The True Meaning of Liberty in a Free Society

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Recently, I came across by chance a book first published in Philadelphia in 1853 which contains an account of what liberty consists in within a free society that I have found more lucid, elegant  and illuminating than practically any other I have previously come across in what is now getting on for thirty years of serious thought and reading devoted to the subject.

Curiously, whenever I have mentioned the title of this book and the name of its author to others who I know to be similarly interested in such freedom and the character of societies that accord it to their members, none have been ever indicated their familiarity with either.

Accordingly, below I  reproduce the explication that it gives of liberty, along with bibliographical details of the book and whereabouts within it the explication occurs,  as well as links to the relevant pages in the electronic reproduction of the 1853 edition of it, freely available on the internet.

The book in question is Commentaries on the Laws of the Ancient Hebrews. Its author is E.C.Wines, a Presbyterian minister and one-time President of the City University of St Louis. The 1853 edition was published by George Putnam and Company.

Here is the explication of liberty which Wines gives in the book, along with details of the links to the pages where it occurs in the on-line 1853 edition within the Making of America digital library of primary sources in American social history primarily from the antebellum period through reconstruction:

 True liberty consists in the security of persons and property, so that every man, while he respects the persons of others, and suffers them to enjoy in quietness the fruits of their industry, is certain that he himself will be permitted to enjoy the same blessings at the hands of his fellow-citizens… [T]o live in a state, where the laws are equal for all, where they are sure to be executed with moderation and fairness, is to be free. But that is a wretched servitude, call it by what name you will, — democracy or aristocracy, a republic or despotism – where the laws are partial, uncertain, fluctuating, and feebly and irregularly administered.  (E.C. Wines, Commentaries, p. 364)

 Liberty is a word often uttered, but seldom understood. It is the theme of much glowing declamation, but of little sober inquiry. Poets and orators have eulogized the charms of liberty; demagogues use the word every day, as an instrument of political advancement; yet few, comparatively, investigate or comprehend its nature. Civil liberty, the liberty of a community, is a severe and restrained thing. The fundamental idea of it is that of protection in the enjoyment of one’s own rights, up to the point where we begin to trench upon the rights of others. It is natural liberty, so far restrained, and only so far, as may be necessary for the public good. Every law, which abridges personal freedom, without a corresponding general advantage, is an infringement of civil liberty. But it is no infringement of liberty to restrain the freedom of individuals, when the public good requires it. On the contrary, civil liberty implies, in the very notion of it, authority, subjection, and obedience. Montesquieu has well defined it, when he says, that it “consists in the power of doing what we ought to will, and in not being constrained to do what we ought not to will.” [Spirit of the Laws, Book ll, ch.3.] (E.C. Wines, Commentaries, pp. 398-399)

I believe this explication can shed much light on whether laws prohibiting the possession and sale of dangerous drugs, other than under medical prescription and with license to dispense them, infringe liberty, as I shall seek to show in a subsequent posting.