Experiencing the Aesthetics of Freedom: A Journalistic Look Through the Eyes of a French Aristocrat, A British Abolitionist, and an American Economist

by Amanda Manuel (Public Relations and Business Administration Major Spring 2009)

  Imagine sitting in the board room of a South Carolina school district where arguments for the line between church and state are presented. Listen closely; the underlying principles of freedom are there. Look down the hallways of a multinational corporation as it conceives a marketing plan to sell the potato chip. A strength of the free market resides there. Detect the chatter of Washington political activists using the debate over a president’s plan for tax relief to make their case for the appropriate balance between federal and state power. Take one more look at an American musical staged and presented by a Colorado high school student who believes lyrics and melodies are freedom’s sincere expression. François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire writes, “In general, the imaginations of painters contribute more to exhibit the learning in the artist than to increase the beauty of the art.” 1 Likewise, beauty is found in the imaginations of a citizen, like you, contemplating freedom the same way the artist contemplates the final finish on his painting.
      One of the beauties of freedom in American is that it is a journey through the imagination. America’s founders contemplate a journey of ideals perhaps unattainable, but set forth as worthy goals for a striving nation. They imagine a nation in centrifugal motion, constantly weighing and measuring new ideas and ambitions with the center solidly grounded in democratic principles. Americans readily strive for justice, but do not always achieve justice; they pride themselves on living in a free society, yet they do not always respect freedoms; they revere democracy, but they are sometimes undemocratic.

A French Aristocrat    
In a period of just nine months2, Frenchman, Alexis Charles Henri Clerel de Tocqueville journeys through the cities and country sides of a nation he never calls home. Measuring the nation against the founders’ intentions, he identifies the political convictions and national preoccupations that set America apart from the rest of the world. Beginning with the earliest monuments of American history, de Tocqueville imagines how problems contrary to democratic principles form within individuals and within nations. “Go back, look at the baby in its mother’s arms. The whole man is there. Something analogous takes place in free nations. If it were possible to examine the first monuments of their history, I do not doubt that we could discover in them the first causes of prejudices, habits, and dominant passions, of all that finally composes the national character.” Tocqueville asserts that this is what America has been from the very beginning: the sum of the early imaginary landscapes and character of each individual American.

      A journalist establishing a method for defining the imaginary landscape will thoroughly examine the material, question assumptions, reevaluate strategy, and rely on the canon of wisdom created by historians of the American story. Advocating a journalistic approach, de Tocqueville does not just look about to discover the beauty of freedom; he also engages the people of America. “A stranger sitting at fireside with his host will often hear important truths that might be withheld from a friend,” de Tocqueville writes. “With the stranger it is a relief to break an enforced silence, and the stranger’s indiscretion need not be feared because his stay will be short.” When he is not ruminating about the American character or complaining about the quality of transport (Democracy In America is filled with descriptions of the inferior nature of American carriages), the French aristocrat often relates stories of his encounters with the American people – a businessman and a politician, a priest and a slave owner. In the lives of these citizens, de Tocqueville develops an image of freedom purified by motive. “I sought there an image of democracy itself- its inclinations, character, prejudices, and passions. I wanted to become familiar with democracy if only to find out what we had to hope from it, or to fear,” Tocqueville writes. Adapting his method, we are not certain to find the beauty of freedom in the halls of power, but on the streets and in the churches, in the lives of emerging businesspeople and new immigrant workers. “The boldest theories of the human reason were put into practice by this community of men so humble that not a statesman condescended to attend to it; and a legislation without a precedent was produced offhand by the imagination of the citizens. In the bosom of this obscure democracy, which had as yet brought forth neither generals, nor philosophers, nor authors, a man might stand up in the face of a free people and pronounce a fine definition of liberty.”3 Based on de Tocqueville’s theory, individuals have a powerful potential to change their immediate surroundings.

      Citizens acting on potential in a democratic society create the very image of freedom in beautiful, coherent ability. Freely engaging in civic discussions, identifying needs, and affecting change at the grassroots level in America is the very image of citizenship and service essential to maintain free society. Voluntary, proactive social responsibility holds moral value and carries with it long run economic value in perfect symmetry and balance. It can be noted how close the ideas do link to the concept of the American dream, with the individual having the power to change society and maybe history from below, rather than being manipulated from above.

A British Abolitionist

      Thomas Clarkson, a young, middle-class, Cambridge-educated minister, also advocates a journalistic approach and identifies a stark interior of aesthetic freedom within the British slave trade. Face-to-face with the struggle that raged on the slave ships and along the waterfront in the slave-trading ports, Clarkson journalistically uncovers a deep contrast of freedom in human experience. As it turns out, the definition of freedom formulated in Clarkson’s mind requires a description of lack. Aiming at the metaphysical realties of free nation, the mind operates in a dualistic, limited, time-space environment. In this environment, the mind breaks up the whole of its awareness into different parts. One part of this broken awareness is this definition of freedom as  a “great negative.” Relating negativity to beauty, Voltaire writes, “Beauty is the result of contrast, and universal concord springs out of a perpetual conflict.” 4 Uncovering the beauty of freedom in his inquires, Clarkson begins with the premise that the slave trade and the conflict perpetuated throughout society as a result is capable of emulating all the power of servitude and the defects of a society falling desperately short of its ideals.

   Fearlessly, Clarkson finds and interviews the British citizens who know the slave trade from the inside out. These sources are deserters, cripples, rebels, dropouts and the guilty of conscious. Clarkson uses their stories to transform the abstract and distant slave trade into a concrete, human, and immediate situation.5 The pro-slavery members of Parliament expect to hear the testimony of admirals and men of honor. Instead, Clarkson fearlessly presents evidence from ship-keepers, ship-sweepers, and deck cleaners. Yet, is the testimonies of ordinary men that examine the visceral realities of the slave trade by matter of connection to the harsh realities of everyday life far separated up until that point from the House of Commons debates.

      Clarkson also uses printed imagery as a second journalistic tool. He brings forth evidence in the form of a detailed drawing of the slave ship, Brookes. The ship is, at first sight, a thing of beauty; however, as Clarkson uncovers another portion of the drawing, viewers imagine a vast machine of workers and floating dungeon of enslavement. Graphically expressing the sufferings caused by the trade, Charles James Fox addresses the House of Commons in April, 1791, concerning the drawing of the slave ship Brookes. The printed section of the slave-ship is, to Fox, “Where the eye might see what the tongue must fall short in describing.”6 William Wilberforce also coins a memorable phrase as he observes the Brookes drawing, “So much misery condensed in so little room is more than the human imagination had ever before conceived.”7 Clarkson insists that the power of the image of Brookes lay primarily in its ability to make the viewer identify and sympathize with those whose freedom is stripped and laid naked on the lower deck of the ship. The image agitates and moves the viewer to join the debate about the slave trade with more human understanding of what is at stake. In conveying the horrors of transportation, the picture also appeals to the emotions of the observer and seals the issue in his or her memory. In doing so, the image becomes a language, which is at once intelligible and irresistible.8 As a result, Clarkson anticipates what modern scholars have labeled the “iconic vocabulary” and “visual identity” of the abolitionist movement.9

      Secondly, Clarkson insists that the power of the image of the Brookes lay primarily in its ability to make the viewer imagine, identify, and sympathize with the injured Africans on the lower deck of the ship. The Brookes image is not simply a critique of the slave trade but an equally a striking illustration of the barbarity inextricably liked to the imagination of those deprived of freedom. In journalistic style, moral questions are in full force and aim to advocate for those deprived of freedom. Who were the agents of this violent, cruel barbarism? Who imagined this horrific ship? Who designed it? The power of these questions increases as the image of the Brookes evolves; however there are three very specific design alterations that turn the Brookes drawing into abolitionist propaganda. First, The Plymouth broadside dropped all text referring to the slave trade. The paper even reduced and eventually removed all headings to create ambiguity. As a result, many people view the Brookes slave ship drawing and do not know they are looking at abolitionist propaganda.

      Apart from drawings and persuasion, a deeply perceptive journalistic perspective among the enslaved below deck was written by seaman William Butterworth, in an account of his voyage aboard the Hudibras, from Liverpool to Old Calabar in 1786-87. Butterworth lends an imaginative description of freedom’s absence among the female slaves with whom he is stationed and whom he observes closely. As he observes, he writes a detailed account of a nameless woman who is universally esteemed among the bondwomen and especially among her own countrywomen. The woman is “an oracle of literature” –an “orator” and a “songstress.” When she speaks or sings, the female slaves of the Haudibras arrange themselves on the quarter deck in circles, “the youngest constituting the innermost circle, and so on, several deep, the most aged always being found outermost.” 10 The singer stands, or rather kneels, at the center of the inner circle, singing “slow airs, of pathetic nature,” no doubt capturing the sorrows of dispossession and enslavement. Butterworth says, “I consider the expressions of women deeply deprived of freedom to be thought provoking.”9 Is there any doubt that Butterworth is contemplating the sweetness of his own freedom? In the bondage of slavery, the woman also gives orations, some of which, Butterworth believes, are recitations from memory, perhaps epic poetry. Depending on the tale and the circumstances, these pieces “move the passions; exciting joy or grief, pleasure or pain, as fancy or inclination led,” 11 The effect, even on the young Englishman who cannot even understand the words, is moving: to his surprise, he shed tears of involuntary sympathy. Conclusively, Butterworth’s experiences with the expressions of slavery demonstrate the influence of the senses on the ability to define and cherish freedom.

      Clarkson and Butterworth demonstrate that some Englishmen in the 1700’s observe neglected freedoms and are not willing to tolerate the accepted state of affairs. Tradition is rarely challenged with affluent public support in the 1700’s; however, both men seek public support before defending the freedom of man. They seek the harsh facts of slavery and make them known. They demand an unusual effort of imagination from the public to comprehend the sufferings of remote foreigners. Many of the leaders of church and state are convinced to support the abolitionist movement on moral grounds, but still choose to do nothing because of their economic interests.

      The British slave trade is a profitable business. Liverpool slavers, for instance, between 1783 and 1793, carry over 300,000 slaves to the West Indies, sell them for £15,000,000, and pocket a net profit of 30 percent.12 The efforts of the abolitionists threaten the productivity of the West Indies. “The impossibility of doing without slaves in the West Indies,” wrote a London publicist in 1764, “will always prevent this traffic being dropped. The necessity, the absolute necessity, then, of carrying it on, must since there is no other, be its excuse.”13 Since the slave trade is believed to be an economic necessity, the premise must stand that the economy will fail or be significantly hindered by the abolition of the slave trade. At the same time, men who are constantly striving for economic improvement are often faced with opposition from the values and norms of a given society and are, perhaps, unintentionally on the wrong side of the battle.

An American Economist

      A deeper look into the economics of liberty would show that the quest for continual improvement sometimes leads to an unexpected hindrance. Take this illustration. If an enterprising florist sets out to perfect a plant, he will strive to unite size, symmetry, and beauty of color. Achieving the highest success, he will possess a carnation in which each quality is considered to be in the state of perfection. However beautiful his flower may be, other care, other soil, or altered sunlight, might produce one still more beautiful. The enterpriser knows by what means he attained that degree of beauty in the flower, but he cannot be sure that by pursuing similar means, like increasing sunlight, he will obtain a more beautiful blossom. It is possible that by endeavoring to improve one quality, he may impair the beauty of another part of the plant. He could destroy the symmetry he once called beautiful by striving for a larger size.14     Similar to the enterprising florist, Counselors in the House of Commons force the economic factors of the slave trade in the name of preserving the beauty of balance and order in their economy. In reality, they strain the very bond of society to a point where the nation, at the time of perceived improvement, becomes on some level a loose, deformed, disjointed mass, without union, and symmetry. At best, the bond of society is in stasis while considering the situation of slavery.

      While the economic factors of the trade are extremely hard to overcome, slave traders eventually understand how pushing the economic necessity of the slave trade causes division in their industry; however, a balanced view of liberty and economics can produce symmetry in beautiful collaboration. In another expression, economic prosperity and individual liberty are inextricably linked. A joint study currently led by The Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation produces a journalistic report called the Index of Economic Freedom. The report ranks 157 countries based on 10 economic indicators such as property rights, freedom of government, over-regulation, taxation, government corruption, and trade restrictions. The birth of America with its unique Constitution unleashes human creativity and its economic benefits are nearly immediate. Drawing from his observations, economist and syndicated columnist Walter Williams writes, “Some people claim that countries are rich because of abundant natural resources. “That’s nonsense! Africa and South America continents are rich in natural resources, but are home to some of the world’s poorest people.” 15 The economic development lesson is clear: Extensive government control, weak property rights and government corruption almost guarantee poverty. Poverty is the ultimate depravation of freedom. Citizens in poverty do not have the resources available to engage in the pursuit of improvement. Their imaginations are often stifled by their immediate circumstances.

      The spirit of improvement is not always a spirit of liberty, for it may aim at forcing improvements on an unwilling people. The spirit of liberty resists attempts to force improvement. “Free labor is incomparably more productive than slave labor. The slave has no interest in exerting himself fully. He works only as much and as zealously as is necessary to escape the punishment attaching failure to perform the minimum,” according to renowned economist Ludwig von Mises. “The free worker, on the other hand, knows that the more his labor accomplishes, the more he will be paid.” The only unfailing and permanent source of improvement is liberty, since independent individuals are the strongest centers of improvement.


      The free worker continually strives, through their imagination, to make new inventions in mechanical things. Some citizen workers are even eager for improvement in politics, education, and morals, though realizing they could fail to attain the aesthetic ideals.16 Again, one of the beauties of freedom in American is that it is a journey through the imagination. America’s founders contemplate a journey of ideals perhaps unattainable, but set forth as worthy goals for a striving nation. They imagine a nation in centrifugal motion, constantly weighing and measuring new ideas and ambitions with the center solidly grounded in democratic principles.

       The joys and sorrows of human beings form a chief element in the subject matter of beauty; and evidently the pleasures which beauty gives increases as the feelings associated with these joys and sorrows strengthens. In modern times, the imaginative works which glorify destructive activities are less numerous, there are an increasing number of works gratifying to the kindlier sentiments of spectators. 17 Those spectators who care little about the hardship of their fellow citizens are, by implication, shut out from a wide range of the aesthetic pleasures of freedom. Remember, Voltaire writes, “In general, the imaginations of painters contribute more to exhibit the learning in the artist than to increase the beauty of the art.” 18 Likewise, beauty is found in the imaginations of a citizen, like you, contemplating freedom the same way the artist contemplates the final finish on his painting.  Citizens find the beautiful in the degree to which they value liberty.

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