through the centuries. A downside to this system is that, once a bill passes, or an amendment is made, it cannot be removed from the legislation either. This is consequently why the right to bear arms (Article 4, Bill of Rights) cannot be revoked it can only be amended by adding a set of specifications that denote who can and who cannot bear arms. In the eighteenth century, the right to bear arms was a necessity in order for the freedom of the States to be defended and it was therefore important to include the Article in the Bill of Rights.

The Constitution of the United States of America contains 7 Articles and it primarily sets out how the government works. The document shows a strong influence from Montesquieu, who designed the Trias Politica (1748), in which he presents a model for the separation of powers in government. The Constitution gives a detailed specification of the system that separates the Executive (President) from the Judicial (Supreme Court) and the Legislative (Congress) power. The specification includes periods of time any government official may remain in office. The simplified version is that the President may remain in office for 4 years (this did not come into effect immediately after the Constitution was signed), Congress members may remain in office for 6 years, but 1/3 of Congress is re-elected every 2 years. The judges of the Supreme Court are appointed for life. Each part of the tripartite system has an equal say over the others. For example: the President may appoint a new Supreme Judge (should one have died), but Congress must approve the choice; Congress may propose a new bill, which the President may refute (no more than twice), and the Supreme Court has to give its approval of the proposed bill by deeming it constitutional. The only area in which the President is pretty much on his own is the military. As Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, the President has the highest military position available in the United States, and neither Congress nor the Supreme Court can do much about his decisions therein (at least according to the Constitution). Keep in mind that all of the above is an extremely shortened overview. If you are interested in the Constitution: it is only about 10 pages long, an easy read. Then again, the Constitution is the most boring bit of the Constitution. The incredibly welldocumented debates that took place before the actual document existed are far more interesting.

The Bill of Rights (without the appendix containing the amendments etcetera) counts 12 Articles, and its main aim is to legislate freedom for the people. The most prominent and most debated Article regarding this freedom is Article 3: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”. Together with Article 12, it is evident that the first version of the Bill of Rights had its people’s best interests at heart: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibition by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people”. Both Articles address the freedom of the people who are to be governed by the Bill. First, the legislators (representatives of State who signed the Bill) set out to defend the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petitioning of the government. In the larger historical context, this is the exact opposite of how the U.S.A. saw England, from who they had claimed independence. England’s absolute monarchy had been a sore spot to the U.S.A. for years, especially when their demand for a seat in the British parliament was denied. Through a series of events, this led to the Declaration of Independence, and determined not to mess up the way the English (in their point of view) had done, they specifically included the freedom of all mentioned above. To add to the mix, Article 12 is the foundation of America’s generally antifederalism (against federal government interference). Its statement is simple: if new laws need to be made in State X, then State X has the right to do so, or its people can demand new laws to be made. The States, therefore, maintain a large portion of power, whilst they also keep government closer to home for the people.

Both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were designed with the freedom of the people at centre-front. Its creators never quite stopped debating the content, but in the end all of them signed the Constitution, which established it as the legitimate framework for the American government. The historic value nowadays makes it a fascinating subject to look into. Whether the freedom of the people, the way it was envisioned, was actually realised, this article will leave for you to decide. Without sounding too biased, do consider that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights mention people, but mean men, and then white-men in particular. Though to be fair, it will be very difficult to find a western country in the eighteenth century that did not have the same disposition. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights serve as legislating documents, yet perhaps even more as an historical and cultural reflection of the time in which they were written. These documents, the framework of the United States, contain more than political regulations. They contain the cultural values of the eighteenth century, in particularly their notion of the value of freedom.

By Rena Bood

Works Cited

Brogan, Hugh. The Penguin History of the USA. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1999. Print.

The Constitution of the United States of America and Selected Writing of the Founding Fathers. New York: Barnes and Nobles, 2012. Print.

Valelly, Richard M. American Politics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.