On the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks that shook our nation on Sept. 11, 2001, in a guest column for The Daily Pennsylvanian, I pointed out that the hijacked planes had flown right past the Statue of Liberty, and had ignored the Capitol, in order to fly their grim bombs into symbols of American economic and military power: the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I hoped that they were wrong about the symbols that best represented the United States. I argued that we were more importantly a nation committed to the search for liberty and equality. At least, that is what I hoped we were. How do things look now?

We are still not there yet. Images of motion are favorite metaphors for our country because we are still becoming. Nevertheless, freedom is still the most powerful word in the American vocabulary. It is there in the Declaration of Independence and in the Preamble to the Constitution. President Thomas Jefferson spoke of the United States as the Empire of Liberty. Think of the words to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” or the Pledge of Allegiance. Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg spoke of the Civil War as providing a “new birth of freedom.” Woodrow Wilson’s program was called The New Freedom. At the outset of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt spoke of the Four Freedoms which should be our objectives. When Martin Luther King Jr. was addressing the crowd on the Mall in 1963 at the end of the March on Washington, he ended by looking forward to the time we could all be “free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.” So, perhaps it is appropriate to think of freedom as our national purpose.

This is not to say that we have achieved it completely or that we do not frequently batter its meaning. Slavery; the subjugation of African Americans; the subordinate status from which women are still emerging; discrimination against Jews, Asians and Latinos; the persecution of gays and lesbians. All evidence of our imperfection as a society and of the difficulty of the struggle for freedom. The fact of the increasing disparity of wealth over the last 30 years is an even more worrisome indication of our imperfection.

All of this is to say that, historically, we have argued over what liberty means and who should enjoy its blessings. Those struggles were made inevitable by the very fact that liberty has been at the core of our self-image from the birth of the nation to the present. A prize so precious is bound to attract suitors and protectors, both noble and profane.

We have therefore thought of liberty as freedom from sin, the kind of freedom that is achieved through perfect obedience to some authority’s interpretation of God’s word; personal independence, which can be secured by owning property; freedom from chattel slavery or the absence of wage slavery; the ability to reinvent oneself; freedom from discrimination because of one’s group identity; participation in self-government and countless other definitions.

As a society, we have learned how to hold in dynamic tension the notion that liberty has to do with the absence of governmental constraints and the Progressive Era idea that, in a complex and interconnected economy, with vast powers over the individual wielded by invisible and distant people, the government must act in positive ways that should help the individual free himself and to achieve self-realization.

A constant theme throughout has been the need for “ordered liberty.”

America the beautiful
God shed his grace on thee
Confirm thy soul in self-control
Thy liberty in law.

As the eminent jurist Learned Hand put it in 1944 in his address “The Spirit of Liberty” when addressing the question “what is liberty?”: “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.”

Isaiah Berlin agrees: “Both liberty and equality are among the primary goals pursued by human beings through many centuries; but total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs, total liberty of the powerful, the gifted, is not compatible with the rights to a decent existence of the weak and the less gifted.”

It is both wonderful and worrisome that freedom is so variegated in its meanings and so powerful in its appeal. It tells us who we are and reminds us of whom we must not become. It gives Americans a standard by which we can measure the worth of proposed policies, and it allows our leaders to mobilize support for actions that require sacrifice but that will be beneficial in the long run. At the same time, it also allows our leaders to mask less altruistic motives, to lead us in directions in which we should not be going. The task of the citizen is to discern the difference between those two rhetorical uses of the idea of freedom. It depends on an alert and healthy democracy. If citizens fail in that task, freedom will fail.

Liberty, in short, is a communal enterprise. Whatever it means, whether it is the absence of governmental or social intrusion into the space in the individual is autonomous (freedom from…), or the availability of governmental or social support to overcome barriers like poverty or ignorance (freedom to…), it depends on the active commitment of the members of the society. If liberty is not cherished and nurtured by the community to which we belong, so that it is expressed in the laws that apply to everyone equally, and if it does not include all citizens alike, it will soon not exist for any but the fiercest animals in the urbanized jungle. Furthermore, since liberty changes its meaning from time to time, and place to place, it will always be unfinished and contingent — forever in need of being remolded by our very selves, to defend against new threats but also to take advantage of new opportunities for each civic participant.

Sheldon Hackney is a former President of the University of Pennsylvania. His email address is shackney@history.upenn.edu.

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