What is Liberty and Freedom?

So just what is freedom and liberty?

Have you ever really thought about that question? Do you have your own definition? Let's see how it matches up with Webster's Dictionary current edition, the 1828 edition, and the Founders own words.

First, let's take a look at the description according to today's Webster's Dictionary.

Freedom:

1:  the quality or state of being free: as

a :  the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action

b :  liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another :  independence

 

So freedom is independence and unconstrained choices or actions.

Sounds like the ability to do pretty much anything you want, anytime you want. I think that is a fair description.

Liberty:

1:  the quality or state of being free:

a :  the power to do as one pleases

b :  freedom from physical restraint

c :  freedom from arbitrary or despotic control

d :  the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges

e :  the power of choice

So it sounds like to me that if you have both freedom and liberty you should be totally unconstrained by anything in your choices to do, say, or be anything you want, anytime you want.

Sounds pretty good doesn't it?

Now let's take a look at the definition that would have been the closest to what our Founders would have understood. The Webster's Dictionary of 1828 contained the definitions that were accepted in the era of the Founders.

Freedom:

1. A state of exemption from the power or control of another; liberty; exemption from slavery, servitude or confinement. freedom is personal, civil, political, and religious. [See Liberty.]

Liberty:

1. Freedom from restraint, in a general sense, and applicable to the body, or to the will or mind. The body is at liberty when not confined; the will or mind is at liberty when not checked or controlled. A man enjoys liberty when no physical force operates to restrain his actions or volitions.

2. Natural liberty consists in the power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, except from the laws of nature. It is a state of exemption from the control of others, and from positive laws and the institutions of social life. This liberty is abridged by the establishment of government.

3. Civil liberty is the liberty of men in a state of society, or natural liberty so far only abridged and restrained, as is necessary and expedient for the safety and interest of the society, state or nation. A restraint of natural liberty not necessary or expedient for the public, is tyranny or oppression. civil liberty is an exemption from the arbitrary will of others, which exemption is secured by established laws, which restrain every man from injuring or controlling another. Hence the restraints of law are essential to civil liberty

The liberty of one depends not so much on the removal of all restraint from him, as on the due restraint upon the liberty of others.

In this sentence, the latter word liberty denotes natural liberty

4. Political liberty is sometimes used as synonymous with civil liberty But it more properly designates the liberty of a nation, the freedom of a nation or state from all unjust abridgment of its rights and independence by another nation. Hence we often speak of the political liberties of Europe, or the nations of Europe.

5. Religious liberty is the free right of adopting and enjoying opinions on religious subjects, and of worshiping the Supreme Being according to the dictates of conscience, without external control.

I'm sure you noticed the expanded description of liberty as referenced in the description of freedom also.

As you can see the Founders had a much wider understanding of freedom and liberty than most do today to include one of our major dictionaries. Their understanding was very specific, even to breaking down different types of liberty.

Generally, it seems the Founders thought of freedom and being free FROM something, as in free from oppression, and liberty as being free to DO something, although both refer to the "state" of being free. That is an important distinction though. Liberty is included as one of our inalienable rights that we possess for just being human. It appears the intent is that we are able to DO whatever we choose with the freedom we have.

I think that is a fair statement as to the intent of the Founders, specifically Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence who wrote those words, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Here's a few quotes from Jefferson pertaining to liberty:

"Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others." --Thomas Jefferson to I. Tiffany, 1819.

"All natural rights may be abridged or modified in their exercise by law." --Thomas Jefferson: Official Opinion, 1790.

"Laws abridging the natural right of the citizen should be restrained by rigorous constructions within their narrowest limits." --Thomas Jefferson to I. McPherson, 1813.

So it sounds like he believes we should have "unobstructed" liberty as long as it does not infringe on the liberty of others and is only abridged to it's "narrowest" degree by government.

Sounds reasonable to me since common sense says that any time you choose to establish a government you must be willing to give up some of your liberty to become a part of that society. It's the limitations on that government that are critical to the preservation of individual liberty.

Now let's see what James Madison had to say about liberty:
As a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights. Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.”
National Gazette essay,
March 27, 1792

There's that reference to the limiting of excessive power again, referring, of course, to government power. He doesn't specifically use the word liberty but his reference is the exercising of liberty. In this particular instance the civil liberty type.

Here's more:

"Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power."

“The fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defence against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad.
“Political Reflections,
February 23, 1799

In other words, war gives the government the means and the opportunity to take away liberties at home. How many times have we seen that happen in recent years? Patriot act and NDAA?

I could go on and on but I think you get the general idea that the Founders had a good grasp of what freedom and liberty meant and they expressed it openly throughout their lives.

So just how important was freedom and liberty to the Founders?

Well, Thomas Jefferson express his thoughts and feelings in a very public manner, he wrote the Declaration of Independence. The strongest proclamation of individual liberty and freedom I am aware of. I think that pretty much speaks for how he felt about it in no uncertain terms.

It was important enough to them for him and the other signers of the Declaration to tell the most powerful Country in the world at that time that they we declaring their independence. I say that shows they were pretty serious about their liberties and freedoms.

So where am I going with all this?

Many of us today really don't think a lot about liberty and freedom. We are bombarded each day by things telling us and showing us that we much submit our freedoms and liberties to the government in one way or another.

The next portion of this class is on the Declaration of Independence. We will begin there reading the Document along with other words from the Founders so we can better understand what they meant by what they wrote.

After that we will examine it for how it applies to our situation with our current government. I think you will be shocked at how applicable it is.

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