American Autobiographies: The Idea of Liberty

Updated on December 4, 2019
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Brandon Riederer is an Adjunct Instructor of English at Bryant & Stratton College. He has a M.A. in English from National University.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door! - Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus"
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door! - Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus"

Benjamin Franklin and Liberty

Benjamin Franklin created himself in the model of a mentor or even the ‘Wise Old Man’ archetype in his autobiographical narrative. One of his major rhetorical aim of his narrative was to inspire his readers with a story of social mobility and to show that political power and respect can be earned. By the blessings of the Christian God and following Aristolean virtues anyone could accomplish what he had done which was “emerging from the poverty and obscurity in which [he] was born and bred, to a state of affluence and some degree of reputation in the world, and having gone so far though life with a considerable share of felicity, the concluding means [he] made use of, which, with the blessing of God, so well succeeded, [his] posterity may like to know, as they may find some suitable to their own situations, and therefore fit to be imitated” (Franklin, 1999). Ultimately, Franklin’s understanding of the American Dream is deeply rooted—and partially responsible for—the U.S.’s core culture’s high-value of individualism, or the expectation that individuals can “experience success by hard work and [they learn] to pull themselves up by their bootstraps” (Banks, C., Banks, J., 2001). Therefore, Franklin’s understanding of liberty is both a staple in the dominant ideology of America and a testament to the American individuals’ freedom to act virtuously in order to earn honor, education, and affluence.

Black Hawk and Liberty

In Black Hawk’s memoir, “An Autobiography, he dedicated his life to the survival of his tribe’s customs, beliefs, and livelihood. Black Hawk is a notable leader and member of the Sauk Tribe. His fondest memories revolve around the success of his tribe, when the land “never failed to produce good crops of corn, beans, pumpkins, and squashes” (Black Hawk, p. 81). Sauk’s success is dependent on their availability of land for hunting and farming. His tribe identified themselves according to the land. They knew they are successful in hunting and farming, because “[they] always had plenty- [their] children never cried with hunger, nor [their] people were never in want” (Black Hawk, p. 81). Black Hawk treated the land as a gift from the Great Spirit for “his children to live upon, and cultivate, as far as is necessary for their subsistence” (Black Hawk, p. 89). Furthermore, Black Hawk never questioned his identity, even in life threatening situations. He dedicated himself to “preserve[ing] the ancestral home of his people, as well as their time-honored customs and traditions” (“History”, n.d., para. 17). Black Hawk reminds readers the importance and necessity of America landscapes because he believed the land allowed people to create their own customs and enjoy the freedoms associated with it. Ultimately, through the liberty of nature and an intimate connection with the land could an individual could discover their self-identity. This freedom of movement and place was the ultimate liberty for Black Hawk.

Frederick Douglass and Liberty

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery; he did not even know who his father was and this grim start to his life made it difficult to attain liberty. In his autobiography, he talks about how he was chosen to live in the plantation house and how he lacked a family tradition. His mother died when he was ten and sent away to Baltimore for work shortly after. He was then taught to read and write by his master’s wife, even though it was forbidden. Although, he was no longer able to be taught, Douglass continued to learn through other children and though his personal drive to discover truth.

Later in Douglass’s life he gave credit to The Columbian Orator who helped him articulate his views on human rights. In his autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” he described the African American race as one that “despise[s] themselves for their baseness and illiberality of spirit, and henceforth cease to talk of the natural inferiority of those who require nothing but time and opportunity to attain to the highest point of human excellence” (Smith 1999). Thus, for Douglass, so long as slavery existed, the confidence to achieve liberty for African Americans was unrealizable. Furthermore, the atrocities of slavery “have been left long enough to gather character of [it] from the involuntary evidence of the masters” (Smith 1999).

In other words, for Douglass, liberty was the pursuit to abolish racial oppression. His humanitarian efforts were exemplified in his abolitionist writings that appeared in journals such as The North Star, Frederick Douglass Weekly, Frederick Douglass' Paper, Douglass' Monthly and New National Era. For example, the motto of The North Star was "Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren" (Frederick douglass civil rights activist, 2014) Racial freedom and equality were the ultimate goals of liberty, according to Douglass.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Liberty

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a political activist during the 19th century who sought to abolish certain social structures and institutionalized practices that marginalized women. In Stanton's autobiographical narrative, "Eighty Years and More," she argues that 19th century women's fashion was a patriarchal constraint perpetrated by the core culture of the United States. The clothing women were expected to wear in public was in "sore need to reform" because it was like walking in one’s “ball and chain” (Stanton, 1999). In response, Stanton's feminist colleagues, such as Amelia Bloomer and Susan B. Anthony, developed the 'Bloomer' which proved to be "exceedingly convenient for walking in all kinds of weather" (Stanton, 1999). Despite a relentless torrent of social ridicule from both men and women "a few sensible women, in different parts of the country" did find Stanton's political views and her revolutionary approach to fashion to be convenient and practical for “skaters, gymnasts, [and] tourists” (Stanton, 1999). Ultimately, Stanton’s idea of liberty was to liberate women from gender oppression and elevate the dignity and respect women receive within American culture.

Maxine Hong Kingston and Liberty

Before Maxine Hong Kingston could establish her American identity, she had to establish her self-identity that was distinctly separate from his Chinese heritage. In Kingston’s autobiographical narrative, “The Woman Warrior,” she detailed the many struggles she endured to find herself in a demanding world. Kingston met all the standards of a successful person. She “got straight A’s” (Kingston, p. 519) in school, and even “went away in college-Berkeley in the sixties- and [she] studied, and [she] marched to change the world” (Kingston, p. 520). Unfortunately, this was not enough to appease her parents who wanted a boy, not a girl, which was in line with Chinese social values.

Eventually, Kingston was able to liberate herself from her parent’s demands by becoming the opposite of what they wanted. She “refused to cook” (Kingston, p. 521) and when her mother made her wash dishes “[she would crack one or two” (Kingston, p. 521). Kingston rebelled as a way to identify herself as a woman, American, and Chinese emigrant. Eventually, Kingston settled “where there are Chinese and Japanese, but no emigrants from [her] own village look[ed] at [her] as if [she] had failed them. Living among one’s own emigrant villager can give a good Chinese far from China glory and a place” (Kingston, p. 524, para. 5). Thus, Kingston ultimately discovered her self-identity as a diverse—and at times, displaced— paradox of contrasting cultural influences.

What Does it All Mean, Anyway?

Having such drastic purposes for writing their autobiographies— as well as being separated by time and space— Franklin, Black Hawk, Douglass, Stanton, and Kingston’s definitions of liberty can by no means be identical, or even compatible. Even though each author stresses similar concepts, those that comprise of U.S. core cultural values, each one is construed differently according to its time and place. For instance, Franklin’s idea of liberty was influenced by western philosophy and his education as a white male; Black Hawk’s idea of liberty is rooted in the values of his Native American heritage and religion; Douglass’s idea of liberty was thrust upon him along with the shackles of slavery; Stanton’s idea of liberty comes from her experiences living in under a strict patriarchal regime during a traditional and sexually repressed time in American history; and lastly, Kingston’s idea of liberty comes from her hyphenated understanding of her self-identity, which was split between competing cultures. Despite the many differences between these authors and the displacing effects of American culture upon their self-identities, it is apparent that Jefferson’s words— that “all men are created equal”—is a reoccurring concept in these author’s autobiographical narratives. Liberty, which is freedom, equality, and the abolishment of oppression, is a central concept to all American individuals and it helps them define their unique identities in a diverse environment.

References

Banks, C., Banks, J. (2001). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives (4th ed.). New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Franklin, B. (1999). The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. In Jay Parini (Ed.) The norton book of american autobiography. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Fredrick douglass civil rights activist (2014). Retrieved on May 24, 2015 from:

http://www.biography.com/people/frederick-douglass-9278324

Hawk, B. (1999). An autobiography. In Jay Parini (Ed.) The Norton book of american autobiography (pp. 80-93). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

History: Black hawk (2015). Retrieved from http://www.blackhawkpark.org/History/Black_Hawk.html

Jefferson, T. (2012). Declaration of Independence from The norton anthology of american literature (vol. a, ed. 9). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Kingston, M. (1999). The woman warrior. In Jay Parini (Ed.) The Norton book of American autobiography (pp. 519-25). New York, NY: Norton & Co

Smith, N. (1999) Narrative of the life of frederick douglass, an american slave. Retrieved

On May 24, 2015 from: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html

Parini, J. (1999). The norton book of american autobiography. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Stanton, E. (1999). Eighty Years and More from The norton book of american autobiography. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Instructor Riederer

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      • k@ri profile image

        Kari Poulsen 

        6 weeks ago from Ohio

        I like how you show liberty's many faces through the history of different people. It emphasizes that we each experience life in a different but similar manner. I found this very well written.

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