Ask the average person to describe the difference between the words freedom and liberty. My guess is that most people will tell you the words are synonymous, or that there is no difference at all. But that response would be simplistic, as there is a subtle distinction between the two words and this distinction is important.
Freedom refers to your ability to go about daily life without hindrance or question. You go to your place of employment. You make simple decisions on where to go, what to buy, and with whom you associate. Other decisions are perhaps more important. Where to live, how to take care of your health, and how to raise your children. Essentially, you make the call for yourself and for your family. This is freedom and it’s deeply personal.
Liberty is also deeply personal, but stronger in its meaning. Liberty speaks of our relationship to government, those who have been elected as servants of the people, and who have been entrusted with responsibility for making decisions that affect the common welfare of those they serve. As American citizens, we should enjoy liberty from tyrants who would use restrictions, intrusion, and oppression to burden and control the people.
Liberty is one of our greatest principles, enshrined in historic documents that form the foundation of our society. Liberty must be regarded as precious, a high ideal that is to be protected from tyrants, even at great personal sacrifice if necessary.
The Constitution and Bill of Rights were written to limit and restrain the government, not to hinder or restrict the liberty of the people.
On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry gave one of the most stirring speeches in our nation’s history. Closing his oration at the Second Virginia Convention, his voice rose to a crescendo: “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
The next year, Thomas Jefferson wrote 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.”
So then, freedom and liberty. Two words with similar, yet slightly nuanced meanings. Both are important. Both are essential. Both are necessary for the American citizen and for a civilized society.
Otherwise all we have is “the thin veneer of civilization.”
© Jeffery J. Michaels / Plain English Publications 2021
(Quotations allowed with attribution to this blog)