Liberty: What it Means and Different Classical Interpretations

Like me, I’d imagine most every American has distinct memories of being five years old reciting the pledge of allegiance and finishing with the famed, “…with liberty and justice for all.” Justice is easily defined by most, but if I were to ask 10 people what liberty meant, I’d expect to get a decent amount of shoulder shrugs or, “I’m not really sure.” However, the term is one of the biggest buzzwords in not just United States politics, but all of classically liberal politics since it’s inception in the 17th century back when beer was safer to drink than water. It’s most famously used in the Declaration of Independence, when Jefferson and four other of the founders wrote,

“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.”

Furthermore, the preamble of the constitution cites, “secure[ing] the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…” as one of its core goals in forming the more perfect union.

Consider the weight of its conceptual importance in the founding of the country, and the liberties (pun intended) in which people have used the word throughout history, I figure it’s a perfect place to begin this blog to dive a bit into what the founders actually meant when using the term, its different interpretations, some of its subsets in the real world and the implications of those granted subsets.

Many of us, with merit, associate liberty with the concept of freedom, which in the times of the founding fathers was always associated with the ability to act upon one’s own will. Emmanual Kant, a famed philosopher of the time defines will as, “a kind of causality belonging to living beings so far as they are rational.” That is to say that all rational individuals inherently follow their will which is what drives their decisions and actions. He immediately follows by saying that, “Freedom would then be the property this causality has of being able to work independently of determination by alien causes;” In layman terms, freedom is the ability to decide and act upon one’s will without an external control or cause.

This ability to act without an external control is where liberty and freedom are divergent from one another. The most appropriate source to begin to look at the definition of the former in my opinion is Montesquieu, as he was the most cited authority on politics and government by the founder fathers excluding the bible. David Spitz, in his analysis of Montesquieu states that, in [his] view, political liberty does not mean the absence of restraints, the unlimited freedom to act as one pleases, which is in direct contradiction with our definition of freedom. Montesquieu writes that, “In governments, that is in societies governed by law…liberty can only consist of the power of doing what we ought to will, and not being constrained to do what we ought not to will.” He later goes on to consolidate this statement into, “liberty is a right of doing whatever the law permits.” While his consolidation is at odds with some of the founder fathers notion of what liberty is which we will see, his first explanation shows a perfect distinction in the functional difference between freedom and liberty. Thus, we can define the difference in saying,

Freedom is the notion of the ability to act upon one’s will without external influence, whereas liberty is the right or power to freedom within a society which limits it’s notion inherently by its’ own organization.

To backtrack a bit for the sake of clarity, government and society are inherently at odds with the notion of freedom. While that may sound strange, theoretically it is a pretty straight forward and irrefutable point. If one is a member of society, which barring a system of total anarchical lawlessness, means their are laws by which they are restrained to conduct themselves, their personal notion of freedom, or the ability to act upon their own will unobstructed is than, by definition, restricted. Thus, liberty is the right to experience this notion of freedom when there is an external control superseding it. However, who’s to say what or who this external control should be? Because there is no one correct answer to that question, how liberty is interpreted and how far people think it should be extended changes with what they feel is the proper external control, and how this external control judges actions.

A clear example of a different interpretation from Montesquieu’s is when Thomas Jefferson said,

“ Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add “within the limits of the law” because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.”

We can immediately see the differences in the two viewpoints. In fact, Jefferson even goes as far to clarify that he feels Montesquieu’s definition is incorrect because of the potential dangerous practical ramifications. And while two different definitions, neither of them are wrong, they both just choose a different “grantor” so to speak or external control to their liberties. Montesquieu’s is very obviously the law itself where as Jefferson’s is a bit more difficult to interpret. Jefferson’s external control to liberty, “is the limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.” However, if limits which are drawn around us by the equal rights of others are not the law what can be? This roadblock leads us two juicy passages to further examine this, the original draft of the constitution written by Thomas Jefferson and than its final copy edited.

The original reads,

We therefore the representatives of the United States of America in General Congress assembled do, in the name & by authority of the good people of these states, reject and renounce an allegiance & subjection to the kings of Great Britain & all others who may hereafter claim by, through, or under them; we utterly dissolve & break off a political connection which may have heretofore subsisted between us & the people or parliament of Great Britain; and finally we do assert and declare these a colonies to be free and independent states…”

In the first copy, the authority which Jefferson deems has granted them the right to declaring their independence is the people themselves, similar to his previous definition. However, again, in this lies a dilemma. What are the people supposed to make this judgement by, and like the possibility of a government becoming tyrannical with its authority unchecked by something greater, what’s to say that if the people themselves have the unweilding authority of society unchecked by something greater, can’t they become equally tyrannical as a self interested monarch or oligarchy in their decisions?

This critique of the democratic form has been been continually present throughout history, from Plato and Aristotle, fast-forwarding to De Toquiville and even the founders themselves, and there has been a clear understand of the potential dangers of the majority being the unchecked external control of liberty.

Aristotle once said in Politics,

“For in democracies where the laws are not supreme, demagogues spring up. . . . [T]his sort of democracy . . . [is] what tyranny is to other forms of monarchy. The spirit of both is the same, and they alike exercise a despotic rule over the better citizens. The decrees of the [demagogues] correspond to the edicts of the tyrant . . . . Such a democracy is fairly open to the objection that it is not a constitution at all; for where the laws have no authority, there is no constitution. The law ought to be supreme over all . . . .”

He further adds,

“[H]e who bids the law rule may be deemed to bid God and Reason alone rule, but he who bids man rule adds an element of the beast; for desire is a wild beast, and passion perverts the minds of rulers, even when they are the best of men. The law is reason unaffected by desire.”

From these passages, we can assume that Aristotle may very well agree more with Montesquieu’s interpretation of what proper liberty is, in that the law must be supreme; however, it is the later portion of these passages which are of importance to the discussion currently at hand. What Aristotle recognizes is that if the majority is to rule based on the authority in and of themselves, what’s to say that the congregate majority cannot act tyrannical like that of a self interesting monarchy or oligarchy? He feels that human passions and self-interests will always skew judgement regardless of one’s virtue, thus the authority of a person or group of persons without the law to supersede them can very well become despotic.

Many of the founders, whom were heavily influenced by the study of both the Greek and Romans States and their philosophers equally echoed this sentiment. John Adams once said regarding the same topic,

“I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.”

His theoretical logic in claiming this is that if the external control to the grantor of liberty is the power of the controlling group themselves, their power becomes the justification to their decisions in itself, which can be equally or more dangerous than rule by the passions of one person, and again like Aristotle demonstrates the opinion that even the most virtuous are susceptible to their judgements being skewed by both power and self-interest.

James Madison in the Federalist Papers added to this concern when in Federalist #10 he said,

“No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time;”

Here he makes the clear point that a group of people whether majority or minority are unfit to be both the judges and parties to decisions being made. However, if the authority of society is the people themselves like Jefferson states in his first draft, do they not then become just that?

While we cannot make claims to this being the exact reason as to why it was changed, interestingly enough the final draft of the Declaration of Independence was edited to say,

“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.”

Instead of using just the authority of the people themselves to justify them defying the British Crown and claim their independence, they now justify their action by, “…appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions…” which is to say the people themselves are not both the judge and the party to their decision, but god is their judge or external control to their claims to their liberty, and he will judge them by the rectitude of their intentions or more simply put, the virtue of their action.

This claim to liberty then uses an external control somewhere between Montesquieu’s previous version, where liberty is the right to freedom within the limits of the law, and Jefferson’s, where liberty is given to the public by the control of the public. In this version the external control of liberty is neither the law or the majority, but the “Supreme Judge” who judges immediate claims to liberty based on the virtue and reason used in their decision making. By using the Supreme Judge and virtue as the external control to their practical experience of freedom, their external control to liberty becomes something inanimate and thus more difficult to be skewed by human passions.

While this is just scratching the surface, it’s my hope that in understanding that liberty is the practical application of the notion of freedom, we can greater appreciate just how difficult of a concept it is to both to define and to apply. As we’ve just seen, some of the greatest political minds in our history, and even those who were contemporaries have had and will continue to have different opinions and viewpoints on how to best decide on what or whom the external control to liberty should be and how this control make the most proper judgement. Wrestling with the complexity and potential repercussions that arises with each different conception has been the task of both theorists and politicians for thousands of years, and examining the difficulties that come with putting one conception into practice always give me a greater appreciation for just how difficult of a task the founders had.

Within the timeframe of 20 years, they were able to both claim the right to liberty from the British Crown in immediate defiance of the law, as well as conceive a government which both required the law to then be supreme and respected, yet gave its citizens greater liberties than the world had ever previously seen, as far as given them the legal right to arm themselves to be prepared to revolt against their own government in the event it became despotic. Despite the challenges of doing that with a citizenry which again had just so boldly renounced the rule of law just 20 years in the past, they drafted a founding document which has remain the law of the land for over 230 years, a political feat which deserves both its study and great appreciation.