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Such has been the nature of government throughout history that liberty has most often been defined by its absence. In the most extreme cases, it is sought by slaves, by an occupied or colonised people or by the subjects of a totalitarian dictator or of an absolute monarch. Under constitutional monarchies parliaments have sought to defend their liberties against the Sovereign and under parliamentary democracies citizens have struggled to defend or extend their liberties in the face of parliamentary opposition. In various forms all of those struggles continue today.

More recently a different struggle has developed between governments elected by universal suffrage and their citizens, who see their liberties being threatened or eroded by technological and legislative means. This is the battle over i.d. cards, police databases, surveillance, detention without trial and limits to trial by jury; the battle against an intrusive, arrogant and overbearing state, willing and able to crush the helpless individual in a Kafkaesque nightmare. In a broader sense, liberties can also be seen as threatened by electoral systems which deliver victory on a minority of the votes cast and privilege a few marginal swing seats, by ineffective legislatures which routinely fail to hold the executive to account and by numerous less than democratic constitutional anomalies.


History of liberty

Historically speaking, liberty has been the rallying cry of all who have sought to throw off oppressive authority; among them, Boadicea, Cromwell, Garibaldi, Simon Bolivar and, most famously, the revolutionaries of 1789. However, people have meant many things by their use of the word. The mythical figure of Robin Hood invoked images of Anglo-Saxon liberty crushed and turned to serfdom by Norman invasion and aristocratic oppression. When the Parliamentarians of the English Civil War spoke of the liberty of the subject, they principally meant regular meetings of Parliament and security of property, while some of them also meant freedom of conscience to worship as they wished. Charles the First, however, thought that liberty meant only the rule of law and not a share in government.

Liberty after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had a sense of privilege and exclusivity. It was principally concerned with the interests of the ruling class. During the reign of George the Third, his political enemies presented the King as a threat to the liberty of Parliament through his excessive use of patronage and control of ministers.

Thus in Britain, where the fight against absolutism and arbitrary rule was won earlier than on almost all of the Continent, questions of liberty were primarily concerned with strengthening an existing parliamentary system against royal encroachments and subsequently with extending the franchise. On the Continent, where absolutism remained dominant until 1789 and beyond, the quest for political liberty and the Enlightenment project of which it was a central part faced a greater challenge and a more complicated outcome. When the bankrupt French monarchy was overthrown, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” led to the Reign of Terror, the Napoleonic Wars, the Bourbon restoration and further uprisings during the 19th century. In North America, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” were proclaimed as rights but were not open to all. Throughout the 19th century, liberty often entailed a volatile mixture of constitutional government and aggressive nationalism, while for much of the 20th century absolute monarchies were replaced by totalitarian dictatorships.

Use and misuse of the term liberty

There is sometimes an element of Orwellian doublespeak about the word liberty. People from very different political perspectives use it to suit their own ends and to disguise their selfish intentions. In America in 1776, as we have seen, the rights of liberty, magnificently conceived though they may have been, were limited essentially to white males and would encompass slavery, suppression and slaughter on a vast scale. During the American Civil War, it still meant to Confederates the right of the South to maintain its slave economy. Despite the failure of Secession, some Americans today might use liberty to mean in part the primacy of states’ rights over federal rights. In America and elsewhere, some would use it to mean the liberty of the Wild West: small government, low taxes, minimal bureaucratic interference in business and devil take the hindmost. Others assert that liberty can only have true meaning and value in the context of a government which uses higher taxes to provide adequate social security and to support the public good.

Contemporary assaults on liberty

Meanwhile, liberties are continuously assaulted around the world by the destructive activities of corporations, which, because of their multinational structure, are largely unaccountable and often substantially unregulated or actively abetted by corrupt governments and international trade agreements, which are weighted in favour of the rich world. There can be no meaningful liberty without the means to support a decent livelihood and so for Indian farmers or indigenous peoples of the Amazon, driven from their land by the forces of globalization, liberty can only be an empty word. Although many colonial empires and totalitarian dictatorships have been swept away and replaced by democratic rule, poorer and weaker countries and populations continue to be exploited, manipulated and ravaged by the military and economic power of other states or of their own governments, while conventions and binding agreements on human rights are routinely ignored and so liberty continues often to be denied.

Additional resources

  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • Liberty - British campaigning organization to protect basic rights and freedoms through the courts, in Parliament and in the wider community
  • Liberty!- PBS documentary on the American Revolutionary War

See also


Author: James Sainsbury