Director’s Note: What Does Liberty Mean in America Today?

June 8, 2020

“Give me liberty or give me death.” The entwined ideals of liberty and freedom have been central to the American identity since before the Revolution. But, these concepts never have been completely or equitably implemented in American life. Indigenous people, women, and enslaved Africans and their descendants never enjoyed the full liberty that our founders conceived. This was suggested and discussed at the third Civic Conversation at the Newport Historical Society, focused on the idea of American liberty.

The first topic discussed was around the difference between freedom and liberty, with the former being based on an individual lack of constraints, and the latter being a larger status, one based in embeddedness in a body politic and including the full benefits and responsibilities of citizenship. As once participant said, “when slavery was abolished, it gave us freedom, but we did not really have liberty.”

The group of 26 people, who came together virtually, continued to examine the conflict between individual rights and the responsibilities of participating in society.  Notions of freedom to do what you want, we established, regularly bump up against the freedom from harm that we are all supposed to enjoy. This led to a discussion of how the idea of liberty has become perhaps, in 2020 America, a notion only about individual rights. “It’s a free country” means “I can do what I want,” as opposed to any sense of shared responsibility and actual liberty. This conflict can be seen to, at a minimum, influence many of the societal issues and national debates we are facing. The right to own and carry guns versus the right to be free from gun violence, the right to congregate versus concerns about public health, and our attitudes about drinking and driving were cited as examples.

We looked at how America has wrestled with an individual’s rights to, particularly, engage in economic activity when it conflicts with the rights of others. I will add, as an aside, that this is also true about religious practice, though it did not come up here.  We regularly, many thought, privilege our own needs above all, and this does not foster respect for others, for systems, or for the environment in which we live. This intense and unbounded individualism makes us all feel special, and deserving, and this can have very negative effects, said one speaker. It was suggested that this sense of entitlement and disrespect for others is a particular feature of the current time, but others expressed the belief that this is a long-standing feature of American life.

More than one participant suggested that when a society is founded on hypocrisies and on a system of domination and conquest, it is really hard to unwind it.  Inequities between those who have the full rights and expectations of liberty and those who do not become core. In America, these inequities have led to entrenched prejudice, and loss of freedoms, for Black and Native people. Significant current civic unrest triggered by police violence against Black Americans has made it clear how much abridged liberty for one group degrades freedom for everyone.

One participant suggested that we tend to see the conflict between individual and collective rights as a zero-sum game, and we allow this vision to shape policy in America in ways that don’t make sense. “If we make a high-speed railway between Boston and Washington, it does not actually abridge your right to drive your car, but people behave as it if will.” This plays out in environmental and health care policy as well, we noted. The unregulated commerce that pollutes the planet is cast as an individual freedom, when it both abridges the rights of those who wish not to be poisoned, and also potentially prevents all of us from thriving. Similarly, some attitudes about our health care system suggest limiting the economic rights of some is more dangerous to our liberty than allowing others the “freedom” to die without care, when in fact this dichotomy is not fixed or defining.

In addition to these examples, we spent some considerable time looking at the many things that reduce liberty for all or some of us. Inequities in educational systems, societal tolerance of sexism and violence against women, and restrictions in our ability to have access to sources of real news were all cited as issues. The extreme capitalism that some in American want to practice came up more than once. Some of these are new issues, and some are ancient, but, it should be noted, all are changeable.

As a penultimate note, there is always one idea that arises at these meetings that sticks to me and won’t let go. Here, it had to do with the path forward towards change, and what role history, and knowing our history, plays in both the development of our problems, and in potential solutions. This was discussed off and on throughout the 90 minutes. When the history taught in school erases part of the population or incorporates falsehoods, it facilitates the perpetuation of negative patterns for everyone. It also deprives segments of our population of their own history, and the stories of transcendence and triumph that might inspire some to leadership. And, since our history itself is filled with ignominy, faithlessness, hypocrisy and wrong acts, it is an incomplete blueprint for the future, at best. As one participant said, referencing Mordecai Kaplan, “history gets a vote, but it cannot be allowed to have a veto.”  History is filled with examples, we concluded, of how we might get better, might create a more perfect union. But we need the full and comprehensive history, and looking backwards for inspiration will not be enough to help us move forward.

A final thought is that Zoom has revealed itself to be in many ways a perfect format for this kind of conversation. We can all see each other’s faces, we can have quiet sidebars in the chat room, and we can indicate our support of a speaker without interrupting them. While I look forward to getting together in person some time soon, I am also very enthusiastic about continuing this series online.

Please, if you were inspired by this, or angered by it, get on the invitation list for these conversations by emailing