“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the oft-quoted trinity of rights so easily remembered by anyone with a passing familiarity with the Declaration of Independence. Yet, “liberty” is a word today with forgotten meaning despite a very rich intellectual pedigree. Most Americans know it is a good thing — Thomas Jefferson and George Washington wanted it, for instance — but they would be hard-pressed to describe what it is. Frequently considered synonymous with “freedom,” this all-too-precious idea needs rediscovering. Fortunately, there is a superb road map: the intellectual history of Colonial America and the Declaration itself.
Liberty was a much cherished, much discussed idea in 18th centuryAmerica, and it was much applied as the guiding concept that shaped peoples’ choices politically, economically, and spiritually. What is often misunderstood (or simply forgotten because it reminds us of limits while we live in a contemporary world that has abandoned most boundaries) is liberty did not mean the license to do what one pleased, denying the existence of any laws that bound human conduct. However, the intent of just laws is to restrain the power of the lawless and protect property, life, and individual actions. John Locke made it clear that true liberty was found in obedience to this basic purpose behind law:
So that, however it may be mistaken, the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom: for in all the states of created beings capable of laws, “where there is no law, there is no freedom;” for liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others; which cannot be where there is not law: but freedom is not, as we are told, “a liberty for every man to do what he lists:” (for who could be free, when every other man’s humour might domineer over him?) but a liberty to dispose, and order as he lists, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property, within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.
Liberty, then, is protection from the arbitrary will of another – one of the many reasons why the Founders so often cast their predicament in terms of facing the threat of slavery. John Adams was blunt: “If the English nation was the most virtuous, pure, and free that ever was, would not such unlimited subjection of three millions of people to that parliament, at three thousand miles distance be real slavery? There are but two sorts of men in the world, freemen and slaves.” When George Washington wrote his associate Bryan Fairfax regarding his disgust with Parliament’s high-handed treatment of Bostonians in 1774, he said, “the Crisis is arrivd when we must assert our Rights, or Submit to every Imposition that can be heap’d upon us; till custom and use, will make us as tame, & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway.” An all too real fact of American life at the time was only slaves were under the arbitrary sway of those who were nearly unlimited by law regarding the command that they held over the lives of the enslaved. Jefferson, a Virginian who at one time owned more slaves than any other property holder in his state, knew well what life looked like when it lacked liberty. That experience surely influenced Jefferson’s ideas regarding liberty and tyranny as much as Locke’s writings did. If not, it certainly did form the love of liberty found among his fellow Virginians, some of whom were among the first who called for independence.
Is liberty, then, simply the freedom to be at the apex of the power structure? The answer is an unequivocal “no.” The examples from the times indicate that the Declaration was written from the point-of-view of men who rejected the idea of the use of arbitrary power as the basis of just government. In fact, one synonymous phrase for liberty could be “fighting spirit in a righteous cause.”
For example, Jefferson had worked with John Dickinson, his famous colleague in the Continental Congress known for his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania that were the watershed for nearly all ensuing debate regarding whether Parliament could constitutionally expand its control of the colonies, to write A Declaration by the Representatives of the United Colonies of North-America, Now Met in Congress at Philadelphia, Setting Forth the Causes and Necessity of Their Taking Up Arms. Written almost exactly a year before the Congress adopted the Declaration, it casts its arguments with the logic of people defending their rights as Englishmen. It was written to justify an armed revolt that was viewed by many in the Atlantic world as a civil war. Yet, the overall substance of the document reveals a theme that Jefferson presents in the natural rights statement as well as the whole of the Declaration of Independence, namely that Americans are fighting for one purpose only: to preserve their freedoms: “We most solemnly, before God and the world, declare, that, exerting the utmost energy of those powers, which our beneficent Creator hath graciously bestowed upon us, the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverance, employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves.” Though not a call for independence, it is a reminder that Jefferson had spent a considerable time contemplating questions of liberty, and how they related to the necessity of acknowledging inherent rights as the intellectual wellspring for anything called “America.” It is in that American idea of liberty that we find the first piece in understanding what it is: Liberty is the right to protect the God-given rights possessed by human beings and to protect those rights by force if necessary from anyone using arbitrary power in an effort to strip one of their liberty.
Next, how “life” and “pursuit of happiness” add to the definition of liberty.