Some quotes and observations on the Declaration of Independence and the “Spirit of Liberty.”
Independence Day 2022: The Spirit of Liberty
We have gathered here to affirm a faith, a faith in a common purpose, a common conviction, a common devotion. Some of us have chosen America as the land of our adoption; the rest have come from those who did the same. For this reason we have some right to consider ourselves a picked group, a group of those who had the courage to break from the past and brave the dangers and the loneliness of a strange land. What was the object that nerved us, or those who went before us, to this choice? We sought liberty; freedoms from oppression, freedom from want, freedom to be ourselves. This we then sought; this we now believe that we are by way of winning. What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it. And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.
What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest. And now in that spirit, that spirit of an America which has never been, and which may never be; nay, which never will be except as the conscience and courage of Americans create it; yet in the spirit of that America which lies hidden in some form in the aspirations of us all; in the spirit of that America for which our young men are at this moment fighting and dying; in that spirit of liberty and of America I ask you to rise and with me pledge our faith in the glorious destiny of our beloved country.
I took away several key sentences from this speech by Learned Hand that are still applicable 78 years later.
- Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.
- A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.
- The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.
- The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women.
- The spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.
I found this speech and many other references in the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expressions “First Amendment Library.”
Freedom vs. License
“May we think of freedom, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.”
I was taught that the belief you could do as you please was “license” and distinct from freedom which was taking responsibility for your actions in an atmosphere of mutual respect. License rejects responsibility and ends in chaos, both in our society as a whole and our personal morality.
Born American, but in the wrong place
On one of his trips out to secure some bread, a hand grenade landed next to my father but, miraculously, did not go off. That was the last straw. He came home and announced to my mother that he was going to leave the country whether she would come or not. Mom said, “O.K., William. We will come if Peter agrees. Ask Peter.”
“But where are we going?” I asked.
“We are going to America,” he said.
“Why America?” I prodded.
“Because, son. We were born Americans, but in the wrong place.”
He said that as naturally as if I had asked him what was the color of the sky. It was so obvious to him why we should head for America that he never entertained any other option.
This is a short excerpt from an autobiographical piece written by Peter W. Schramm in 2006 and subtitled “A personal reflection on the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution.” The full text is well worth reading. It reminded me of Andrew Grove’s memoir “Swimming Across” which also details his escape from Hungary to the United States. (See also “One Door Closes, Another Opens” and “Andrew Grove on Recognizing Reality” for two blog posts on Grove that mention “Swimming Across”).
“Captain Preston, why did you go to the Concord Fight, the 19th of April, 1775?”
The old man, bowed beneath the weight of years, raised himself upright, and turning to me said: “Why did I go?”
“Yes,” I replied; “my histories tell me that you men of the Revolution took up arms against ‘intolerable oppressions.’ What were they?”
“Oppressions? I didn’t feel them.”
“What, were you not oppressed by the Stamp Act?”
“I never saw one of those stamps, and always understood that Governor Bernard put them all in Castle William. I am certain I never paid a penny for one of them.”
“Well, what then about the tea-tax?” “Tea-tax! I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard.”
“Then I suppose you had been reading Harrington or Sidney and Locke about the eternal principles of liberty.”
“Never heard of ’em. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack.”
“Well, then, what was the matter? and what did you mean in going to the fight?”
“Young man, what we meant in going for those red-coats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.
Mellen Chamberlain in “Remarks at the Dinner of the Sons of the American Revolution, Concord, Massachusetts, April 19, 1894” collected in his book “John Adams the Statesman of the American Revolution; with Other Essays and Addresses Historical and Literary” (Boston, 1898), 248–249.
Judge Mellen Chamberlain was recalling an interview that he had had over a half century before with Captain Levi Preston, a ninety-one year old veteran of the Battle of Concord.
Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction
“But freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. The only way they can inherit the freedom we have known is if we fight for it, protect it, defend it and then hand it to them with the well taught lessons of how they in their lifetime must do the same. And if you and I don’t do this, then you and I may well spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.”
Reagan used the phrase “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction” in many of his speeches. He attributed it to Daniel Webster. He used it in his first inaugural address as Governor of California (Jan-5-1967): ” Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not our by inheritance, it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation.”
Things of the spirit come first
We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp.”
If we see it in our mind and believe it, we can create it or make it happen. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. We will lose our freedoms–and our prosperity–if we don’t understand the actions we must take to support them. We must resist attacks on our beliefs and the customs and processes we rely on–due process, mutual respect, free expression–to defend our freedoms.
Independence Day Related Blog Posts
- Independence Day 2021: A Promissory Note to Every American
- Independence Day 2019: “Conquer or Die”
- Independence Day 2018: Live Free Or Die
- Happy Fourth of July 2017
- Calvin Coolidge on the Declaration of Independence
- Have a Happy 4th of July in 2015
- Happy 4th of July (2014)
- Independence Day 2012
- July 4, Independence Day, 2011
- Fourth of July 2010