The Founding Fathers and rebelling teenagers: what do they have in common? Both have a fascination with liberty and freedom—concepts woven into the very fabric of American society. However, both would conceive these concepts differently. The Founding Fathers would read “liberty” and “freedom” as two distinct, albeit closely connected, concepts. I fear that the rebelling teenager might instead consider them one and the same. While liberty and freedom are both rightly important, it is crucial to understand the distinction between the two to truly grasp the heart of liberty.
As indicated, we have a tendency to conflate liberty and freedom, thinking that by our interchanging of terms they are essentially the same idea; they are not. Freedom is a lack of constraints: it is defined by absence. It does not ask for anything, but possesses the potential to do everything. For this reason it has an important place in the conversation surrounding inalienable rights. When it concerns the ability to actually possess those rights, freedom is essential. We need the opportunity to do the action in order for us to practically pursue the right. I would argue that as important as freedom is, it is not as good as liberty. To pursue a lack of constraints places absence as the item of principal importance, when it should not be. Liberty picks up where freedom stops—it pursues an action within that lack of constraints.
Liberty expands upon freedom, because it is the freedom to choose virtue. Our own God gives us liberty so we may do good. Paul speaks of liberty when he talks about how we are “free from sin” (Rom. 6:7) and are no longer slaves to its desires. He goes on to explain that we are not just left with freedom. God is far too kind to do that to us. Instead, a secondary dimension is added, for we “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). God never wishes for us to simply be free, but for us to be free with a purpose. Is that not the essential difference between liberty and freedom? Liberty is imbued with a purpose and virtue that freedom simply does not have. Our Founding Fathers reflected a similar understanding, often speaking of liberty and virtue in the same breath. John Adams expressed this understanding of liberty, saying, “I would define liberty to be a power to do as we would be done by,” undoubtedly showing reference to the Golden Rule. Freedom has no such virtue. When a concept carries such value, the importance of keeping it—once in possession—becomes woven into the understanding of the concept itself.
Our Founding Fathers commented extensively on the conditions of liberty. As Thomas Jefferson famously said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” While we might recoil at that sentiment, quick to paint Jefferson as needlessly enamored with revolution, doing so would miss the truth within his statement: liberty has a price and is constantly under attack, even in the freest of societies. Our own freedom has required wars (the War for Independence and the Civil War, just to name a couple). We should be willing to embolden ourselves for the cause of liberty, even if it means the fruits of our labor may not be enjoyed.