Like many people, I suspect, I’ve always thought of the words Liberty and Freedom as meaning the same thing. In speeches and written pieces they are used pretty much as synonyms. But several weeks ago I heard a commentary on NPR (specifics have escaped my memory) in which the commentator distinguished between the words in a way which makes all kinds of sense.
Freedom is a state of being capable of making decisions without external control.
Liberty, on the other hand, is freedom which has been granted to a people by an external control.
These words are not in opposition. They don’t fight each other. To the contrary, they are cut from the same fabric and it is helpful to understand their unique meanings in order to celebrate the freedom we enjoy.The Declaration of Independence declared that the King of England had undertaken such actions as limited the freedom of citizens of the newly-established colony in America. By his actions the people were restricted and controlled in an unjust way. The complaint was not just about rules and regulations; it declared that the very nature of freedom had been violated. One paragraph, toward the end of the document, stated the conclusion:
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
It is a powerful statement, in which the assembled leadership of the new country identifies the concept of freedom and declares itself to be capable of granting liberty to the people of the emerging nation. The difference is clear: people are, by nature, meant to live in freedom, and the new government will grant such liberty to its citizens.
In doing this, the “founding fathers” make clear an important fact, that the purpose of the new nation is to be a place in which freedom is celebrated, and in which a government will be established to guarantee that freedom through the liberty it grants to each citizen. In saying this, the Declaration establishes the government of the soon-to-be-United States of America as the grantor of liberty … the guardian of liberty … and the guarantor of those actions required to protect and perpetuate such liberty. That is a huge point needing to be understood by the citizens of the USA.
There are some who reject the role of government and claim the right to freedom apart from any control or oversight. The result of such thinking would be anarchy in which individuals and groups within a nation would claim rights and privileges which appealed to them, but which did not guarantee the same rights and privileges to others. The Declaration of Independence says that in order to assure freedom for all citizens, a government and its various agencies will oversee that freedom by granting liberty to those citizens and doing everything necessary to protect that grant.
This is not a “free hand” extended to government, however. Every law, every regulation, every action taken by that government must be measured against the question of whether it fulfills that goal and does, indeed, guarantee liberty for the exercise of freedom. It is a heavy responsibility, and a complicated one. This is not a tiny, insular nation. It is vast, complicated, and diverse. The oversight of liberty requires a moral, ethical, and intelligent application of law to a complex institution. All the more reason that those elected to be the leadership of our nation should be selected with care, caution, and without hope of personal gain. To the contrary, our governmental leaders should be beyond reproach and known to understand the task for which they are selected. They should not be elected in a frivolous way, or based upon purely emotional standards.
Today we celebrate the lives of those who our government, in its wisdom, has called into a service to this nation charged to protect and extend the liberty we have been granted. It is for that reason that they are honored and their lives are cherished.
Photo Credit: Kristen/Issy