The late Robert Frost is known as one of the greatest poets in American history, claiming four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry and a Congressional Gold Medal over his lifetime.
His 1916 piece “The Road Not Taken” is still one of best-known and most-quoted poems around.
Nearly 60 years ago, in 1956, the cultural giant delivered the commencement address at Colby College in Waterville, where he was granted an honorary Doctor of Law degree. In that setting, Frost made some comments which might be considered politically divisive today, against a backdrop of rising income inequality and ongoing debates locally and statewide about raising the minimum wage.
In a wide-ranging speech that touched on the Constitution and the so-called “American dream,” as well as the writings of Revolution-era activist Thomas Paine, Frost tackled what he described as the delicate relationship between “freedom and equality.”
Specifically, Frost said:
“Another thing that I pick up — I don’t want to be too decisive about it — about freedom and equality.
It occurred to me not so terribly long ago — rather recently — that the more equality I have, the less freedom I have. Those two things balance each other.
If one party leans a little more toward the freedom — freedom of enterprise, freedom to assert yourself, freedom to achieve, freedom to win — the other comes in with the tone of mercy and says: ‘Let’s not let anybody get too far ahead. Let’s have a Sherman Act or something, to keep people from getting too rich.’
That’s toward the equality, the fraternity of it.
I didn’t know that for years, didn’t know that the more freedom I had, the less equality I could expect. Somebody’d beat me and get ahead of me if we have freedom.
I’m willing to let him get ahead of me. If he can.”
The Sherman Act, for what it’s worth, was a statute passed by Congress in 1890 designed to discourage high-level business conspiracies or monopolies to control markets.
Frost’s comments about what he felt was a juxtaposition between freedom and equality are certainly provoking — would he feel the same way today? Do his sentiments still resonate?