Liberty versus Freedom

And the chief captain answered, With a great sum obtained I this freedom. And Paul said, But I was free born.

– Acts 22:28, King James Version

Proposed Florida Civil War flagAn individual purchases liberty. A society, over time, earns liberty. As John C. Calhoun said, “Liberty is the noble and highest reward bestowed on mental and moral development, combined with favorable circumstances.” It is “the most difficult [reward] to be won . . .”1

But freedom is a birthright.

According to historian David Hackett Fischer, “. . . the original meanings of freedom and liberty were not merely different but opposed. Liberty meant separation. Freedom implied connection.”

“Liberty” comes from the Latin libertas and its adjective liber, which means “released from restraint.” The Greek eleutheria is similar, and may be defined as “an independence by means of separation.” But “freedom” is a cousin of the Norse fri, the German frei, and other Nothern European variants. Their common root, the Indo-European priya or friya or riya, means “dear” or “beloved.”2

Theologian Chaim Wirszubski points out that “ . . . the Romans conceived of libertas as an acquired civil right, not as an innate right of man.”3 But Fischer says that “by the eleventh century, most men in Iceland were born free. This prior condition of freedom was a birthright that all freeman shared.”4

“In ancient Rome, liberty implied inequality.”5 But in northern European tribes, the ancient rule was, “All free men are equal before the law.”6

Roman citizens spoke of their varying privileges and immunities. But Northern Europeans before the Middle Ages spoke of rights that were available to everyone in the community.7

The American South adopted classical Greco-Roman notions of liberty. But the New England settlers brought in Northern European notions of freedom. The American Civil war was, in an important sense, a struggle between liberty and freedom:

During the Civil War . . . Northerners expanded their ideas of freedom and union into a universal principle. Southern notions of liberty and independence went the other way.8

For Ancient Greeks and Romans, slavery’s existence was consistent with liberty. In fact, one man’s liberty required another man’s slavery. Liberty, then, is a reflection of our need for one another: the slave needs his master, and the master needs his slave. But our interdependence is a necessary but not sufficient element of true community. As Reinhold Niebuhr puts it,

Genuine community, whether between men or nations, is not established merely through the realization that we need one another, though indeed we do. That realization alone may still allow the strong to use the lives of the weaker as instruments of their own self-realization. Genuine community is established only when the knowledge that we need one another is supplemented by the recognition that “the other,” that other form of life, or that other unique community is the limit beyond which our ambitions must not run and the boundary beyond which our life must not expand.9

Liberty and freedom agree that we need one another. But freedom alone agrees with Niebuhr that “the other” is as sacred as we are.

In his debates with Lincoln, Stephen Douglas warned darkly that, were the slaves freed, society would be ruined by miscegenation. Douglas said, in effect, that whites need blacks. They must serve us as slaves; otherwise, they’ll serve us as wives. In his retort, Lincoln pointed out the slave’s status as something very much like Niebuhr’s “other”:

I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just leave her alone. I am now in my fiftieth year, and certainly never have had a black woman either for a slave or wife, so that it seems to me that it is quite possible for us to get alone without making either slaves or wives of negroes.10

To leave someone alone in Lincoln’s sense is to recognize her sacred character.

At its essence, states’ rights means that the states should be left alone, as the proposed flag for Civil War-era Florida above makes clear.  If sovereignty rests in the state, then it should be left alone in Lincoln and Niebuhr’s sense. But sovereignty rests in the people, and it will remain with them in practice so long as the people’s community is based on the sacredness of the individual.

Freedom, then, is grounded in equality, and equality – recognized in the Declaration’s self-evident truth that all men are created equal – is grounded in what Niebuhr calls the “divine source and center”:

. . . life has a center and source of meaning beyond the natural and social sequences which may be rationally discerned. This divine source and center must be discerned by faith because it is enveloped in mystery, though being the basis of meaning. So discerned, it yields a frame of meaning in which human freedom is real and valid and not merely tragic or illusory.11

Science and logic cannot discover the individual’s existence “above the stream of nature and time” – something that “religion and poetry take for granted.”12

Here, essentially, is where religion and politics must not separate. Freedom and the true community it engenders are fixed in each individual’s sacredness perceived by faith.

  1. Speech on the Oregon Bill, June 27, 1848.
  2. David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas, at 5.
  3. Chaim Wirszubski, Libertas as a Political Idea at Rome, at 3.
  4. Fischer, supra, at 6.
  5. Id. at 7.
  6. Sir Frederick Pollard and Frederick William Maitland, The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I.
  7. Fischer, supra, at 7 – 8.
  8. Id. at 314.
  9. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, at 139.
  10. Harold Holzer, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Unexpurgated Text, at 189.
  11. Niebuhr, supra, at 168.
  12. Id. at 8 – 9.

2 thoughts on “Liberty versus Freedom

  1. A most interesting post. Looking at the concepts of freedom and liberty from a psycho-spiritual or Jungian point of view, these concepts are akin to individuation. Or one of them is at least. In which case they may neither be bestowed nor really earned, although the latter comes closer than the former. In short freedom or liberty, if opposed as you say, becomes something that is discovered in the course of inner development. Just a thought.

    1. I think so, too. Liberty and freedom as opposites are probably a cultural yin-yang, at least in America where “nations” (as Fischer and Colin Woodard would use the term) brought in opposing concepts and now seek to live together in a federation. Liberty and freedom may have created the opposite poles of our rich magnetic field (so to speak).

      Steven Covey’s no Jung, but I recall his path to maturity — from dependence to independence to interdependence — that his “Seven Habits” guide people on. The middle category may be generalized as liberty, but the first and last may be generalized as freedom.

      (Not that either concept forsook the community for the individual. Fischer believes that both the Greek and Roman concepts of liberty and the Northern European concept of freedom involved responsibilities to the community. In the former, people with fewer liberties would do the work to create the leisure for the ruling class necessary for reflection and the good functioning of society. And in the latter . . . well, to quote Fischer: “A person who was born to freedom in ancient tribe had a secured obligation to serve and support the folk, and to keep the customs of a free people, and to respect the rights of others on pain of banishment.”)

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