The word freedom has different meanings to different people. Some people define freedom as the rights given by the government. They consider themselves free when they have liberty to choose any religion and express themselves. For some others, it is the liberty to have different beliefs that are not being imposed by others. Slavery was a big deal in the United States in the early 17th century until 1865.Even presidents were slave owner and the economy depended on this slaves that worked days and nights without salary. Henry Clay a professor of history in the University of Delaware wrote, “Slavery spread quickly in the American colonies. At first the legal status of Africans in America was poorly defined, and some, like European indentured servants, managed to become free after several years of service. From the 1660s, however, the colonies began enacting laws that defined and regulated slave relations” (Clay). Some slaves hoped that after moving to United States they could get their freedom and live in a better country. However the government created laws to keep them separate and powerless. These individual were not just poor and discriminated but they also could not have contact with others like them because they could get power and the government did not want that. Government wanted to have them controlled not giving them any kind of space. All these discriminations divided the country into two; north and south. The majority of the people from the north did not agree with slavery and how the government was taking these individual‘s freedom away. There were abolitionists; individuals who worked to stop slavery and the discrimination that was spreading the country. There were movements that also involved white Americans. There was finally the American Civil War which started in 1861that ended slavery in 1865. Slaves got their freedom when slavery was abolished. They were then equal and responsible for their actions. There are many different kinds of freedom and people have different sense of it. But where does this sense come from? Does it come from the society or from the individual? A government cannot give someone freedom if the person does not know what freedom is. In other words, someone can never be free if she/he has not internalized the meaning of it. The reason is because freedom develops from individual‘s belief that “all man are created equal”; not by government or social norms. This sense is not given or imposed but shared. Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Banneker and Sarah Grimké were individuals that believed in equality, liberty and challenged the society. They all lived slavery and the feeling of not having rights to speak or form part of the community one lives in.
Frederick Douglass was born in 1818 as a slave in Maryland. He learned how to read and write and then married a free black woman and got his independence. He was an abolitionist and the most powerful speaker in that time. For him freedom was equality for whites and blacks as well as for men and women. He defended his beliefs even though they were going against the dominant beliefs. He faced discrimination and knew what it felt like to be told what to do. Therefore, he wanted something different in his society. He made an editorial on the 1848 Seneca Fall convention in which he supported women’s right movement. In his speech he replies, “we advocate women‘s rights, not because she is an angel, but because she is a women, having the same wants, and being exposed to the same evils as man” (340). Douglass believed that women deserved to be treated equally as men because they were living in the same society facing the same difficulties. Before Douglass could even think about supporting women‘s movement and even trying to abolish slavery, he had to internalize what freedom meant to him. to internalized its meaning he had to live through slavery, he felt the pain that that helped him to defined a freedom he believed in. One can’t freely go out and ask for something they do not have a sense of. It takes time and courage to challenge beliefs that already existed and to take the liberty to speak in public for what one think is right. No one gave him the freedom to believe what he believed in and to speak for what he believed was right. He gained that freedom by himself because not one can make someone else free. The books he road helped him to explore different people‘s ideas, beliefs and definition of freedom. However, his own thinking courage to speak came from himself and his experience through slavery time.
Benjamin Banneker was also an individual that believed in liberty and equality for all individual. He was a free African American also living in Maryland. He as Douglass also believes in equality for everyone regardless the color or gender. They both experienced inequality and slavery which is the opposite of freedom. And they both also gave themselves freedom to speak up for equality and liberty, not before realizing the meaning of it. Banneker questioned Thomas Jefferson‘s definition of freedom. He felt Jefferson was not giving everyone the same rights as he claimed in the “Declaration of Independence”. In reply Banneker wrote him a letter in which he clearly expresses his view and definition of freedom. In part of his later he replies, “…however diversified in situation or color, we are all of the family, and stand in the same relation to him” (190). He believed that color or situation didn’t matter because they were all from the same god and god saw them equally. That was Banneker‘s definition of freedom. Not a definition from the society or the definition Jefferson had. It was internalized by him because he believed in it and therefore fought for it.
Finally, Sarah Grimké was another individual who believed in equality and challenged the social mores. She was born in 1792 in South Carolina experiencing slavery and discrimination. She had the opportunity to get an education since her father was wealthy. she read books and learned about other‘s view. She had the opportunity that not all women have regardless to the color, and that helped her to defend her thoughts. By reading books and looking at the society she created her own definition for freedom. She as Douglass and Banneker believed that black and white were created equal as women were created equal to men. The fact she was around people that thought different from her didn’t influence her. She wrote a letter criticizing the church for keeping women inferior to men. Church justified inequality by saying god created the women inferior to men to protect them. In reply to that Grimké wrote, “I follow him through all his precepts, and find him giving the same directions to women as to men, never even referring to the distinction now so strenuously insisted upon between masculine and feminine virtues” (323). Throughout the letter Grimké uses the bible to support her view since the church also used bible as a tool to keep women inferior. She believed that the government or church didn’t have to make distinction between men and women if god didn’t make those distinctions. She also developed her beliefs that they were all created equal even though the society had different views.
Something that these individuals had in common is that they all learned about the society they were living in before going against it. Grimké was wealthy and well educated and Banneker also went to school. Unfortunately Douglass did not get an education because he was slave but he learned how to read and write. Education gave them all power to learn about how the society was operating and what was wrong with it. When they felt their sense of freedom did not complement with the society‘s dominant beliefs, they decided to change it. In other words, they did not get the idea of freedom from the society or the government. That being the case everything would be still the same. They got the idea of freedom from themselves and they expanded throughout the society. And because their ideas were different from the dominant one, they made national and individual progress which we still seeing today. With their writing and speeches, they convinced people that slavery and inequality was wrong. Sarah Grimké was a role model for white women. She proved that one did not necessarily had to be African American to support African‘s movement. Frederick Douglass and Benjamin Banneker showed that one did not necessarily had to be women to support women‘s right movement. They all teach a lesson to the one that let other define the word freedom for them; to the one who let the government guide their thoughts and beliefs, Which is not necessarily given them freedom but taken it from them by not allowing them to define for themselves. Because of people like them the world seems to be better today. Slavery has been abolished and women are sharing the same rights as men. We even have women in congress, women that are lawyers, doctors, sociologists and even police officers. Without individuals like Douglass, Banneker and Grimké we would still being under the same situation especially African American and women. They started by defining freedom which can be seen as their individual progress. Then they challenged old ideas bringing new ones that made the world better. Because of them, people are now more free to define their own sense of freedom by themselves, knowing they do not have to follow what other s think but fight for what they think is right.
Douglass, Frederick. “Editorials on Women’s Rights.” July 28, 1848 and October 30, 1851.
Banneker, Benjamin. "Benjamin Banneker." Letter to Thomas Jefferson. 1791. MS.
Grimke, Sarah. "Letter lll." Letter to Reply to Pastoral letter. 1837. MS.
Henry Clay Reed professor of history. University of Delaware. Author of American Slavery: 1619-1877 and Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian serfdom.