The Balance of Freedom

Imagine that you are an animal, let’s say an ape. You have a master who decides to place you in a cage. This owner controls many important factors of your existence. This owner decides when you are let out of the cage for exercise. This owner chooses when you are allowed to take a bath and when you are permitted to sleep. What you eat and when you eat are also choices made by this owner. As long as you stay within the guidelines set forth by your owner, you are allowed to live peacefully. But if you try to agitate your master’s system of control in any way, you will face harsh consequences. If you make any attempt to escape, you are severely beaten. If you make so much as a whimper or an attempt to communicate with the outside world, you are also beaten. And if you so much as question any of his decisions, you are severely and unconditionally punished.

In this type of oppressive relationship, there exists a kind of balance – a balance of freedom. This freedom is manifested in two ways. It is manifested in the extent of personal rights that you retain in controlling your own fate and governing your actions. As the “oppressed ape” in this relationship, you have nearly none of this type of freedom. Inversely, your oppressor has virtually unrestrained personal freedom, in the form of “social privilege” – he has an unrestricted ability to infringe on your freedom and dictate your fate. This balance, or rather, imbalance of freedom is what defines oppressive relationships.

It is important to note that there is a dynamic element to oppressive relationships. Just like a blood cell that absorbs water from its surroundings in order to reach an equal salt concentration inside and outside its membrane, this balance of freedom automatically tries to level itself out. Regardless of whether the oppressed entity is openly and actively able to resist the control of the entity in power, they, at least internally, have a desire to obtain more freedom. This is why all forms of protest – whether they be national-scale rebellions, local civil-disobedience movements, or simply talking back to one’s parents – occur. As rational beings, we have an acute ability to detect when this balance of freedom is not in homeostasis, and thus, that potential for gaining more freedom is what drives us to resist and rebel. The incentive of being free is what encourages us to consider all paths of escape from an oppressive situation.

A Report to the Academy, an intriguing short story by the Czech author Franz Kafka, spectacularly captures the idea of escaping oppression and leveling the balance of freedom by narrating the journey of a captured ape who has ultimately taught himself to imitate and function as a convincing human being: “And so I learned things, gentlemen. Ah, one learns when one has to; one learns when one needs a way out; one learns at all costs.” And while this quote is from a talking ape in a far-fetched fictional story, the underlying concept holds true. In fact, it has been a central dogma of nearly every uprising, protest, and questioning of authority in the history of mankind. Examples, just to name a few, include the Indian Independence Movement, the French Revolution, and Fossil Free Stanford. For the purposes of this research project, I have chosen to examine this balance of freedom by looking through the lens of the black Civil Rights movement in the United States.

For in the year 1862, the condition of many blacks in the U.S. was not far from that of the caged ape. Yoked in the bondage of slavery, these blacks were trapped in a living hell of oppression. They, too, lacked freedom in the form of civil rights. No freedom of speech. No freedom of movement. No citizenship, no equal protection under the law, no ability to participate in government, no education, and a severely restricted access to opportunity. These blacks faced constant racism, extreme discrimination, and the never-ending threat of violence. And those who ‘agitated the system’ by attempting to escape, just like the ape, were severely punished. On the other side of the spectrum, the free whites enjoyed a different kind of America – an America filled with the aforementioned “social privilege” – the present opportunity of whites to exploit their power and greater civil rights in restraining the freedom of the black population. Thus, there indeed existed a balance of freedom, consisting of the limited civil rights of the blacks and the overwhelming social privilege of the whites – albeit a harshly skewed balance bent toward the side of social privilege.  

But on January 1st, 1863, a single document paved the first tile on the path to equality for blacks, providing hope to all of the slaves that this balance of freedom was indeed dynamic, and could be leveled out. An executive order that was more of a war measure than anything else, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation liberated more than three million slaves in the South. The Emancipation Proclamation was significant in that it took the first step in leveling the balance of freedom by giving blacks their first civil right in the U.S.: the freedom from slavery. But yet, the Civil War raged on, and it was a speech given eleven months later that defined, through the eyes of the Executive, what the concept of “freedom” in the United States really meant, and ensured that the freedom of blacks from slavery was not a mere secondary issue, but the central uniting factor and purpose of the war.

It is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered on November 1st, 1863, that achieved this, and immortalized one of the most famous opening lines in the history of American politics: “Four score and seven years ago[…]”. And it is this same line, symbolically replicated, that appears as the opening statement in the “I Have A Dream” speech by another great American advocate for freedom – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”

It is evident that these two pioneers of freedom shared much in common: their ideals, desire to put forth their opinions in the public sphere through rhetoric, and powerful leadership resonate. However, it is their unanimous effort to level out the balance of freedom that I have chosen to examine in this essay, and for those purposes, I will be contrasting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” the speech that was delivered on the eve of his assassination, in how both leaders incorporated the idea of the “balance of freedom” in order to enhance their rhetoric and achieve their individual arguments.

Legend has it that “Lincoln, in a flash of inspiration, scrawled the speech on a napkin or paper scrap during the rail trip to Gettysburg” (Hennessey 152). It’s not the way one would expect the Gettysburg Address to be written, considering the significance of the discourse and the importance it held, not only to the entire nation, but also in stabilizing Lincoln’s political career, which was in shaky standing at the time. But whereas Lincoln’s speech was remarkably short in nature, especially when juxtaposed with respected Congressman Edward Everett’s two-hour-long fiery discourse just before, the Gettysburg Address had great success in achieving its goal of changing the nation’s attitude towards the war. “Lincoln’s text is startlingly brief for what it accomplished, but that would be equally true if Everett had spoken for a shorter time or had not spoken at all,” historian Garry Wills writes in his book, Lincoln at Gettysburg – The Words that Remade America (35-36). A definite reason why the Address was so successful was because of the daily reports Lincoln had about the fighting at Gettysburg, as well as the location and architecture of the cemetery where he would deliver the speech. There is historical proof that Lincoln had knowledge of the battles from reports during and after the three days of fighting at Gettysburg, and that he additionally requested specific knowledge about the gravesite before he arrived, most likely to aid him in his speech-writing process (Wills 29).

Gettysburg Address

19th November 1863: Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, making his famous ‘Gettysburg Address’ speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery during the American Civil War. Original Artwork: Painting by Fletcher C Ransom (Photo by Library Of Congress/Getty Images)

This makes sense – Lincoln used the cemetery as a masterful way of positioning his argument to resonate with the physical surroundings of his audience and make his message unforgettable. The Gettysburg Address – A Graphic Adaptation, a historical graphic novel adaptation of the delivery and writing of the Gettysburg Address by author Jonathan Hennessey, helps to illustrate this idea. Before this time period, graveyards were frightening places, designed to be bleary and frightening in nature in order to scare people away from committing sins. The Address was given at the National Soldier’s Cemetery, which was a brand new design for a burial place. This cemetery, which means “a sleeping place,” was designed not to create a fear of the dead, but rather, an aura of reverence towards those who had sacrificed their lives for the Union. In a twofold sense, cemeteries were miniature epitomes of Lincoln’s ideals for America: a place of respect for those who put their lives on the line for freedom, and an epitome of equality, as all graves, regardless of the soldier’s rank, had the same appearance (Hennessey). Thus, this cemetery-inspired idea of all men being created equal became a central theme of the Gettysburg Address, and the reason the speech very much parallels Pericles’ renowned Funeral Oration in ancient Athens, a speech Lincoln would likely have known of.

Following that notion, it’s no surprise that Lincoln used the same structural skeleton and much of the same rhetoric as Pericles in formatting his Address. In the form of an “Epitaphios,” the principal contrast in Lincoln’s speech is life and death, comprising of two sections: the epainesis, or praise for the fallen, and parainesis, or advice for the living (Wills 43). But after commemorating the fallen, the Gettysburg Address segues to its secondary purpose – defining the Civil War as one that will truly determine whether “all men are created equal,” and what freedoms the entire population, not just the whites, should have. By that, Lincoln was referring to the civil rights of blacks, namely that of “owning property, legally marrying, working and retaining the fruits of labor, seeking justice, living, working, and worshipping where and how one wishes…all of which, under slavery, most blacks could not do” (Hennessey 98). This is the desired state of the balance of freedom that Lincoln tried to advocate for in his address. While Lincoln, from the standpoint of retaining political support, had reservations about extending political rights to blacks, he did understand and sympathize with the oppression that blacks faced from whites. As a boy who grew up in a poor family that could not afford slaves, Lincoln was deeply against the idea of slavery, but had to restrain his political agenda of giving rights to blacks to a reasonable extent so that he would not be classified as a radical and lose the support behind his movement. Lincoln firmly believed that “equality” between blacks and whites meant that they would share civil, but not political rights: “Blacks should enjoy the benefits of government, but not really participate in it” (Hennessey 98).

The German-born American political theorist Hannah Arendt provides a clear methodology of “civil religion” that excellently develops a concept of a three-tier hierarchy of stages in the pursuit of attaining full equality. Before the blacks were freed, they were restricted to the first stage in the hierarchy: the labor stage. This is equivalent to slavery, where humans are exploited for raw work and do not have the opportunity to explore higher interests in life, such as professions, societal associations, and the pursuit of happiness. By issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln gave blacks the means by which they could ascend to the second tier: the work stage. This is where humans can actively pursue their passions, reap the fruit of their efforts, and enjoy the freedom of association with other members of society. This is, in a sense, equivalent to full civil equality.

But while Lincoln was stuck in a time period where he could only do so much as emancipate the blacks but not give them full equality, he retained a vision of a more perfect future where he could provide blacks with a path to the third and final tier – the political tier – where blacks could enjoy full political freedom and use action to advocate their opinions in the public sphere (Allen 25). In the final paragraph of the Gettysburg Address, he conveys the magnitude of this ultimate message: “that the nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In Perspectives on Lincoln’s Greatest Speech – The Gettysburg Address, editor Sean Conant asserts that “Lincoln’s closing remarks at Gettysburg, therefore, were part of a much longer history of oratory that celebrated America’s form of government as a sacred trust and the United States as a nation charged with a particular and special purpose: that of proving whether or not popular government could ever be successful” (8). There is an unmistakable implication in this quote that Lincoln strongly predestined an ultimate goal for the black Civil Rights movement – that one day, blacks would finally level the balance of freedom and enjoy the same civil rights, political rights, and social privilege as whites. Fittingly, Conant adds, “what the Address lacks in specifics (about civil rights, political rights, or emancipation) is more than made up by a bold declaration of equality” (253).

One hundred and five years later, the burden of continuing the journey of raising blacks up through the tiers of equality fell on the shoulders of a 39-year-old minister. It was a fateful evening when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. checked into Room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, coughing with a slight cold and not at all in the mood to give a speech that night. The Mountaintop, a fascinating play by Katori Hall, provides a wonderful narrative of the last night of MLK’s life and simultaneously paints a rounded picture of Dr. King as an ordinary, flawed human being – far from the preaching, almost divine messenger he takes the role of in his speeches. Instead, he is characterized as a cussing, cigarette-smoking, flirty, and slightly cocky man who has aged far more than the years he has been alive. As a summary of that evening, Ralph Abernathy, who MLK sent to speak in his place, calls Dr. King and informs him that the audience will not be satisfied until they hear him speak. Resigned, MLK puts on his coat, takes on his angelic role as a messenger of freedom, and arrives in front of the audience to a deafening standing ovation (Calloway-Thomas).


“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” the speech King gave moments later, was, among other parallels with the Gettysburg Address, also a Periclean Funeral Oration of sorts. Three characteristics of the speech reveal a striking resemblance. First, King opens his discourse by highlighting the importance of seizing the moment and acting now. By zooming through history and highlighting times when great strides were made in the struggle for freedom, King draws his crowd in towards the significance of the present, and how their own battle, which he metaphorically relates to “God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt across […] toward the Promised Land,” is an essential chapter in a much greater and epic journey for freedom. Secondly, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” is, just like the Funeral Oration, a pep talk. The Funeral Oration was, in part, given to convince Athenians to raise arms, re-unite, and defend their sacred freedom from Sparta. When MLK’s speech was given, several recent protests had devolved into violent outbreaks and looting, and King’s movement had started to lose support. When Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address, he too needed to re-harness public support, especially after an embarrassing story at the Antietam battlefield, in which he insensitively asked his friend Lamon to sing him a happy song to cheer him up as he rode by bodies upon bodies of wounded, dying soldiers, was leaked to the press (Hennessey). Lastly, the Funeral Oration, Gettysburg Address, and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech share a call to action. The Funeral Oration calls the citizens of Athens to rise up once again against Sparta, the Gettysburg Address is a challenge to the American public to embrace the union movement, and MLK’s speech is a command to his followers to refocus on their goals, not be disheartened by the failures of the movement, and to continue, reinvigorated, on their quest to level the balance of freedom.

As Martin Luther King tries to bring his followers into the second and third tiers of equality – that of work and politics, he grasps something that Hannah Arendt does not – that there is an element of sacrifice when it comes to agitating the system for change (Allen 34). The balance of freedom is not a one-way process. In a hypothetical model, as blacks gain more civil and political rights, it makes sense for whites to have to sacrifice some of their social privilege in order to maintain the balance of freedom. And while blacks will eventually gain social privilege through this model in the long-term, they will have to make short term sacrifices by putting their lives at risk through civil disobedience and forms of agitation. In Talking To Strangers, a book countering Arendt’s analysis of the situation in Little Rock, author Danielle Allen supports this idea of short-term sacrifice when she describes the turmoil the black parents went through before they chose to send their child to an all-white high school: “These are the sacrifices Arendt did not see – one father pacing with pipe in mouth and cigar in hand; another ready to throw the legal system to the winds – when she chastised Elizabeth Eckford’s parents and the ‘absent representatives of the NAACP’ for allowing Elizabeth to go to Central High alone” (34).

This is the fundamental thesis that, through their rhetoric, both Lincoln and King assert in their journey to equalize the balance of freedom: that by putting forth action in the public sphere and making short-term sacrifices, whether that be lives lost in war or the anguish of protest, those who understand the state of the oppressed must convince those in power to sacrifice some of their social privilege so that civil and political rights will be evenly distributed – and so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


Works Cited

Allen, Danielle S. “Sacrifice, a Democratic Fact.” Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2004. N. pag. Print.

Calloway-Thomas, Carolyn, and John Louis. Lucaites. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Sermonic Power of Public Discourse. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama, 1993. Print.

Conant, Sean. The Gettysburg Address. Perspectives on Lincoln’s Greatest Speech. Corby: Oxford UP, 2015. Print.

Hall, Katori. The Mountaintop. London: Methuen Drama, 2011. Print.

Hennessey, Jonathan, Aaron McConnell, and Tom Orzechowski. The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation. New York: William Morrow, 2013. Print.

“I Have Been to the Mountaintop Full Speech.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I’ve Been To the Mountaintop.” Tennessee, Memphis. 3 Apr. 1968. Speech.

KingPhoto. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Lincoln, Abraham. “Gettysburg Address.” Pennsylvania, Gettysburg. 1 Nov. 1863. Address.

Smiley, Tavis, and David Ritz. Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Print.

3289809. Digital image. The Imaginative Conservative. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2015. <;.