Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/04/2011

I have Freedom; give me Liberty

Norman Rockwell, "Freedom from Fear"

Norman Rockwell, "Freedom from Fear"

The Declaration of Independence says almost nothing about personal freedom. I know, I know, it says we have “certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

I suppose the definition of the right to “life” is self-obvious.

(Anti-abortionists have glommed onto that like pigs to truffles. Their use of the idea, however, is so emotionally and religiously charged that it cannot be thought of as a workable definition.)

“Liberty” in the context of the Declaration is not so self-obvious. My guess is most Americans would equate it with “freedom,” but the two concepts are, I think, quite different.

The word “freedom” is not in the Declaration of Independence (which used to be the focal point of today’s holiday).

I’m more interested in splitting hairs over the meanings of words than I ought to be—particularly in light of my ignorance of linguistics and philology—but it seems to me, if Jefferson had understood “liberty” and “freedom” to be synonymous, he would have used the words interchangeably, which he did not.

In early colonial Massachusetts, one had the freedom to reject the belief in the religio-political concept of “providence.” One was not, however, at liberty to say so in public without the risk of punishment. In the 1770s one had the freedom to like tea, but one was not at liberty to get it without paying an absurd tax.

In an article on the political concept of “liberty,” Efraim Podoksik says

. . .  slavery could be understood as a restriction of negative liberty; today it would be considered a violation of basic human and civil freedoms. It is no wonder then that the term ‘‘liberty’’ was first and foremost attached in the ancient world to the distinction between slaves and the free (1).

Absence of “liberty” is the condition of slavery, not lack of “freedom.” It would be fair to ask me, then, how “O Freedom!” became so important to African American slaves, or why Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted the spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty we are free at last” in his most famous speech. The distinction is not as clear as I’d like for this argument.

Americans who attend religious services are grateful they are have liberty to attend the services of their choice, or none at all. Not many—is my cynical guess—exercise their freedom to question or to probe more deeply the meaning of their religion.

This is obviously splitting of verbal hairs. Podoksik admits to a jumble of meanings, saying that

. . .  in the modern context, the concept of liberty is wide and indeterminate, and its very indeterminacy is part of our understanding of the term. . . Thus, if a certain person tells us today that he or she wants to be free, we certainly know the rough meaning of what being free involves. But we also know. . .  we do not know enough. We may still be in need of clarifying whether this person wants to be free from jail, from censorship, from abuse, or from something else (2).

God hath created the mind free

God hath created the mind free

Thomas Jefferson understood freedom and liberty as not quite synonymous. In 1777 Jefferson wrote his Bill for Religious Freedom in Virginia, the first codification of that freedom in the United States. It was passed by the Virginia House of Delegates in 1786 and is to this day part of the Virginia Constitution. Jefferson’s argument begins with the assertion “that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint.” The mind is free—not the body. He continues with the assertion that “all attempts to influence it [the mind] by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations. . .  are a departure from the plan” of the Almighty.

The fact is that “our freedom does not depend on our having libertarian free will” (3).

That my attempt to define these two words is doomed to failure is clear from one of our favorite constructs of freedom. Franklin Roosevelt, on the eve of World War II, defined the basic freedoms of all mankind as

Freedom of speech
Freedom of worship
Freedom from want
Freedom from fear

By my idiosyncratic definition, the first two absolutely (and the third probably) would be “liberties” rather than “freedoms.” Freedom from fear, however, falls into the category of Jefferson’s freedom of the mind.

On June 3, 2011, Robert G. Marshall, Republican Member of the Virginia House of Delegates, wrote to Jeffrey M. Lacker, President of the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank, pointing out that

. . .  homosexual behavior is a Class 6 felony in Virginia, referring to the state’s sodomy law. That statute remains on the books despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared unconstitutional a Texas law that prohibited private, sexual acts between consenting same-sex adults (4).

Marshall’s letter was in response to the flying of the LGBT Rainbow Flag this year during the month of June at the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond to coincide with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month.

“We are flying the pride flag as an example of our commitment to the values of acceptance and inclusion,” Sally Green, the bank’s first vice president and chief operating officer, said (5).

Victoria Cobb, President of The Family Foundation, said that her organization would, “. . . choose to use this flag, like the view of Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol, as motivation for the work that lies ahead.” The Family Foundation’s mission is

. . . to strengthen families in Virginia by applying founding principles and faith to policy and culture. . . to establish through . . .  Virginia law a safe, prosperous and wholesome climate for families. . . based on the principles of life, marriage, parental authority, constitutional government and religious liberty [sic] (6).

LGBT persons in Virginia are free to love, to think, to understand themselves, to believe or not believe in any religion. They are not, according to the law of the Commonwealth—or at least to Victoria Cobb and Robert G. Marshall—at liberty to act on those freedoms.

Patrick Henry, the first Governor of Virginia after the Commonwealth declared its Independence, is best known for his 1775 speech, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Give me liberty!

Give me liberty!

The struggle for liberty is not over. We the People will yet “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” We will do this because at stake

. . . is the contemporary need for political and social structures that comprehend the ever-more complex and urgent relationships that constitute The People as they are, rather than what they are ideally supposed to be. . . Turning to . . . notions of historical right to rule and occupy, proves wholly inadequate in determining needs and realities based on the relationships of living communities and societies, and their rights, inclusions and exclusions (7).
(1) Podoksik, Efraim. “One Concept of Liberty: Towards Writing the History of a Political Concept.” Journal of the History of Ideas 71.2 (2010): 219-240.
(2) Podoksik, op. cit.
(3) Duus-Otterström, Göran. “Freedom of Will and the Value of Choice.” Social Theory & Practice 37.2 (2011): 256-284.
(4) Meola, Olympia. “Flag at the Fed reignites gay-rights debate.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch. June 04, 2011. Web. 03 Jul. 2011.
(5) Meola, op. cit.
(6) The Family Foundation. “Preserving Virginia’s Foundation.” The Family Foundation of Virginia. 2011. Web. 03 Jul. 2011.
(7) Salt, Matthew Scott. “The Spirit of the People.” Cultural Studies 24.4 (2010): 478-507.


  1. nice. food for thought


  2. […] Cowboy is a love story. A story about two men who come to love each other. Not sexually, but as friends who learn to face the rotten world of the ‘60s together. One of the men is a prostitute. The movie has no […]


  3. […] . . .In May 1948, the RAND Corporation was established to protect and promote  American security interests during the nuclear age. RAND shepherded in a new generation of think tanks: policy research […]


  4. I agree! I want these tetolling right wingers to stay out of my bedroom!



%d bloggers like this: