“Liberty,” by Samuel Goodrich (from Young American; reprinted in Robert Merry’s Museum, December 1842; pp. 183-185)
Liberty is freedom from restraint. In its widest sense, it is the free permission to exercise our powers of body and mind as we please, without hindrance or restraint. This is absolute liberty. According to this, a man might take away another’s property or life; or enslave another man; or make him the tool of his pleasures or caprices. According to this, a strong man might use a weak one as he pleased, or the cunning man might cheat or circumvent another, and thus take away his life or property, or make him the slave of his pleasures.
This is liberty without law. Such liberty as this could exist only in theory, for where society has enacted no law, the obligation of justice exists. A savage is as truly bound by the golden rule, “do to another as you would have another do to you,” as a member of civilized society; for even the savage has a sense of right and wrong. Truth and justice are intuitive perceptions and feelings in every human soul, and conscience enforced their observance. Every human being, therefore, has his absolute liberty abridged, by notions of right and wrong, anterior to the formation of civil government.
Practically, absolute liberty would be the harshest kind of tyranny, for it would immediately result in making the weak the slaves of the strong. Not only would the weak, therefore, be deprived of liberty, but of justice. In this state of things, no man is free, except the strongest man; he alone has power to act as he pleases; all the rest are his slaves: so that a community endeavoring to establish absolute liberty, imme-
diately make all the members but one, the slaves of a master whose might is the rule of right.
Absolute liberty, therefore, as said before, immediately runs into despotism. It is a thing that can only exist where one man, like Alexander Selkirk, or Robinson Crusoe, is alone aupon an island, and “monarch of all he surveys.” Absolute liberty, in society, is a practical absurdity—an impossibility.
Natural liberty is freedom from restraint, except so far as is imposed by the laws of nature. According to this, a man may speak, act, and think as he pleases, without control; in this sense, it is synonymous with absolute liberty. But as is often applied to a state of society, where restraints do actually exist; as, for instance, among savages, even where property is held in common, and where of course there is no theft, there are still obligations, rules, and restrictions, of some kind.
The coward is punished with death; the parricide is banished; the traitor is shot. Every member of such a society is under certain restraints, and certain abridgments of absolute liberty. If one is guilty of cowardice, he consents to lose his life; if he kills his parent, he consents to be forever cast out of his tribe; if he betrays his nation, he agrees that he shall be slain by an arrow. Thus, he is restrained from cowardice, killing a father or mother, or betraying his country; all of which are abridgments of absolute liberty.
Thus, in the simplest and rudest stages of natural liberty, as put in practice among mankind, we see certain restraints upon absolute liberty, established by the laws or customs of the nation. But, in point of fact, other restraints are put upon the largest part of the community, for in such a state of society the weak are obliged, for the most part, to bow to the strong. If, indeed, the weak are protected from the strong, then the strong are restrained, and so far, natural or absolute liberty is abridged. If it is not thus abridged, if the weak are not protected from the strong, then they are the slaves of the strong. In this state of society, where natural liberty is said to prevail, the mass are subject to the despotism of a few; the weak are the slaves of the strong. A state of natural liberty, is, therefore, practically, a state of tyranny on the one hand and slavery on the other.
An illustration of this is found among the animal tribes. Among the fowls of the barnyard, there is no law: the males meet in conflict, and the strongest or most active becomes the master. Among a pack of wolves, or among dogs, the question who shall have the bone, is settled by fighting it out, and the strongest has it. The law of nature, then, is a law of force: where there is no other than natural law, might is the only rule of right.
Even if all men were virtuous, a state of natural and universal liberty could not exist—for virtue itself implies an observance of rules, obligations, and laws. A virtuous man will not steal; his liberty therefore, in this respect, is restrained. It is restrained by law; and the only difference between this restraint and that of civil government, is, that God enacts, and his own heart enforces, the law.
Civil government is founded in the idea that men are not all virtuous; that men will not enact and observe just laws individually and of themselves; and therefore to secure order, peace and justice, government must enact and enforce laws, and thus abridge natural or absolute liberty.
Experience, in all ages, has taught the lesson, that among men, as well as among animals, there being some strong and some weak, the former will ever seek to get the advantage
of the latter. Thus government steps in to protect the weak against the strong; to substitute justice for force, right for might.—Young American.