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Liberty in law

By Steve Farrell
web posted June 7, 2004

For generations, in the singing of "America, the Beautiful," (1) Americans encouraged each other to exercise freedom responsibly, to understand the need for law and moral restraint.

Not a bad idea.

To understand why, the hymn reminds us that those who gave us our freedom were the sort "who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life." (2) They sacrificed. Thousands died. Thousands more were maimed for life. Wives and children wept. Homes burned to the ground. Fortunes were scattered to the wind. Poverty and disease ran rampant.

This was freedom's heavy cost. It always is. It is as if the hymn were reminding us, as John Locke once did, that ‘if you want to be free, you need to give something up for it.' (3) Perhaps your good name, perhaps your property, perhaps your life, if necessary.

Our forefathers knew it. They believed it. They had the guts to live and die for it. We are the beneficiaries of their sacrifice.

But for how long?

Succeeding generations need to sacrifice a few things too, like their vices, their pride, their arrogance, their humanistic tendency to believe ‘I did it alone,' or else self-government tends to self-destruct.

And so the hymn humbly pleads for God's grace, as an aid to "mend [our] every flaw," to "refine [our] gold," to make "all success … nobleness," to make "every gain Divine," to "crown [our] good with brotherhood," and most notably, to "confirm [our] soul in self control, [our] liberty in law." (4)

It is a wonderful hymn. I sang it as a youth with great pride and emotion. I sang it frequently and fervently. The place I sang it was not at home, not at church, but in the classroom, the public classroom.

I learned something there.

And although I was no scholar, I had a rough idea as an elementary school kid, and as a Jr. High School student, what the hymnist meant by this God centered model of liberty. It meant I could become whatever I wanted, so long as I was not a thief, a murderer, or some other sort of criminal, tyrant or moral reprobate. The same was collectively true of America. America will be great, so long as America is good. (5)

I believed it.

And although I hadn't read John Locke's, ‘there is no freedom, where there is no law,' (6) nor Blackstone's "the primary and principle objects of the law are RIGHTS and WRONGS," that is, MORALITY (7, emphasis in original)—it never occurred to me that freedom had no limits, that the law had nothing to do with right and wrong, or that the Author of Liberty was anyone or anything else than God, because that is what Inalienable rights meant—didn't it? Rights from God, given to all men, rights the one, the few, or the many can't take away.

Katherine Bates

This all made sense to me, as a kid. This is what our founders fought for. Katherine Lee Bates hymn, along with a few other good American hymns, and honest-to-goodness history books (the kind of which had not yet been purged from our schools) helped teach me that.

I also recall learning what happens when we make liberty a lie, by mutating it into license, as the courts and the schools do today.

Blackstone called it "savage liberty." (8) Our teachers called it "anarchy," "the law of the jungle," the brutish, tyrannical life where "only the strong survive" and everyone else is tough out of luck.

Blackstone explained why it could never work.

"[N]o man, that considers a moment, would wish to retain the absolute and uncontrolled power of doing whatever he pleases; the consequence of which is, that every other man would also have the same power; and then there would be no security to individuals in any of enjoyments of life." (9)

That's the point. When everyone does his own thing, no bars, no limits, no morality, the biggest, baddest gun wins. Fact. And guess what, without morality, bad guns multiply.

"Hence we may collect that the law, which restrains a man from doing mischief to his fellow citizens, though it diminishes the natural, increases the civil liberty of mankind." (10)

Get it? Morality, law, and reasonable moral limits are valuable, even vital to the success of freedom.

Isn't this common sense? Sadly, common sense has fled our schools and courts today. There, "me first," outranks the life of the unborn. There one judge can impose his or her selfish and tyrannical will upon the world at random, and the ruling stands.

Contact Steve.


1. Bates, Katherine Lee (1859-1929). "America the Beautiful."
2. Ibid.
3. See, for instance, Locke's "Second Treatise on Government," Chapter 9, Section 131.
4. Bates, Katherine Lee, "America the Beautiful."
5. Paraphrase of principle Alexis de Tocqueville espoused in "Democracy In America."
6. As quoted by Blackstone, William. "Commentaries on the Laws of England," Book I, Chapter I, "Of the Absolute Rights of Individuals."
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.

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