In modern times, the United States of America has been the leader of liberty. This is why France gave the Statue of Liberty to the United States in the 1800s. It is why immigrants have come first to the United States of America, over other countries, since its inception in 1776. It is the reason that, even though the United States trails China and India in population by about 1.3 billion to 325 million, the U.S. has the greatest economy on Earth. Liberty is a universal idea that continues to fill the hearts and minds of people around the world.
The American Founding Fathers defined liberty in the American founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Like John Locke before him, Thomas Jefferson believed liberty rested on the principles that “all men are created equal,” and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The founders believed that the rights of Americans rested on the idea that the Creator formed man with rights that no government had the authority to remove. God existed as the authority above government, above man, and the government was always subject to uphold and defend the rights given to man by the Creator. Jefferson and the other Founders fought Great Britain to establish a limited government so that individuals would have maximum freedom.
In the Constitution, liberty is defined in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments. The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech, freedom of the press, religious freedom, and the right to assemble. The founders were very concerned about freedom of political speech, meaning the right to campaign or financially support the candidate of one’s choice without limitation. They wanted to make sure that government would never become so strong that it would limit Americans’ ability to participate in politics. Regarding freedom of religion, the founders wanted to make sure the government would not enforce a state religion, however, at the same time, they wanted Americans to never be limited in their practice of religious worship. There are other important rights in the first ten amendments, such as the right to bear arms, and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. However, the main point of the Bill of Rights was to make sure that government would never take away the liberty of Americans.
The story of liberty is the story of Western Civilization. It begins with early man, develops over the centuries, and in many ways, it comes to fruition with the birth of America. In ancient times, most humans on Earth believed in many gods; leaders imposed unfair laws on their subjects; and life was short and miserable for those without power. Unfortunately, this remains the case in some places today. However, about 4,000 years ago, the Hebrews believed in one God, in justice, and in morality, regardless of the circumstance of one’s birth. Then, around 2,500 years ago, the ancient Athenians created democracy, the idea that citizens had the right to vote for their leaders and laws and not be subject to a king. At about the same time, the Romans established a republic. Citizens had rights the government had to respect. As the Roman Republic spread, liberty decreased. In 27 B.C., the Roman Empire arose and the liberties people had under the Roman Republic greatly diminished. However, within the Roman Empire, Jesus Christ established a new religious belief where God loved everyone in an equal manner. For the first time in history, a religion offered salvation to all people, not just people of a certain nationality or tribe. This religious understanding of equality under God was transformed over time into the idea that all people should be treated the same by the law. And thus, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “all men are created equal.”
The story of liberty in America has not been a perfect one. From 1776 to 1865, slavery was legal in half of the country. How could a person have liberty if he were owned by another person? In addition, women were not allowed to vote and did not have the same property rights as men. From 1861 to 1865, Americans fought their greatest war, the Civil War, which resolved this paradox of liberty and slavery. Though it took 89 years, the rights Jefferson spoke about in the Declaration of Independence finally did spread to all men, black and white. In addition, throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, the political rights of women expanded to be equal with men. However, liberty in America is still not perfect. It remains today an ideal that Americans strive for.
This volume of history is the story of liberty, specifically as it relates to American history. It traces the influence of ancient and medieval civilizations on the establishment and development of the United States of America through the Civil War. It is written with the hope that young Americans will appreciate the uniqueness of America as a leader of liberty. It is these young people who are called to further the cause of liberty within our country and throughout the world. p