July 4, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

You are the freedom you seek

Four visions of democracy.

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There was a time when I felt pretty good about Independence Day. By that, I mean it did not feel totally phony. I understood America was not as free as it should be. But history – especially events in my own lifetime – suggested things were improving. If America was not completely living up to its promise, it was trying to honor most of it. If nothing else, Barack Obama’s historic election seemed like evidence of that.

These days our annual ritual in civic religion seems emptier than it had in the past. Indeed, it feels like I should have been more grateful for what we did have instead of what we didn’t. What we did have is now rapidly fading. That Hillary Clinton never cracked the last glass ceiling was a goddamn disgrace, but at least women were entitled to protection by federal law of their right to life and liberty. Post-Roe, my daughter is now one-half the citizen her male classmates are.

Even so, the Fourth of July serves a good reminder that freedom is not what we are given. It is what we take. Perhaps most of all, it is an opportunity to take back its democratic meaning. We may have to live inside a world of white power that’s protected by our judicial overlords, but we don’t have to believe, as they do, that white power is freedom.

It’s the opposite.

Here are four visions of democracy – by Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, William Ellery Channing and the medieval poet Saadi. I found them, or versions of them, in Singing the Living Tradition, a Unitarian Universalist hymnal. (Channing was a Unitarian minister.) As you struggle for your independence, I hope these give you strength.


“The idea of democracy,” Abraham Lincoln

As labor is the common burden of our race, so the effort of some to shift their share of the burden onto the shoulders of others is the great durable curse of the race.

As I would not be a slave so I would not be a master.

This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

Our reliance is in our love for liberty. Our defense is in the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all people in all lands everywhere.

Destroy this spirit, and we have planted the seeds of despotism at our own doors.


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Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and cannot long retain it.

Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world?

Let us have faith that right makes might and that faith led us to the end, date to our duty, as we understand it.


“The limits of tyrants,” Frederick Douglass

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.

They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle.

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. 


“The free mind,” William Ellery Channing

I call that mind free, which masters the senses, which protects itself against animal appetites, which contemns pleasure and pain in comparison to its own energy, which penetrates beneath the body and recognizes its own reality and greatness, which passes life, not in asking what it shall eat or drink, but in hungering, thirsting and seeking after righteousness.

I call that mind free, which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which calls no man master, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come, which receives new truth as an angel from heaven, which, whilst consulting others, inquires still more of the oracle within itself, and uses instructions from abroad, not to supersede but to quicken and exalt its own energies.

I call that mind free, which sets no bounds to its love, which is not imprisoned in itself or in a sect, which recognizes in all human beings the image of God and the rights of his children, which delights in virtue and sympathizes with suffering wherever they are seen, which conquers pride, anger and sloth, and offers itself up a willing victim to the cause of mankind.


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I call that mind free, which is not passively framed by outward circumstance, which is not swept away by the torrent of events, which is not the creature of accidental impulse, but which bends events to its own improvement, and acts from an inward spring, from immutable principles which it has deliberately espoused.

I call that mind free, which, through confidence in God and in the power of virtue, has cast off all fear but that of wrongdoing, which no menace or peril can enthrall, which is calm in the midst of tumults, and possesses itself though all else be lost.


“To serve the people,” Saadi Shirazi

To worship God is nothing other than to serve the people.
It does not need rosaries, prayer carpets or robes.
All peoples are members of the same body, created from one essence.
If fate brings suffering to one member
The others cannot stay at rest.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

1 Comment

  1. Kathy Routliffe on July 4, 2022 at 1:27 pm

    Thank you for sharing these passages.

    Some people say our country has changed fundamentally in the last seven years, and especially as the Supreme Court has made rulings in the last few months (Roe being probably the most monumental one). However, I think it more accurate to say veils that once hid our country’s fundamental flaws from those of us at or near the top of society are being torn mercilessly away, forcing us o recognize the violence toward those at or near the bottom that the country was built on.

    It doesn’t mean I love our country less; it means that the love I bear forces me to see the flaws, and challenges me to erase them. That will take more than individual effort; it will take a community, a nationwide chain of communities, and the effort will be long, hard, and heartbreaking. Despite that heartbreak and heavy labor, the effort is necessary.

    tl:dr: thank you again, and may your Fourth be at least spent with those you love.

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