What did we fight for? Why did we die? The difference between freedom and liberty

Old Pine Street Church in Philadelphia

Why was the Revolutionary War in 1776 inspired and started by a group of patriots in Boston known as the Sons of Liberty and not the Sons of Freedom?

Why does the Declaration of Independence say that we have we all have equal rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? Why not freedom instead of liberty?

Why does the Preamble say the explicit purpose of the US Constitution is to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our prosperity”, and not “the blessings of freedom”?

Did we die for liberty? Or did we die for freedom? What is the difference?

As often happens, good dictionaries, especially big heavy fat old ones, have answers to this and other philosophical questions. Thank God I have a large bookcase of them so I can delve into the meaning of life and emerge wiser.

Freedom is being able to be anything and do anything in the absence of all restraint.  It’s complete absence of control and restraint on who we are, our actions and, especially, regarding our consequences.

Liberty is the state of being free from SUPPRESSIVE or OPPRESSIVE or CRUEL or UNJUST or DISAGREEABLE or OVERLY FORCEFUL control or restrictions from government on our way of life, our actions or political views.

Liberty ASSUMES restraint is essential. It assumes our actions and our consequences matter.

Liberty is freedom from ARBITRARY restraint, which means freedom from unpredictable or unreasonable power used against you, freedom from restraint or actions by government that are unjust or happen without your agreement or are out of your control.

Liberty means control that you DO agree with, control that is predictable, reasonable, makes sense to you and that you do CONSENT to.

If we had total freedom in this country, people could murder, steal and do other horrific crimes with no restraint.

Liberty gives tremendous freedom, but not to do that.

When Navy sailors have “Shore Leave,” it’s called liberty, not freedom, because they have to come back to the ship and they better not get into (too much) trouble.  If they didn’t have to come back to the ship at all, you could call it freedom.

Understanding and consent are vital to liberty.  That’s why we elect our representatives and vote for laws.  Our vote is our consent, or lack of it.

So, liberty is a BALANCE of freedom and control.  It recognizes that some control is necessary, but makes a SHARP distinction between good control and suppressive control.

Liberty gives you tremendous freedoms and yet depends on control that helps you PROSPER and THRIVE, not control that suppresses you. It’s control that you AGREE with, laws that you agree with, government that you agree with, politicians who REPRESENT you.

Our vote tells the government what we consider to be good control and what suppressive controls and restrictions we do not consent to.

Liberty requires constant attention and protection to keep the balance of control and freedom in a harmony that enables all life to thrive.  It is easily lost.  You can have too much freedom.  You can have too much control.  It’s an ever-changing balance as civilizations rise.  And civilizations fall when this balance is overwhelmed.

This is where responsibility comes in.  Freedom is an absence of responsibility.  Liberty is a shouldering of responsibility. 

A study of history demonstrates that liberty is easily lost. 

Our history also paints in vivid color that liberty is so important to us, to human kind, we will fight … and die … for it. 

You can see that liberty depends on intelligence, education, and a good sense of right and wrong.  It relies on the ability to do the greatest good for the greatest number because real liberty belongs to all and it is only in this way that the precious balance between control and freedom can be maintained.

You can see it takes all of us to create it.

You can see liberty requires perceptive judgment and an ability to predict consequences.

We fought for liberty, not freedom. The Founding Patriots counted on future generations, on us, to have that essential intelligence, education and good moral sense of right and wrong required to keep it going. All of our Founding Patriots knew that if we lost intelligence, education or moral sense, we would lose our liberties.

That is WHY Noah Webster dedicated many years of his life after the ratification of the US Constitution in 1788 to creating the incredible and brilliant 1828 Dictionary of the American Language.  He believed that if we forgot or lost the true and complete definitions of words, we would lose our political and religious liberties.  There’s a great topic of discussion. 

And, yes, I owe a lot to him for helping me understand this distinction between liberty and freedom, words he so carefully and lovingly defined and distinguished.

The Revolutionary Era, when we won our liberty, happened during what is known as the Age of Enlightenment.  This was an age from the late 1600’s through the 1700’s marked by great new philosophical ideas, not just in politics, but in every facet of culture and economics.

It was also known as the Age of Reason.

Our Founding Patriots intently studied and were shaped by the great philosophers who came before them and created this age.  As a result, their fundamental belief was NOT that they were creating a government “by the people.”  Our Founding Patriots had studied the democracy of ancient Greece and decided that a government “by the people” resulted in uncontrollable passions and emotions that led to unreasonable wars, bloodshed and mob rule.  No, this was going to be different.

The Founding Patriots founded the United States not on the principle of government by individuals, but on the principle of government by ideas.

Leaders are interchangeable.  And we want them to change often.  Our Congressional Representatives are only elected for two year terms.

When you are united and governed by GREAT ideas, your leaders can change pretty easily.

This was to be government not by individuals, but by ideas, reason and power derived by consent. 

It was the Age of Reason.  We are to be governed by reason.  Not emotions.  Not passions.  Not opinions.  Not force nor weapons.  Not greed or desire.  Not personalities.  But by our ability to reason, to communicate, to collaborate and to come to agreement.

Our Founding Patriots believed in all this: humankind’s ability, our ability, to reason, to communicate, to collaborate, to come to agreement, and, most importantly, to do the right thing.

This was the real revolution in politics and government.

And the purpose of government was believed to be limited. How else could our freedoms be preserved? The purpose of our government is to secure and protect our fundamental human rights which we all have in equal measure, no one individual or group has more rights than any other.  And to keep control and freedom in a beautiful balance and harmony so that we, so that all life, can prosper and thrive.

The English philosopher who GREATLY inspired and influenced our Founding Patriots was a #1 bestseller for 100 years in these days, everyone was quoting him. This is the Englishman John Locke who wrote in the late 1600’s.

Locke wrote:

“The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.  For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom.”

Our government was a brilliant experiment in a BRAND NEW control, one which ENLARGES freedom.

In memory and gratitude for all who have fought, and died, to secure our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, our freedoms, our right to spiritual, emotional and material prosperity … I stand straight and tall and salute you.  I thank each of you.  I will share your message with the world.

There’s a tremendous amount of philosophy in the foundation of our government. Philosophy intended to unite, philosophy about our basic goodness.

As John Locke wrote:

“To love our neighbor as ourselves is such a truth for regulating human society, that by that alone one might determine all the cases in social morality.”

May we continue strong on this path to enlightenment. To liberty.

With love,


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