Definition of Liberty

Samuel Adams, as the “Founder of the American Revolution,” defined Liberty in 1748 with this article:

    “There is no one thing which mankind are more passionately fond of, which they fight with more zeal for, which they possess with more anxious jealousy and fear of losing, than liberty.  But it has fared with this, as with many other things, that the true notion and just definition of it has been but little understood, at the same time that zeal for it and disputes about it have produced endless altercations.  There is, there certainly is such a thing as liberty, which distinguishes man from the beasts, and a society of wise and reasonable creatures from the brutal herd, where the strongest horns are the strongest laws. And though the notions of men were ten times more confused and unsettled, and their opinions more various about this matter than they are, there yet remains an internal and essential distinction between this same liberty and slavery.

    “In a former paper, the true notion of loyalty has been considered; I shall now offer to the public some general thoughts upon liberty, in order rightly to apprehend which subject we must consider man in two different states, namely, those of Nature and of Society.

    “In the state of nature, every man has a right to think and act according to the dictates of his own mind, which, in that state, are subject to no other control and can be commanded by no other power than the laws and ordinances of the great Creator of all things.  The perfection of liberty therefore, in a state of nature, is for every man to be free from any external force, and to perform such actions as in his own mind and conscience he judges to be Tightest; which liberty no man can truly possess whose mind is enthralled by irregular and inordinate passions;  since it is no great privilege to be free from external violence if the dictates of the mind are controlled by a force within, which exerts itself above reason.

    “This is liberty in a state of nature, which, as no man ought to be abridged of, so no man has a right to give up, or even part with any portion of it, but in order to secure the rest and place it upon a more solid foundation;  it being equally with our lives the gift of the same bounteous Author of all things.*  As, therefore, no man’s life is his own in such a sense as that he may wantonly destroy it at his own pleasure, or submit it to the wanton pleasure of another, so neither is his liberty.  And had mankind continued in that innocent and happy state in which the sacred writings represent them as first created, it is possible that this liberty would have been enjoyed in such perfection as to have rendered the embodying into civil society and the security of human laws altogether needless.

    “But though in the present corrupt and degenerate times no such state of nature can with any regularity exist, it will not, however, be difficult from the description we have given of liberty in that state to form the true notion and settle the just bounds of it in a state of society and civic government.  But here, too, we must distinguish and consider liberty as it respects the whole body and as it respects each individual. As it respects the whole body, it is then enjoyed when neither legislative nor executive powers (by which I mean those men with whom are intrusted the power of making laws and of executing them) are disturbed by any internal passion or hindered by any external force from making the wisest laws and executing them in tte best manner; when the safety, the security, and the happiness of all is the real care and steady pursuit of those whose business it is to care for and pursue it; in one short word, where no laws are carried through humor or prejudice, nor controlled in their proper execution by lust of power in the great, nor wanton licentiousness in the vulgar.

    “As it respects individuals, a man is then free when he freely en- joys the security of the laws and the rights to which he is born when he is hindered by no violence from claiming those rights and enjoying that security, but may at any time demand the protection of the laws under which he lives, and be sure when demanded to enjoy it.  This is what I take to be liberty; and considered in this light, all the fine things said of it by ancient and modern do justly belong to it.  O Libertas!  Dea certe! — it is the choicest gift that Heaven has “lent to man; an emanation from the Father of Lights; an image and representation of the government of the Supreme Director of all things, which, though it can never be controlled by any superior force, is yet ever guided by the laws of infinite wisdom.

    “But alas!  In this exalted sense, liberty is rather admired in the world than truly enjoyed.  What multitudes of persons are there who have not so much as the shadow of it!  who hold their property and even their lives by no other tenure than the sovereign will of a tyrant, and he often the worst and most detestable of men, who, to gratify the least humor or passion in his nature, does not scruple to massacre them by thousands!  Sure it is true what orthodox divines tell us, that men are apostate from God, since in his righteous providence he subjects so many of them to such miserable fate!

    “But there are other states and civil societies in the world, the model of whose government seems to promise the sure enjoyment of this blessing; which yet, if we attentively examine, we shall find to be really destitute of it.  We shall often find, that where the forms of it are observed, the substance of it is wanting; for, as that man is truly a slave, who, though impelled by no external violence, is yet carried away by the impetuosity of his passions to do those things which are abhorrent from his nature and his reason, so neither can the people be called free, who, though they make their own laws, are yet blinded by prejudice and diverted by undue influence from uniformly pursuing their own interest.

    “It has been a question much controverted in the world what form of government is best, and in what system this liberty is best consulted and preserved.  I cannot say that I am wholly free from that prejudice which generally possesses men in favor of their own country, and the manners they have been used to from their infancy.  But I must declare, for my own part, that there is no form of civil government, which I have ever heard of, appears to me so well calculated to preserve this blessing, or to secure to its subjects all the most valuable advantages of civil society, as the English.  For in none that I have ever met with is the power of the governors and the rights of the governed more nicely adjusted, or the power which is necessary in the very nature of government to be intrusted in the hands of some, by wiser checks prevented from growing exorbitant.  This Constitution has indeed passed through various amendations, but the principal parts of it are of very ancient standing, and have continued through the several successions of kings to this day; having never been in any great degree attacked by any, but they have lost their lives or their crowns in the attempt.

    “The two main provisions by which a certain share in the government is secured to the people are their Parliaments and their juries; by the former of which no laws can be made without their consent, and by the latter none can be executed without their judgment.  By this means the subject can never be oppressed by bad laws, nor lose the security of good ones, but by his own fault; and though I am not such an extravagant admirer of my own country as to suppose that Parliament never made unwise laws, or that jurors never put false constructions on wise ones, yet I will venture to assert that every man’s security and happiness is much safer in such hands than under an arbitrary or aristocratical form of government. Especially since, by the wise provisions of our ancestors, both these powers are of short continuance; for power intrusted for a short time is not so likely to be perverted as that which is perpetual.

    “From this happy Constitution of our mother country, ours in this is copied, or rather improved upon. Our in valuable charter secures to us all the English liberties, besides which we have some additional privileges which the common people there have not.  Our fathers had so severely felt the effects of tyranny and the weight of the bishop’s yoke, that they underwent the greatest difficulties and toils to secure to themselves and transmit to their posterity those invaluable blessings; and we, their posterity, are this day reaping the fruits of their toils. Happy beyond expression! — in the form of our government, in the liberty we enjoy, — if we know our own happiness and how to improve it. But neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.  He therefore is the truest friend to the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue, and who, so far as his power and influence extend, will not suffer a man to be chosen into any office of power and trust who is not a wise and virtuous man.   We must not conclude merely upon a man’s haranguing upon liberty, and using the charming sound, that he is fit to be trusted with the liberties of his country.  It is not unfrequent to hear men declaim loudly upon liberty, who, if we may judge by the whole tenor of their actions, mean nothing else by it but their own liberty — to oppress without control or the restraint of laws all who are poorer or weaker than themselves. It is not, I say, unfrequent to see such instances, though at the same time I esteem it a justice due to my country to say that it is not without shining examples of the contrary kind; – examples of men of a distinguished attachment to this same liberty I have been describing; whom no hopes could draw, no terrors could drive, from steadily pursuing, in their sphere, the true interests of their country; whose fidelity has been tried in the nicest and tenderest manner, and has been ever firm and unshaken.

    ”The sum of all is, if we would most truly enjoy this gift of Heaven, let us become a virtuous people:  then shall we both de- serve and enjoy it.  While, on the other hand, if we are universally vicious and debauched in our manners, though the form of our Constitution carries the face of the most exalted freedom, we shall in reality be the most abject slaves.”

* Compare the Rights of the Colonists, November, 1772 ;    and the Declaration of Rights in the Congress of 1774.

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