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Free: A Musical Metaphor of America Today

In Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the main character is a slave by the name of Pseudolus, whose master offers him freedom in exchange for helping to win over the heart of the girl he loves.  Upon first hearing the proposal that could lead to his liberation, Pseudolus sings emphatically about the prospects of having the opportunity to experience life without being forced to serve others.  However, his excitement is short-lived and quickly turns to apprehension:

“Now, not so fast, I didn’t think!  The way I am, I have a roof, three meals a day and I don’t have to pay a thing.  I’m just a slave and everything’s free.  If I were free then nothing would be free!  And if I’m beaten now and then, what does it matter?”

Pseudolus’s transition from enthusiasm to fear is comparable to the psyche that has grown in America for the past several decades.  Everyone values the idea of freedom, but when confronted with the concept of personal responsibility that comes with making one’s own decisions and living with the consequences of those decisions, many people would choose the comfort of enslavement over the uncertainty of freedom.

The Occupy Wall Street Protests are a perfect example of this troubling trend.  Men and women of the Occupy Movement are demanding that the government provide for them such amenities as free housing, free education and free healthcare, regardless of the cost.  In the eyes of these protestors, government is the omnipotent parent and the American people are helpless children who are incapable of taking care of themselves.  Did any of the hippies and high school dropouts attending these rallies ever actually read the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Independence?  In the words of Benjamin Franklin,”The Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness; only the pursuit of it.  You have to catch up with it yourself.”

Our government was meant to be limited.  Read the words of our Founding Fathers, and not just the popular and well-known ones.  They each believed in a republic where elected officials would serve the will of the people, not their own re-election interests.  Abraham Lincoln later built on this idea in his Gettysburg Address when he proclaimed that America was a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  America is about choice – it’s about having the freedom to be the people we want to be without government interference.  Politicians have found ways to deviate from these foundations and gain control over our lives throughout the years under the guises of security, equality, and necessity.  Our rights are derived from our Creator, not from the president or from Congress.  We, as a nation, have forgotten that, and we now are seeing the consequences of our complacency.

Thomas Jefferson, arguably the most influential Founder, once said, “The spirit of 1776 is not dead.  It has only been slumbering.  The body of the American people is substantially republican.  But their virtuous feelings have been played on by some fact with more fiction; they have been the dupes of artful maneuvers, and made for a moment to be willing instruments in forging chains for themselves.” We must stop believing like Pseudolus, that servitude is better than freedom.  We must stop being the willing instruments in our own enslavement.  The chains have been forged, but there is still a chance to return to freedom.

Near the end of the song, after his trepidation begins to subside, Pseudolus finally realizes how special freedom actually is. “Such a little word, but oh, the difference it makes!  It’s the necessary essence of democracy.  It’s the thing that every slave should have the right to be.”  We each have the opportunity (and the right) to be free.  Let us not squander that opportunity.  The spirit of 1776 – the American spirit that Thomas Jefferson so eloquently wrote about – dwells within each of us.  It is time to reawaken that spirit once more.

Joseph O. Turner // Mary Washington College // @OdieTurner

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