Benjamin Franklin once said,
“Where Liberty dwells, there is my country.”
Powerful words…and slightly
unsettling ones. Would Franklin have us believe that he was not wholly devoted to
United States? Or did
he mean to suggest that if
it would no longer be his country?
was founded on the ideas of
Independence, Justice, and most of all,
Liberty. But when the founding
generation spoke of
did they mean the same thing we do when we speak the
word? We know that the meaning and power of words can
change over time. For example, once the word “Gentleman”
meant a man who was above the
rank of yeoman (laborer), or a person of high birth.
Today, a gentleman is anyone who exhibits good manners.
How too may the word Liberty have changed with time?
The Founders talk about
and Freedom as two separate but connected ideals. Both
of these words contain the idea of possessing the
ability to exercise one’s will, and a power to choose.
However, in many ways the words differ.
Liberty comes from the Latin word
libertas, which means
“unbounded, unrestricted or released from
Libertas even contains the idea of being
separate and independent. The English word Freedom
can trace its roots to the Germanic or Norse word
Frei, describing someone who belongs to a tribe and
has the rights that go with belonging. This is something
along the lines of
“membership has its privileges.” Besides
freedom the root frei becomes the English word
friend. These ideas of liberty and freedom came from
Western Civilization, and for the most part are absent
in other cultures before their contact with the West. In
other non-western cultures we find that the opposite of
slave is not free but master.
For the Founders, Liberty was not new but, like their symbol the
Liberty Tree, deeply rooted and long established among
them. By 1776, some families had been in
for 170 years, and American Liberty was something they
had always possessed. This is why when Thomas Jefferson
writes the words of 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,” he refers
to it as simply “An expression of the American mind.”
They did not look at
as a quest for new Liberties but a revolt against a
government bent on taking their Liberties away.
is who they were.
A Roman style Liberty
goddess pictured as American Liberty
was this very potent notion of Liberty that moved patriot militias to assemble at Lexington and
in 1775. These people believed that they had always been
in charge of themselves, and refused to be subject to
the arbitrary rule of others.
The quote that is most often
attributed the Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give
up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary
Safety, deserve neither
nor Safety” is an excellent picture of the mind of the
time. Safety was not Liberty and
was not safe.
Our concept of liberty today
is pale and thin compared with that of the Founders.
Today we want to
believe in liberty (small “l”), but not so much that we
could get hurt. As long as we can still say what we
want, worship as we please and have a vote, we say we
We expect that the government will prevent us
from making mistakes, rescue us if we do make mistakes
and provide for us if we fail. The founding generation
wanted no restraints and accepted that they would have
no safety net if they failed. This is a concept that is
foreign to both of our main political parties today, and
to most Americans in general.
Today, the Constitution that was put in place to
restrain Government’s ability to infringe on freedom is
regularly violated without much protest and sometimes
with support from the public. The
Government has been allowed
to create new departments and administrations that
effectively redefine its powers. Undoubtedly, this
expansion has made us safer; but it has had a price. To
justify it we have had to redefine what we mean by Liberty.
Founders saw Liberty as the opposite of tyranny. Freedom
from dependence on another’s will. The ability to
choose one’s own way without interference. My search
for the Founder’s definition of Liberty has been one that challenged my
own previous thoughts on the subject. The Founders
threw down a gauntlet during the Revolutionary War
that began a journey towards Liberty. These Founders’ own words reveal that
they knew it could not be achieved in their
lifetimes, but would be a generational destiny. They
mapped out a path and left markers for us to follow.
I wonder--in our age, do we have the courage to
follow that path? In the end, the question will be
If our nation is defined by the word
Liberty, how will we define
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