Now don't get nervous. We're not going to get into this too deeply. We recognize that it has almost gotten to be bad form to get serious about the Fourth of July, an eccentric festival whose central ceremony now consists of charring pieces of raw meat over an outdoor fire. (Plus some fireworks.)
Nonetheless, it can be diverting to go back through time and see how the concept of freedom has evolved over the last several centuries, before reaching its current state, in which freedom has come to mean, if not ''nothing left to lose," mainly the license to do as one pleases.
Tom Wolfe once suggested that the current concept of freedom was encapsulated perfectly by an advertising copywriter named Shirley Polykoff, when, in 1961, she was trying to think of a new slogan for Clairol hair dye. She came up with the line, "If I have only one life to live, let me live it as a blonde."
The concept was seized upon instantly, Mr. Wolfe says, except that instead of "blonde" people filled in the last word with other roles. If they had but one life to live, they said to themselves, why not be a . . . free spirit? . . . a celebrity? . . . a Casanova . . . a swinger?
The possibilities are endless and obvious. If one has but one life to lead, why not live it as a crack dealer? As a pornographer? As a billionaire junk- bond financier? A bribe-taking senator? After all, you only go around once in life.
Missing in all this is something that was persistently present in earlier depictions of freedom - the concept of a give-and-take relationship between the individual and the society that must exist for true freedom to endure. Also missing, it might be noted, is any concept of moral restraint.
Our current idea of freedom is a far cry, if one wants to go way back, from what John Winthop, the leader of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had in mind. To him freedom (which he called "moral freedom") is the liberty to do "that only which is good, just and honest." (What a hoot, huh? This guy was just no fun.)
But truth to tell, Thomas Jefferson, the man who thought up the whole ''pursuit of happiness" business, was only a little looser on these matters. University of California sociology professor Robert Bellah notes in his book, Habits of the Heart, that Mr. Jefferson did not necessarily see ''freedom tied to substantive morality." However, he did believe it was absolutely essential, if freedom was to persist, that citizens recognize their duties and obligations to the larger society.
"The notion of a formal freedom that would simply allow people to do what they please," Mr. Bellah writes, "was as unpalatable to Jefferson as it was to Winthrop." In particular, Jefferson did not think freedom meant merely the right to accumulate wealth. Indeed he saw the downfall of American democracy coming "when our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless" because they had immersed themselves "in the sole faculty of making money." (How's that for telling the future?)
Mr. Bellah also notes, and it's clear to any student of American history, that other aspects of the current interpretation of "freedom" also go way back. The idea of freedom as the freedom to advance economically by one's own initiative is clearly the message of the autobiography of another founding father, Benjamin Franklin.
The idea of freedom as being footloose and fancy-free, unconstrained by convention, infuses the poetry of Walt Whitman, the centennial of whose death was recently celebrated. It was Whitman who wrote:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path . . . leading wherever I choose . . .
All that's missing is Bobby McGee, and Whitman probably found him too.
But the earlier interpretations of freedom haven't necessarily lost all validity. Not long ago an essay slid across our desk that held up, as an example worthy of contemporary emulation, none other than John Winthrop's
vision of the free society. The essay was written by Ed Schwartz. (Yes, that Ed Schwartz, the former councilman and city housing director, now returned to his duties as head of the Institute for the Study of Civic Values, a local think tank.)
Mr. Schwartz describes at length "The Model of Christian Charity" drafted by John Winthrop in 1633. "This document," Mr. Schwartz writes, ''was, in effect, a covenant - a secular replica of the covenant between God and man in the persons of Abraham and Christ. It demands that a colonial settler 'bind and engage himself to each member of the society to promote the good of the whole.' A Puritan would exercise his free will in agreeing to this covenant. He then would be held strictly accountable to its terms."
Mr. Schwartz then suggests that in our "present climate of get what you can get," it might be "instructive" to look back at what kind of society Mr. Winthrop saw emerging from his "Model of Christian Charity." He then quotes Winthrop:
"We must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection . . . we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others' condition our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together; always having before our eyes our commission and community . . . as members of the same body."
It's not all that bad a sentiment, even in this much later day. And while it is something of a stretch, we might add that one of the reasons we like Bill Clinton this year is the echo of Winthrop's covenant in Clinton's own ''new covenant," in which the Arkansas governor sees an America "that is coming together, instead of pulling apart."