A People’s Quest for Ordered Liberty

Excerpted from: Rediscovering the American Republic, vol. 1: 1492–1877

Liberty is second only to life in the American creed. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (p. 206):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights[,] that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Liberty has remained a perennial concern of Americans. In 1787, America’s founding fathers drafted the U.S. Constitution to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” (p. 266). In 1863—“fourscore and seven years” after the Declaration of Independence—Abraham Lincoln commemorated in the Gettysburg Address how “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (p. 652).

When the men who have made America great spoke of liberty, they did not intend an unbridled free-for-all, for that would result in chaos, ultimately destroying liberty. The American people, from colonial times to the present, have instead sought an ordered liberty. In their quest, they have debated how best to foster and preserve liberty—fearing on the one hand the danger of imposing order arbitrarily, while also being wary of the danger toward disorder. Such debates may instructively be analyzed in terms of the “four Rs” of American history.

 

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