Voices of freedom is a documentary of American freedom that explores the early days of European exploration and settlement. The various biographies included in the book reflect how different Americans during the course of history have defined the aspect of freedom in terms of viewing it in a political, religious, economic and personal context.
The book covers various periods in American history and the specific discussions on freedom during these periods. The history of the country is made up of debates, disagreements and struggles for freedom that have seen the Civil War, and the Cold War which have changed the idea of freedom in the US. The freedom of particular American citizens was also addressed because of the lack of freedom, slavery and the lower positions that women held in society (Foner xvii). The voices of freedom that will be focused on will be President Woodrow Wilson and his focus on new freedom in America (1912), Randolph Bourne’s idea of a Transnational America (1916), and President Franklin Roosevelt and the four Freedoms (1941). President Woodrow Wilson’s election to power gave him an opportunity to carryout radical reforms in the American government.
With support from the Democratic Party and the bipartisan progressives, President Wilson was able to initiate reforms and policies that would change the American system of governance during the period of 1912 to 1916. The president formulated domestic progressive policies which were referred to as New Freedom that would see a reduction on the high tariffs imposed on imported, a change in the banking system and the Sherman Act that dealt with combat antitrust laws in America. His election to office allowed him the opportunity to reconstruct the poor performing Democratic Party that had lacked good leadership (Foner 45). President Wilson first dealt with the issue of high tariffs as part of his New Freedom plan for America. The proposal to reduce the high tariff rates imposed on imported goods was a hotly contested topic in the House of Representatives with the Republicans providing a strong opposition since they helped passed the Payne Aldrich Tariff that saw imported goods having a 40 percent taxation rate. The Republicans argued that the high tariff rate was meant to protect the domestic manufacturers of goods and commodities from international competition. The overall impact of the high tariff was that goods or products in America were retailing at an extremely higher price when they should have been sold at a low price (Foner 106).
Even before he was elected to office, President Wilson had felt that the high tariffs would harm the American economy and also affect the livelihoods of the average American during that period. The only beneficiaries of the high tariffs were the business owners and manufacturers in America who sold their products at a high price. Americans were forced to spend a lot of money on these highly priced goods some of which were basic commodities and were likely to have been sold at a lower price. To show his commitment to the New Freedom plan that would see the high tariffs being reduced, Woodrow announced his intentions to revise the Payne-Aldrich Tariff plan in the US Congress, an action that no president before him had undertaken since the early 1800s. President Wilson’s plan saw the birth of the Underwood Act enacted by Congress that would reduce the high tariffs imposed on imported goods to twenty five percent. The Underwood Act saw the elimination of tariffs on essential commodities like sugar, wool, clothing and steel that were imported into the country.
In addition, this particular law brought about a centralized income tax that was legalized immediately after the 16th Amendment to the US Constitution was approved a just few months before the Underwood Act came into force (Wunder par. 5, and 6) The bill however faced some opposition from the Republicans who contested lowering the tariff rates from 40% to 25% an act that would increase international competition for commodities within the country. Wilson however piled pressure on the House of Representatives to pass the Act.
The bill was passed into law in 1913 by the House and the Senate. Its passage was viewed to be a victory for President Wilson and it encouraged him to continue pursuing the other New Freedom reforms one of which involved reforming the national banking system. This activity however proved to be much more difficult than the tariff plan (Foner 106).
The federal banking system had become very inefficient after being plagued with inefficiencies and near collapse incidences after it was established during the Civil War. All the representatives of the House agreed that the federal banking system needed to undergo some changes but the proposals that were to be used to implement the reforms brought about disputes amongst the Democrats and Republicans. One proposal that brought about debate and disputes in the House was to create smaller banks that would be used to control the central bank. Both the Democrats and the Republicans rejected this proposal with the Democrats arguing that the federal government lacked the power and control to manage these smaller banks while the Republicans who had support from wealthy financiers and American bankers argued that the proposal was of a socialist nature (Foner 106). President Wilson supported the idea and recommended that a Board of Governors should be established to govern the federal bank.
This proposal was also met with a lot of disputes and arguments from both sides of the House. The two sides of the house however reached a compromise that saw the Federal Reserve Act coming into force in 1913. The Federal Reserve Act saw the formation of new banking systems in America that included the Federal Reserve Bank, the Federal Reserve Board and many smaller branches of the central bank. The creation of the new banking system was noted as Wilson’s greatest domestic achievement (Wunder par.8). The next reform was to strengthen America’s antitrust laws. President Wilson did this by proposing a series of bills that would be used to strengthen the Sherman Act that had been formulated by President Theodore Roosevelt.
The main purpose of the Sherman Act was to regulate the prices of commodities in the country. However, only a few of these bills were enacted into laws. President Wilson faced criticism for his actions from the Republicans and also from the labor organizations in America despite the fact that he had succeeded in strengthening the Sherman Act. In summary President Wilson’s primary focus was on improving the state of the American Economy during the first days of his tenure in office by liberating the average American citizen from financial monopolists and business owners.
The New Freedom plan was meant to free the average Americans from the economic struggles they had been facing (Foner 107). While President Wilson focused on economic freedom in America during his tenure, President Franklin Roosevelt focused on freedom for the American people after World War II. His re-election in 1940 saw him propagating the cause of Britain and its allies in World War II by giving a speech before the US Congress in 1941 that dealt on the four freedoms that human beings are entitled to which are the freedom to speak, to want, fear and worship. The Four Freedoms speech made by President Roosevelt was viewed to be a reflection of the social and political goals the President wanted to achieve to improve the lives of Americans after the war (Foner 207). The freedom of speech and expression was not only to be applied in the American context but also in the world wide setting. This also applied to the freedom to worship God in whatever way one deemed best. The freedom to want was translated to mean economic understanding that would secure every country in the world peace for its citizens while the freedom from fear was translated to mean the world wide reduction of armaments or weaponry to a point where a country would not be able to commit any forms of aggression anywhere in the world.
The last two freedoms which were freedom to want and fear were viewed to go beyond the values set out in the US Constitution’s First Amendment that endorsed the right to economic and human security (Foner 208). The concept of the Four Freedoms became an inspiration to the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in developing the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights that stated “Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy speech, belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed the highest aspiration of the common people…..” (Howard and Pederson 175). However the Four Freedoms speech was met with criticisms from a section of Americans who argued that the president was abandoning American citizens who were still recovering from the depression and the war. They also argued that he was more focused on expanding the war in Europe which would threaten the average American’s inalienable rights. While the freedom of speech was guaranteed by the US Constitution, President Roosevelt saw the censorship placed on the war and the sense of misguided patriotism in the country would lead to grave infringements on the First Amendment of the Constitution.
There were also fears that racism directed towards the African American and Hispanic communities in the country would limit the American freedom to worship (Howard and Pederson 169). President Roosevelt’s reference to freedom from want was directed to the social, economic and cultural deprivation that was facing the country during the period of depression and World War II. Freedom from fear was viewed to be the president’s pledge to keep America and its citizens free from the rampant warfare that was taking place in Europe. President Roosevelt viewed the Four freedoms to be important even as the world was facing the threat of World War II.
He recognized that there was a need to allocate responsibility to an authority that would protect the Four Freedoms. The challenge was that he could not do it himself because of the public’s opinion of him during that time and also because of his own personal limitations because of World War II that would not allow him to accept that responsibility (Howard and Pederson 170). He later on found a solution to this dilemma by creating a wartime agency that would be designed to deal with the social, cultural and economic security of America. The agency referred to as the Civilian War Services Division (CWS) reduced the conflict that was being experienced by President Roosevelt in constituency matters and world politics. The CWS was tasked with the job of maintaining the Four Freedoms in America by coordinating the federal, state and local civilian defense relationships, formulation and implementation of programs designed to protect the lives of American citizens and their property in the event of a violent aggression directed towards the country and the promotion of activities that would see American citizens involved in defense programs (Howard and Pederson 171).
Another voice of freedom explored by Foner (130) is that of Randolph Bourne who was a social critic and essayist for the generation of young intellectuals who came of age in the 1910s. Bourne viewed the emergency conditions in World War I as serving undemocratic purposes. In his work “Trans-national America” which was written during the First World War, he noted that the most important civic role American citizens could play during the war was to maintain a critical stance that would challenge the government’s complacency to the war (Columbia University par. 1). According to Bourne, American citizens during the war had tried to incorporate the cultures of non US citizens into their own instead of providing the “melting pot” where immigrants and other foreigners were supposed to take up the American culture as their own. While doing this they overlooked the fact not everyone wanted to assimilate the American culture.
Bourne also calls for a redefinition of “Americanization” by providing an argument that the term no longer means that America is a melting pot of different immigrants. He noted that Americans needed to respect the wishes of the foreigners who came into the country not to be a part of the Native American culture but to search for freedom (Bourne par.2). He also talks about the disenfranchisement that occurs between the old and new immigrants.
Bourne stated that the old immigrants who had become accustomed to the American culture needed to stop Americanizing the new immigrants as they were once immigrants who gained credit from establishing some form of freedom and now they were forcing the new immigrants to become more American thereby forgetting their culture. To further explain this statement, he compared the old immigrants to people who gave their money to philanthropy but they could not see from the point of view of those they gave their money to (Foner 132). In summary the three biographies in their own different contexts and settings called for a sense of freedom in America. President Wilson advocated for the economic freedom and security of the American people from manipulation by the businesses and corporations that had monopolized the American economy for a long time. President Roosevelt in his Four Freedoms speech called for the freedom of human beings when it came to speech, worship, fear and want. Bourne advocated for the freedom of new foreigners or immigrants to practice their own forms of culture and not have the American style of living imposed on them. All these individuals advocated for a sense of change as well as a reassertion of the cries for freedom and democracy in America. Their speeches and texts were seen to be timely messages for the modern world that was engulfed in racial tensions, violent aggressions and economic exploitation of the average, poor citizens in the world.
Their focus on freedom was a means to create a better world for both the present and future citizens of the world.
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Pederson (Eds.) Franklin D. Roosevelt and the formation of the modern world.
New York: M.E.Sharpe Inc, 2003. Print.
Wunder, William L. The new freedom: the progressive program for President Woodrow Wilson. 14 January 2009. Web. 15 October 2010