The United States and its Enduring Legacy of Liberty

by Ralph Scharnau

How people in the United States view themselves individually and as a nation often comes down to one idea, liberty.

Liberty, the central term in our politics, is embedded in our history and in our language. The Declaration of Independence lists liberty among humanity’s inalienable rights; the Constitution announces as its purpose to secure liberty’s blessings.

Liberty and freedom are frequently used interchangeably. Expanding freedoms to more and more people remains a central part of the nation’s history. The first ten Amendments to the Constitution guarantee civil liberties. Subsequent amendments abolished slavery, defined citizenship, and extended the franchise to blacks, women, and 18-year-olds.

Women, racial and ethnic minorities, workers, and others have struggled to deepen and transform the definition of freedom. Over the past generations, some real strides have been made in reducing disparities based on race and sex. Women and minorities have gained greater access in the areas of employment, politics, education, and athletics. In 1998, an amendment to the Iowa Constitution added women to a provision guaranteeing equal rights under the law.

The United States Supreme Court’s landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide came in 2015. The states can no longer deny gay men and lesbians the same marriage rights enjoyed by opposite-sex couples. This victory reflected growing public support for marriage equality. In 2009, Iowa became only the third state in the union to extend same-sex couples the right to marriage in a unanimous ruling of the state’s Supreme Court.

Belief in freedom as a right of all humanity has coexisted with persistent efforts to limit freedom by race, gender, class, and in other ways.

Limiting freedom has a long history in our country. Slaves, immigrants, the poor, and others have been deprived of liberty. The meaning of freedom has been constructed at various levels, in congressional debates, in political essays, and on picket lines. The concept of freedom/liberty has always been contested terrain subject to multiple and competing interpretations. Its meanings are constantly created and recreated.

Paying patriotic tribute to liberty has been represented by liberty poles, caps, tee shirts, and statutes. Liberty has also been acted upon by burning stamps and draft cards, running away from slavery and abusive employers, and joining marches to protest abuse and support voting rights.

Liberty and freedom are not unitary. Defining the meanings of these interlocking words have intellectual, social, economic, and political dimensions. They often are morally charged, conveying and claiming legitimacy for all kinds of grievances and hopes, fears about the present and visions of the future. Freedom has been applied to individuals, communities, families, and to the nation itself. Individual and collective struggles mark the context for the liberty/freedom pursuit.

The history of the quest for liberty and freedom perhaps most clearly connects with political and economic equality. Federal, state, and local constitutional changes as well as enactments and modifications of statutes, bylaws, and ordinances bring a legal dimension to the whole question of equality.

The story of liberty/freedom is not a mythic saga of accomplishment since it includes failures as well. People constantly contend about the crucial ideas of their political culture. The meanings of freedom then are multifaceted, contentious, and ever-changing.

Some see freedom as a matter of unrestrained individualism, not social citizenship. Freedom’s meanings remain vigorously contested. The debates will continue and new definitions will emerge. Freedom for all remains an ongoing struggle.

Conflict intermittently occupies the foreground in the American political tradition. We need politicians who respect the common good rather than worship money.

Ralph Scharnau
February 28, 2019

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