Liberalism and Freedom

Liberalism is a force that has produced change from the birth of this
nation to the politics of today. Liberal tenets have been a basis of thought
and action in American politics since well before the signing of the
Constitution. Certainly, liberalism has had to transform in order to remain a
legitimate force throughout the years. When considering this transformation,
one may ask whether or not the ideas and goals of classical liberalism have been
lost in the conversion into modern liberalism. In order to answer this, the
areas of freedom, the role of government, human nature, and the function of law
should be addressed. While this may not be a complete register of change in
liberalism, research into these subjects can provide strong indications toward
the nature of this transition. Objectively, the evidence suggests that many of
the ideas of classical liberalism were either abandoned or changed fundamentally
when America entered the modern era.


The idea of freedom has been a paramount concern of liberalism
throughout history. Consider the classical ideas of religious freedom, the
right to resist and the inherent right of every individual to be independent.
These were some of the main focuses of classical liberalism in early America.
On religious freedom, seventeenth century minister Roger Williams wrote:

"All Civill States with their Officers of justice in their
respectiveconstitutions and administrations are proved essentially Civill, and
therefore not judges, governours or defendours of the spirituall or christian
state and worship." (Volkomer, 50)
This quote is notable because it illustrates the early liberal ideas of
religious freedom by stating that government officials have no right to pass
judgment on religious practices. In furtherance of his views, Williams founded
a colony at Plymouth and contributed to the development of religious tolerance
in the new world. Religious tolerance meant that a nation with multiple
religions need no longer mean a country with internal strife and civil
insurrection due to intolerance (Volkomer, 1969). The notion of religious open-
mindedness helped pave the way for individual independence by suggesting that
people were able to determine their own fundamental beliefs.
The right of individuals to be independent is the cornerstone of
liberalism. This combined with the right to resist encroachments on this
independence make up the legitimacy behind the revolution. The Declaration of
Independence embodied these thoughts precisely and clearly. When Thomas
Jefferson wrote about the "inalienable rights... life, liberty and the pursuit
of happiness" he was speaking of the inherent rights of man and went further to
declare that any government that chooses to dispel these rights is subject to
overthrow by the governed. In short Jefferson was saying that the right of the
government to rule is derived from the people's ability to utilize and approve
of their level of independence.
Modern America embraces and reveres the ideals above. This leaves
modern liberalism with the chore of expanding these rights. The focus has now
shifted from the attainment of these rights to the perfection of them. In the
above statement I mean to show that liberal ideas of freedom and liberty have
changed considerably. This can be clarified by the following quote:

"A man who was poor, uneducated, ill-housed, and subject to the fluctuations
economic cycle could not be considered free though he lived in a nation whose
government abided by the tenets of laissez-faire. True liberty, liberals began
to contend, required the ability of man to use his talents and energies in a
constructive fashion-it meant the positive freedom to achieve and
accomplish." (Volkomer, 4)

This quotation suggests that modern liberals now see it as the
government's responsibility to level the playing field for individuals who would
otherwise be at a disadvantage. The freedom to achieve one's own potential is
one of the prime objectives of modern liberalism (Merquior, 1991). This has led
to the development of affirmative action and other programs such as welfare.
The opportunity to reach one's capacity has joined the other inalienable rights
as the desired outcome of a positive government. Ideally, people would derive
freedom and happiness from the satisfaction of achievement and inventiveness.
True freedom should be unfettered from poverty, oppression and inequality; this
liberty was considered the natural state of humanity.
Franklin Roosevelt made strides in the attainment of this natural state.
The "New Deal" of the thirties was not only a means to economic recovery but
also an attempt to move equality and liberty into their proper places in the
American system (Dunbar, 1991). Roosevelt's "New Deal" is an example of an
action with two reactions, it prevailed over the great depression and changed
the government's role in freedom. This assisted in the