One symbol, endless interpretations. That is the age old condition of American Freedom. It is a messy affair with so many choosing to see their personal freedom as finite property. If another individual, or group realizes a gain, others record a loss.
If the Liberty Tree (above) represents that nebulous idea of freedom, the metaphor is easier to see. Made up of mostly white males, working class boys, the Sons of Liberty were the foot soldiers in the struggle for freedom. Those young men had access to guard the grounds around the trunk, and decide who could approach the tree.
Then came Scott V. Sanford, 1857 and the court ruled that slaves were slaves and absolutely prohibited from the grounds where freedom stood.
The Fourteenth Amendment, known as the “Second Bill of Rights” guaranteed equal protection under the law to ALL Americans. Theoretically everyone was now protected under that mighty elm.
In Plessy V. Ferguson, 1896, Black Americans were allowed to peek at the tree, but only from far outside the vicinity, away from whites. If blacks felt inferior from the “Separate, but Equal” decision, that was their own problem. (Read the decision, it really says that)
Women too, steadily circled the grounds of the green–their collective eyes determined to examine the quality of the wood. Soldiers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Dorothea Dix and others demanded the promise of American self-agency. Then came World War One, and women would wait no longer. Under the duo leadership of moderate Carrie Chapman Catt, and radical Alice Paul, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified and women joined the male-dominated electoral process. These girls advanced toward their prize, though not yet able to explore the texture of the trunk.
Of course, through those many years, male interest in women’s reproduction remained paramount. “Coveture,” was a legal principle–women as property, covered by their men’s standing. Women only experienced that tree in a token sense, with permission from their father or spouse. Those brave enough to challenge the status quo, those who spoke out on reproductive rights, or even voting rights found themselves in jail. Take a look at the lives of Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Sanger. Those two women dared to touch the tree and were caught, shamed, and punished.
Roe V Wade, 1973 changed the subjugation of women for ever. In addition to the introduction of birth control pills, the girls not only circled the trunk, but were finally climbing the branches! Women could wait to start families. They could pursue education, fly airplanes, trek to the North Pole. The view from the tree top was fabulous.
But the powers of inertia, the sense of lost freedom pervaded the ranks of those who believed they were losing in this zero-sum game. Their freedom was diminished by that gained for Black Americans and women. The pull came, the courts listened, and the ropes went up again around the trunk.
In light of recent Court decisions, women are again relegated to the curb around the green. They can see the tree, but others who tout their stronger claim to freedom guard the grass. The personal proclivities of some trump the claim to self agency of others. Margaret Sanger, Mrs. Stanton, Frederick Douglass, for that matter, and Alice Paul would not be too happy with the backward turn in women’s standing concerning their autonomy. (Plus the hacking away at the Civil Rights Act of 1965)
That historic tree must spread its roots and grow to remain healthy. The reach of its branches are limitless, and no one loses freedom by sharing it’s blessings with all born to its legacy.
Happy Fourth of July.