The issues of Reconstruction continue to animate today’s political rhetoric.
One of the central words in conservative rhetoric is freedom. The far-right members of the House are the Freedom Caucus. Nate Silver did the math, and found that the 2012 Republican platform mentioned freedom four times more often than the Democratic platform. At times they even push it to absurd lengths: To chide France for not supporting the invasion of Iraq, House Republicans renamed their cafeteria’s french fries “freedom fries“.
Freedom is so universally cited by conservatives that liberals often satirically suggest the explanation “because freedom” for any conservative proposal that doesn’t add up. (Wonkette: “Ben Carson will defund commie liberal colleges, because freedom.” Josh Marshall has used “Because Freedom” as a satirical headline at least twice.) Freedom, they’re suggesting, is just a buzzword conservatives throw out whenever they have no substantive justification for what they want to do.
Its not that Democrats don’t like freedom, but they tend to talk about particular freedoms (freedom of choice) rather than capital-F Freedom as an abstract entity. They’re more likely to talk about rights: voting rights, abortion rights, civil rights, and so on.
There are, of course, a large number of counter-examples in both directions. (Gun rights, for example, or FDR’s “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear”. ) But in general, the parties are talking about two subtly different concepts: Freedom, particularly the way conservatives use it, is inextricably linked to small government: Freedom means the government doesn’t get in your way.
Rights on the other hand, only exist if society provides some method of enforcement. Without a court you can appeal to when your rights are violated, and ultimately, without a police force or army that will enforce that court’s judgments, you don’t have any rights. Black children, for example, didn’t begin to acquire a right to an equal education until President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock. Rights require some kind of government to enforce them, and if the forces that want to violate your rights are strong, you need a really big government. 
A simple example: If you want to be able to buy a little marijuana and smoke it without fear of narcs busting down your door, you want freedom. But if you want to be sure that what you buy really is marijuana, that no toxic or addictive chemicals have been added to it, or that the seller won’t just bash you over the head and take your money without giving you anything, then you’re looking for your rights as a consumer. Your freedom just needs the government to get out of your way, but your rights require government involvement. 
The relative value of freedom vs rights depends in large part on how much power you have. If you are wealthy, well-connected, or otherwise privileged, then there are all kinds of things you could do, if government would just stay out of your way. But if you are poor, then the barriers you face have more to do with your lack of resources than with government regulations.
Powerful groups can defend their own prerogatives whether they have government-enforced rights or not. Nobody has to force lunch counters to serve whites; no parent has to go to court to make the local public school offer courses in English; Christian children aren’t pressured to say “under no God” in the Pledge of Allegiance; and men in the workplace don’t have to wonder whether a glass ceiling is holding them down. But the rights of less powerful groups depend on government.
In the course of a typical workday, a woman who makes fries at McDonalds isn’t all that constrained by the government. Sure, taxes are taken out of her paycheck; she has to keep her hair covered while preparing food and wash her hands after using the bathroom; and she faces the threat of jail if she skims from the till, but the whims of her shift manager are a far bigger source of oppression than all the pencil-pushers in Washington.
On the other hand, the guy who owns her McDonalds franchise faces constant assaults on his freedom. He can’t pay his workers the $5 an hour he thinks they deserve, even if they’re so desperate they would have to take it. He can’t demand that they work in unsafe conditions. He can’t extract sexual favors from them. His kitchen has to face health inspectors. He has to make sure the trash is properly disposed of. Zoning keeps him from expanding to the new location he wants. And on and on and on. Everywhere he looks, there’s a regulation or a bureaucrat or a potential lawsuit. Tyranny, that’s what it is.
Several of those restrictions on his freedom are what the government has to do to establish the woman’s rights. She has a right to a basic level of respect and fair treatment from her employer, and (without government) she lacks the power to make him respect those rights.
That’s why American political rhetoric about freedom has such a bizarre history: a lot of it comes from slave owners. “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” Patrick Henry demanded in the speech that ends with his memorable: “Give me liberty or give me death!” But he died owning 65 slaves. James Madison enshrined freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the Bill or Rights, but owned over 100 slaves. Thomas Jefferson is said to have owned 600 slaves in the course of his life, and a sizable chunk of his surviving descendants were fathered on a slave.
Confederate rhetoric was full of freedom, and the corresponding threat of “tyranny” or “slavery” (for white Southerners) if their cause did not prevail. In the first line of his famous speech “Slavery a Positive Good“, Senator John Calhoun warned that if the South didn’t respond to even the slightest encroachments on the institution of slavery, Southern whites were “prepared to become slaves”. In his inaugural address, Confederate President Jefferson Davis invoked “the consent of the governed” to justify a government that disenfranchised not only all its black subjects, but many poor whites as well. “All we ask is to be left alone,” said Davis. Left alone, that is, to enslave others.
The things powerful people want to be left alone to do have changed over the years: Now they want to be able to pollute rivers, get miners killed, refuse to serve gays and lesbians, use the public schools to promote their religion, put obstacles in front of minorities voting, and so on. But the basic rhetoric has stayed the same: If you just keep the government out of everybody’s way, then we’ll have freedom.
And it’s true: We will have freedom, but we won’t have any rights that more powerful people want to take away.
To see these concepts worked out in the most extreme way, pick up Gregory Downs’ recent book After Appomattox: Military occupation and the ends of war. It tells the story of the post-surrender occupation of the South by the U.S. Army, and the official state of war that continued until the last Confederate state had its representatives seated in Congress in 1871.
As I’ve described several times before, the Reconstruction Era is the unspoken reference behind a lot of the current conservative usage of tyranny, particularly as it relates to tyranny being overthrown by armed civilians. The tyranny in question was the military occupation of the South, which was absolutely necessary to guarantee any rights at all to the newly freed slaves. A terrorist insurgency by Confederate veterans eventually made the occupation more costly than the North could stomach, and black rights all but vanished after the troops were withdrawn, leading to the Jim Crow era.
Downs describes the philosophical shock that many Northerners suffered when they realized that slavery couldn’t be eliminated just by issuing proclamations or passing Constitutional amendments.
Wartime emancipation and the postsurrender struggle against slavery forced Northerners to examine the question of whether people could be free without the intervention of the government.
The law might say one thing, but the facts on the ground said something else.
[S]lavery endured on the ground well after the end of fighting. Of the nearly 4 million slaves in the United States in 1860, the vast majority were still held in bondage as the Confederate armies surrendered.
Slaves only became free when troops were around to prevent the masters re-asserting their ownership.
Ambrose Douglass, held a slave in North Carolina, captured the relationship between emancipation and the soldiers’ presence. In his area, “I guess we musta celebrated ‘mancipation about twelve time … Every time a bunch of No’thern sojers would come through they would tell us we was free and we’d begin celebratin’. Before we would get through somebody else would tell us to go back to work, and we would go.”
Many whites saw the same reality:
Arkansas’ U.S attorney similarly wrote that “he who stands between the late master and the freedmen for their protection, must be backed by the power of the bayonet.”
To the former Confederate, though, “bayonet rule” looked more like this:
Northerners knew they wanted to end slavery, but had no clear notion of what freedom would mean for the ex-slaves.
As freedpeople taught officers about the enduring power of slavery, soldiers and ex-slaves together developed the notion that freedom meant accessible rights. … [E]x-slaves found it easy to invoke rights as the measure of what it meant not to be enslaved. As slaves, they had virtually no rights they could defend in court. Looking to the experience of free people around them, they defined freedom in part as the opportunity to have these basic rights — marriage, control of children, property ownership, travel, and contract — protected by the government. … Instead of a march to freedom, with its connotations of separation from the state, freedpeople and soldiers described a walk toward government.
In particular, black men’s right to vote was established on paper by the 15th Amendment. But in reality, it only existed only where federal troops guarded the polling places. When the troops were withdrawn, Confederate veterans terrorized blacks who tried to vote. Ultimately, new state governments elected almost entirely with white votes disenfranchised blacks almost entirely until the federal government re-inserted itself into the situation in the 1960s through the Voting Rights Act.
Downs draws the conclusion:
[L]ooking at the story after Appomattox forces us to confront the dismaying, necessary fact that our own contemporary freedom and civil rights are in some ways the products of war powers. Even the rights we cherish are often fashioned by coercion.
So bear that in mind the next time you hear a conservative politician wax eloquent for freedom and against big government. How many of your rights will have to go away in order to allow the powerful people he represents the freedom he wants them to have?
 The confusion is amplified by two rhetorical back doors. In general “freedom from X” is a roundabout synonym for “the right to not-X”. So “freedom from want” includes a right to a minimum level of food and shelter. Conversely, the “right to be let alone” is a fairly broad description of what I am calling “freedom”.
 One popular conservative trope is that our rights come from God, not from the government. Ted Cruz said:
What is the promise of America? The idea that, the revolutionary idea, that this country was founded upon, which was our rights, they don’t come from man. They come from God Almighty. And it’s the purpose of the Constitution … to serve as chains, to bind the mischief of government.
While an appeal to the Declaration of Independence’s soaring rhetoric “All men … are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” is inspiring, it is also ineffective, because God is notoriously poor at policing rights-violations in a timely manner. His mills, after all, grind slowly.
 In this case, as in many others, the two notions are in opposition. What about the seller’s freedom to lie to you, to cheat you, or to bash you over the head? Your rights depend on restricting his freedom.