The Revolutionary Idea of Independence

Originally published by ClearFoundation.

  • And Freedom shrieked–as Kosciusko fell!
  • From “The Pleasures of Hope,” by Thomas Campbell.

Up until the age of Revolution, roughly the 18th Century, most human beings were oppressed or enslaved. Land owners and royalty ruled. The rest dug in the mud for a living, worshipped as they were told, and were treated like chattel. There was no such thing as upward mobility. But a brave young man in Poland decided to challenge the status quo: Thaddeus Kosciuszko. 

Thaddeus was in the military, but he fell in love with the daughter of a Magnate—a few classes above him. The story goes that they were secretly married. The bliss was short-lived. The General put a price on Thad’s head and he fled the Country. The story could end there, but Thaddeus was driven by an inner force to change the social structure of the world. He landed in America and immediately enlisted in the cause for freedom. It didn’t matter to Thad where the battle was being raged, he wanted in on the front lines. Thomas Jefferson said Kosciuszko was: “as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known.” And indeed, after helping the Americans win the revolution with his strategic military prowess (he designed the fort that would become West Point), he fought for liberty in Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus. The cause for Thaddeus was individual unalienable rights including freedom of expression, social mobility and a limit to how much influence the government could exert over its citizens. These new ideas raged around much of the world, forcing a violent social change. America saw the most immediate effect, gaining independence and drafting a constitution-based government for the people by the people.

Since the establishment of The Great Experiment, predicted by Tocqueville to fall apart within a generation, the United States has had a checkered relationship with its citizens when it comes to individual rights. Slavery gave way to segregation, and racism never really left. The women’s suffrage movement swept the nation and the anti-draft doctrine was only adopted after the Vietnam War. We’ve endured McCarthyism and the CIA spying on its own citizens. The NSA collects data on billions of digital conversations. 

And yet we have endured and emboldened the individual to stand up for the less privileged, the voiceless. Our foundation is a belief that the individual will do good if allowed the independence to do so.

But in the last twenty years we have taken a step back  and relegated our individual freedom to a new tyrant: technology.

Where Freedom has been most compromised is in the private sector where we routinely and voluntarily give up our privacy for convenience. How can a citizenry that fought laws that allowed British soldiers to lodge in their houses freely open their homes to digital marauders who exploit their private lives?

We’ve been seduced by technology. We love the way it manages our lives, even glamorizes them. But like Deliah shearing the locks of young Sampson, the strength in our ideals is being trimmed away. 

If you use social media, a cell phone, a mainstream search engine, and visit websites; you are giving away your freedom to control who you are, what information you are served, and what choices you make. In short, the self you could become is being enslaved by the monopolies of technology.

We’ve forgotten the valuable lessons of the past: without protecting the unalienable right to basic liberties we lose our human dignity. Innovation slows down. Classes separate. Our collective moral compass points to power and control at all cost. Without the anchors of individual freedom, we very well could be the experiment that failed as Tocqueville predicted. 

But if we let the inner drive to fight against centralized control and tyranny move us to action, then we become heroes of our own revolution. When Thaddeus Kosciuszko returned to America after his prolonged war against oppression, he settled in a modest boarding house and entertained the greatest thinkers of his time, sharing the ideals that truly make men and women free. You’ll find him celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, streets named after him in New York and Krakow and a monument to him at West Point and one in Solothurn Switzerland. 

Kosciuszko’s military strategies were noteworthy, but it is his ideas that gradually took hold and gave birth to whole countries that respected the individual and built governments to protect their rights. Even on his deathbed, Kosciuszko left all his property to Thomas Jefferson if the former President would free his slaves. 

Jefferson didn’t. And it would be almost another Century before Abraham Lincoln did. We should not wait so long for our own individual digital sovereignty. 

A revolution is in order.

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