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.”
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.
This post was submitted by David Rood.