The Meaning of Liberty


D.H.T.Shippey  &  Michael Burns

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Where Liberty dwells, there is my country.”

 Powerful words…and slightly unsettling ones. Would Franklin have us believe that he was not wholly devoted to the United States? Or did he mean to suggest that if America abandoned Liberty it would no longer be his country? America was founded on the ideas of Independence, Justice, and most of all, Liberty. But when the founding generation spoke of Liberty did they mean the same thing we do when we speak the word? We know that the meaning and power of words can change over time. For example, once the word “Gentleman” meant a man who was above the rank of yeoman (laborer), or a person of high birth. Today, a gentleman is anyone who exhibits good manners. How too may the word Liberty have changed with time?

    The Founders talk about Liberty and Freedom as two separate but connected ideals. Both of these words contain the idea of possessing the ability to exercise one’s will, and a power to choose.  However, in many ways the words differ.  Liberty comes from the Latin word libertas, which means  “unbounded, unrestricted or released from constraint.”  Libertas even contains the idea of being separate and independent. The English word Freedom can trace its roots to the Germanic or Norse word Frei, describing someone who belongs to a tribe and has the rights that go with belonging. This is something along the lines of the rights of membership. Besides freedom the root frei becomes the English word friend. These ideas of liberty and freedom came from Western Civilization, and for the most part are absent in other cultures before their contact with the West. In other non-western cultures we find that the opposite of slave is not free but master. (A great study of this was made in the book Liberty & Freedom by historian David Hacket Fischer.)

The Liberty Tree in Boston

For the Founders, Liberty was not new but, like their symbol the Liberty Tree, deeply rooted and long established among them. By 1776, some families had been in America for 170 years, and American Liberty was something they had always possessed. This is why when Thomas Jefferson writes the words of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” he refers to it as simply “An expression of the American mind.” They did not look at Independence as a quest for new Liberties but a revolt against a government bent on taking their Liberties away. Liberty is who they were.




A Roman style Liberty goddess pictured as American Liberty

     It was this very potent notion of Liberty that moved patriot militias to assemble at Lexington and Concord in 1775. These people believed that they had always been in charge of themselves, and refused to be subject to the arbitrary rule of others. The quote that is most often attributed the Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” is an excellent picture of the mind of the time. Safety was not Liberty and Liberty was not safe.

    Our concept of liberty today is pale and thin compared with that of the Founders.  Today we want to believe in liberty (small “l”), but not so much that we could get hurt. As long as we can still say what we want, worship as we please and have a vote, we say we have liberty.  We expect that the government will prevent us from making mistakes, rescue us if we do make mistakes and provide for us if we fail. The founding generation wanted no restraints and accepted that they would have no safety net if they failed. This is a concept that is foreign to both of our main political parties today, and to most Americans in general.


   Today, the Constitution that was put in place to restrain Government’s ability to infringe on freedom is regularly violated without much protest and sometimes with support from the public. The Government has been allowed to create new departments and administrations that effectively redefine its powers. Undoubtedly, this expansion has made us safer; but it has had a price. To justify it we have had to redefine what we mean by Liberty.


   The Founders saw Liberty as the opposite of tyranny. Freedom from dependence on another’s will. The ability to choose one’s own way without interference. My search for the Founder’s definition of Liberty has been one that challenged my own previous thoughts on the subject. The Founders threw down a gauntlet during the Revolutionary War that began a journey towards Liberty. These Founders’ own words reveal that they knew it could not be achieved in their lifetimes, but would be a generational destiny. They mapped out a path and left markers for us to follow. I wonder--in our age, do we have the courage to follow that path? In the end, the question will be this: If our nation is defined by the word Liberty, how will we define the word?

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