History free essay: Changes in the definition of Freedom has changed in American History
Changes in the definition of Freedom has changed in American History
One of the ideas that have been most fundamental to the sense of self of the Americans is freedom. Consequently, the struggle for freedom has been persistent throughout the history of the U.S. along different axes of social existence. One notable fact about freedom is that it bears varying meanings that are derived from different historical periods. Social factors such as race, gender, lifestyle and class have played a significant role in shaping the definition of freedom in different historical periods. As a result, the idea of freedom bears different meanings even within the same time period. Despite this, scholars have made efforts to group the different meanings of freedom into different categories and to come up with general definitions. From a political point of view, Foner defined freedom as the absence of oppression or discrimination of individuals by the authorities. This kind of freedom is called civil liberty (Foner 11). Foner also defined freedom as the right or power to think and speak the way the individual wants without restraint or hindrance. Foner defined the third category as the freedom available to individuals, groups and organizations within a society to engage in economic activities (Foner 11). In some cases, freedom has been perceived as the absence of domination or influence from a foreign nation (Fischer 21). Freedom has been given more specific definitions in different times in history depending on the issues of focus. Significant transformation of the definition of freedom occurred from the Reconstruction Era through the turbulent 1960s. A remarkable aspect of the definition of freedom during the period is that it transformed from the focus on emancipation from slavery, to the focus on economic freedom, to the focus on exploitation and oppression, to the focus on self-independence and ultimately, to the focus on the absence of racial discrimination.
During the Reconstruction Era and Aftermath
The Reconstruction era followed the end of the American Civil War that ended in 1865. The Civil War occurred between the Northern and Southern States mainly because the Southern States wanted to separate from the U.S. The war ended with the victory of the North. The Civil war ended after the Southern States agreed to remain part of the U.S (Fischer 43). The reconstruction period was meant to facilitate the reunion of the South and the North and to help the South to recover from the damage that was caused by the war. Prior to the Civil War, the Southern States had laws that supported slavery. Consequently, African-Americans in the Southern States worked for white masters (Fischer 44). Race played a major part in the denial of freedom to the blacks who were enslaved by the white masters. Slavery in the North had been abandoned before the Civil War and even the whites were against it. During the civil war, many slaves managed to escape from plantations for the whites to the North. Also, most white settlers in the south faced difficulties in recovering from the war and thus, they abandoned slavery. Then Thirteenth Amendment that the Congress passed in 1865 banned slavery throughout the U.S. and the Southern States were compelled to adhere to it (Fischer 44). Consequently, freedom was defined as the emancipation from slavery or the lack of control of the African-Americans by the whites.
Race also played a big part in limiting freedom for the African-Americans since they did not have a right to vote prior to the reconstruction period. During the reconstruction, the Congress, which constituted representatives from the Northern and the Southern states, passed the 15th amendment. The new law, which was adopted in 1870, granted the African Americans the right to vote and to participate in politics. Hiram Rhoades Revels, for instance, became the first black member of the Congress (Fischer 45). As such, freedom by then was defined as the right given to the blacks to participate in politics. However, the freedom was still limited since the African Americans were allowed to have only few representatives in the public offices despite having large electoral numbers. After the end of the reconstruction era in 1877, however, governments in the Southern States nullified the 15th Amendment and denied the African Americans the right to vote. The nullification of the law implied that the African Americans were denied the freedom to vote. As well, racial discrimination led to the denial of the ownership of land by the African Americans prior to the reconstruction period. The slaves that worked for white masters did not have their own land and were very eager to acquire it (Fischer 45). During the civil War, some slaves were allocated land owned previously by the freeing white settlers in the South. Thus, the African Americans perceived freedom as a right to own land. However, the freedom was still limited during the reconstruction since almost all the land allocated to the African Americans was given back to the pre-owners. Most African-Americans acquired land later through private transactions.
The Aftermath of the reconstruction period occurred during the Gilded Age, the period of industrial revolution. The reforms made during the reconstruction period paved way for commercial, industrial and agricultural development. The reforms were perceived to pave way to economic freedom by the Americans, especially the capitalists. The white settlers took advantage of the presence of Homestead Act that did not require them to e Americans in order to file for land. Consequently, much of the unused land was sold to capitalists, most of whom were the white settlers (Fischer 47). Farmers who had small pieces of land purchased larger trucks in order to expand their agricultural practices. The capitalists invested in technological equipments such as threshers and reapers. The availability of cheap labour mainly from the poor whites and African Americans enabled the capitalists to expand extensively rather than intensively. In the 1980s, investment in mining and manufacturing increased rapidly. The two industries also relied on labour and technology to flourish (Fischer 46). The rapid growth of American industries provides proof of the fact that America mainly focused on gaining economic freedom.
Despite this, there was a major economic disparity between the capitalists and the workers that increased every day. The capitalists preferred to hire many workers and pay them low wages or to replace workers with machines. Since skilled workers demanded higher wages than the unskilled workers, the capitalists replaced the skilled workers with unskilled ones. In most cases, the employees worked overtime. The high level of exploitation by the capitalists led the employees to start fighting against it (Fischer 49). Fighting against the freedom from exploitation by the capitalists became prominent especially in the 1890s. In 1890, for instance, employees for United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America went on strike to demand for a reduction of the number of working hours per day to eight (Fischer 49). Class differences emerged during the struggles as the poor workers were fighting against exploitation by the affluent capitalists.
From 1900 to 1945
Prior to the beginning of the 20th century, all women in America did not have the right to vote and they were discriminated against by men in many other ways. Gender differences between men and women and the application of patriarchal values led the discrimination against women to persist. Women created the Women’s Suffrage Movement to fight for their rights even before the beginning of the Civil War. Although the movement had achieved several goals by the beginning of the 20th century, it had not succeeded in convincing the Congress to amend the constitution in order to be allowed to vote (Foner 78). However, some states, such as Utah and Idaho granted women the right to vote towards the end of the 19th century. More states, especially in the south and east resisted the plea by the Women Suffrage Movement. Women engage in different activities and practices to convince the Congress to amend the constitution in their favour. In 1915, for instance, women gathered 500,000 signatures and presented to the Congress. Women also made picketing demonstrations and went on hunger strikes (Foner 81). Ultimately, they succeeded in convincing the congress after supporting men in various ways during World War I. In August 1920, the Congress made the 19th Amendment and from then, women were allowed to vote. From then, freedom started being associated to the enhancement of equality between men and women or eliminating gender discrimination.
Significant social changes occurred in the 1920s that brought freedom to many Americans, especially the young generations. Mass production of goods and increase of income and material possessions led many people to live independent lives. Most people sought to live without significant control from the traditions. Consequently, freedom was defined as the independence from the control of the traditions. The traditional ways of life, including music, were replaced with new ones. For instance, the Jazz music became prominent in 1720s (Foner 93). The fight for economic freedom was the most prominent in the 1930s as individuals, groups and companies tried to recover from the negative effects of the Great Depression. During the World War II, freedom in America was perceived as the absence of control and influence by a foreign nation or a foreign government.
Between 1945 and 1960s
After the end of the World War II, freedom from the World War II among the returnees was the most prominent idea among the Americans. Considering the manner many American soldiers died during the war, most people wished for peace. Afterwards, the 1950s, however, a fight for freedom from discrimination by the African Americans emerged (Fischer 51). The African Americans were segregated in many ways, including in public transportation for more than five decades. Also, the African Americans were denied the right to vote in some states. The Congress had made numerous promises to amend the constitution in order to address those issues. In the 1950s, the leaders of civil rights movement mobilized masses to make peaceful demonstrations meant to compel the government to fulfil the promises. The most renowned leader that led the demonstrations was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In response to the demonstrations, President Kennedy introduced a Civil rights bill to the Congress in 1963 (Foner 92). The Congress passed the bill later. The bill brought about social change as it prohibited the discrimination of individuals based on race and other personal attributes. During the period, freedom was defined as the absence of discrimination based on race.
Overall, the concept of freedom does not have a specific definition since it means a different thing to different people in different periods of time. Although scholars have tried to develop general meanings of the term “freedom,” the meaning of the term to people in history is better understood through exploring how it has been defined in different periods and situations in history. As explained in this paper, the definition of freedom transformed in various was between 1865 and 1960s. Initially, its meaning was mainly associated with emancipation from slavery and being allowed to vote and to own land. Later, the meaning transformed to economic freedom, freedom from exploitation by the rich, freedom of women’s oppression by the men, freedom from control by the traditions, freedom from war and ultimately, freedom of African Americans from racial discrimination. Race, class, gender and lifestyle are among the factors that have played a role in shaping the definition of freedom.
Fischer, David Hackett. Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas.
Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2005. Print.
Foner, Eric. The Story of American Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton. 1999. Print.
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