Freedom Isn’t Free
September 30, 2015 § 5 Comments
Here in the United States, it is common to see a bumper sticker that says “Freedom Isn’t Free.” These stickers pre-date 9/11 and the War on Terror and the devastating human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they have taken on special meaning in the decade-and-a-half since 9/11.
I am, as usual, teaching American history this semester. One of my classes is reading David Roediger’s classic book, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. While Roediger’s attempts to connect himself to EP Thompson are perhaps overdone, he still makes a powerful argument about the centrality of race in the development of a free labour ideology in the US. He especially ties his argument to WEB DuBois’ conclusion in his Black Reconstruction of the psychological benefit the white worker received (in lieu of fair wages) through his whiteness, and its pseudo-entry to power.
Roediger digs back into what he calls the pre-history of the American worker, the period between colonization and the dawn of the 19th century and the beginnings of the American industrial revolution. This involves a discussion of the compromise over slavery in the Constitution. Roediger writes:
Even artisan-patriots with substantial anti-slavery credentials supported the Constitution as a compromise necessary to secure the world’s greatest experiment in freedom.
Indeed. The freedom of white Americans, especially white American artisans/workers in the Revolutionary era came at the cost of the enslavement of African Americans. On one hand, Roediger seems to be letting these artisan-patriots off the hook. On the other, I have never quite understood the apparent lack of irony in the Revolutionary generation’s easy resort to slavery rhetoric to complain of Britain’s treatment of the colonies. I find it preposterous and disingenuous. And yet, this rhetoric became powerful during the Revolution. At any rate, as Roediger reminds us, freedom isn’t free.