Most of us use the words “freedom” and “liberty” as synonyms, though the freedom to send their child to whatever school they think best” probably sounds better than “Parents should have the liberty to…”
However, when we start to think about that particular statement, differences between the two words become apparent. To be free usually means the ability to act without hindrance or outside control. But what hindrances or controls should we be free from? In the powerful conclusion of Braveheart (1995), William Wallace’s last words are “Freedom!” In a moving scene from Easy Rider (1969), George tells Billy that people don’t like him because he represents freedom to them. Wallace fought for Scotland’s independence. George, Billy, and Wyatt spend their time with drugs and prostitutes. Art has the effect of glorifying martyrs, and all these characters die a martyr’s death as champions difference between liberty and freedom.
In political or legal discourse, especially America’s constitutional tradition, we refer to civil “rights and liberties.” They are civil because they are guaranteed by the law. American liberties can be traced back to a long British constitutional tradition beginning with the Charter of Liberties (1100), a forerunner of Magna Charta (1215), and through subsequent British written and unwritten law. The first Americans came from Britain with all the “liberties and immunities of free and natural subjects.”
The American War for Independence was fought to preserve what Patriots considered to be rights and liberties violated by the King and Parliament. We all know what Jefferson said about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but the most essential statements come later as he catalogs how King George III violated the constitutional liberties of colonists. This is a legal indictment to justify independence. Independence then enabled setting up what Jefferson called “new guards for their future security.” The security in question was not just anyone’s ideas about freedom or abstract “rights,” but specific rights and liberties guaranteed in the law. Those liberties were then enumerated in our Bill of Rights as amendments to the Constitution, guaranteeing protection not only from the government but by the government. These liberties include things like speech, assembly, petitioning the government, worship, the right to self-defense, the protection of one’s property, and due process of law. These are things that generations deemed essential to a good life and a good society.
In the Pledge of Allegiance, we say “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” We could say “freedom for all,” but freedom for what? Should freedom for anything be protected by the law? Hopefully not. The freedom that matters most is the freedom to enshrine for ourselves in law those liberties we value most. Wallace wanted freedom to have liberties, the liberties known to generations as essential for a good life and society. Billy, George, and Wyatt just wanted freedom.