Give Me “Liberty” or Give Me…?

Since our arrival on these shores, we Americans have been obsessed with the idea of “liberty.” Some of the earliest European settlers came here to enjoy their newly found freedom from the 17th Century pluralistic society that was evolving in their mother country. They came to practice a more disciplined brand of religion, a legalistic brand that did not place a high priority on individual liberty.

But as the colonies evolved and the Age of Enlightenment swept the soon-to-be nation, the concept of liberty was re-examined in the context of political and economic matters. Liberty became a more inclusive term that extended to so-called “inalienable rights,” which were invested in all (“all” meaning White, free, male property owners) by Nature. Natural Law would naturally take precedent over laws of Man. To prove this, a few men would pollute the Boston Harbor with English tea. On the cusp of the Romantic Era, it was no longer all about reason.

Still, in 1776, our Founding Fathers were, for the most part, educated privileged and intellectual men, who believed in the power of logic (or reason) to guide them to create a better society. Unfortunately for women and people of color, their assumption about who constituted folks who were invested in inalienable rights was, at least by present day standards, flawed.

These were the men who signed the Declaration of Independence and ratified the United States Constitution. A few of the more forward thinking of them understood that societal changes are inevitable and therefore, fundamental law defining the structure of any government must be flexible enough to adapt to those changes. They envisioned a constitution that would be altered by the legislature and interpreted by the courts to accommodate the needs of citizens that would be born in generations hence.

Chief Justice John Roberts would probably disagree. He and several of his associates on the U.S. Supreme Court believe in the doctrine of “strict construction,” which is to say that the letter of the law as written should not be interpreted in a way as to extrapolate law based on specific situations not anticipated by the authors of the document. This has proven to have had dire ramifications for our liberties as expressed in the Constitution.

Decades after a Congress radicalized by the exclusion of secessionist after the Civil War abolished the institution of slavery, the Supreme Court rendered its “separate but equal” decision in Plessey v. Ferguson. This ruling assured that my classmates and I would attend an all-White grammar school, that “Negroes” could be denied the privilege of eating or sleeping anywhere they could afford, that many state-funded colleges would be off limits to people of color, and that states would retain their liberty to systematically exclude certain races from casting their vote. In 1954, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education overturned Plessey but it did not do much to change the hearts and minds of people who believed in the supremacy of Whites. Many of those who may not have been overtly racist took on the mantra, “States Rights.” They believed their “liberty” to deny the liberty of others was more important than the Court’s interpretation of “equal protection” and “justice for all.”

David Rood writes for the Harrisonburg Times.

Today, we see a lot of folks with banners that read, “The tree of Liberty needs to be watered with the blood of patriots.” The liberty to which they refer is a very narrow definition of the word. One could also extend that to their definition of “patriot.” Liberty, after all, is one of those ambiguous terms that can mean different things to different people at different times and under different circumstances. Liberty as recently exercised by Goldman-Sachs executives is very different than the liberty we exercise in the voting booth. Some claim the health care reform legislation is an infringement on personal liberty. Others see it as restraint on the liberty of greedy insurance behemoths to deny coverage to families, often with tragic consequences, in order to maximize profits. One man’s liberty is another man’s oppression. Woodrow Wilson was the first president to recognize that the freedom of some to get rich sometimes results in the freedom of others to starve to death. None of us can truly be free if as a people we are not just.

As we mature from children to adults, we gradually enjoy more and more liberty from our parents. With each increment in our liberty, we consequently assume more responsibility. Liberty without responsibility is anarchy. It is time we stop shouting about liberty and start thinking seriously about it… and what it means to us, to our community and to our nation.

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This post was submitted by David Rood.


  1. says

    As flawed as we were back then.It had to be a compromise between the colonies in order to just have a union. Let me quite Fred Thompson “”The federal government can’t do what it wants simply because it WANTS to.” I believe that to be true with George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Those of us on the right feel less Federal intervention is better. We feel that where the Fed should react, they don’t. (As in our sovereignty and protection of our borders.) Even in the process of The Fed taking charge of the BP Oil leak. They (The Fed), cannot not get the proper equipment, due to the over reaching regulations of the EPA.

    Are there bad people in the Private Sector, YOU BET!. to which I say::Weed them out and throw the crooks in jail. Are there crooks in the Public Sector? Sure, Same deal get rid of the crooks. Remember,It is not the Federal Governments job to tell us how to live our lives, but to insure how Government runs its affairs.

  2. says

    Those who feel the federal government is telling them how to live their lives seem to be oblivious of the way major corporations control our lives. I would like to drive a car that runs on renewable energy but because the entrenched energy companies have a vested interest in continuing to sell me petroleum products, the so-called free market makes it very difficult to develop one at an affordable price. So, now because public transportation has been so neglected, if I want to get from point A to point B, I need to burn gas to do so, which means I also have to spend my dollars to buy oil from countries that covertly support terrorism and the killing of American soldiers. If the federal government intervenes to fund public transportation, develop alternate fuels and electric cars, the right is outraged that it is running our lives. GIVE ME A BREAK!

  3. Jay Bender says

    The Right and the Left fight it out concerning ideology and so much good is achieved by the bickering? Not directed to you, David, but to me the constant struggle between the Left and the Right seems so fruitless, so empty! I pray that future generations are much more intelligent than that!


  4. says

    Jay, nothing would please me more than for everyone in the world to sit around the campfire, hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Our reality is that human beings have brains and think for themselves (probably not as thoroughly as we should but…) and come to different conclusions about what is important. Conflict is inevitable and not necessarily a bad thing. How boring would life be if everyone agreed about everything all the time? What you characterize as “bickering” is, at least from my perspective, a robust exchange of ideas, and ideas change the world.

    • Jay Bender says

      I don’t know that I would pick Kumbaya! But my point is that this dichtomy of right versus left is fruitless. Surely disagreements can lead to productive cooperation and action and not endless finger-pointing and reciting things such as Jesus must be a Republican or a Democrat! Our reality is that we have brains and they are programmed to think past narrow minded partisanship, no?

  5. Jay Bender says

    Just by the nature of partisanship, the word narrow would imply. In terms of finding truthful and fruitful answers to the world’s problems, partisanship falls far short of serving humanity. and I am not against arguing one’s position. It is just that partisanship does not change anything. a relative of mine from South America told me that in her country that administration can change in one election from the extreme side of the political spectrum to the other extreme and nothing changes-the same generals are power and the majority of people remain in poverty. It is cool these days to hold on to a partisan political label but I think you would get more use out of a pair of Foster Grant sunglasses!

  6. says

    Jay, I think your understanding of political debate as it relates to partisanship is somewhat limited. My political philosophy is complex and transcends political parties. I assert my ideas and opinions on my own behalf, not as an agent of any party. What you label as partisan is actually the struggle between competing ideas, not parties. “Narrow-minded” is a derogatory term and should be invoked only when appropriate (which was not true in the exchanges in this thread) and only by individuals who are open-minded.

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