“Give me liberty or give me death!” Every American schoolchild learns Patrick Henry’s famous line. But what did Patrick mean by liberty? Was it the same thing as freedom? Or, for a moment, let’s move from the history books to what’s unfolding this week: What are ordinary Egyptians fighting for? Is it liberty or freedom in the American sense, or something else?
Liberty and freedom are ancient concepts, writes historian David Hackett Fischer, but English is the only language that uses both of them in common speech. Originally, liberty meant the absence of restraints or bonds. Liberty is independence and separation. Freedom (which has the same root as friend) referred to the rights of belonging to a free tribe. Freedom is connection.
Freedom and liberty are deeply held American values that every generation inherits and passes on to the next. But their meaning is reinterpreted again and again. Sometimes, liberty and freedom compete. As bizarre as it sounds today, in the run up to the Civil War, Southern planters “insisted that they were striving for their absolute liberty to keep a slave,” notes Fischer in “Liberty and Freedom.” After emancipation, ex-slaves had their liberty—but they were not free.
Is freedom being left alone to do what you want? I asked that question in national surveys. The majority of Americans don’t agree with this definition of freedom.
How about not having a government that interferes in your life? Is that the freedom we value? Here, opinion is split 50-50.
But here are two definitions of freedom that almost all Americans believe: Freedom is being able to express unpopular ideas without fearing for my safety. And, freedom is having the right to participate in politics and elections.
One thing is certain: Like all core American values, the meaning will continue to be debated—and this debate is a sign of health. “What make America free, and keeps it growing more so, was not any single vision of liberty and freedom,” says Fischer, “but the interplay of many visions.
(OH, by the way! Care to know what those anti-Mubarak signs in the photo say in English? Here’s a rough translation of the Arabic: The top circular sign says, “Sensitivity is a gift! So, go already!” The middle circular sign says, “Whoever loves Egypt does not fight with her—and you did!” In the lower left corner, a sign says, “Leave already, Mubarak!”)
Please Comment below.
What does freedom mean to you?
(Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.)