Sweet Freedom, Of Thee We Sing!

What is Liberty, That We May Defend It?

By —— Bio and Archives--July 25, 2011

Cover Story | Comments | Print Friendly | Subscribe | Email Us

Is American Liberty under attack? Perhaps more so than any time since the Revolution. We see this daily in how our government regularly misleads us; making foolhardy economic decisions, then treating citizens alarmed at record deficits like madmen. It repeatedly tramples our rights as if we were slaves. The Constitution is displayed as an elaborate, ancient joke. Politicians present themselves as gods, above error, who dismiss dissent as if it were the babble of infants. Between irrational new laws, and the government’s refusal to enforce common sense rules, Americans feel trapped and betrayed by increasingly tyrannical leaders.


Liberty was the dream of many throughout history, but has not been a natural state for almost any. Yet, somehow Liberty became the raison d’etre of the first Americans. In fact, the colonists were more wedded to the idea of freedom than any other concept. In this essay we define Liberty, then briefly examine the history of the idea, considering the American revolutionaries, then how it is seen today.

I. Defining Liberty

Liberty is simply a term to denote the state of human freedom, defined by Dictionary.com as:

  1. freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control.
  2. freedom from external or foreign rule; independence.
  3. freedom from control, interference, obligation, restriction, hampering conditions, etc.; power or right of doing, thinking, speaking, etc., according to choice.

Liberty is the ability, or right, to exercise one’s own free will in action or non-action, wherever human choice can be applied without harming others, or breaching correctly legislated laws.

II. Liberty in History

A. Greece & Rome

The history of Liberty, according to John W. Danford in Roots of Freedom, A Primer On Modern Liberty, begins in Greece. The Greek polis, or city, was a microcosm of limited liberty for a lucky few citizens. These were freemen allowed to vote. But there was no absolute right to private property or free speech, and the family was subordinate to the ruling elite. For instance, in Sparta, children were raised in state academies. This warrior city was the most oppressive regime in the ancient world.

Further, and more troubling, most residents had no freedom. Women, slaves, and foreigners had no place in political life. Ancient Rome boasted a similar situation.

B. Early Pre-modern Christianity, Medieval Period & Protestant Reformation

Danford describes how the early Church set down four important precursors of modern Liberty: (1) The notion of the individual distinguished from the group; (2) the idea of history traveling in a linear fashion—straight from beginning to end; (3) the theory of separate realms of religion and government; and, (4) the concept that truth exists, accessible by any particular individual.

The end of the Feudal period gave three more essential elements to the development of Liberty: (i) Ownership of private property; (ii) Development of the Rule of Law; and, (iii) An independent judiciary. The Protestant Reformation, and especially Martin Luther’s writings, brought a hardline separation between church and state and also made Popular Consent of the Governed a standard of just rule.

C. Modern Age

The modern political age begins with Machiavelli’s Prince—one of the most rebellious works ever composed. Machiavelli’s template destroyed the old order by sanctioning democracy. Instead of accepting the ancient’s ideal of society existing for the good of the whole, Machiavelli proposed people are driven by common, base instincts. Yet, instead of denigrating these, he used them to establish a more realistic, stable order based upon commerce, agriculture, and other peaceful industry. Machiavelli’s vision become the modern, Western world in all its glory.

D. Locke & Founders on Liberty:

Philosopher of the Enlightenment and leading light to the Founders, John Locke, proposed mankind is in a State of Nature. We trade some freedoms to pass from a natural state into civilization. Key to Locke, and totally opposed to arch-nemesis Thomas Hobbes, is the proposition people form governments to increase their freedom, or liberty. As a result of the appeal of Locke’s ideas on government, his work The Second Treatise on Government became the greatest, most influential political treatise in the modern world. It is doubtless that Locke’s Second Treatise is the template for much of the Declaration, according to Forrest McDonald, in his Novus Ordo Seclorum, The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution.

One of Locke’s most important beliefs was in Natural Rights, which he believed all people owned. An example is the notion that all men have a natural right to protection of their Life, Liberty and Property.

III. Categories of Liberty

In the book A Brief History of Liberty, Shmidtz and Brennan differentiate between “positive” and “negative” concepts of Liberty. The ancients and medievalists wrote about allowing mankind to do various things. But modernist philosophers, like Hobbes and Locke focused on “negative liberty” which is oriented towards stopping the powers-that-be from encroaching upon the “natural freedoms” or “rights.”

Liberty can best be studied as it is applied to various topics. Consider these:

A. Economic Freedom—Property, Liberty & Capitalism

1. Freedom & Property
Richard Pipes claims in Property and Freedom no record exists of any society which allowed freedom for people but did not protect private property. The outstanding proponent of Property Rights is John Locke, who believed private property must be strenuously protected. This was the key factor allowing broad-based capitalism to flourish. Locke wrote in his First Treatise of Government:

Property, whose original is from the right a man has to use any of the inferior creatures, for the subsistence and comfort of his life, is for the benefit and sole advantage of the proprietor.

Locke grounds all of his philosophy in a biblical matrix, making it almost impossible to dismiss his views as reactionary or irreligious. He both casts off the old order where state or church control property rights, yet makes his position difficult to assail. He writes in the Second Treatise, Ch 5 on Property:

God, as king David says, Psalm. 115: 16. has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common.

Locke also wrote in the Second Treatise:

The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property, and why they choose and authorize a legislative is that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power and moderate the dominion of every part and member of the society.

2. Capitalism
Capitalist theory is associated with Adam Smith & his Wealth of Nations, who stressed the free movement of all economic resources. Capitalism thus presumes Locke’s minimalist state, and his blanket protection of private property. Freedom allows individuals to decide what profession they will enter, and gives entrepreneurs opportunity to choose any part of the creation and distribution cycle of goods and services. With each resident acting as a conduit, Smith’s “Invisible Hand” allows America’s hundreds of millions of economic free-agents an opportunity to influence consumption. Such a system is millions of times more efficient and accurate than the communist command economy, driven by the whims of a few “great men.”

B. Civil Liberty & Natural Rights

Danford details Locke’s beliefs on what is needed for Civil Society:

  1. Individuals are understood to be prior to, and more fundamental than, any social order.
  2. The natural need for self-preservation is the only true reason men live in political communities.
  3. Because these needs are universal and scientifically demonstrable for all men and women, they offer a basis for agreement and a peaceful political order.
  4. Since political society exists for self-preservation, no man can ever give up the right to defend himself.
  5. All legitimate government rests on a contract consented to, at least tacitly, by individuals; no one can consent for anyone but himself.

According to McDonald, the four ideas most important to American colonists and Founders were (1) Preservation of Life, Liberty, and Property; (2) Republican form of government; (3) Respect for History, as both model and lesson; & (4) The importance of political theory, from such luminaries as Locke, Hume, Blackstone, etc.

Various civil rights have different histories. In America, most rights are established via the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights. For example, the 1st Amendment’s Freedom of Speech is traced to the British Parliament; and academic freedom to poet John Milton’s Areopagatica; whereas freedom of the press was established in America after the Zenger trial.

C. Freedom of Religion

John Locke is champion of another important modern right—Religious Liberty. He wrote his famously influential A Letter Concerning Toleration. It is inconceivable Western Europe, or America could have achieved such prominence without government putting aside regulation of religion. Further, without religious tolerance, undoubtedly the great heights of science, the arts, and capitalism could never have had the room to develop and evolve. Consider, for example, that Islam teaches unfettered capitalism is evil for its freewheeling nature.

D. Freedom of Expression: Speech & Print

Most folks think of Free Speech when the Bill of Rights is mentioned before any other Liberty. Without this, consider how frank discussion of any topic could lead to arrest, torture or death, as recently happened in the USSR or today in Saudi Arabia. Further, the Arts as a whole, nor a Free Press or academic liberty could not thrive unless Free Expression were sanction, And yet, all of these are today used to undermine the Constitution and promote leftism, which would extirpate this right if they ever attained power.

Before the Founders sanctioned Free Speech, Puritan Revolutionary radicals such as “Freeborn Englishman” John Lilburne fought for Free Expression in England, according to McDonald. Gordon and Trenchard claimed in their Cato’s Letters that such freedom was indispensable to develop “Liberty, Property, true Religion, Arts, Sciences, Learning, and Knowledge.”

Consider the heartfelt sentiment of how the Arts must be wedded to Liberty, expressed in the old Celtic aire, the Minstrel Boy (John McDermott’s video):


(by Thomas Moore)

The Minstrel Boy to the war is gone
In the ranks of death you will find him;
His father’s sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;”
Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Tho’ all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell! But the foreman’s chain
Could not bring that proud soul under;
The harp he lov’d ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and brav’ry!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free,
They shall never sound in slavery!”

IV. American Liberty in the 3rdMillennium: An Endangered Species?

America’s greatness is being worn away like a mighty boulder turned to sand by a thousand dripping streams. America was made great by its ideas, fleshed out in the Declaration and Constitution, which created a powerful Republic based on Natural Law and Natural Rights. Yet, we currently stand at the precipice of a socialist devolution, a mere democracy of the misinformed, fearful and conquered.

Areas of American life coming under threat of tyranny are too numerous to detail, but include free speech, religion, separation of powers, government spending, foreign policy, private property, etc.
In fact, Obama himself complained the Constitution is too limiting, basically admitting he wanted Economic Justice and redistribution of wealth, while still an Illinois state senator (audio). He said:

One of the tragedies of the civil rights movement was because the civil rights movement became so court-focused I think there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalition of powers through which you bring about redistributive change. In some ways we still suffer from that.


According to Ellis Sandoz, in A Government of Laws, Political Theory, Religion, and the American Founding, the Founders believed Liberty is premised upon a few irreplaceable things. One is Rule of Law. Another is limited government, established through the Founder’s Constitution, based on Natural Law and Natural Rights. Of course, the strength of America expressed in capitalist Liberty made possible individual prosperity, which fostered our aiding the world, and building ourselves into an impregnable, free land—as the Founders hoped it would. Finally, the Founders believed free people needed to remain virtuous to avoid a proliferation of laws, degrading into tyranny. This virtue was premised upon the Bible’s standards and Christian religion as a foundation for morality.

John Stuart Mill wrote On Liberty, stating the principal: “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Mill also expressed the Harm Principle—that everyone has a right to do anything they like as long as it harms no one else. Mill encapsulates a standard that even the simple, young or agnostic can understand—that Liberty must be defended, and expanded, while government is shrunk, if we are to remain a free and prosperous people.

Freedom and Liberty are truly the light and hope of America to the world. Let us never stint in defending and expanding these, until the entire world can be brought out of bondage and chains.


Only YOU can save CFP from Social Media Suppression. Tweet, Post, Forward, Subscribe or Bookmark us

Kelly OConnell -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Kelly O’Connell is an author and attorney. He was born on the West Coast, raised in Las Vegas, and matriculated from the University of Oregon. After laboring for the Reformed Church in Galway, Ireland, he returned to America and attended law school in Virginia, where he earned a JD and a Master’s degree in Government. He spent a stint working as a researcher and writer of academic articles at a Miami law school, focusing on ancient law and society. He has also been employed as a university Speech & Debate professor. He then returned West and worked as an assistant district attorney. Kelly is now is a private practitioner with a small law practice in New Mexico.

Commenting Policy

Please adhere to our commenting policy to avoid being banned. As a privately owned website, we reserve the right to remove any comment and ban any user at any time.

Comments that contain spam, advertising, vulgarity, threats of violence and death, racism, anti-Semitism, or personal or abusive attacks on other users may be removed and result in a ban.
-- Follow these instructions on registering: