By Shawn StJean
On this date, the anniversary of our great national tragedy, we often invite ourselves and others to “reflect.” That is the purpose of this short primer. It is intended for younger children–those born since 2001, perhaps, but we can all use reminders, sometimes.
“. . .life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. . .” –Declaration of Independence
“. . .secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. . .” –U.S. Constitution
“. . .with liberty and justice for all.”–Pledge of Allegiance
“. . .give me liberty or give me death”–Patrick Henry
We often speak carelessly of FREEDOM today, and the word has become a replacement somehow for a more complex concept that forms the first symbolic pillar or tower of our republic, as its founders conceived it: LIBERTY. Rarely will you find the word “freedom” as you study the early documents of our country, but the word liberty is abundant.
What is the difference between freedom and liberty?
The second contains the first. Freedom is the right and ability to do whatever you want. LIBERTY is the right and ability to do whatever you want, as long as it does not interfere with the rights and abilities of others.
In short, liberty is freedom with limits, just as a republic (what we really live in) is a democracy (what we say we live in,) with limits.
Think of a stoplight: it’s, to me, the perfect symbol for liberty. Without it, two cars approach an intersection, each driver freely pursuing his happiness, and often this works fine. But, by chance, it may not: BANG! Collision. With a stoplight in place, each citizen agrees to surrender a small piece of his freedom (in this case, time) so that everyone can remain free. Other examples can be substituted: the paying of taxes to support government programs, service in the military, even the trouble it takes to educate oneself to vote. Young people contribute, too, by sharing, by standing in line and waiting their turn, by walking up public stairwells on the right side, by respecting another person’s right to speak, or be different. All require a limitation on total freedom. So when you hear the phrase “Freedom isn’t free!,” you are hearing about the sacrifice required for the greater standard of LIBERTY.
People say “It’s a free country,” as if that were a struggle that ended 200 years ago, or 70 years ago, with our grandparents. But our country is only as free as each one of us can make it, today. As the American abolitionist Henry Thoreau wrote, “We have used up all our inherited freedom.” And songwriter Tom Petty continued his thought: “Everybody has to fight to be free.” “Fighting” may not be as dramatic as it sounds, day-to-day. It may only be not interrupting someone else, or cutting the lawn for Mom without having to be bribed, or apologizing when you hurt someone, or doing your homework (which means contributing your fair share,) or helping another kid who’s having trouble.
Liberty is, without question, the first pillar or tower of our society. It can never be laid low by outsiders: We can only do it to ourselves, by forgetting a simple concept: if everybody isn’t free, then nobody is free.
As for the second tower, I think the existence of the first enables the freedom for every free person to build it for herself or himself. In the coin pictured above, the Goddess of Liberty holds both a symbol of Peace (an olive branch) and a symbol of Vigilance and Defense (a shield). Notice, no offensive weapons. In fact, this original design reveals a mother’s bare breast, suggesting Health, Kindness, and Love. The gate she strides through names God. For others, a pillar of their lives might be Generosity, or Charity, or Strength, Courage, Fortitude, or Intelligence.
So what’s your second tower? And, Never Forget (as they say on this important anniversary,) that everyone has the right to build her own.