The Spirit of Liberty

Presented at the July 2nd, 2000 monthly service the North Texas Church of Freethought

During World War II, in the critical year of 1944, a public patriotic event was held in Central Park in New York City on May 21st at which Judge Learned Hand gave a brief address. His remarks were well-received and have since been anthologized. Portions of the following are shamelessly — in fact, proudly — borrowed from Judge Hand's original address on "The Spirit of Liberty."

What is America? And who are Americans? It's good to take one day a year to think about it. There really are no native Americans. There are only Americans who came here recently and those whose ancestors came here less recently. Some came in chains, it is true. To our eternal shame, they and their descendants had to wait for those chains to be struck off. But the essence of America and Americans is that we all came here from somewhere else, or we are all descended from those who came from somewhere else. And everyone who came was looking for something better than they had.

Now I don't say that those of us who were born here ought to have inherited a thirst and a hunger to be free. But not everything we get from our parents and their parents and their parents' parents has come to us by heredity. For we are all heirs of filial and familial legacies as well. If we didn't personally come to this country from elsewhere, and if we don't have a deep and personal appreciation of what freedom means, we nevertheless have a responsibility to consider what our ancestors wanted for us when they came looking for this elusive thing called liberty. If they are no longer here to teach us, we are nevertheless here to learn.

So what is this thing called liberty? What is it that caused so many to leave their homes and comforts behind to look for it in a strange and savage land? What is it that still causes so many to come looking for it today in a land that still remains, by turns, strange and savage in many ways?

Liberty is doing what you want to do, so long as it doesn't harm others. It's thinking, saying, and doing what you please, or just being yourself, without having to worry that it will get you thrown into jail, or arrested, or fined, or deprived of an equal opportunity to participate peacefully in society and its institutions. But these liberties are inseparably coupled with liabilities. Because one person's liberty comes at the price of being liable to respect the liberties of others.

That doesn't seem so very hard to comprehend. But it obviously is hard to live by, or else there would be no need for laws or government to protect our liberty and no need for elections and other Constitutional safeguards to keep the government from infringing our liberty. Nowadays we also have the threat of "rights," a word that is often substituted for "liberties" but which is subtly different. We have so very many ways to deceive ourselves!

One of the worst self-deceptions is a kind of religious faith in constitutions, in laws, and in courts. Like any religious faith, it is a trap and a false hope. For liberty lies in the hearts and minds of us all. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, and no court can give it life. Here is the essence of liberty: to understand, to embrace, and to revere the principle that our liberty is constrained by our liability. For liberty is not doing whatever you want. That is a denial of liberty and leads straight to destruction. A society in which the best people suppose that freedom is absolute quickly becomes a society in which freedom belongs only to the worst.

It's not easy to define the spirit of liberty. It's not easy to describe it. But the spirit of liberty is one which knows, to begin with, that there is something better than we think we now know. It is the spirit that seeks to further and broaden itself. The spirit of liberty is one that seeks to understand the hearts and minds of other men and women. It is the spirit that weighs their interests and sensibilities against our own, because there is more that matters than ourselves. The spirit of liberty is the sense that our own importance is not supreme but, rather, that it is the principles of understanding by which we conceive of ourselves, our experiences, and our values that matter the most. It is the spirit that looks for the best, expects the best, and that forgives the worst. The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure that it is right. It is the spirit that never rests, and that never expects to rest, in looking for something better.

Admittedly, this is a spirit of an America that has never been, and which may never be. It will certainly never be unless the conscience, and the courage, and the will of Americans create it. But this spirit lies hidden in some form in the aspirations of us all, in the spirit of all those who are looking for something better, and who are willing to commit themselves and submit themselves to all that liberty means. It is in that spirit that I wish you all a Happy Fourth of July and to ask that you join me now, today, in pledging our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor to the cause of liberty, and especially to the cause of the first liberty, which is Freethought.

Thank you and Good Morning.

© 2000 Dr. Tim Gorski