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The Spirit of Liberty

ISSUE:  Autumn 1927

We are told in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are endowed by. their Creator with certain unalienable rights” and “that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These three, and only these three, are named; in the mind of the man who wrote and of the men who signed the Declaration the right to liberty was coordinate with the right to life, and the right to the pursuit of happiness.

If we attempt to take account of the standing among us to-day of the three cardinal objects of attachment named in the Declaration, we cannot fail to perceive that while life and the pursuit of happiness are the objects of more thought and care than ever, liberty has fallen into a distinctly inferior place in our habitual thinking. Of course, neither life nor happiness is more prized than it was a hundred years ago; but the concrete, specific, measurable aspects of life occupy a space in our modes of thought and a standing in our modes of action such as has never before been witnessed.

This is partly, due to the marvelous progress of the arts and sciences which conduce to the preservation of life and the increase of comfort and luxury. Within the memory of men not yet old, the rate of infant mortality has been cut down to half, or perhaps a third, of what it was; the general death rate has been very greatly reduced, and the average span of life correspondingly increased; diseases which, it seems almost yesterday, were devastating scourges have been practically wiped out, and others have been reduced to half, or less than half, of their former sway; and hardly a year passes without some signal addition to these advances of medicine. In the domain of comforts, and conveniences, and luxuries, the development has been even more astonishing; the fairy tales of science which stirred the pulses of the youthful enthusiast of Locksley Hall have been translated into the common language of every day; miracles which a Faraday may have foreseen, or which perhaps a Jules Verne pictured in a flight of fancy, are now part of the very atmosphere in which we live and move and have our being. It is not surprising that in such an age as this a hundred books on health should spring up where one used to be, and a score of magazines dealing with the systematic pursuit of material success should flourish where none were so much as thought of in times bygone. In those times people may have had perhaps just as much desire to live to be a hundred, and just as much craving for the appurtenances of comfort and luxury; but certainiy these aims were incomparably less prominent as subjects of thought and discussion.

But the advance of science and invention has been by no means the only cause at work in this direction. The growth of humanitarian sentiment and humanitarian activity has been an even more powerful agency in shifting the centre of interest from general and abstract ideals to specific and concrete objectives. When the effort to preserve and prolong life, to exterminate disease, to raise the level of comfort, to increase the opportunities of leisure and enlarge the resources of enjoyment, relates not to oneself but to others; when thousands of men and women, and especially young men and women who are the flower of the nation, are bending their energies not to their own advancement in wealth or social standing but to raising the plane of living of the poor and unfortunate; the pursuit of material benefits inevitably assumes a dignity and a moral standing such as it could not have when it was associated in one’s mind solely, or chiefly, with the desire of individuals to better their own condition. Add to this the growth of the belief that physical and economic betterment are inseparably associated with moral and spiritual betterment, and we have all the conditions necessary for the elevation of concrete improvements to a place in the general mind far above any to which they could lay claim a century, or even half a century, ago.

Along with the progress of science and invention, and along with the growth of humanitarian activity, there has gone an intense cultivation of efficiency methods in organization and management; and—in part as a handmaid of these and in part independently of them—an amazing development of statistical research. These things have, of course, been going on all over the world; but nowhere have they, been so pervasive, so omnipresent, as in our own country. Edmund Burke, just before the outbreak of the American Revolution, declared that “in the character of the Americans a love of freedom is the predominating feature,” and that “this fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other people of the earth.” Mr. G. K. Chesterton, when he visited our country a few years ago, had nothing to say about our “fierce spirit of liberty”; but he was immensely struck by our intense passion for numerical measurement. Efficiency in industrial production can be accurately measured; progress in the prolongation of life and in the control of disease can be recorded in statistical tables; improvement in material well-being can be exhibited as a mathematical fact. Thus not only is our age preoccupied as no former age has been with the advance of science and invention, the progress of humanitarian effort, and the systematic cultivation of efficiency, but what is achieved in each of these departments of human interest is being constantly brought home to the public mind in the shape of statistically attested results.

Preoccupied as we thus are with the thought of tangible benefits, of physical progress that can be subjected to arithmetical measurement, it is perhaps small wonder that things which are less tangible, and which are wholly inaccessible to arithmetical appraisal, should have lost the dominion they once had over our minds.


“To secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” was one of the objects of the establishment of the Constitution, as enumerated in its preamble; but what are the blessings of liberty? Does it give us more food to eat, better clothes to wear, a greater number of years to live, more telephones or automobiles or movies ? Perhaps it does and perhaps it does not; but certainly it was nothing of this kind that the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they spoke of “the blessings of liberty.” Not that they were idealist dreamers; far from it. They were every bit as hard-headed, as much concerned for the material interests of the country, as we are; probably more so. One of the objects declared in the preamble was “to promote the general welfare”; and we may, be sure that when they spoke of promoting the general welfare what they had in mind was the material well-being of the people. But when they spoke of securing the blessings of liberty, they were thinking of nothing of the kind. They were thinking of liberty as a possession dear to the very souls of men, raising their spiritual and moral stature, pervading their lives, manifested in their daily walk and conversation. A free people are different through and through from a people who are not free. But no statistical apparatus has yet been devised to measure the difference; and those who believe that difference to be of vital import can offer for their belief only the support that is furnished by. such antiquated and imperfect guides as human insight into human nature and human sympathy with human aspiration.

I do not believe that the great mass of the people have lost the instinct for liberty which had been bred in them for generations. If it is too grossly offended, that instinct asserts itself plainly enough. Instincts change slowly; it is only modes of thought that are susceptible of rapid change. But laws are not made by instinct, nor are books and newspapers and magazines written by instinct; and great changes in modes of thought may take place, and become embodied in the modes of action of individuals and institutions, long before the instincts opposed to them take the alarm. In an older day, it was the thinkers, the intellectual and political leaders, who were most prompt to discover, and most eager to avert, any danger that threatened the preservation of liberty; now it is precisely among those who belong to this class that we find this vigilance abandoned, this eagerness turned into indifference. Of course, I do not mean that the whole class of thinking people, of leaders of intellect and action, have undergone this change; but I do mean that those among them who view the abstract ideal of liberty with indifference, indeed with a sort of patronizing contempt, form a very numerous and extremely influential body.


I was talking, a short time ago, with one of the foremost of American biologists about the nature of the invasions of personal liberty with which we are threatened, if the present tendency is continued. By way of illustration, I brought up the subject of periodic medical examination. This is a practice which has grown up on a large scale in recent years. The Life Extension Institute, which was started some twelve or fifteen years ago, gave it a great impetus; many thousands of people have availed themselves of the admirable facilities which that institution puts within their reach at a very moderate price, and it has unquestionably been productive of great benefit. More recently, the practice of periodic medical examination has been introduced by a number of large corporations which require it of all their employees. But hardly, had the Life Extension movement been started when the idea was broached of making periodic medical examination universal by legal compulsion. Though the absorption of the country in the war and in the great problems which have since arisen has thrown this project into the background, there is every reason to expect that at the first favorable opportunity it will come aggressively to the front. Now in the innocence of my heart I adduced this scheme as an instance of the extremes to which the intrusion of government dictation into the domain of personal life threatens to be carried; but I was hauled up very short by my distinguished friend, and given plainly to understand that the time was past when any scruples about personal liberty were to be allowed to interfere with the right of government to confer a substantial benefit, whether welcome or unwelcome, upon all of the people subject to its rule.

The plain assertion of this doctrine gave me something of a shock; but I realized that the state of mind which it expressed was by no means unusual in our time. And yet the day is not far back in the past when the idea of governmental compulsion in such a matter would have been instantly rejected as preposterous. To put periodic medical examination within the reach of all; to provide it at little cost, perhaps at no cost at all, to those who desire it; to urge its advantages in every possible way—all this is eminently desirable. But to make it universal by governmental compulsion is to strike at the very root of freedom, to relax the very, fibre of individuality. If a man is not to be free to decide for himself how much anxiety he shall entertain regarding the state of his own health, it is difficult to see what personal concern may not be made the subject of governmental control.

The control of at least one such concern is an immediate corollary of the examination scheme itself. If the government undertakes to compel a man to find out just how strong his heart and lungs are, just how much too lean or how much too fat he is, the next step would evidently be to compel him to correct any defect that is found in him, to avoid any, danger to which the examination proves him to be exposed. This might have the result of diminishing the death-rate—of increasing, so to say, the quantity of life; but what would it do to its quality? Most people are anxious enough to prolong their lives, and sufficiently concerned about their health to avail themselves of any information concerning it which may be put within their easy reach; but there are others whose temperament demands freedom from the thought of their health, who would rather run the risk of shortening their lives than live in constant concern about their physical condition; who, in their eagerness to enjoy life, to accomplish great things, or perhaps to sacrifice themselves for the good of others, brush aside the rules of calculating prudence. Is this all to be eliminated? Are we all to be set to the same pattern in this most essential, most vital, of personal concerns? Is care for one’s health to be the preoccupation of everybody; the gay and lusty and sanguine and ardent, as well as the quiet and sober and delicate and cold-blooded? Is a gallant disregard of such calculation to be branded as a crime, and extirpated as an intolerable departure from the rules and regulations of a standardized humanity? Will not that standardized humanity towards which those rules and regulations tend be a sterilized humanity—a humanity, possibly more prolific than ever of things that can be counted and measured and weighed, but barren of zest, and color, and individuality, and inspiration?

One of the most notable illustrations of insensitiveness, in high quarters, to the true value of liberty is to be found in an episode in our university history which attracted much attention a few years before the World War. The “scientific management” idea, which had been making great headway in the industrial field, was taken up with enthusiasm by certain educational reformers. If you can get more bricks laid, or more automobiles built, by a given number of men through a systematic regulation of their motions, you ought to be able to get a greater output of learning by a somewhat similar supervision of university professors. “Here we are spending millions of dollars every year,” so ran the happy thought of these reformers, “upon a lot of professors who do pretty much as they please; some of them are good hardworking fellows who give us our money’s worth, but there are any number of others who take it altogether too easy. No man earns his salary, unless he gives a reasonable number of hours to the preparation of his lectures, turns out an appropriate number of pages of research, and puts in a sufficient amount of time in reading the current literature of his subject. And how can we know that he is doing this unless we demand an accounting? First of all, then, let us have a questionnaire; after that, we shall see what we shall see.”

This preposterous notion failed to make much headway; but it is humiliating to think that it made so much headway as it did. For, incredible as it may seem, it gained a foothold in the foremost of American universities. A questionnaire was actually sent to all the professors at Harvard, requiring them to state how much time they spent in preparing their lectures, and to give like information on a number of similar points. Nothing came of these precious questionnaires; for they aroused such a storm of resentment, within and without the walls of the university, that the scheme was incontinently abandoned. I trust it is unnecessary to dwell on the nature of the wrong that such a scheme of mechanical efficiency would inflict upon a university—to show how contemptible would be the mechanical gain as compared with the spiritual loss. All that I wish to point out is that, although this loss is of a nature peculiar to the intellectual life, yet essentially it is bound up with the loss of liberty: if under the rule of the questionnaire and the time-clock the professor would be a lower type of scholar and a lower type of teacher, it would be chiefly because he would be a lower type of man.


These instances have been adduced merely as illustrations of the way in which the spirit of liberty is menaced in our time; they have been used to point an abstract moral, not to expose an evil that has been concretely embodied in practice. Nor shall I dwell at much length upon that gigantic offense against the spirit of liberty, which has actually been committed, and which has given rise to the gravest issue that has divided the country since the question of union and the question of slavery were settled by the arbitrament of war. To do justice to even the most salient aspects of the Prohibition issue would require far more space than is at my disposal. But even in a brief space it may be possible to make clear the peculiar enormity of the offense against liberty embodied in the Eighteenth Amendment.

If one were to assert the principle of personal liberty as a dogma which knows no question of degree, it could be fairly replied that the Eighteenth Amendment is no more an invasion of personal liberty than is a law permitting Prohibition by. local option. But all human affairs are questions of degree; and in almost all human affairs a point is reached where a question of degree becomes, to all intents and purposes, a question of principle. Everybody can see that a local ordinance prohibiting the sale of liquor in a given residential section of a city is merely a regulation of convenience, in which a petty sacrifice is required for the sake of a large general benefit. It is a case of de minimis non curat lex. Not the same, yet somewhat similar, is the case of local Prohibition in a town, or county, or other aggregate of fairly homogeneous population. A State Prohibition law is, of course, a far more serious encroachment upon personal liberty; and Prohibition by State Constitution is of a still graver character. But even a State is a comparatively, homogeneous body of people; a State law, and even a State Constitution, can be changed with comparatively little difficulty; and, what is quite as much to the purpose, the dissatisfaction of any large body of citizens within a State can be brought home to the whole body, and, if sufficiently persistent and intense, may be counted on as practically certain to effect a change. To pass lightly over the step from Prohibition by State enactments to Prohibition made part of the Federal Constitution is to abdicate the faculty, of political thought.

For it is of the very essence of the Eighteenth Amendment not only to override all differences between different parts of the country, and between different elements of its population, but to put beyond the pale of hope any restoration of the liberty which it takes away. If the people of New York resent the operation of the Amendment they are calmly told that it is idle for them to fret about it, because the West and South would never permit a repeal of the Amendment. If the people of the great cities chafe at being deprived of something which has been an important element in their happiness, they are informed that they are but a handful—a handful of about twenty-five millions, by the way—in comparison with the rural and small-town population. If, instead of looking forward to an all but impossible repeal of the Amendment, they seek to have the enforcing statute modified so as to permit beer and wine, they are at once met, and rightly met, by the charge that what they are seeking would be nullification of an article of the Constitution. In a word, tens of millions of people are told that they and their children and their children’s children are to live under a dispensation in which their daily, habits are controlled by the will of remote populations which have no share in their circumstances and conditions, no sympathy with their needs or preferences.

What will be the outcome of this monstrous condition of things I shall make no attempt to forecast. It may be that a persistent and relentless application of the law will result in bringing about some approach to enforcement of it; it may be, on the contrary, that the increasing efficacy of measures for enforcement of the law will be matched by a corresponding development of the resources for its violation. I can take no comfort in either alternative. The spectacle of a law lightheartedly violated by millions of good citizens, the spectacle of an article of the Constitution reduced to a position of contempt and derision, is indeed melancholy; but not less melancholy to my mind would be the spectacle of a once free people placidly submitting to an unparalled outrage on the principles of liberty and of rational law.

Defenders of Prohibition seek to do away with the objection to it as invasion of personal liberty by pointing out that all submission to civil government is in the nature of a surrender of personal liberty. This is true enough, but it is no answer to the objection; for surely nobody would maintain that no proposed restriction upon conduct can be objected to as a violation of liberty. To give the answer any force it would be necessary to point to some law demanding a surrender of liberty, at all comparable to that imposed by the Eighteenth Amendment; and this the Prohibitionists are quite unable to do. Among any free people the surrender of personal liberty is demanded only to the extent to which the right of one individual to do as he pleases has to be restricted either to prevent the violation of the elementary rights of other individuals or to preserve conditions regarded by practically common consent as requisite for the general safety or welfare. Prohibition is resented by millions of people as a restraint upon their personal liberty and an impairment of their comfort and happiness; if there is any other law of which the like can be said, it is curious that the Prohibitionists fail to draw our attention to it. To ask us to accept without protest a law to which millions of people object as a violation of their liberty, simply, because we accept without protest laws to which nobody objects at all is an absurdity that seems hardly worthy of discussion.

An absurdity of a different nature is brought into the case by some defenders of Prohibition. They boldly assert that Prohibition is not a restraint of liberty at all, but an enlargement of it. “The mental worker who takes alcohol,” says Professor Irving Fisher, “voluntarily, puts a yoke upon himself. He limits the exercise of his faculties, for he cannot judge so wisely, will so forcefully, think so clearly, as when his system is free from alcohol. The athlete who takes alcoholic liquor is similarly handicapped, for he is not free to run so fast, jump so high, pitch a baseball so accurately as when his system is free from the drug. Anyone who has become a ‘slave to alcohol’ has lost the very essence of personal liberty.” And it is to be noted that by, a “slave to alcohol,” Mr. Fisher means any one who is in the habit of drinking, however moderately,

I find it difficult to comment upon this conception of liberty, for the reason that anyone who does not see its absurdity for himself will hardly be able to understand any exposure of it. But it may be worth while to point out some obvious implications of this wonderful notion. Drinking is not the oniy indulgence which results in an impairment of the power (or, as Mr. Fisher absurdly calls it, the liberty,) to exploit one’s faculties to their utmost possible limit. What Mr. Fisher says of drinking (for he is not speaking of drunkenness) may be said with equal truth of staying up late at night, reading absorbing novels, overeating or un-dereating, taking too much or too little exercise, getting excited over politics or religion—in short, failing in any respect to conform to the exact standards set by mechanical rules of hygiene. To represent “the essence of personal liberty” as involving any such hideous obligation is to be guilty at once of a gross perversion of language and of a deplorable lack of perception of spiritual values. Even from the standpoint of concrete achievement, the whole idea is false; but to attempt to show this would carry me too far from my, theme. One question, however, it may not be amiss to ask: If indulgence in alcoholic drinks is so deleterious to the intellectual faculties, by what miracle are we to account for the work of the great philosophers and mathematicians and scientists and poets and painters and novelists and composers of wine-soaked and beer-sodden Europe? And how has it come about that our country, with its large infusion of teetotalers in the last two or three generations, has not shown its superiority over these “slaves of alcohol?”


Throughout this article i have stressed the decline of the spirit of liberty in our time; but I do not wish to be understood as implying that its submergence is final. Liberty is out of fashion to-day, and standardization is all the rage; but I refuse to admit that the fashion will never change. I cherish the hope that the time will come when the world will once again feel that the indefinable and incalculable blessings of liberty are quite as precious a part of life as are the definite and measurable advantages which engage the attention of an army of efficiency experts, which form the subject-matter of a thousand volumes of statistics, and which furnish objectives for a hundred varieties of humanitarian effort. These things have their place; they have resulted in great benefits; but it does not follow that the world will never tire of contemplating these benefits, if they are purchased at the cost of a deadening standardization of mankind, the sacrifice of everything that makes for individuality, for adventure, for the zest of life, for the free play of human variety. All this is bound up with liberty, and not only with liberty but with the spirit of liberty; and to believe that that spirit will some day, reassert itself is little more than to believe that man does not live by bread alone.


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