In 1831, when Samuel F. Smith used the phrase “let freedom ring” in a song, he used “ring” in the artistic sense. The telephone wasn’t patented for another 45 years.
Today, however, freedom is ringing, literally, (as well as buzzing, chiming and chirping) as masses of people seeking to decide their own destiny use cell phones, the Internet and an array of wireless gizmos.
It’s pretty compelling. Here’s the historical context:
Before 1776 when the colonists of this new land decided to go it alone, nations of the world had been managed by monarchs for well over 1,000 years. Also, the colonists’ decision to let the people be in charge had been almost 300 years in the making.
Many of the leaders of the rebellion, now respectfully called our “founding fathers,” believed in natural law. Based on Scripture and evolving philosophies of the time, natural law was radical in a way we can’t imagine. It shattered the ingrained belief that people were more like cattle. They had to be told what to do.
Natural law’s core tenet is that when left alone as much as possible, people will do their best as well as be their best. They will obtain education, be more creative and innovative when it improves their lives.
At the time, it was merely a theory. By 1831, when Smith wrote his song, the experiment was working out. There were problems and conflicts. Race and gender bias dominated. Overall, however, in a song he titled, “America,” Smith, a Harvard-educated Baptist preacher, declared democracy a success:
“My country ’tis of thee
sweet land of liberty
of thee I sing;
land where my fathers died,
land of the pilgrims’ pride
from every mountainside
let freedom ring!”
The song, sung to the tune of “God Save The Queen” was unofficially our national anthem until 1931 when Congress put its official stamp on “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Now, fast-forward two centuries from the time Smith wrote about the ring of freedom. Every student of the Civil Rights Movement will tell you television led to the awakening. Television spread the simple and profound pleas by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to end a full century of post-war race-based injustice in Mississippi and everywhere else. Television also spread the images of horror and violence, causing the public to correct (or try to correct) a longstanding wrong.
As technology increased, so did more validation of this notion called natural law – that societies, if they know about and see actions and governing systems that don’t work, will work with a collective conscience to find better ways.
In more recent times, the Berlin Wall was taken down and the oppressive, centralized management of what was the Soviet Union collapsed. Why? It wasn’t because John F. Kennedy or, later, Ronald Reagan made speeches. It was because satellite television and radio and color photographs were showing people under the thumb of the Kremlin something very simple: On average, people in a free society were living a lot better in terms of food, jobs and discretionary income than people who were, for all intents and purposes, captives of their government.
More recently, people who have studied these things will tell you that a byproduct of “regime change” in Iraq has been the opening of a closed society. For decades under Saddam Hussein, Iraqis made a point of not being noticed. They survived by being anonymous. Now they can be entrepreneurs.
Freedom’s march is never perfect, but look at what the advent of instant communication has meant all over the world in just the past few months.
Freedom does have a ring now, and it’s a phone or a Facebook post or a Twitter feed. Repressive leaders in China and Egypt and elsewhere struggle mightily against freedom of information, the ability of people to talk with each other about what’s right and what’s wrong. Increasingly, they have failed. They will continue to fail.
Some people in America are frightened by the turmoil erupting in so many places. Perhaps we should be. Our State Department has made many enemies. Our self-centered, self-indulgent culture is loathed by religious purists who are determined to hold on to their believers.
What’s going on, though, is that freedom is proving to be contagious. People want to live in societies where they can try self-rule. They may succeed. They may not, but they think it’s worth the risk.
In a way, it’s 1776 all over again. The ideals are the same. The forces of darkness and domination are lurking, opportunistic. But this time the scale is global, and it’s all due to technology that allows instant communication.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.