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Liberty is an integral concept in Western political and social thought. Liberty as an inalienable social and political attribute of individuals emerged in the formation of the modern political discourse in the West. Since Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) the concept has often been categorized in a threefold manner: moral liberties (freedom of moral choice, such as freedom of conscience), civil liberties (freedom of individuals as constituting members of a civil society, such as freedom of speech) and political liberties (freedom of individuals in relation to the state, such as freedom of political association), all being attributes of individuals. Pre-modern Europe, by contrast, did not necessarily attribute liberties to individuals but to social relations and communities. Non-Western worlds did not produce an idea equivalent to liberty in their own intellectual traditions. Around the nineteenth century, however, they assimilated the Occidental idea of liberty primarily as a concept denoting the independence of the nation state rather than the liberties of individual human beings. In what follows we shall survey Western conceptions of liberty chronologically, and discuss the Islamic, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese variations of it.

Ancient Conceptions

Liberty or freedom (eleutheria ) in ancient Greece denoted the status of the free man and woman as opposed to that of the slave. The division between free persons and slaves was deemed to be a social and natural institution. Free status was identified by a set of various rights and privileges. Hence, liberty was exclusive and could not be shared by every individual. Indeed, one of the rights of free individuals was to own other individuals as slaves. Similarly, the political freedom of a community also denoted the subjugation of other communities under its control. The preservation of an individual's liberty was not considered to be inconsistent with the depravation of another's, and this was also the case with a political community. In addition, the Greek (especially Athenian) concept of liberty entailed equality of political rights and freedom of male political participation in the public sphere.

In his philosophical framework, Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) left little room for liberty or freedom. Liberty was not a constituent element of human dignity, and freedom of thought was nothing other than the freedom to be incorrect, that is, a greater chance to deviate from the objective truths. Aristotle's (384322 b.c.e.) definition of liberty resembles the contemporary notion; for him, the general essence of freedom is being one's own person for one's own sake rather than belonging to another. What discriminates the slave from the free man, then, is not that he is restricted in his actions and subject to coercion but that everything he does is done to serve the interest of someone else. Whether Aristotle enshrined individual freedom in the sense of personal autonomy is a contentious issue. The place of autonomous practical rationality in his ethics becomes problematic when set against his claim of the individual's subordination to the state (polis ). Aristotle's alleged dearth of interest in personal autonomy would be consistent with the reduction of the individual to a mere part of the state, while the recognition of personal autonomy in the Aristotelian ethical system would not.

The Roman idea of liberty (libertas ) was a civic right acquired under positive law; namely, it was a constituent of the membership of the civic body (citizenship). Roman civil law was applicable to citizens of Rome only; noncitizens were ruled by the law of nations. Roman liberty was by definition a positive right that was guaranteed (but could also be withdrawn) by the law. Law-abiding citizens enjoyed the liberty of a Roman citizen and, before the law, all the citizens were equal. The slave was legally defined as a thing (res ) rather than person (persona ) and was subject to the mastery of another person.

In the final days of Roman republicanism, Cicero (10643 b.c.e.) significantly related forms of government with the idea of liberty. He drew on the Polybian discourse on the change of constitutions and characterized each form of polity according to the degree of liberty attributed to it. Cicero's notion of liberty was equality of juridical rights, not equality before the law. He considered that democracy was marked by the excess of liberty granted to the ruled, and he recommended a just equality proportionate to dignitas (reputation or merit).

Early Christian ideas of liberty concerned interior disposition, which contrasted sharply with Greek and Roman ideas of liberty. St. Augustine of Hippo's (354430 c.e.) discourse on freedom revolved around the idea of free will. Just as God is by definition unwilling and incapable of sin, so Adam, before the Fall, knew the distinction between good and evil and had the God-given power to choose the good alone. After the Fall, however, Adam and his descendents were motivated to choose evil. At the heart of Augustine's conception of liberty was the incapability of sin. From this perspective, individuals, who are "free" in the this-worldly sense are no more free than slaves. In terms of sinful humanity, neither "free" persons nor slaves have the right to be free in this world: the liberty of humans can only be achieved eschatologically.

Medieval Conceptions

Medieval Europe, it is often argued, is an insignificant period in the history of liberty. And yet "liberty" (libertas or franchise ) is a word that can be found in a wide range of medieval documents: charters, plea rolls, theological treatises, and polemical writings. Liberty was, in medieval Europe, widely and primarily grasped as territorial immunity from seigneurial justice. The exclusion of public judges from an individual's land was the privilege attached to and exercised in the landlord's territory, and it could only be granted by a higher authority that acknowledged the capacity to act as a holder of a court or to be a judge.

The libertas and franchise, however, were privileges, and their recipients were often communities. They were not the rights of individual citizens. Indeed, medieval European society has been described as consisting of tightly bound corporate groups, in which individuals were absorbed, and liberty was often attributed to such groups rather than individuals. Should "liberty" be supposed to be an attribute of individuals, it might appear difficult to narrate a medieval history of liberty. But the "discovery of the individual" is now traced back to the world of intellectuals, higher clergy, and aristocracy in the twelfth century. Accordingly, recent research has denied that liberty as an attribute to individuals was not known in medieval Europe. Liberties as individual rights were also known in terms of personal freedom from, say, arbitrary imprisonment and extortion of money for release. This idea of individual liberties can be found in the record of royal justices and parliaments. Article 39 of the Magna Carta (1215) stipulated that "no free man should be captured and imprisoned or disseized or outlawed or exiled or in any way harmed except by a lawful tribunal of his peers and by the law of the land." King John (r. 11991216) was compelled to concede to the requests of the rebellious barons and accepted that royal legislative and judicial authority was limited not only by the divine and natural law but also by his need to obtain counsel and consent of his subjects. In the fourteenth century, the privilege was not limited to the aristocracy as "free men" but to all: no men of whatever estate or condition he may be was to be captured and imprisoned unlawfully. Historians are divided over the significance of the charters of liberties. While the charters appear to offer new liberties, some scholars argue that they merely acknowledged freedoms that had already been enjoyed de facto by individuals as well as communities.

Similar conceptual change took place in the sphere of political and legal theory. It is well known that Henry de Bracton (d. 1268) noted the concept of liberty in Roman law as "the natural power of every man to do what he pleases, unless forbidden by law or force." Thomas Aquinas (c. 12241274) maintained that by nature all human beings were both free and equal. Aquinas's concept of liberty denotes the individual's capacity for free choice, in which one is master of oneself, as opposed to servitude, a markedly Aristotelian conception. The English philosopher William of Ockham (c. 1285?1347) was perhaps the greatest champion of individual liberty before the Renaissance and the Reformation. His ecclesiastical protest against the heretical doctrine of papal absolutism culminated in his assertion of the liberty of evangelical law, which may be grasped as volitional freedom of moral choice. Also Ockham's "nominalist" outlook rejected the quintessentially medieval idea of corporation, thus attributing what he called "right and liberties granted by God and nature" to all individual humans rather than any fictitious groups. His discourse on natural rights and individual liberty has long been considered as the "semantic revolution" of the medieval language of rights. His intrinsically destructive anarchism, it was argued, anticipated the collapse of medieval Latin Christendom followed by the Reformation. Recent research, however, has shown that Ockham's notion of right as the subjective power of an individual's volition originates in the writings of canon lawyers in the twelfth century, such as Uguccione da Pisa (d. 1210), who held that human rationality included a capacity for moral discernment.

Modern Conceptions

Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527) has often been considered as a theorist of political leadership, a founder of modern political science, or a preacher of amoral power politics. Recent scholarship, however, has increasingly paid attention to his republicanism, describing him as a theorist of political liberty. His Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (1535; trans. Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy ) discussed why the city of Rome attained supreme greatness, and liberty was considered as a means to such greatness. The work, filled with references to Roman writers such as Livy, Cicero, and Sallust, is interpreted as an assertion of republican liberty. Machiavelli grasped liberty as the counter-concept of slavery, which parallels his contrast between the free way of life and tyranny. According to him, the preservation of liberty is closely related to the maintenance of a particular form of polity because the enslavement of a political community will inevitably jeopardize individual freedom. The liberty of individual citizens can only be secured if the political community is maintained in a state of liberty. In this sense, coercion to a specific type of polity does not obstruct but rather warrants freedom, and coercion and the Machiavellian concept of liberty are not mutually exclusive. This maintenance of a free commonwealth in turn requires the individual citizen's service to the common good, which can be motivated through the cultivation of civic virtues. This republican idea of liberty was influential among the English Puritan writers in the seventeenth century including James Harrington (16111677) and John Milton (16081674), and America's Federalists in the eighteenth century.

Thomas Hobbes (15881679) has been regarded as no more a defender of liberty than Machiavelli, and yet his conception of liberty, in sharp contrast to Machiavelli's, was no less important in the history of the concept. Hobbes's notion of human freedom was characterized by the absence of external impediments: he discerned when an individual is not hindered to do whatever he has the will, desire, or inclination to do. Hobbes rejected freedom of the will; for him, to say that the will is free is nothing other than to say that a form of internal motion is not constrained from moving by something external, and this was absurd. According to him, liberty "properly called" is what he called "natural liberty," that is, under the "natural" condition, humans have no legal obligations; they are capable of exercising powers without being physically prevented or compelled. In the Hobbesian world of nature, then, one can maximize the enjoyment of liberty when one is alone: a radical and extreme departure from the ancient conception that is embedded in a political and social context. The "artificial" condition of humans, under which people give up their natural liberties and live under human law is in sharp contrast to the natural condition. Liberty we can enjoy under the artificial condition was called the "liberty of subjects," which is identified with the absence of legal prescriptions; hence, "artificial" liberties. Unlike Machiavelli, Hobbes dismissed the idea that the preservation of individual liberty requires the maintenance of a particular type of regime. There is no such thing as a "free" commonwealth because all the commonwealths have laws. To enter subjection to civil rule, however, did not require the complete renunciation of natural liberty; indeed, natural liberties, for instance, to preserve oneself, were inalienable natural rights.

It has been argued that liberty as a universal God-given attribute rather than a privilege determined by political and social institutions is a distinctively "modern" notion. Indeed, the ancient concept of liberty was inconceivable apart from the political and social context, while the modern one was free from such contexts and was rather linked to metaphysical views about the nature of humans. In such modern views, liberty is prior to any political or social arrangements. However, recent research has traced its origin back into medieval Scholastic discourse; hence, the distinction between "modern" and "premodern" concepts of liberty is increasingly blurred and contentious. Seen in this light, Sir Robert Filmer's (d. 1653) attack on the "modern" idea of natural liberty by asserting the naturalness of subjection to an absolute monarch was a radical break with the long-established tradition. Filmer derived his vision of patriarchal monarchy from Adam's unlimited dominion over his spouse and offspring. The traditional theory of natural liberty, for Filmer, identifies liberty with license and would allow the members of society to withdraw their obedience as it pleased them, thereby making social order unstable. John Locke (16321704) defended the older idea of natural liberty against Filmer's criticism by demonstrating the rationality of liberty. Liberty was the will or power to do or not to do what was willed and it gains a moral dimension when it is exercised through identifying the will with the dictates of the reason or intellect that discovers objective good in the natural law. According to Locke, law and freedom are not mutually exclusive; unlike Hobbes, following the law constitutes the fulfillment of liberty. Locke thus restored the nexus between liberty and moral order that was severed by Hobbes. In contrast to Hobbes and Filmer, moreover, Locke attributed to the state the function of assuring the protection of its citizen's "property" including civil and religious liberty.

In criticizing the malaise of inequality in the despotism of the ancien régime, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) was perhaps the most eloquent proponent of the idea of liberty in modern Europe. Rousseau considered that human beings enjoyed freedom in the "natural" state where social and political customs and institutions were nonexistent. The emergence and development of society, however, created moral and political inequality and undermined human beings' "natural" virtue, freedom and equality, which, in his view, culminated in the France of his day. Rousseau thus reclaimed human freedom by asserting popular sovereignty. In participating in the making of the law, men would obey themselves through obeying the law. The kernel of Rousseau's idea of liberty was thus self-mastery, namely every individual's unlimited sovereignty. This conception of liberty transformed the function of the state. In contrast to Locke, who separated religion and morality from politics, Rousseau held that the state might become the constitutive element of the intellectual and moral development of man. This doctrine of liberty influenced Immanuel Kant's (17241804) idea of freedom. In their passionate celebration of liberty commentators like Benjamin Constant (18451902) discerned the potential danger of legitimating totalitarian tyranny or charismatic dictatorship exemplified by the experience of Jacobinism.

Before the Enlightenment the idea of liberty revolved around its relationship to the moral order on the one hand and the relationship between state and individuals or society on the other. After the time of the revolutions at the turn of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, a new perspective was introduced in the discourse on liberty. The pre-Enlightenment perspective overlooked the fact that individual freedom could be constrained and even undermined by power of society, as opposed to the external constraints represented by the state. This problem, which Jeremy Bentham (17481832) first highlighted in his defense of homosexuality and Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859) discussed in his Democracy in America (1835, 1840), was the main subject of John Stuart Mill's (18061873) incisive and extensive criticism in On Liberty (1859). Mill's work was primarily written in protest against the coercive force of moralism that pervaded Victorian society. What Mill called the "tyranny of the majority" captured and criticized the coercive reality of public opinion that was intolerant of any dissidence, eccentricity, and difference. Hence, he limited the authority of society over individuals from his utilitarian perspective; interference with other individual's activities is permitted only if they are likely to cause definite harm to some other persons, thereby violating their social rights. The flip side of this idea was the assertion of the freedom of thought. "If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind." This defense of freedom of thought and speech was rooted in his emphasis on individuality and self-development, which formed an antithesis to the Protestant ethic of self-restraint. Mill's criticism of the "tyrannical" force of social custom also crystallized in his assertion that the women should be liberated from the "subjection" to the men.

Contemporary Conceptions

Modern liberalism regarded liberty as a property of each individual, thereby conceptualizing it as free from politics. Hannah Arendt (19061975) criticized this "anti-political" conception of liberty and preached a return to the ancient political notion. For Arendt, freedom was something "disclosed" in the collective action of individuals toward a shared goal; freedom and the act of exercising power are synonymous, not mutually exclusive. Arendt's celebration of political practice in the polis of ancient Greece resulted in an assertion of republican freedom.

Although Arendt's conception increasingly received serious attention, what has determined the paradigm of the discourse on liberty since the middle of the twentieth century was Isaiah Berlin's (19091997) 1958 lecture "Two Concepts of Liberty," which was later published in Four Essays on Liberty (1969). Its basic framework is easy to draw: Berlin distinguished between positive and negative liberty. Positive liberty denotes rational self-determination or autonomy, while negative liberty denotes the absence of constraints imposed by others. Despite its simplicity, however, Berlin's conceptualization was controversial and required further clarification. In 1969 he reformulated the concept by introducing two questions. Negative freedom can be determined by answering the question: "How much am I governed?" By contrast, the positive concept can be determined by the answer to the question: "By whom am I governed?" Thus Berlin offered a revised definition of negative liberty: "not simply the absence of frustration (which may be obtained by killing desires), but the absence of obstacles to possible choices and activities." Berlin's negative freedom concerns "opportunity for action rather than action itself," which was labeled later by Charles Taylor (b. 1931) as an "opportunity-concept."

Berlin acknowledged positive freedom as "a valid, universal goal," and yet his goal was to suggest the potential danger that positive liberty could readily be turned into the principle that legitimizes oppression, thereby demonstrating why negative liberty was preferable. Positive freedom as self-mastery, according to him, generates a metaphysical fission of the self into a "higher," "real," or "ideal" self and a "lower," "empirical," or "psychological" self. When the "higher" self is identified with institutions, churches, nations, races, and so forth, the doctrine of positive freedom turns into a doctrine of authority, or at times, of oppression. Berlin's discourse forms an intriguing parallel to Benjamin Constant's dual concept of liberty. Constant made a distinction between ancient and modern notions of freedom. He argued that liberty for the ancients was the freedom to participate collectively in the exercise of sovereignty, while liberty for the moderns was the freedom from interference by the community. Constant criticized Rousseau's unlimited notion of sovereigntyhe read Rousseau's texts as supporting despotism. The resemblance between Constant's criticism of modern liberty and Berlin's caution about "positive" freedom is striking, and yet they differed significantly. Constant grasped modern liberty as the inalienable right of individuals, while Berlin's positive freedom is "choice among alternatives or options that is unimpeded by others" (John Gray). Constant's modern freedom and despotism are mutually exclusive, while Berlin's freedom and despotism can coexist.

Berlin's negative liberty was underpinned by his commitment to pluralism. For Berlin, the absence of constraint covers a diverse and conflicting range of values from good to evil. Berlin never tried to reconcile colliding and incommensurable values and rejected any principle that claims to resolve the conflicts. This position forms an intriguing contrast with that of Joseph Raz, who defended negative freedom, by anchoring the moral basis of freedom in autonomy. For Raz, the value of free choice-making is determined by its contribution to the positive freedom of autonomy, which is the intrinsic value. Berlin refuses to give negative freedom such an instrumental status; namely, he celebrates negative freedom as the intrinsic value.

The criticism against the negative concept of liberty highlights the notion's indifference to opportunities or choices. Charles Taylor argues that freedom is important to us because we are purposive beings; hence, we discriminate external obstacles (and, therefore, opportunities available to us as the result of the absence of the external obstacles) according to their significance. The restrictions of religious practice, for instance, may be deemed a serious obstacle and hence a significant threat to liberty, while more traffic lights may not be perceived as serious blow to our freedom. Furthermore, obstacles are not necessarily external; we may be fettered by feelings such as shame or fear or by two conflicting desires (for instance the choice between career and marriage), and we have to discriminate between our motives. Actions arising out of irrational fear or spite cannot be said to be free. Thus Taylor suggests that the negative notion as an "opportunity-concept" is seriously flawed, and abandons one of the important elements of liberalism, that is "self-realization."

Berlin's negative concept of liberty did not only attract criticisms but also found a loyal heir in John Rawls; he understood liberty as freedom from interference. Rawls did not offer an explicit general definition of liberty, but his attribution of the exalted status of liberty, which constituted one of the two principles of justice, is noteworthy. According to the first principle, "Each person is to have an equal right to most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for others." Rawls was very specific about "basic liberties," which included "political liberty (the right to vote and to be eligible for public office) together with freedom of speech and assembly, liberty of conscience and freedom of thought, freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property, and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the rule of law." The priority of these liberties does not allow any of them to be sacrificed except for the sake of liberty.

In addition to the arguments surrounding Berlin's thesis, a "third" concept of liberty has emerged. Intellectual historians, including J. G. A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner, have explored the republican (or "neo-Roman") concept of liberty in early modern republican discourses, and the political philosopher Philip Pettit has theorized republicanism with a focus on the new notion of liberty as nondomination. Hannah Arendt's republican ideals were inspired by political practice in ancient Greece and the American Revolution, while this "third" concept of liberty does not originate in Arendt's vision but rather derives from sixteenth-century Italian humanism and seventeenth-century English republicanism.

Domination, according to Pettit, is exemplified by the relationship of master to slave or master to servant. The "third" concept of liberty proposed by Pettit is neither "non-interference" nor "self-mastery" but "non-domination" that requires that no one has the capacity to interfere on an arbitrary basis in the choices of the free person. Liberty as nondomination differs from the positive notion in that the former emphasizes avoiding interference rather than achieving participation. Yet, republican liberty also differs from the negative concept. Domination occurs without actual interference; and republican liberty would repudiate the presence of a master who did not actually interfere, while the negative concept of liberty would not. Republican liberty rejects arbitrary interference, and what is required for non-arbitrariness in the exercise of power is not consent to the power, as is often claimed by the contractarian theorists, but "the permanent possibility of effectively contesting it." Institutionalized contestability, Pettit argues, would promote "the absence of uncertainty, the absence of a need to defer strategically to the powerful, and the absence of a social subordination to others."

Quentin Skinner participates in the debate from an entirely different angle: he has revised the history of the concept, thereby offering a third concept of liberty that contemporary political philosophers have overlooked. Skinner's case studies of the history of the concept of republican liberty range from Machiavelli to seventeenth-century republican writers including John Milton. Skinner's notion of neo-Roman liberty underlines that it opposes dependence or slavery rather than coercion, on the one hand, and that it requires a specific institutional arrangement, namely the "free state," on the other. The former point represents an antithesis to the Rawlsian narrower notion of liberty as natural rights, and coercion as the antonym of liberty, while, as for the latter, Skinner departed from Berlin who asserted that liberty is independent of the forms of polity.

In the early 1990s Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the "end of history," in a work by the same title, marked by the victory of liberal democracy and market capitalism. Although the number of "liberal democracies" is steadily increasing worldwide, one can hardly say that the notion of liberty is universally shared. Indeed, the civilizations outside the Occidental world did not embrace liberty as a social and political concept until the encounter with Western ideas, especially in the middle of the nineteenth century. The reception of these ideas was, largely speaking, lukewarm at best and, more often, hostile. In addition, those who favored the Western idea confronted the following two problems: one was doctrinalhow to relate a foreign idea to the their own intellectual traditionsand the other was semantichow to translate the word "liberty" into their own language.

Islamic World

The Arabic word for liberty or freedom is hurriyya, stemming from hurr, meaning "free." "Free" as a legal term signified the opposite of "slave," while it denoted, as an ethical term, "noble" character and behavior. The legal concept of freedom, which was already known to the pre-Islamic world, continued to be used in Muslim jurisprudence. Hurriyya occupied an important place also in metaphysics: one of the significant repercussions of Sufism on political thought was the retreat from politics. The Sufist doctrine of renunciation maintained that poverty, self-humiliation and complete surrender of personality was the highest value of life, which underpinned the apolitical character of the doctrine. Accordingly, a Sufi mystic philosopher, Ibn al-Arabi (11651240), defined hurriyya as "slavery to God," namely freedom from everything but God. Personal freedom was valued within the religious, moral, and customary sphere determined by the umma (Islamic community of believers), yet it was never considered to be an absolute moral value. Thus hurriyya never enjoyed exalted status as a fundamental political value.

It was Ottoman Turkey in the eighteenth century that introduced the Western ideas of liberty to Islam. The treaty of Kücük Kaynarch in 1774 between Russia and Turkey established the free and independent status of the Crimean Tatars from the two countries. The Turkish term first used for liberty, however, was not hürriyet, derived from the Arabic hurriyya, but serbestiyet. Serbest is a Persian word, meaning "exempt," "untrammeled," and "unrestricted"; accordingly, serbestiyet denotes the absence of limitations or restrictions. This negative concept of liberty does not convey such meanings as citizenship or participation to government. The use of serbestiyet in a political context dates from the early fourteenth century and was a commonplace in political discourse by the late eighteenth century. Celebrated Ottoman ambassadors, such as Azmi Efendi and Morali Esseyid Ali Efendi, used serbestiyet in terms of political liberty in their memoranda.

Hurriyya entered the Islamic political lexicon in 1798 when Napoléon Bonaparte arrived in Egypt and addressed the Egyptians in Arabic on behalf of the French Republic "founded on the basis of freedom and equality," and the term hurriyya was chosen for the translation of "freedom." Again, the Ottomans made a significant contribution to the widespread political use of the term. Sadik Rifat Pasa (18071856) was one such writer. He observed that European prosperity derived from political conditions such as security of life and property and freedom. Rifat's Concerning the Condition of Europe, which was written during his sojourn in Vienna, represents the early Ottoman reception of the Western idea of political liberty. But his understanding of liberty was limited to the security of subjects from arbitrary coercion by the government, not the right to participate in it. Rifat also introduced the new language of rights into his largely traditional framework of Islamic political thought.

The Ottoman assimilation of the concept of political liberty was accelerated by the rise of a new Turkish literary movement led by the Young Ottomans including Ibrahim Sinasi (18261871), Ziya Pasa (18251880), and Namik Kemal (18401888). Their popular weekly journal Hürriyet was launched in 1868. Perhaps Namik Kemal is the most systematic of these thinkers; he was the first to correlate the ideas of human right and parliamentary government so as to achieve a new vision of freedom and self-government. Heavily influenced by the writings of Montesquieu and Rousseau as well as the practice of the French Third Republic and the British parliamentary system, Kemal attempted to marry the language of modern liberal-parliamentary democracy to Islamic political language. For the first time in the history of Islamic political thought, popular sovereignty was based on the liberty of the individual. However, the tyranny of Abdülhamīd II (18421918) stifled the Ottoman pursuit of liberty.

Egypt under British rule assimilated liberal political thought quite independent of the Turkish experience. Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid (18721963) was probably the most systematic exponent of Islamic liberalism. Under the influence of Mill, Lutfi al-Sayyid squarely situated freedom at the center of this thought. For him, freedom meant absence of unnecessary control by the state: a negative concept of liberty. Freedom was "the necessary food for our life," the human's inalienable natural right: it was a necessary condition for humans to be human in the fullest sense. Hence, Lutfi al-Sayyid celebrated limited government: political and legal arrangements and institutions that safeguard liberty were the "natural" and "true" form of government. An opponent of pan-Islamism and Arab nationalism, Lutfi al-Saiyyd was also concerned with the freedom of the nation. He argued for the liberation of Egypt from foreign rule. In this context, liberty and independence were considered almost synonymous.


Liberty in the sense of spiritual liberation from the cycle of birth and death was a key idea in Indian thought. The liberty of the individual in civil or political society was foreign to classical Indian political thought. The equivalent to the idea of civil rights can be found in the ancient literature of Smritis, but it differed significantly from the Western idea in that the former was considered to belong exclusively to the upper classes (especially the order of the Brahmanas).

The idea of liberty came to the fore of Indian political thinking with the encounter with the modern West, epitomized by the intellectual contributions of Mahatma Gandhi (18691948) and Manabandra Nath Roy (18871954). Gandhi's idea of liberty was framed in the idea of swaraj, a multifaced concept of the utmost importance in his thought. Swaraj, literally meaning "self-rule," was also used by Gandhi to signify national independence and the political, economic and spiritual freedom of the individual. As was the case with the "modern" Islam, national independence was closely related to the idea of liberty, meaning collective freedom from alien rule. Gandhi, however, did not conceptualize it negatively. National independence, framed in the idea of swaraj, was not merely freedom from foreign rule but also self-government. Gandhi's commitment to political freedom turned him into a defender of rights, and yet he refused to base the peace and security of collective life on rights. He always placed individual duty (dharma) and social and moral interdependence above rights because, for him, rights were the consequence of the fulfillment of duties. Gandhi considered his celebrated satyagraha (passive resistance) as the performance of his duties and hence also as a method of securing rights by personal suffering. Gandhi's conception of liberty also entailed an economic dimension: it denoted freedom from poverty. He attacked the contemporary reality of poverty by practicing voluntary poverty in order to demonstrate solidarity with the poor, while he criticized technology-oriented industrialization for its imperialistic exploitation of the masses. Although Gandhi located liberty in a political and economic context, his notion of liberty was also spiritual: self-rule through the practice of virtues toward self-realization. Gandhi's novelty lies in the fact that to the notion of spiritual freedom, which was derived from the classical Indian tradition, he added political, economic, and social dimensions. This perspective derived from Gandhi's internal dialogue between the Western Utopian thought represented by Henry David Thoreau (18171862), John Ruskin (18191920), Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882), and Leo Tolstoy (18281910) and the classical Indian thought manifested in the Hindu devotional work the Bhagavad Gita.

Whereas Gandhi's leadership of the Hindu masses was enormously influential and successful, Manabendra Nath Roy's gained no popular appeal. Roy's political position changed over time from nationalism, then to communism, and finally to radical humanism. His colorful but unsuccessful commitment to the Indian freedom movement, however, was guided consistently by an ardent desire for individual freedom. The intellectual context of Roy's political and literary activity was, unlike that of Gandhi, distinctively Westernized, markedly severed from the Indian traditions. Roy defined freedom as the "progressive disappearance of all restrictions on the unfolding of the potentialities of individuals," and anchored the desire for freedom in biological nature. His conception of liberty was radically negative to the extent that individual freedom and social responsibility were mutually exclusive. Roy considered liberty to be dependent upon the mind of the individual rather than external conditions, and yet his belief in popular sovereignty as an inalienable right determined his preference for people's direct political participation in parliamentary democracy.


The Chinese language did not know a word for "liberty" before the nineteenth century. The modern translation of "liberty," ziyou (meaning, literally, self-determination), had to be coined in response to the reception of Western ideas. The closest classical term, ziran (meaning, literally, "the natural"), denoted a Taoist sense of harmony with nature. This is not to say that the idea of personal freedom was totally foreign to classical Chinese philosophy. Confucian belief in human perfectibility, however, concerned interior spiritual freedom, differing from the Western political and social concept. Likewise, freedom as a right was not conceptualized until the nineteenth century. Kang Youmai (18581927) was one of the first Chinese intellectuals who introduced the Protestant idea of free will. His Complete Book of Substantial Principles and General Laws (written between 1885 and 1887) described human beings as owners of the "right of autonomy" (zizhu zhi quan ), thereby adopting the language of rights.

The Chinese encounter with the Western idea of liberty may well be illustrated by the translation of the works of nineteenth-century English intellectuals by Yan Fu (18541921). He became widely known for his translation of T. H. Huxley's Evolution and Ethics, which introduced evolution theory to the Chinese intellectual world at the turn of nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Deeply inspired by Herbert Spencer's (18201903) concept of social organism, Yan Fu maintained that the individual's pursuit of self-interest would generate a Darwinian struggle for survival that should result in the evolution of a more harmonious society. Yan Fu claimed to have derived from Spencer his own notion of human freedom denoting the release of an individual's "energy." His Spencerian liberalism was a radical departure from the orthodox Confucian ethic that regarded the pursuit of self-interest as the source of evil, while his translations also distorted the original meaning of other writings from the West. One such case is his translation of Mill's On Liberty : Yan Fu bent Mill's original conception of liberty to meet his own political purposes. Mill considered liberty of the individual as an end in itself. However, Yan Fu's Spencerian outlook produced a distorted understanding of Mill's concept as a means to the advancement of the people's virtue and intellect, ultimately to achieve the freedom of the state.

One of the powerful promoters of individual liberties (ziyou ) and rights (quanli ) in the Late Qing China was Liang Qichao (18731929). He absorbed a wide range of Western philosophy and social sciences through Japanese translations, but he endeavored to anchor the ideas of liberty and rights in the Confucian intellectual heritage. It has been debated how the Chinese reception of social and political concepts and discourses from the modern West relates to classical Chinese traditions. For instance, freedom of thought is at the heart of contemporary Western liberal democracy, while "harmony and unity of thought" (tongyi sixiang ) is celebrated in post-socialist China. This contrasting attitude toward freedom of thought has received scholarly attention in connection with the lingering Confucian tradition.


In modern Japanese, "liberty" is normally translated jiyu. The Japanese first encountered the idea of liberty in Dutch, vrijheid, and the translator could not find any proper translation, leaving it untranslated. Indeed, when Western scholarship flooded into the Japanese intellectual scene through the translation of works such as Samuel Smiles's Self Help (1859) and Mill's On Liberty, "liberty" was commonly recognized as a difficult word to translate. After a variety of translations were attempted, jiyu survived as the only term widely used today. Unlike the case in China, jiyu had already existed in the Japanese vocabulary before Japan's exposure to the Western idea of liberty; however, the first Japanese translators of "liberty" were not entirely convinced with their choice of the term. Fukuzawa Yukichi (18341901) is arguably responsible for the proliferation of the word, and yet he noted that jiyu (and any other Japanese word) failed to capture the precise meaning of liberty. According to the contemporary usage, jiyu signified "selfishness," "arbitrariness," and "emancipation of human desire"in a word "license." The moral connotation of jiyu was rather negative. Some maintain that the notion of jiyu is rooted in the Taoist idea of formless but freely moving spirit, while others see its affinity to the National Learning (kokugaku ) emphasis on human desire, as the novelist and poet Ihara Saikaku (16421693) once wrote: "Humans are the desires with four limbs." The first translators' concern with possible misunderstanding and misconceptions soon became real: although jiyu became a buzz word in the 1880s when the Freedom and People's Rights Movement (jiyu minken undo ) reached its height, the majority of intellectuals and political leaders who supported the movement grasped jiyu in terms of "license." Consequently liberalism was considered to be a licentious ideology.

The leaders of the Japanese Enlightenment often understood the concept of jiyu in connection with the independence of their country as a nation state. The liberty and independence of the state were the focus of debate, whereas civil liberties often escaped the attention of intellectuals. The indifference to civil liberties forms the background to the state's oppression of free speech and academic enquiry. In 1919, Morito Tatsuo (18881984), of the Faculty of Economics in Tokyo Imperial University, published an article on the social thought of the anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (18421921), and the authorities filed charges against him and the editor of the journal that published the paper. Morito was expelled from the university and imprisoned. Minobe Tatsukichi (18731948) of the Faculty of Law at Tokyo Imperial University was known for his view that the emperor was an organ of the state. In 1935, his "organ theory," which had gained wide support in the academic community, suddenly became the object of public condemnation. Minobe was compelled to resign from the Membership of the House of Peers, and his books were banned and burned. These incidents did not merely represent the state's oppression of intellectual freedom, but also reflected the public's skepticism toward the mistranslated "liberty." The widespread confusion of jiyu with license had prevented the Japanese from appreciating the value of civil liberties, and heavily discredited liberalism until Japan's disastrous defeat in 1945.

See also Autonomy ; Enlightenment ; Equality ; Human Rights ; Liberalism ; Sovereignty ; State, The .


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Wood, Neal. Cicero's Social and Political Thought. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988.

Takashi Shogimen


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"Liberty" is a story by Julia Alvarez, an American writer of Dominican origin. It is set during Alvarez's childhood in the Dominican Republic in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The story was first published in 1996 in Writers Harvest 2: A Collection of New Fiction, which remains in print. It is also available in Elements of Literature:Fourth Course (Holt Rinehart Winston, 2000) and in Literature & Language Arts: Third Course (Holt Rinehart Winston, 2003). The story is told from the point of view of an unnamed child of about ten who is one of four young girls living in their family home with their parents. Her parents are worried about the political situation in the country and are planning to emigrate from their native country to the United States to secure their freedom. The story centers on a pet dog named Liberty who must be left behind when the family leaves their home. During the course of the story the young narrator is presented with some difficult and cruel situations that she does her best to understand and learn from. In style and subject matter, "Liberty" is typical of Alvarez's work and shows why she is one of the most acclaimed contemporary writers in the United States.


Julia Alvarez was born in New York City on March 27, 1950, to parents from the Dominican Republic who were staying in the United States

at the time. When Alvarez was three months old, her parents returned with their family to the Dominican Republic, where Alvarez remained until she was ten years old; in 1960, the family fled political oppression in their homeland and returned to the United States, settling in New York City. As a new immigrant in an unfamiliar world, Alvarez felt insecure, and she turned to writing as a way of understanding herself and her life. Encouraged by her teachers, she decided when she was in high school that she wanted to be a writer.

In 1967, Alvarez enrolled in Connecticut College, transferring to Middlebury College in 1969. In 1971 she received her bachelor of arts degree summa cum laude. Pursuing her goal of becoming a writer, Alvarez entered a creative writing program at Syracuse University in 1973, receiving her master of fine arts degree in 1975.

Alvarez then held various positions teaching creative writing. From 1975 to 1978, she taught in the poetry-in-the-schools programs in Kentucky and Delaware. From 1979 to 1981, she taught English and creative writing to grades nine to twelve at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts. During the 1980s, she taught creative writing at the University of Vermont (1981-1983), and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1985-1988). In 1991, she became a professor in the English department at Middlebury College.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Alvarez published numerous poems and short stories in literary magazines. In 1991, she published her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, about four sisters who immigrate from the Dominican Republic to the United States and face the challenge of becoming integrated into American culture. This novel was Alvarez's breakthrough as a writer, winning her favorable reviews and a national reputation. It was selected as a notable book by the American Library Association in 1992. Alvarez followed this with another novel, In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), based on the true story of the murder of three sisters in the Dominican Republic in 1960 and the resistance in that country to the repressive dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo.

Alvarez's short story "Liberty" was published in Writers Harvest 2: A Collection of New Fiction in 1996. The following year her novel ¡Yo!, about a Latina girl named Yolanda, appeared. Another novel, In the Name of Salomé, was published in 2000, followed by Finding Miracles (2004), a novel about a fifteen-year-old girl who was born in the Dominican Republic but was adopted by American parents and came to live in Vermont. Alvarez's sixth novel, Saving the World, was published in 2006.

Alvarez has also published volumes of poetry, including Homecoming: New and Selected Poems (1996) and The Woman I Kept to Myself (2004). She has also written nonfiction, including a collection of autobiographical essays called Something to Declare (1998) and Once upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA (2007), about the Latin American tradition, which is continued in Latino communities in the United States, of celebrating a girl's passage into womanhood at the age of fifteen. Alvarez has also written a number of books for young readers. As of 2008, Alvarez was writer-in-residence at Middlebury College.


Section 1

"Liberty," which is divided into five short sections, is narrated by a young girl of about ten who witnesses events at her family home that she does not fully understand. The story is set in an unnamed Latin or Central American country that is likely the Dominican Republic.

In Section 1, the narrator's father brings home a puppy, but his wife, the narrator's mother, does not like the look of the dog and tells her husband to return it. He protests that the dog is a gift from the American consul, a man he calls Mister Victor, in gratitude for all that Papi and his family have done for him since he was appointed as the U.S. representative to their country.

Mami complains that what she really wants is not a dog but visas, so that they can leave the country and enter the United States. The narrator does not understand what is going on and is puzzled by the fact that when Mami and Papi discuss leaving the country, they look frightened. Papi tries to reassure his wife that the visas will arrive soon. He also says that they will keep the dog in a pen in the yard. The dog will not be allowed in the house, and Papi is certain that it will be well behaved. In deciding what to call the rambunctious puppy, Mami suggests the name Trouble, but Papi says the dog will be called Liberty, and he quotes the U.S. Constitution about the importance of liberty. He thinks the dog will bring them luck.

Section 2

Mami proves to be right about the dog being troublesome. He eats the flowers, knocks things off tables, and tears up the yard. Mami yells at him to no avail. Mami grows frustrated with the dog and angry with her husband's attempts at humor. It transpires that she has changed her mind and no longer wants to emigrate to the United States. She does not like it when the American consul visits their house and talks with her husband about serious matters. She does not want any bad things to happen, she says. She does not go into any details because she does not want her daughter to hear.

The narrator tells the reader more about herself. She enjoys playing with Liberty. She had always been more adventurous and more likely to get into trouble than her three sisters. She offers to take Liberty back to his pen to get him out of her mother's way. As she takes Liberty away, she notices that her mother, who had been talking to her father, has started to cry.

The narrator describes Liberty's fenced-in pen, in the middle of which stands a doghouse, which her father painted green. Liberty does not like going in the pen, and on this occasion he heads for a shady tree in the front yard that cannot be seen from the house. The narrator follows him but is shocked when she sees two men she does not know behind the hedge. One of the men has grabbed Liberty's collar and is pulling on it. The girl begins to back away but one of the men grabs her arm.

The men give the dog back to her and tell her not to tell anyone that she has seen them. The girl does not understand what is going on but is grateful to get Liberty back. She comforts the dog and leads him back to his pen. Then she goes back to the house, planning on telling her parents what has just happened.

Section 3

The narrator tells of how Mister Victor spends large amounts of time at their house. He and Papi, as well as any visiting relatives, go to the back of the property to talk, presumably so that they can be assured of privacy. The narrator reports that her mother found some wires in the study behind a portrait. The wires connect to a little box outside, suggesting that the house is being spied on electronically. The girl's mother says it is not safe to talk in the house about certain topics. But she does not explain to the puzzled girl what the situation is.

The girl's mother refuses to say what is wrong, but the girl observes that she is always crying. In spite of this, the narrator seems to be enjoying herself, eating foods normally forbidden. One day Mister Victor talks to her about the dog. She gets Liberty to show Victor some of the tricks she has taught him, and he laughs.

The narrator listens to the men of the house, including some visiting uncles, as they talk about an upcoming hunting expedition, but a lot of what they are saying makes no sense to her. They are in fact talking in a coded language to veil their meaning, but she does not understand this. She feels that life is about to change dramatically, and she puts her arm around her dog for comfort.

Section 4

The girl learns that their visas have arrived and that they are to depart for the United States that night. Her mother tries to pretend that she is happy with this news and gives each child a job to do to prepare for their departure. The narrator says she wants to take Liberty with her to America, but her mother says this is not possible. The girl begs her to change her mind, to no avail. The distressed girl then begins to cry, and soon her mother is crying, too. One of the girl's aunts tries to comfort her by telling her that she will find liberty in America. The girl does not understand what she means; the aunt does not explain but tells the girl that they must go and pack.

Section 5

Late that night someone comes and tells the family it is time to leave. The four sisters leave their bedrooms and sit on a bench and wait while the adults rush around. Mister Victor comes and tells them that they must wait a little longer. The narrator then slips away and goes to the backyard. She is afraid that the two scary men she encountered earlier will return after the family has gone, smash the place up, and find Liberty in his pen. She opens the pen for the dog and urges him to run away, but instead the dog follows her. She kicks him until he runs away from the house. At first the girl thinks she will meet Liberty again in the United States, but she then realizes that this will not happen. She hopes he will be there when she and the family return home, since her mother has promised that they will return.



Liberty is the black and white puppy that Mister Victor gives to Papi and the family. He is a pure-bred dog, although his breed is not stated. Papi expects the dog to be well behaved, but he has not yet been trained, so he tends to make a nuisance of himself, to the annoyance of Mami. However, the narrator loves Liberty, and from the time of his arrival she plays with him rather than with her sisters. It is as if they are two of a kind, both being adventurous and often getting into trouble.


Mami is the narrator's mother. She is a tense, nervous, sometimes angry woman who is under a lot of strain because of the uncertainty of the family situation. It is enough for her to have to look after her four daughters without having a dog to worry about as well. She and Liberty do not get along. The dog is troublesome and does not obey Mami's commands, which only increases her frustration. Mami is also confused about what she wants. Initially she wants to emigrate to the United States, but she later changes her mind. It seems that the danger the family appears to be facing weighs heavily upon her mind. She no doubt wants the best for her daughters, but she is in a difficult position. The men wield the power in this family, and she is not in a position to question what they decide, so her frustration and anxiety continue to build. Her habit of punishing the children for their misdeeds appears not to be the best way to make them behave, as Aunt Mimi has apparently pointed out to her. The narrator likes to argue with her mother and try to get her own way, and Mami's frustration with her daughter is obvious from her impatient reply to the narrator's impossible request to take Liberty to the United States.

Tía Mimi

Tía Mimi is the narrator's aunt. Unlike anyone else in the family, she has been educated in the United States. She is intelligent and sophisticated and reads a lot. She takes an interest in the narrator, buying her a book on the Arabian Nights and promising her that she will "find liberty" in the United States. The narrator is fond of her and likes to listen to the intelligent way she talks. Tía Mimi obviously has a way with children, in contrast to the heavy-handed approach of Mami.

The Narrator

The narrator is a girl of about ten. She is one of the four daughters of Mami and Papi, and she is in fifth grade in school. She is an adventurous, inquisitive girl who tries hard to understand the world around her, although she is frequently mystified by the words and actions of the adults in her life. She seems to be a high-spirited girl who frequently gets into trouble, to the exasperation of her mother. The narrator describes herself as "the tomboy, the live wire, the troublemaker, the one who was going to drive Mami to drink, the one she was going to give away to the Haitians." In this sense she is rather different from her more conventional, feminine sisters, and she finds her ideal companion in Liberty, the puppy, with whom she forms a close bond. She plays with him as often as she can and wants to take him to the United States. When this proves impossible, she does everything she can to ensure that after she is gone Liberty does not fall into the hands of the two frightening strangers.

During the course of the story, the narrator grows in the sense that she discovers that there are bad people in the world, that life is not simple, and that one cannot always have everything one wants. She also shows great ingenuity and determination in making sure that her beloved dog Liberty has every chance of survival after they leave him behind on their journey to the United States. The difficult circumstances in which she finds herself force her to achieve a level of maturity beyond her years.


Papi is the narrator's father. He wants to emigrate to the United States so that he can return to school there. It appears that he is an admirer of the United States and the freedom it offers. There are certainly other reasons for his desire to leave his home country, since it appears that he and his family are under surveillance by the government. However, no details are given about why this is so. Papi befriends Mister Victor, the American consul, who helps him obtain visas for himself and his family, as well as having given them the gift of the puppy. Papi does not want to offend Mister Victor by refusing the puppy, even though his wife is not pleased with the addition to the family. Papi appears to be a good husband and father who wants the best for his family. He is an optimistic man who looks on the bright side of things.

The Two Intruders

The intruders are two men, perhaps government agents of some kind, who may be spying on the activities of the narrator's family. The narrator encounters them crouched behind a hedge. They are both wearing sunglasses, and one of them, who is fat, is pulling hard on Liberty's leash. The other man grabs the narrator's arm. She is frightened by them and does not know who they are or what they want. It is her first encounter with "mean and scary people."

Mister Victor

Mister Victor is the American consul; he gives the puppy to Papi. It appears that Victor has only recently been appointed as consul and that Papi and his family have done much to make him welcome in their country. Mister Victor in turn has befriended the family and is frequently over at their house, talking seriously, perhaps about the political situation in the country, with Papi and the narrator's uncles. It is Mister Victor who facilitates the granting of visas so that the family can leave the country. Mister Victor appears to be a kind man, speaking gently to the children. From the childlike point of view of the narrator, Mister Victor "had a funny accent that sounded like someone making fun of Spanish when he spoke it." The narrator likes Mister Victor because of his laugh and the fact that his freckled face makes him look as if he and Liberty are somehow related.



The theme of liberty is associated with the United States. Liberty means freedom from oppressive control by others; to live in liberty means to have individual rights and freedoms protected under constitutional rule. The concept of liberty is most famously referred to in the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, which proclaims that all men are endowed by God with "unalienable rights," including "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"—the words quoted by Papi in the story as he explains why he would like the puppy to be named Liberty. (The narrator makes a small error when she says that her father was quoting the U.S. Constitution, since the words he used are from the Declaration of Independence.) He and his family look to the United States as a land of freedom, where their liberties will be preserved, in contrast to their own country, in which they appear to be under hostile surveillance by the government.

The narrator's entire family appears to share this view of the United States as a land of freedom. The girl's aunt, for example, tells her that she will find liberty in the United States. However, the narrator is too young to have any idea of political concepts such as liberty and thinks at first that she will find Liberty, her dog, in the United States. For her, liberty means the freedom from the usual restraints imposed on her by her parents, as when she enjoys a "heyday of liberty" when her mother and father are too preoccupied with their difficult situation to pay as much attention to her. Liberty for this ten-year-old means such trivia as getting away with "having one of Mister Victor's Coca-Colas for breakfast instead of my boiled milk with a beaten egg." At the end of the story she does guess that with regard to finding liberty in the United States, her aunt means something other than finding her dog, but she is not yet old enough to understand what that meaning might be. For the reader, however, the last line in the story does disclose a wider meaning. The girl says that when she returns to her native land she hopes that "my Liberty will be waiting for me here." She is referring of course to her dog, but the words also convey the need for political freedom in her country of origin, which appears to be suffering under an oppressive government.


  • Write a story in the first person, with a child of about ten as the narrator. Show the child observing the adult world and understanding it as best he or she can, and make it clear that the child does not grasp many things. End the story by showing how the child has in some way grown or matured in his or her understanding of life through the events he or she has narrated.
  • Read one of two other works by Alvarez, either In the Time of the Butterflies or How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Give a class presentation in which you summarize what the novel is about and describe how it sheds light on either life in the Dominican Republic in the late 1950s and early 1960s or on the experiences encountered by Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States.
  • Interview several students or other people in your community who are first-generation or second-generation immigrants, from a Spanish-speaking country if possible. Ask them about their experiences in adjusting to life in the United States. Mention such things as language, culture, and education. Write an essay based on your interviews in which you examine the lives of immigrants in your community.
  • Research the history of U.S. policy toward the Dominican Republic throughout the twentieth century. What were the principles that governed U.S. policy? How did it change over the years? Write an essay in which you discuss your findings.

Loss of Innocence

The fifth-grade child who narrates the story knows little about the harshness of life. She is one of four children in a close-knit, loving, extended family. But during the course of the story she is exposed to some of the cruelty and danger that exists in the world. Her first shock comes when she encounters the two intimidating strangers on the family property. One of them pulls hard on Liberty's leash, almost breaking the dog's neck (at least as the narrator views the incident), and the other one grips her arm hard enough to leave fingerprint marks on her flesh after releasing her. This is a glimpse for the girl of

the brutal world that exists beyond the security of her own home; indeed, it has invaded her previously invulnerable home. As she says, it was the first time she had "come across mean and scary people."

The girl must also face the fact that sometimes events proceed out of her control and against her wishes; she must leave her beloved dog behind when the family emigrates to the United States. Another important lesson she learns, and a sign of the maturity that is forced early upon her, is that in certain circumstances she may need to appear cruel in order to ensure the best interests of a creature she loves, in this case her dog. This happens at the end of the story when she is anxious to ensure that the two men will not be able to ill-treat Liberty when they return to the property after the family has gone. She kicks the dog, gently at first, in order to stop him from following her and to encourage him to escape. When the dog continues to follow her, she kicks him harder, until he whimpers and then runs off. She has learned to act decisively and courageously when a loved one is threatened. As her father has said to her, "All liberty involves sacrifice," and as she absorbs this lesson she necessarily loses some of her childish innocence about life.


Child's Point of View

Alvarez's story is told in the first person by a young girl. This means that all the events are described from the point of view of the child. Much of the effectiveness of the story consists in the fact that the girl does not understand the events that are going on around her. No one tells her the real situation. This is cleverly dramatized when she overhears the men talking in a kind of code about their plans. Not aware of the code, she has no idea of what they are discussing. Also, she does not understand that the discovery of the wires in the house shows that the family is being spied upon. Her lack of understanding gives the story a sense of mystery. The reader has to put together the pieces that the child misses. However, while the child may not understand everything that is going on, she is fully responsive to people's moods and to the atmosphere in the home. She has the ability to feel, and that is another factor that allows the reader to become emotionally engaged in the story.

Past Tense and Present Tense

Almost the entire story is told in the past tense. But in the last section, beginning with "Late in the night someone comes in and shakes us awake," the narrator switches to the present tense, and this continues for the remainder of the story. This is an unusual device, since an author would normally be consistent in use of tense in a short story. However, changing to the present tense for the final section creates a greater sense of immediacy and urgency for the reader, who has the illusion of being there as the story reaches its climax.

Liberty as Symbol

It is significant that the dog is named Liberty. Living up to his name, he shows how much he likes to be free. He does not obey the rules that the humans, especially the girl's mother, make for him, and he does not like being confined in his pen. It is entirely appropriate that after being given some prods by the narrator, Liberty escapes to freedom at the end. He may be taking his chances in the outside world, but that will be better than being at the mercy of the two thugs who may return. The dog as a symbol of liberty therefore supports the theme of the importance of liberty: It is better to take risks and remain free than to allow others to dictate the course of one's life.


  • 1950s-1960s: The Dominican Republic suffers under the repressive dictatorship of President Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. Opposition groups backed by the United States plot Trujillo's assassination, which occurs in 1961.

    Today: The Dominican Republic has a democratic system of government and holds regular competitive elections. In May 2008, President Leonel Fernández, head of the centrist Dominican Liberation Party, wins election to a third four-year term. His success largely stems from his ability to keep the nation's economy prosperous. However, many people in the Dominican Republic remain poor and unable to meet their basic needs.

  • 1950s-1960s: During the repressive atmosphere of the Trujillo dictatorship, high-quality fiction writing does not flourish in the Dominican Republic. One of the nation's most talented writers, Juan Bosch, goes into exile rather than live under Trujillo's regime. After Trujillo's assassination and the civil war of 1965, a new generation of writers emerges to make major contributions to the literature of the nation.

    Today: Dominican writers, including José Alcántara Almánzar, Manuel de Jesús Galván, Manuel del Cabral, Juan Bosch, and Julia Alvarez, have international reputations for their work. Many of these writers cover the Dominican diaspora experience. A novel by Viriato Sención, originally written in Spanish and translated into English as They Forged the Signature of God (1995), includes reference to the difficulties experienced by Dominican immigrants in New York City.

  • 1950s-1960s: In response to the political and economic turbulence in their country, a large number of Dominicans immigrate to the United States, with the majority settling in New York City; Paterson, New Jersey; southern Florida, especially Miami and Fort Lauderdale; and Lawrence and Boston, Massachusetts.

    Today: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2006, there are approximately 1.2 million people of Dominican descent in the United States. This figure includes those born in the United States as well as those born elsewhere. The states that contain the largest Dominican populations are New York, New Jersey, Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.


Political Oppression in the Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic occupies the eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. "Liberty" is set during a particularly difficult time in the history of the Dominican Republic, when unrest and opposition to the brutal regime of the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo was on the rise. Trujillo first came to power in 1930. He was a military man who had risen to the rank of brigadier general in the national armed forces. After waging a campaign consisting of intimidation and terror in the national presidential election of 1930, Trujillo declared himself the winner and became the country's president. He proved himself to be a corrupt leader, amassing a personal fortune through the ownership of many of the country's industries. He ruthlessly eliminated any political opposition, using torture and murder to accomplish his goals and setting up a feared secret police, known as the SIM. (It is likely that the two men whom the narrator in "Liberty" finds hiding on the family property are members of the SIM.) In 1937, Trujillo ordered the mass killing of Haitians who lived on the border between Haiti, on the western third of the island, and the Dominican Republic. Many of the Haitians were unemployed, having crossed the border looking for work. Between fifteen thousand and twenty-five thousand Haitians were massacred.

During this period of the 1930s and 1940s, the United States supported the Trujillo dictatorship, which preserved the appearance of democracy, holding regular elections and granting women the right to vote. The economy also grew, with large investments in public works. Many schools were built during these decades. The national foreign debt was eliminated. The United States therefore overlooked the tyrannous and brutal nature of Trujillo's rule. However, after World War II, opposition to Trujillo began to grow in the Dominican Republic, and U.S. support for the dictator began to wane. A visit to Washington, D.C., in 1952 improved Trujillo's standing in the United States, but five years later the Dominican economy went into decline as a result of excessive borrowing. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the era in which "Liberty" is set, opposition to his rule grew. Julia Alvarez's father was involved in a failed plot to overthrow Trujillo. Before he was implicated in the plot, some Americans friends helped him to acquire a visa that allowed him and his family to emigrate from the Dominican Republic to the United States.

Trujillo responded to the growing opposition to his regime with more brutal repression. One of the most notorious of the regime's crimes was the killing of the three Mirabal sisters, Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa, in 1960. These three sisters were members of an underground revolutionary group known as J14 that was dedicated to the overthrow of the Trujillo dictatorship. The murders created an international outcry and effectively ensured Trujillo's overthrow, which was made more certain by the continuing deterioration of the nation's economy. Trujillo was assassinated in May 1961 by a group of conspirators who had received arms from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The U.S. government was fully aware of the assassination plot.

Latino Literature in the United States

Latino American literature refers to works written by those of Spanish-speaking heritage, including Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, and many other groups. When Alvarez first began to write, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were few opportunities for women of her ethnic heritage to be published by major publishers or be accepted into the canon of American literature. This applied to most nonwhite writers, including African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos. However, during the 1970s the situation began to change. One of the first Latino novels to gain wide mainstream readership was Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anya, which was published in 1972 and by the end of the 1980s had become an established classic. The success of The House on Mango Street, by the Mexican American Sandra Cisneros, was a breakthrough for Latina literature in 1983, as was the 1985 English language publication of The House of the Spirits, a novel by the Chilean American Isabel Allende that became a best seller. In 1989, the Cuban American writer Oscar Hijuelos won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. In this late-1980s publishing environment that was becoming favorable to minority writers, several Latina writers emerged, including the Mexican Americans Ana Castillo and Denise Chávez, the Puerto Rican Americans Judith Ortiz Cofer and Esmeralda Santiago, and the Cuban Americans Cristina García and Himilce Novas. Alvarez's own breakthrough novel, published in 1991, was How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. She was the first Dominican American female writer to publish a novel that enjoyed mainstream success. Another Dominican American writer, Junot Díaz, who like Alvarez spent much of his childhood in the Dominican Republic before immigrating to the United States in 1974, published his acclaimed short story collection Drown in 1996, the same year that Alvarez's story "Liberty" appeared.


Alvarez is known primarily for her novels and her poetry; she has not published many short stories, and since "Liberty" was published as a single story in an anthology that also contains stories by other writers, it has not received attention from reviewers. However, the story is typical of her work in that it concentrates on a female protagonist and draws on Alvarez's own background as a child in the Dominican Republic. The story exhibits much of the style that has won critical praise from reviewers of Alvarez's other works published during the same decade. Perhaps most relevant is How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, a novel that can also be seen as fifteen interrelated short stories, some of which take place in the Dominican Republic during the same period in which "Liberty" is set. In a comment on this novel that might also apply to "Liberty," Ilan Stavans, in Commonweal, states, "Alvarez has an acute eye for the secret complexities that permeate family life. Although once in a while she steps into melodrama, her descriptions are full of pathos." Similarly, Kay Pritchett, writing in World Literature Today, praises Alvarez's novel In the Time of the Butterflies, about the Mirabal sisters: "She masterfully orchestrates the four voices, using throughout a simple prose that is pleasantly fresh and feminine." The same could well be said of Alvarez's use of the child's voice in "Liberty."


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey has a Ph.D. in English. In this essay on "Liberty," he discusses the autobiographical elements in the story, as well as some of its political implications.

Although "Liberty" is an isolated short story published in an anthology, it fits neatly into the main body of Julia Alvarez's fiction. Much of the inspiration for Alvarez's fiction has come from her own life. Her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), is semi-autobiographical, as she fictionalizes some actual events in order to tell a good story. Likewise, "Liberty" is clearly based on Alvarez's own childhood experience just before she and her family left their homeland to immigrate to the United States, but the main element of the plot, centered around the dog called Liberty, is fictional (although the family did own a pet dog).


  • The Dew Breaker (2004), by Edwidge Danticat, is a novel about the legacy of torture in Haiti during the Duvalier dictatorship, which lasted from 1957 to 1986. Haiti occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola, bordering the Dominican Republic. The author was born in Haiti and now lives in the United States. The novel focuses on the life of one man in particular who tortured people in Haiti and then moved to New York City, where he lives an outwardly stable and placid life. However, the author shows how the legacy of torture lives on, affecting not only the man himself but also his family and the entire Haitian American community.
  • Amy Tan's best-selling novel The Joy Luck Club (1989) focuses on four Chinese American families and the generational conflicts within them. The younger, American-born women rebel against their mothers, who were raised in China and still cling to the traditional values of their culture. Tan's book has much in common with Alvarez's How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.
  • Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola (1999), by Michele Wucker, is an American journalist's examination of the troubled relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Wucker provides a lively portrayal of the cultures of both countries, their relationships to the United States, and the experiences of Haitian and Dominican immigrants in the United States.
  • Alavarez's historical novel In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) takes place in the Dominican Republic in 1960. It is about the murder of the three Mirabal sisters, who had been working to overthrow the Trujillo dictatorship. The novel paints a vivid picture of life under Trujillo's rule and was nominated for the 1995 National Critics Circle Award.

"Liberty," published in 1996, and the novel published five years earlier almost overlap at one point. This occurs in the novel chapter "The Blood of the Conquistadores," which takes place in the Dominican Republic during the time when Alvarez was a child there. Even more so than does "Liberty," that chapter gives a picture of what it was like living in a police state under the Trujillo dictatorship. Two armed agents of the SIM, the dictator's secret police, arrive at the family home to interrogate the mother and father. Like the two strangers in "Liberty," they wear dark glasses, which give them an intimidating appearance. The father hides in a closet in the bedroom.

The chapter in the novel gives a clue to the coded talk between the men that the child in "Liberty" overhears. In that story, the men talk of hunting goats, but the father cannot accompany them because "his tennis shoes were missing." In the chapter in the novel, the mother gives instructions to call Victor Hubbard, the American consul (who appears to be the same Mister Victor present in "Liberty"), and tell him to come over straightaway to pick up his tennis shoes. It is clear from the context that the talk of tennis shoes is a coded reference to the gun that Papi has, which was smuggled to him by Victor, who in addition to being the American consul is the CIA chief in the Dominican Republic who has helped to organize the plot against Trujillo. Also, Trujillo is nicknamed "The Goat," which explains the reference to hunting goats. It is also revealed in this chapter that one of the family, a cousin of the girls, was arrested and tortured in prison but chose to commit suicide rather than betray his friends. This chapter therefore makes explicit what "Liberty" only implies: the great danger the family was living in and the fear that they, too, might soon be arrested.

Alvarez sheds more light on "Liberty" in her book of essays, Something to Declare, published in 1998. When she was only about five or six, as she relates in "Our Papers," the SIM arrested her grandfather and kept him in jail for two days. He was not subjected to torture, as so many people were, but was forced to sell some of his land at a very low price to the dictator's daughter. This was typical of how Trujillo and his family built up their immense private wealth, by forcing people to essentially give up what was rightfully theirs so that Trujillo and his associates could build their business empire. It is estimated that by 1939, within a decade of his taking power, Trujillo and his family owned more than half of all the industries in the Dominican Republic.

In 1960, as Alvarez records in "Our Papers," her entire family was under virtual house arrest. Because her father was a member of the underground opposition to Trujillo, the family knew that it was only a matter of time before he would be taken away. Her uncles were also involved in the plot to overthrow Trujillo. At night, a black car with SIM agents inside would be parked in their driveway, preventing them from going anywhere. "The men talked in low, worried voices behind closed doors," reports Alvarez, exactly as the men do in "Liberty." Her mother wore a worried expression all the time, and the parents shielded the children from the truth, again as happens in "Liberty." Her father was fortunate in that he had friends in the United States who helped him apply for a two-year visa to train as a heart surgeon. The Dominican Republic had no heart surgeons at the time, a fact that persuaded the regime to grant him the visa. Just as the child in "Liberty" is told that they will at some point be returning to the Dominican Republic, so the young Julia was told that the visit to the United States would be temporary. Alvarez writes that, according to her aunt, had they announced that they were leaving for good, they would all have been killed.

Other details in "Liberty" also turn out to be autobiographical. As Alvarez writes in "First Muse," another essay in Something to Declare, she was a badly behaved, unruly child who hated going to school. She thought that their living under a dictatorship was the reason why she was forced to spend such long, boring days at school, and she would refuse to do her homework. But she did discover the pleasures of reading, thanks to a gift from her maiden aunt Tití, who like the narrator's aunt in "Liberty," gives her a copy of The Thousand and One Nights (sometimes known as Arabian Nights). Through reading of the adventures of the fictional heroine, Scheherazade, the young Alvarez learned the power of stories. In "Family Matters," another essay in Something to Declare, Alvarez directly states that her fiction has been inspired by events that happened to her and by the stories told by her family, but she adds a caveat:

I don't mean that my fiction slavishly recounts "what really happened," but that my sense of the world, and therefore of the world I re-create in language, comes from that first encompassing experience of familia [family] with its large cast of colorful characters, its elaborate branchings hither and yon to connect everyone together.

What really matters to the reader, of course, is not the extent to which a story is autobiographical but the themes and meanings that it conveys as a work of literature standing on its own merits. In this sense, one very noticeable element in "Liberty" is the highly positive presentation of the United States and everything it stands for. Every reference to the United States is a favorable one. Papi approvingly quotes the Declaration of Independence, hailing "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," to explain his naming of the dog. He even promises that Liberty will be well behaved, like "an American dog." The dog symbolizes the great virtue of liberty for which the United States is renowned. This message is reinforced for the narrator by her aunt, who assures her, even though she does not grasp the meaning, that she will find liberty in America. The positive impression of the United States is further reinforced by the family's friendship with Mister Victor, the American consul, who gives them a dog "for all we'd done for him since he'd been assigned to our country." At one point, Victor practically lives at their house. Although this character is only briefly sketched, he is presented in an attractive light. He speaks kindly to the narrator about Liberty, and he laughs when she shows him the tricks she has taught the dog. Victor has a freckled face, and his coloring even resembles that of Liberty, prompting the narrator to comment that she "had the impression that God had spilled a lot of his colors when he was making American things," another fairly idealistic portrayal of the United States.

These aspects of "Liberty" offer a marked contrast to how the character of Victor Hubbard the American is portrayed in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Hubbard is overtly described as a CIA agent whose title as consul is only a front. He was sent to the Dominican Republic solely for the purpose of organizing the plot to overthrow the dictator, and he is presented as an amoral man who simply follows his orders, whatever they might be (and he gets contradictory messages from his superiors in Washington), without identifying with the cause of the Dominican people. Tellingly, when he receives the summons to rescue the family from the interrogations of the two SIM agents, he is in a bordello where he is indulging his interest in young adolescent girls. Thus, through the character of Victor Hubbard, the United States is presented in a much more critical light than it is through Mister Victor in "Liberty." This accords with comments made by Alvarez in "First Muse," one of the personal essays in Something to Declare, about the ambivalence of the United States toward the Dominican Republic, as American involvement was dictated by considerations that were not always related to the real needs of the Dominicans: "The powerful country to the north … had set our dictator in place and kept him there for thirty-one years." The comment is accurate; the United States had indeed been a supporter of the Trujillo regime for decades. As Bernard Diederich states in Trujillo: The Death of the Goat:

Ironically, some of the weapons used to destroy Trujillo had been provided by the same Americans who had helped him to power thirty-one years before, who had forged the political support system to maintain him and who had turned a blind eye when his excesses drew public censure abroad.

Such an understanding of the role of the United States in the politics of the Dominican Republic is of course beyond the capacity of the young girl who narrates "Liberty." She knows nothing of the Cold War, the post-World War II struggle between the United States and its Western European allies against the Soviet Union and its allies, a struggle that led the United States to embrace all kinds of unsavory third-world dictators as long as they were strongly anti-Communist. All the narrator knows at the time is that "a world without Liberty"—that is, her dog—"would break my heart"; only later, with the coming of maturity, will she be able to grasp the deeper meaning of her words and the complexities that such a sentiment involves.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "Liberty," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.

Elizabeth Coonrod Martinez

In the following excerpt, Martinez argues that Alvarez will be remembered as one of the "initiators of Latina literature."

History demonstrates that literary periods are launched by daring, intrepid writers or poets who appear to have suddenly sprouted from nowhere. Later these writers are acclaimed as initiators of movements, but the many years they barely subsisted while writing tomes that languished in wait for a publisher are rarely remembered.

Think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, now recognized as one of the "fathers" of the so-called Latin American Boom of the late 1960s, when (mostly male) writers erupted onto the international stage with their novels dubbed as magical realism. Or the two Mexicans—Laura Esquivel and Angeles Mastretta—recognized for launching a "boom" of women writers in the 1980s, when women's novels finally began to be published in greater numbers. Just as Garcia Marquez and the writers of his generation were not the first to create a great Latin American novel, Esquivel and Mastretta are not the only significant women writers of the 20th century. But in each case they will forever be remembered as those who launched a literary period.

Julia Alvarez occupies a similar place in U.S. literature as one of the initiators of Latina literature, principally novels written in English by women of Latin American heritage. While members of the largest minority population in the U.S. had been producing novels and poetry throughout the 20th century, few who published before Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street or before the beginning of the now-recognized Chicano/Latino era are famously remembered.

"I feel very lucky to happen to have been a writer at the watershed time when Latino literature became a literature that was not just relegated to the province of sociology," Alvarez says. "But I still feel there is a certain kind of condescension toward ethnic literature, even though it is a literature that is feeding and enriching the mainstream American literature … [And], definitely, still, there is a glass ceiling in terms of the female novelists. If we have a female character, she might be engaging in something monumental but she's also changing the diapers and doing the cooking, still doing things which get it called a woman's novel. You know, a man's novel is universal; a woman's novel is for women."

The content of novels written by women may be different, but Alvarez feels that all stories come from the same source: "The great lesson of storytelling is that there is this great river that we all are flowing on of being a human being and a human family. So, when the market comes up and says ‘Latina writers,’ and this is for this or that market, it is [simply] part of how things are broadcast out there, but really, that's not what the writing is about. It's about interconnectedness. And sure, Faulkner is from the south, or such and such poet has an Irish background and you can hear it in the lines; that is a way to get a handle on this mysterious current of narrative that is so important to us."

In Alvarez's case, she is the ubiquitous Dominican-American writer. Her novel In the Time of the Butterflies, based on the heroic Mirabal sisters who lived in the time of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, is now a staple of college literature classes. Her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, published in 1991—along with Cisneros' The House on Mango Street in 1984 and Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban in 1992—officially launched the new movement of Latina writers. Their "hyphen" experience, straddling borders or cultures in the U.S. as people of Latin American or Caribbean descent, foments new critical ideas. The current generation of Dominican-American New York writers (Angie Cruz, Loida Maritza Perez, Nelly Rosario, and Junot Diaz) now hopes to achieve the success Alvarez has had.

A certain element of luck, and very precise publicity, played a role in the now easy recognition of Julia Alvarez and Sandra Cisneros. In 1990 they and two other writers—Denise Chavez and Ana Castillo—posed for a group photo arranged by their New York agent Susan Bergholz to promote their forthcoming novels. The one-page photo article ran in the magazine Vanity Fair under the title, "The Four Amigas," a publicity stunt that helped usher in a Latino literary generation.

"That was a shock to me," Alvarez says, "One of the things that surprised me was the publicity machine that happens around books, and that people take pictures. I only knew how to love a book and go to the library and get the next book by the writer. You don't think of all the publicity stuff.

"I was just so happy that I had this novel coming out because I was up for tenure, and my chairman basically said, ‘you know if you don't have a book, it's not going to be a pretty story.’ So when I heard that Garcia Girls was taken and would be published, I just thought of it as the book that would get me tenure. But then it did so well that seven years later, I gave up tenure to become a full-time writer."

Her first novel was followed by Butterflies in 1994, a sequel to Garcia Girls called ¡Yo! in 1997, and another historical novel, In the Name of Salome, in 2000. In a period of fifteen years Alvarez has released fifteen books: four books of poetry, a collection of essays titled Something to Declare, four children's books, and A Cafecito Story, which counters global capitalism and demonstrates the need for a slow process of growing and preparing excellent coffee beans. Last April, she embarked on a multi-city book tour to promote her latest novel, Saving the World. It was a grueling schedule, with 24 stops in five weeks, but she appeared radiant late in the tour, sparkling with enthusiasm during her readings.

The slender woman with dark, curly hair and hazel eyes is a vegetarian, which may account for her physical stamina, but she also possesses a vibrancy of spirit that draws people in. Her ophthalmologist husband, Bill Eichner, accompanied her on the tour. At each juncture, they presented a gift of organic coffee, brewed and served to those who turned out to hear her. She explained how she was researching a new historical novel when the September 11 tragedy occurred in 2001 and that that occurrence had influenced her to create a second story, alternating a contemporary character's angst with the historical journey of a small expedition that transported the smallpox vaccine across the world. She quotes from Dante, stating that her modern character is experiencing a "dark night of the soul, which we now pathologize and call depression." Alvarez's voice is soft but her words are very clearly enunciated: "It is about being a human being. With stories we have these ways of deeply connecting as human beings."

After the reading, she takes questions, and responds candidly to each. Does her story have a moral or a message? "Sometimes things happen to us, and [since] we humans have created narrative, at times like this we bring it to bear on what has happened. I do think narratives are important and powerful, but novels don't answer questions, they're not solutions."

Someone asks whether she first writes in English or Spanish. When Alvarez responds, "I am not truly bilingual, I am English-dominant," there is silence in the room, as though the audience is surprised by that revelation. Her works, like those of many other Latino writers, are translated to Spanish by other individuals.

Despite the fact that she and her husband purchased farmland in the Dominican Republic in 1996 to help foment a cooperative of independent coffee-growers, they do not visit the island regularly. In 2004, they sold some of the tracts to others who wanted to help in the project, and Alvarez spends most of her time at her permanent residence for nearly two decades in Weybridge, Vermont. It is quite near the Canadian border, and there are many more residents of French and German heritage than Latinos; her reality is more of a snowy setting than a tropical one. She frequently states, "I live in sleepy Vermont. I live on a dirt road." The surrounding community consists mostly of farms and the nearest town is Middlebury, where Alvarez holds the position of Writer-in-Residence at Middlebury College. She describes her routine as time spent in the college library or in her home office. "I go to work every day and I do the work, the same way that my neighbor goes and takes care of his sheep, and Bill goes to the office. That's just what I do, and what I am focused on."…

Like other well-known writers at the inception of a literary period, Alvarez will forever be remembered as the first Dominican-American writer and one of the first Latinas in a decade of a great deal of attention for this group. What is her impression of the critical reception of her work?

"You know, you move intuitively as a writer, using craft. Then later people will see or point out, or you yourself will see a couple or more basic themes running through there, but you didn't know you were spinning it, even intentionally."

It is the reader that matters most to her. In fact, she feels that no story is "alive" until the reader has absorbed it. "What you hope for with a story is that it opens up some little insights, some knowledge of character and of self that wasn't there before, that it nurtures the human spirit and gets passed on, so that we're able to make different choices and be a little more aware of each other, of the human experience.

"Why does Whitman say, ‘Look for me under your boot soles’ at the end of Leaves of Grass? He doesn't mean that literally. He is dead, he is under our boot soles, or our shoes, but he is alive while we are reading this poem, he's inside us. At the end of The Woman I Kept to Myself, there's a poem entitled ‘Did I redeem myself?’ and the last two lines are: ‘And you, my readers, what will you decide when all that's left of me will be these lines?’"

Source: Elizabeth Coonrod Martinez, "Julia Alvarez: Progenitor of a Movement: This Dominican-American Writer Weaves Passionate Sensibilities through Her Works with the Gift of Seeing through Others' Eyes," in Americas (English Edition), Vol. 59, No. 2, March-April 2007, pp. 6-14.

Jonathan Bing

In the following interview, Alvarez discusses her family's flight from the Dominican Republic, an experience that informed "Liberty," and her status as an immigrant writer.

In 1991, Julia Alvarez made a resounding splash on the literary scene with her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, whose narrators, the four vibrant and distinctive Garcia siblings, captivated readers and critics. Like their author, the characters emigrated to middle-class Queens, N.Y., from the Dominican Republic, and the novel provided a keen look at the island social structure they wistfully remember and the political turmoil they escaped.

The second-oldest sister, Yolanda, now a well-known author, is the protagonist of Alvarez's third novel, ¡Yo!, out next month from Algonquin (Forecasts, Oct. 14). Alvarez brings to Yo's portrait an empathy of shared experiences, anxieties and hopes.

In 1960 at the age of 10, Alvarez fled the Dominican Republic with her parents and three sisters (her father was involved in the underground against the dictator Raphael Trujillo). She has since roamed this country, teaching writing in far-flung schools and communities, before finally putting down roots in Middlebury, Vt., and writing two books of poetry and three novels, including 1994's In the Time of the Butterflies (Algonquin).

A current exhibit at the New York Public Library, "The Hand of the Poet from John Donne to Julia Alvarez," displays snapshots of the author in the Dominican Republic (she travels there at least once a year), riding horseback, dancing the merengue and obstreperously bartering for plantains. When PW catches up with Alvarez, it is in the rare-book room of the Middlebury College library, where a standing-room-only audience has gathered to hear her read from the new novel. Brushing unruly, dark bangs from her lively face, her voice inflected by a faint Latin twang, she shows few signs of the butterflies fluttering in her stomach, induced by the prospect of reciting her work on her own turf.

"I couldn't sleep last night before this reading," she confesses, later ushering PW into the living room of her secluded ranch house, which is brimming with plants, cacti and photographs of her extended family. Alvarez, who first came to Middlebury to attend the Breadloaf Writers' Conference as an undergraduate in the late 1960s and is now a tenured professor of English, has lived here permanently since 1988, and it is here that she met her husband, an ophthalmologist. Yet she expresses ambivalence at the thought of becoming something of a local fixture.

"I see myself marginally in the academic community, which I think in part is good for a writer, because it keeps you on your toes," she says. "When I first moved here, people would come up to me and say things that I hadn't told them. Or remark upon things that I didn't know they knew. I didn't realize that everything's connected. There's no anonymity. The good part of that is, as a friend said, ‘Julia, you've always wanted roots. But now you realize that once there are roots, there are worms in the soil.’"

In conversation, Alvarez is an ebullient blend of insecurities, tart anecdotes and spitfire judgments, often punctuated by a deep, chesty laugh. Scooping up an obese marmalade cat named Lucia, she babbles half in English and half in Spanish into its fur, then offers us a glass of wine and sits cross-legged on a leather ottoman, recalling the tumult of a childhood bifurcated by conflicting cultural milieus.

"I grew up in that generation of women thinking I would keep house. Especially with my Latino background, I wasn't even expected to go to college," she says. "I had never been raised to have a public voice."

Herself the second-oldest, Alvarez was sent to boarding school in her early teens under the protective wing of her older sister. "My parents were afraid of public school. I think they were just afraid in general of this country. So I went away to school and was on the move and not living at home since I was 13 years old."

Like many political refugees, Alvarez soon found the displacements of language and geography to be the stuff of art. As an adolescent, she says, the act of writing helped to allay the pain of acculturation and the stigma of being an outsider. "I came late into the language but I came early into the profession. In high school, I fell in love with how words can make you feel complete in a way that I hadn't felt complete since leaving the island. Early on, I fell in love with books, which I didn't have at all growing up. In the Dominican Republic, I was a non-reader in what was basically an oral culture and I hated books, school, anything that had to do with work."

Alvarez went to Connecticut College, but after winning the school's poetry prize, she departed for Breadloaf and Middlebury, where she earned her B.A. in 1971. After an M.F.A at Syracuse University, she lit out for the heartland, taking a job with the Kentucky Arts Commission as a traveling poet-in-residence. For two years, Alvarez traversed the back roads of the Bluegrass State, with Leaves of Grass as her Baedeker. "I would just pack up my car. I had a little Volkswagen. My whole car was a file system. Everything I owned was in there.

"In some communities I'd give workshops or talk at night in the local church. I loved it. I felt like the Whitman poem where he travels throughout the country and now will do nothing but listen. I was listening. I was seeing the inside of so many places and so many people, from the Mennonites of Southern Kentucky to the people of Appalachia who thought I had come to do something with poultry."

When that job ended, other teaching jobs beckoned, and Alvarez careened around the country for more than a decade. "I was a migrant poet," she laughs. "I would go anywhere."

With no fixed address, Alvarez gradually assembled her first collection of poetry, which Breadloaf director Bob Pack placed with Grove. Aptly called Homecomings, it featured a 33-sonnet sequence called "33," which portrays the emotional vertigo Alvarez suffered on her 33rd birthday, facing middle age without a secure job, a family of her own or a career blueprint to sustain her. Alvarez nevertheless greeted the book's publication, in 1984, with great trepidation. "It was scary," she says. "I thought ‘Oh, my God, what if my parents read this? There are love affairs in here. Maybe I can go out and buy all the copies.’"

She has since reprinted Homecomings and issued another book of verse with Dutton (The Other Side, 1995). Now, however, she writes poetry less frequently than fiction. "I think what's hard for me about writing poetry is that it is so naked," Alvarez explains. In retrospect, it's not surprising that her emergence as a novelist coincided with her first tenure-track job at Middlebury. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, a novel displaying a historical sweep and mobility of voice not found in her poetry, was a natural next step after years of rootlessness.

"It used to turn me off, the idea of writing something bigger than a poem," she reflects. "But you grow as a writer and you start to imagine other possibilities."

Susan Bergholz, certainly the most influential agent of Latino fiction, whose clients include Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros and Denise Chávez, has represented Alvarez since placing Garcia Girls with Shannon Ravenel at Algonquin. As Alvarez remembers, Bergholz approached her at a reading she gave in New York after winning a 1986 G.E. Foundation Award for Younger Writers. "She was interested in my work, so I sent her a bunch of things. She really plugged away at that stuff, sending it around and talking to people and finally she landed Shannon. I'm very grateful to Susan as the person who really fought that battle for me, which—because of my background and because of my self-doubt—I probably would not have fought for myself."

Yet when Garcia Girls first reached Ravenel, "there was no book there," Alvarez says. "I sent portions of it to Shannon and she said: ‘There's a bigger story here you're trying to tell.’"

Today Alvarez can't imagine publishing with a larger house at any price, provided that Ravenel stays put. "Shannon helped form me as a writer. She often helps me to think of how to put my books together. Sometimes, I'll say, ‘our book’ and she'll say, ‘Julia, it's your book.’ Maybe a place could initially offer you more money or more razzmatazz. But I was 41 when Garcia Girls came out. If I were writing to make a whole lot of money, I would have given this craft up a long time ago. I'm doing the writing because it's the way I understand my life. It's what I do and I want a place that is sympatico to that."


Alvarez's trajectory as a novelist has hardly followed a predictable scheme. Her second novel revisits the last days of the Trujillo regime and retells the story of the three Mirabal sisters, Patricia, Minerva and Maria Teresa—actual political dissidents called Las Mariposas (the Butterflies)—who in 1960 were murdered by Trujillo's henchmen. The event galvanized the political insurrection that led to Trujillo's assassination in 1961. "It's always been a story I wanted to tell. But I didn't know how to do it. They seemed to me such enormous, mythical figures. I didn't know how to touch them and make them real. I thought it would be a sacrilege even to do that in some people's eyes. But I knew it was a story I wanted to tell."

Alvarez had previously tackled the subject in an essay in a small press book on heroic women, but in returning to the island to research the novel, she made an astonishing discovery: there were, in fact, four sisters, and the eldest, Dédé, had survived and was still living in the Dominican Republic. Alvarez interviewed Dédé and began to piece together the minutiae of the sisters' lives. "I understand the politics of a four-daughter family with no boys in a Latino culture," she notes.

All of Alvarez's novels are constructed from multiple viewpoints, ranging freely from sassy gossip to animated autobiography, but always concealing a forceful political undercurrent. She attributes her interest in voice to the storytelling traditions of Dominican life. "We didn't have TV, we didn't have books. It was just what people did. That was our newspaper."

Yo, of course, means "I" in Spanish, but Alvarez has shrewdly left the self at the center of the novel absent. Yolanda isn't granted a voice in the novel. Instead, Alvarez builds the book around the memories of those who have suffered the manipulations of the budding author. The liberty a writer takes with her family and background is a subject of increasing importance to Alvarez as her books grow more popular. "My sisters had a hard time with Garcia Girls. But I think they're proud of me, and I think the books have helped them understand their lives better. Sometimes they will remember something that I think I invented. Now it's almost like the stories in that book are part of the memory pool."

In 1993, Vanity Fair ran a splashy profile of Alvarez, Castillo, Cisneros and Chávez (all are indeed friends) under the rubric "Los Girlfriends," portraying a cliquish set of Latina writers sharing the same literary concerns and themes. It's precisely such hype and labeling that ¡Yo! set out to interrogate. "One thing I didn't like about it from the beginning, which didn't have to do with the people involved, is I thought how I would feel if I was a Latino writer and I saw the Girlfriends and these are the [only] Latino writers. I felt there should have been 100 writers on either side of us. Not that I think it was a terrible thing. I just wonder and worry about what all of this publicity and labeling comes to."

Discussing the extravagant antics of book marketing, the 22-city tour she is about to embark on and the persistent film interest in her work (Butterflies has been optioned to Phoenix Pictures), Alvarez grows antsy. "As you talk, I realize I am always that immigrant. This, too, I am experiencing and watching. But I don't put faith in it. In a minute, it can be swept away." She needn't worry. Once an author without an address, a language or a homeland to call her own, Alvarez now has a loyal readership that in years to come will undoubtedly only grow larger.

Source: Jonathan Bing, "Julia Alvarez: Books That Cross Borders," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 51, December 16, 1996, pp. 38-39.


Alvarez, Julia, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Plume/Penguin, 1992, pp. 195-224.

———, Julia Alvarez Web site, (accessed August 20, 2008).

———, "Liberty," in Writers Harvest 2, edited by Ethan Canin, Harcourt Brace, 1996, pp. 192-200.

———, Something to Declare, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1998, pp. 16, 125-26, 135.

"Ancestry Maps," ePodunk, (accessed August 20, 2008).

Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook, s.v. "Dominican Republic," (accessed August 20, 2008).

Diederich, Bernard, Trujillo: The Death of the Goat, Little, Brown, 1978, p. 5.

Pritchett, Kay, Review of In the Time of the Butterflies, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 4, Autumn 1995, p. 789.

Sirias, Silvio, Julia Alvarez: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 2001.

Stavans, Ilan, Review of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, in Commonweal, Vol. 119, No. 7, April 10, 1992, pp. 23-25.

U.S. Census Bureau, "Selected Population Profile in the United States,"

Varnes, Kathrine, "Julia Alvarez," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 282, New Formalist Poets, edited by Jonathan N. Barron, Thomson Gale, 2003, pp. 16-23.


Brown, Isabel Zakrzewski, Culture and Customs of the Dominican Republic, Greenwood Press, 1999.

In addition to providing a historical survey that extends from colonial times to the end of the twentieth century, this book covers religion, social customs, media, cinema, literature, the performing arts, architecture, art, sculpture, and photography. It includes many illustrations, a map, and a chronology.

Callin, Anne, Ruth Glasser, and Jocelyn Santana, editors, Caribbean Connections: The Dominican Republic, Teaching for Change, 2006.

This work presents an overview of the history, politics, and culture of the Dominican American community. It includes essays, oral histories, poetry, fiction, timelines, and maps. Featured authors include Julia Alvarez, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Díaz, and Pedro Mir.

Johnson, Kelli Lyon, Julia Alvarez: Writing a New Place on the Map, University of New Mexico Press, 2005.

This book offers an extended analysis of Alvarez's oeuvre in terms of her journey to establish an identity for herself as a writer who is both Dominican and American.

Kevane, Bridget, Latino Literature in America, Greenwood Press, 2003.

Kevane discusses works by eight major Latino writers in the United States: Alvarez, Rodolfo Anaya, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz, Christina García, Oscar Hijuelos, Judith Ortiz Cofer, and Ernesto Quinonez. Topics covered include acculturation, generational conflicts, immigration, assimilation, and exile. Kevane also discusses issues of language, religion, and gender.


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LIBERTY. While it possessed important connotations in philosophical and theological discourses, the term liberty (and its frequent cognate, freedom ) conveyed primarily social and political overtones in early modern Europe. Liberty formed a central organizing principle around which myriad transformations of communal life occurred, culminating in the program of the French Revolutionaries, who placed the demand for civil and legal freedom at the forefront of their movement.

Early modern Europe inherited several different ideas of liberty that were revised, refined, and sometimes rejected entirely. The ancient republicans of Rome prized liberty as a collective good, which betokened both freedom from foreign domination and the absence of internal oppression in the form of a king. Liberty was thus connected with civic self-rule of a populist (if not quite popular) character. This republican ideal was widely disseminated among, and often endorsed by, early modern thinkers.

Christianity contributed the doctrines of freedom of the will and evangelical liberty that added a personal dimension to human freedom. Created in God's image, humanity possessed a capacity to choose between good and evil and hence to accept or to turn away from the divine will. Of course, the objects between which one chooses are not of equal worth. Rejecting God by preferring one's own desires yields dissatisfaction and unhappiness in one's earthly life as well as the misery of eternal damnation. By contrast, submitting to God properly expresses one's divinely granted freedom; it is the correct use of the will with which human begins have been endowed. At the same time, the possibility of freely renouncing self-will in favor of embracing God's lawin sum, a conversional experienceremains always open up to the very moment of one's death.

Finally, medieval Europe added a legal dimension to liberty that, in a sense, synthesized the public and the private meanings conveyed by republicanism and Christianity respectively. Under the terms of feudal law, the person designated to hold a prerogative or privilege (such as the ability to exercise forms of justice or to collect certain types of revenues) was said to possess "a liberty." Feudal liberty, in this sense, was an exclusive, independent, and nonusurpable right to the application of power over people and property, granted under fixed conditions from a superior who was deemed to be its ultimate source and guarantor. In short, liberty reflected a sphere of authority within which no one could directly intercede or interfere with the exercise of specified rights. Yet it was not wholly private. The possessor of a liberty could protect it from erosion by appeal for assistance to the lord who granted it. Someone who claimed a liberty could also be charged with its misapplication by those subjected to it, and could even be challenged to demonstrate the warrant on the basis of which it was exercised.


Although these inherited concepts of liberty continued to circulate in early modern Europe, the language of freedom proliferated and diversified in the context of the vast cultural changes that marked the period. Crucial to this development was religion. The Reformation brought not only a challenge in practice to the unity of the Christian Church, but also transformation of important theological categories. Martin Luther (14831546) insisted upon the unique presence of God alone in the conscience of believers, with the implication that the faithful Christian is responsible directly and immediately to God. The consequence of this teachingwhile perhaps recognized only fleetingly by Luther and his followerswas that salvation did not depend upon submission to the authority of the priesthood or the church. Nor did it fall to the secular power, to whom pertained the control of bodies and behavior, to discipline the souls of subjects. Thus, whether intentionally or not, Luther opened the door to claims of public respect for "liberty of conscience," and eventually freedom of worship.

In the generation after Luther, inferences about freedom of religion were drawn out by reforming thinkers. Sébastien Castellion (15151563) published pseudonymously a treatise entitled De Haereticis, an sint Persequendi (1554), in response to John Calvin's (15091564) organization of the burning of a fellow Christian theologian for heresy at Geneva. Castellion argued that coercion is an inappropriate tool for effecting a change of religious views since Christian belief must be held with sincere conviction. Hence, clerics and magistrates must refrain from persecution of convinced Christians who cling to doctrines that do not coincide with official teachings. While Castellion does not go so far as to license broad dissemination of heterodox theology, he maintains that a Christian's duties extend to forbearance of the free and honest faith of his fellows even in the face of disagreements of understanding and interpretation.

In the seventeenth century, the theme of religious liberty became more pronounced. For instance, the Levellers in England during the 1640s made freedom to dissent from the established religion a central plank of their political program. Major figures in European philosophy weighed in on the side of freedom of religion. Baruch Spinoza (16321677) claimed a broad application for a right to liberty of thought and belief without inference from a sovereign power's (or a church's) determination of the truth or falsity of one's ideas. Pierre Bayle (16471706) boldly asserted that all forms of persecution (innocuous as well as harsh) of religious diversity encouraged hypocrisy and eroded social order. An erring conscience, if it be held in good faith, deserves as much protection as a correct onea principle that Bayle extended even to atheists. John Locke (16321704) was unwilling to include atheism and other religious attitudes that he deemed dangerous to social trust and political obedience, but he, too, proposed liberty of conscience as justified in the case of most Christian (and perhaps some non-Christian) rites. The role of the magistrate, according to Locke, should be confined to the maintenance of public tranquillity and the defense of individual rights, rather than the care of the soul.

Pragmatic as well as principled considerations led to the acceptance of some measure of freedom of religion throughout much of Europe over the course of the early modern period. Wars of religion undermined peace and sapped public enthusiasm for persecution. The free practice of differing confessions (usually limited to Christianity, and sometimes only to reformed Christianity) became an enshrined feature of many European states by the late eighteenth century. Where this did not occur (with certain exceptions, such as in Spain and parts of the Italian peninsula), it posed a continuing source of conflict into later times, as Johannes Althusius (15571638) predicted it would in his Politica Methodice Digesta (1603; 3rd ed., 1614). Thus, freedom of religion constituted one of the main changes sought in France during the Revolution, as expressed in the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen."


The evolving acceptance of liberty of confession paralleled changes in other European cultural, social, and political practices and attitudes. The invention of the printing press and movable type immeasurably enhanced the ability of individuals to disseminate their ideas and for a larger public to have access to the written word. Demands were heard for freedom of the press (literally and figuratively) from censorship by clerical and secular authorities alike.

Of course, the tradition of republican liberty, inspired by the Romans, had not disappeared from the intellectual landscape. From Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527) and the more conventional humanists of Renaissance Italy through the thinkers and practitioners of Dutch republicanism like Hugo Grotius (15831645) to advocates of republican rule in England such as James Harrington (16111677) and Algernon Sidney (16231683), the praise of liberty as a distinctive feature of republican government was voiced. In the cities of Italy and of Holland, commercial vitality and strong civic loyalty, not to mention considerations of scale, rendered collective self-government a feasible option. Political practice could approach, even if never quite attain, the heights of theory.

In larger territorial states, such communally based republican liberty resonated less clearly. Indeed, republicans who spoke of their version of liberty too loudly found themselves at odds with authorities, hence Sidney's execution in England for espousal of and action upon his republican proclivities. Political liberty in more geographically extensive regimes with monarchic institutions tended to be conceived in terms of individual freedom rather than civic populism. Hence, it is at this time and place that we locate the origins of the doctrines that came to be labeled liberalism.

Thomas Hobbes (15881679) is generally identified as the most important direct antecedent of the modern individualist theory of liberty. In his Leviathan (1651), Hobbes ascribes to all human beings natural liberty (as well as equality) on the basis of which they are licensed to undertake whatever actions are necessary in order to preserve themselves from their fellow creatures. Hobbes believed that the exercise of such natural liberty logically leads to unceasing conflict and unremitting fear, so long as no single sovereign ruler exists to maintain peace. The exchange of chaotic natural freedom for government-imposed order requires renunciation of all freedoms that humans possess by nature (except, of course, for the sake of self-preservation itself) and voluntary submission to any dictate imposed by the sovereign. Yet, even under the terms of Hobbes's absolute sovereignty, the subject is deemed to remain at liberty to choose for himself concerning any and all matters about which the ruler has not explicitly legislated.

Locke begins his mature political theory in the Second Treatise of Government (1690) with the postulation of the divinely granted liberty of all individuals, understood in terms of the absolute right to preserve one's life and to claim the goods one requires for survival. Arguing against the patriarchal doctrine of Sir Robert Filmer (15881653), Locke insists that no natural basisneither paternity nor descentjustifies the submission of one man to another. In contrast with Hobbes, Locke maintains that the condition of liberty does not represent a state of war, but instead can be maintained tranquilly because human beings are deemed sufficiently rational that they can and do generally constrain their free action under the terms of the laws of nature. Hence, should people choose to enter into formal bonds of civil society and to authorize a government in order to avoid the "inconveniences" and inefficiency of the precivil world, the only rulership worthy of consent is that which strictly upholds and protects the liberty possessed by nature. According to Locke, any government that systematically denies to its subjects the exercise of their God-given liberty (as Hobbes's sovereign would do) is tyrannical and cannot expect obedience.

While Hobbesian and Lockean lines of thought persisted into the eighteenth century alongside republican doctrines, occasional attempts were made to transcend, or at any rate to synthesize, the lessons of republicanism and nascent liberalism concerning liberty. The writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) afford an illustration of this. On the one hand, Rousseau held that Hobbes and Locke each captured an important facet of human liberty. Hobbes realized that the only way to create a truly sovereign authorityone capable of commanding the obedience of those subject to itwas the renunciation of all the liberty that one enjoyed by nature. Locke recognized that the sole reason any free person would consent to enter into a formalized social arrangement would be to protect his liberty. Hence, Rousseau concludes, the surrender of one's natural liberty must be matched by the return to each person of an amount of civil liberty (which he terms "moral liberty") that is greater than what has been given up. In other words, in a properly organized political system, every citizen enjoys more freedom than if he had remained in a precivil condition with his natural liberty intact.

From this marriage of Hobbesian and Lockean conceptions of liberty issues a set of republican conclusions. For Rousseau, sovereignty cannot be exercised by any authority external to the body of citizens whose liberty is at stake. Hence, no matter what constitutional form of government is appointedand he contends that kingship, aristocracy, and democracy may each be appropriate, depending on the scale of the territory to be governedit remains only the executive of the general will of the community. Freedom reposes strictly and exclusively in the communal order in which the moral liberty of each person assumes the equal moral liberty of every person, guaranteed under the terms of the law and protected by the magistrates. Hence, Rousseau's free state is guided by the collective determinations of the people about how they wish to livea clear statement of a system of popular sovereignty.


The concept of natural liberty is also one that came to the fore in the economic doctrines of the eighteenth century. Adam Smith (17231790) founded his principal doctrines upon the notion of natural liberty, by which he meant simply that if every person acts freely as he sees fit in his own interests, then the welfare of the whole society will be served best. For Smith, the system of natural liberty constitutes a sort of automatic or homeostatic mechanism of self-adjustment (which he sometimes calls the "invisible hand"), so that any attempt (on the part of government or some other agent) to interfere in its operation will lead to greater inefficiency and hence less total welfare. The sources for Smith's insight about maximized individual liberty, unconstrained by coercive externalities, have been debated. Certainly, the French economic theorists known collectively as the Physiocrats may have played a role in the formulation of this idea, as may have the political theorists whose views have already been surveyed. Smith applied this discovery, however, not only to the operation of the marketplace but to all aspects of society, including its educational, religious, and judicial institutions. He narrowly confines the role of government to those functions consistent with natural liberty: foreign defense, regulation of criminal activity, and provision of "public goods" too expensive for any single segment of the private economy to undertake.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the concept of liberty had pervaded the religious, social, political, cultural, and economic dimensions of European life. Yet it remained a controversial idea for (and against) which people would continue to fight and die. Moreover, the application of principles of freedom remained in many ways incomplete. Slavery had been by no means entirely eradicated from the regions over which European nations exercised control, even if it was largely passé within Europe itself. Women occupied almost exactly the same social, political, and economic position in 1789 as in 1450, and the extent of their personal and group liberty was largely determined by their class status. Despite occasional agitation for universal manhood suffrage, such as occurred during the earliest stages of the English Civil War, the unpropertied also experienced little improvement in their effective freedom between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries. Finally, the diffusion of ideas and practices of religious liberty was limited almost entirely to Christian sects, although deists and advocates of natural religion seem generally to have been left alone; freedom to worship occupied a far more precarious position for Jews and members of other non-Christian confessions (for example, Turks) who made their way to Europe.

See also Bayle, Pierre ; Calvin, John ; English Civil War and Interregnum ; Grotius, Hugo ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Liberalism, Economic ; Locke, John ; Luther, Martin ; Physiocrats and Physiocracy ; Revolutions, Age of ; Republicanism ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Smith, Adam ; Sovereignty, Theory of ; Spinoza, Baruch .


Primary Sources

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by Edwin Curley. Indianapolis, 1994.

Locke, John. A Letter concerning Toleration, in Focus. Edited by John P. Horton and Susan Mendus. London, 1991.

. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge, U.K., 1988.

Luther, Martin, and John Calvin. Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority. Edited and translated by Harro Höpfl. Cambridge, U.K., 1991.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Basic Political Writings. Edited and translated by Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis, 1987.

Secondary Sources

Davis, R. W. The Origins of Modern Freedom in the West. Stanford, 1995.

Fitzgibbons, Athol. Adam Smith's System of Liberty, Wealth, and Virtue: The Moral and Political Foundations of The Wealth of Nations. Oxford, 1995.

Laursen, John Christian, and Cary J. Nederman, eds. Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration before the Enlightenment. Philadelphia, 1998.

Pelczynski, Zbigniew A., and John Gray, eds. Conceptions of Liberty in Political Philosophy. London, 1984.

Skinner, Quentin. Visions of Politics. 3 vols. Cambridge, U.K., 2002.

Van Gelderen, Martin, and Quentin Skinner, eds. Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K., 2002

Cary J. Nederman


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The etymological origin of liberty is the Latin word libertas, from liber, which means free. In the social sciences, liberty and freedom are often used interchangeably. However, in common parlance, a distinction can be made. Freedom is the more general term referring to a lack of restraint in all its manifestations. Liberty, in contrast, is typically used when discussing the political and legal aspects of the human condition, particularly those involving choice.

Liberty, as a political ideal, has had a profound influence over the course of human events going back to the eighteenth century. It was a central theme for both the American Revolution (17751783) and the French Revolution (17891799). Liberty was a fundamental motivation for the rise of the modern democratic state, capitalist economies, and the concern for human rights. In contemporary practice, a number of freedoms are commonly protected by the state, including assembly, association, press, religion, speech, thought, and trade. The importance and significance of liberty is widely acknowledged. Still, there are fundamentally different understandings about what it means and why it is valuable.

Benjamin Constant (17671830), for example, distinguishes between what he calls liberty of the ancients and liberty of the moderns. Ancient liberty refers to the direct sharing of political power. It is the active and constant participation of citizens in the collective governing of their communities. Consequently, it can only be realized in smaller political units such as the city-state. Ancient liberty involves citizens being able to make truly meaningful contributions to political decisions on a continual basis, thus allowing them to play an intimate role in determining the course of their collective lives. This identification of liberty with ongoing collective political decision-making, however, entails the complete subjection of the citizen to the authority of the community (Constant [1820] 1988, p. 311). Still, authentic self-government brought such a vivid and repeated pleasure (p. 316) that citizens were willing to make great sacrifices to preserve this form of liberty. The problem is that too little value was attached to the rights of individual citizens.

With the emergence of larger political units like the nation-state, ancient liberty was no longer possible. Lost in the multitude, the individual can almost never perceive the influence he exercises (Constant [1820] 1988, p. 316). Liberty, therefore, became associated with individual rights and freedoms. This modern liberty consists in peaceful enjoyment and private independence (p. 316) for each citizen. It is made possible by legal guarantees such as the rule of law, freedom of expression, property rights, freedom of association, elected political representation, and the right to petition the government. The purpose of modern liberty is to give citizens the opportunity to choose and enjoy their own private pleasures. The danger of this type of liberty is that people will get so absorbed in pursuing their personal happiness and interests that they neglect their political responsibilities, thereby allowing the government to overstep its limits.

Another well-known distinction is Isaiah Berlins (19091997) understandings of negative and positive conceptions of liberty. On the one hand, negative liberty simply refers to the absence of external constraints and obstacles. It is freedom from. Liberty, in this sense, is the ability to act without human or institutional hindrances. It is concerned with the boundaries of individual autonomy. Negative liberty deals with the question, What is the area within which the subjecta person or group of personsis or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons? (Berlin [1958] 1990, p. 121122). Positive liberty, on the other hand, refers to being able to live an authentic or self-directed life. It is the freedom to. This type of liberty is associated with concepts like self-mastery and self-realization. It is interested in the question, What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that (p. 122).

Berlin notes that negative and positive liberty might be thought of as two sides of the same coin. The former focuses on the freedom that exists when there are no constraints on the individual, and the latter concentrates on the freedom that comes from personal self-determination. Berlin claims, however, that the theoretical development of these two types of liberty has led to divergent understandings. While the meaning of negative liberty remained the same, positive liberty took on a more psychological orientation. Positive liberty became associated with overcoming internal obstacles that thwarted self-mastery. Berlin contends that this understanding of liberty is dangerous because state coercion can be justified as a benevolent action. By coercing people into living according to their supposed authentic desires, the state is simply advancing positive liberty. Overlooked is the fact that individuals are still being constrained against their will and the state is assuming to know better the true interests of its citizens. Appeals to positive liberty, therefore, divert attention from the disquieting contradiction that the state is forcing its citizens to be free. Berlin sardonically observes that, in this case, true freedom is obtained even while my poor earthly body and foolish mind bitterly reject it, and struggle against those who seek however benevolently to impose it (Berlin [1958] 1990, p. 134).

Even though positive liberty can be used to justify political tyranny, the association of self-mastery with liberty may nonetheless reflect how humans tend to think about what it means to be free, at least in part. Charles Taylor argues that humans do have higher order, life-orienting aims that can be undermined by impulses and desires. Unhealthy indulgences, for example, may harm an individuals physical well-being. Irrational fears may prevent people from taking advantage of opportunities that are in their best interests. In these types of situations, is freedom not at stake when we find ourselves carried away by a less significant goal to override a highly significant one? (Taylor 1979, p. 185)

Positive liberty is also associated with having requisite resources and opportunities to act. T. H. Green (18361882), for example, contends that freedom is commonly recognized as involving the positive power or capacity to maximize human potential. Liberty involves not simply the lack of constraint; it also includes the ability to successfully pursue personal goals and ambitions. Green contends that this success depends on people having basic protections and services. Moreover, it is societys responsibility to provide this assistance. Positive liberty, consequently, requires the provision of educational opportunities, safety regulations for the workplace, and adequate housing. Without health and knowledge, people are not able to develop their faculties and make the most out of themselves.

Liberty, variously understood, has been a central concern for liberalism, the dominant political ideology of the modern age. John Locke (16321704), for example, considered individual liberty a natural right along with life, health, and property. The state, therefore, had a responsibility to protect the freedoms of its citizens. Thomas Jefferson (17431826) adopted Lockes theme for the Declaration of Independence, asserting that humans are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This concern for individual freedom was further formalized in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which provide citizens with rights that limit the power of the state.

John Stuart Mill (18061873) was also interested in protecting the liberty of citizens to think and act without interference by the state. He provides a seminal defense of civil liberties in his classic work, On Liberty (1859). His justification, however, was not based on natural or inalienable rights; it was based on utility. Mill claims that maximizing individual liberty creates the greatest utility for society. There are three fundamental types of civil liberties that need to be protected: (1) thought and opinion, (2) tastes and pursuits, and (3) association. The limits of these liberties should be based on what has come to be called the harm principle. The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others (Mill [1859] 1978, p. 9).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) provided a markedly different approach to protecting individual liberty. Instead of trying to limit the power of the state, he sought to align the individual will with the general will, which is the sovereign will of the people. To accomplish this task, there must be the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the entire community (Rousseau [1762] 1987, p. 24). In so doing, each citizen, while uniting with all, obeys only himself and remains as free as before (p. 24). The identification of the individual will with the general will means the states decisions are simply reflections of each citizens preferences. Consequently, people are not under the subjection of any other person. If citizens have preferences contrary to the general will, then it merely proves that they were in error about the good of the community and their true interests.

Liberal political philosophers may justify liberty in terms of natural rights or utilitarianism. They may advocate negative or positive understandings of liberty. Regardless, all liberal political theories share two basic assumptions: Freedom is a key human value and all individuals are equal in some primary sense. Equality is a necessary complement for liberty. At the same time, however, it can provide a significant challenge. The grant of liberty inevitably undermines equality. The imposition of equality inevitably requires restrictions on liberty. The proper balance of liberty and equality, therefore, is an issue that will always have to be addressed by liberal political theories.

SEE ALSO American Revolution; Choice in Psychology; Citizenship; Civil Rights; Constitutions; Democracy; Freedom; French Revolution; Government; Human Rights; Individualism; Liberalism; Liberation; Mill, John Stuart; Natural Rights; Philosophy, Political; Political Theory; Privacy; Utilitarianism


Berlin, Isaiah. [1958] 1990. Four Essays on Liberty. New York: Oxford University Press.

Constant, Benjamin. [1820] 1988. Constant: Political Writings. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Green, T. H. [1880] 1986. Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation and Other Writings. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Locke, John. [1690] 1988. Two Treatise of Government. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mill, John Stuart. [1859] 1978. On Liberty. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. [1762] 1987. On the Social Contract. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Taylor, Charles. 1979. Whats Wrong with Negative Liberty? In the Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin, ed. Alan Ryan. 175193. New York: Oxford University Press.

Johnny Goldfinger


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In the eighteenth-century English and American political vernacular, no word or concept was as important as "liberty." Celebrated by political theorists, pamphleteers, politicians, and the clergy, English people and Americans often boasted that they possessed greater liberty than anyone else. For all the Anglo-American celebration of liberty, however, the concept was often ill defined.

political literature

Liberty was a common theme in many of the important English and American political treatises of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By far the most common form of literature to discuss liberty was the pamphlet. As historian Bernard Bailyn has pointed out, pamphlets were cheap to produce, easy for publishers to turn out, and—since they normally ran from only five thousand to twenty-five thousand words—easy to finish quickly, which meant that the ideas contained within them could be rapidly disseminated throughout society. Some of the most important and influential political writings of the Revolutionary period were pamphlets, including John Dickinson's Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer (1767–1768), John Adams's Novanglus (1775), and the most famous of all, Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776).

Beyond pamphlets of the Revolutionary era, British and American political actors and thinkers could rely on a host of book-length works that discussed liberty. Works from diverse authors such as Plato (c. 428–348 b.c.) and Cicero (106–43 b.c.) in the ancient world to Algernon Sidney (1622–1683), James Harrington (1611–1677), James Gordon (d. 1750), and John Trenchard (1622–1723) in the early modern era—to name only a few—lined the shelves of personal libraries. For colonial readers, at least, these works were a sine qua non of proper political thought, and it would be difficult for a well-educated American Revolutionary to be considered a true republican without familiarity with some, if not all, of these works.

political theory before the revolution

Despite the apparent vagueness of the concept of liberty, historians have established what it meant in the eighteenth century. Considering the various writings of political philosophers such as Harrington, Sidney, Gordon, Trenchard, John Locke (1632–1704), Robert Molesworth (1656–1725), Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), and James Burgh (1714–1755) as well as political pamphlets, personal letters, state documents, and sermons, liberty by eighteenth-century standards can be said to have had two distinct definitions. According to the first, which has been largely forgotten, liberty, or public liberty, was the right of the people to establish and maintain some form of self-government. Many English and American political theorists believed that if the people created and served in government, liberty could not be usurped. As a result, public liberty was the most important form of liberty during the eighteenth century. The second definition of liberty concerned the rights of individual citizens, with the most common being property rights and religious freedom. It is this second definition of liberty, the one concerned with individual freedom, or personal liberty, which is more familiar.

Because the two definitions of liberty were distinct, a natural tension existed between them. Unfortunately, historians have compounded this natural tension by separating the two concepts into divergent and exclusive intellectual traditions. The creation of self-government is defined as the "republican," or "civic-humanist," concept of liberty. This republican concept required not only citizen participation in government, but also a citizenry possessed of virtue and disinterestedness. On the other hand, historians have often labeled the concern for individual freedom as the "liberal," or "Lockean liberal," concept of liberty.

However, eighteenth-century Americans were able to easily reconcile the duality and tension of liberty. Neither English people nor Americans defined personal liberty as it later became known, namely personal autonomy or the restraint of government upon civil liberties such as freedom of speech or the press, or freedom from illegal search and seizure. Personal liberty in the eighteenth century had to conform to the norms of society and, more important, to the rule of law. Thus, to most eighteenth-century English people, liberty was the law. This negative form of liberty was often characterized not as the freedom to act, but as freedom from arbitrary government actions. Furthermore, private liberty had to work in tandem with public liberty; one could not be paramount over the other. As long as a proper balance remained between governmental authority and private rights, English and Americans argued, liberty

could exist. Making the natural tension of both concepts of liberty easier to accommodate was the belief that both types of liberty derived from the same source, nature itself. Because humans were endowed with free will, they were afforded certain freedoms naturally. It is important to note, however, that most theorists did not fully explain which liberties were taken from nature. This theory held that once people entered into a contract to create a government, only those liberties surrendered for the creation of the society were lost; all other freedoms remained.

Often, in the works on the political philosophy or other political writings, liberty was juxtaposed to two other concepts, tyranny and licentiousness. Since tyranny or arbitrary power was defined as the unlimited power of the executive and licentiousness as the absence of order, liberty was seen not as the average of the extremes but as the perfect, if somewhat fragile, balance between the two. For the English to possess liberty, freedom and order had to peacefully coincide. English and colonial writers warned that when either tyranny or licentiousness became too dominant in politics and society, liberty ended and political slavery began. This need for constitutional balance was also found in ideas about English and colonial society. Theorists argued that society was divided into monarchy, aristocracy, and commons—or the one, the few, and the many—and that so should be government. With the monarch stationed in the executive, the aristocracy in the House of Lords, and the commoners in the House of Commons, they would balance each other and ensure that one branch did not obtain too much authority. Theorists further maintained that each branch was responsible for certain functions of government. The monarch was responsible for the energy and dispatch of government, the House of Lords was responsible for deliberating on important issues and applying wisdom to its decisions, and the House of Commons was responsible for maintaining through legislation the protection of liberty and the public good.

Closely related to the need for a balance in the creation of liberty was the need to defend liberty from its antagonist, power. When discussing the dichotomy of liberty and power, liberty was portrayed as a hapless victim, vulnerable to the assaults of an aggressive, self-aggrandizing foe: arbitrary power. Whenever governmental power increased, usually in the form of a power-lusting executive, theorists held that the natural outcome was a decline of the people's liberty. This outcome could be staved off, theorists argued, only if the people remained evervigilant against and jealous towards encroachments upon their liberty.

Another term closely linked to liberty in the pre-Revolutionary era was property. As with so many terms in English and American political theory of the eighteenth century, property held several meanings. The most common definition was material goods, but in connection with the concept of liberty, property moved beyond mere materialism. In the eighteenth century, property in the form of land brought personal independence.

political theory in the early republic

Although, broadly speaking, English concepts of liberty continued to carry tremendous significance in the early American Republic, during the era of the American Revolution, and especially during the adoption and early implementation of the Constitution (ratified 1788) and the Bill of Rights (ratified 1791), subtle changes in the concept of liberty began to develop in America. The first of these shifts in the concept of liberty was in connection with the need for representation in government. Beginning with the famous phrase "no taxation without representation," American theorists argued that only when the people were represented in Parliament, and later in state and national governments, could liberty flourish. The people's representatives, this argument ran, would insure the protection and security of liberty through their power to accept or reject proposed laws and taxes. To be sure, the English House of Commons, the body of the English government most accountable to its subjects, did possess the ability to consent to or reject legislation. American theorists argued, however, that having direct representation instead of the English system of virtual representation (the belief that Parliament represented all the English people whether or not they actually elected a member) meant that liberty would be more secure because the government would be more accountable to the citizenry.

Another subtle change in the concept of liberty occurred with the creation of the state and federal constitutions and the various federal and state bills of rights. Since these documents were the fundamental law of the states and the nation, governmental authority was formally defined and, in most cases, curbed. Thus, for the first time governments would have clear, distinct outlines of their responsibilities. Furthermore, most of these constitutions, including the federal Constitution along with its Bill of Rights, protected many of the rights associated with traditional definitions of liberty: the right to trial by jury; the right to be free of standing armies; the right of habeas corpus; the right to be protected against arbitrary search and seizure. With this constitutional protection of rights and limitation of power, what began to take shape was a more modern definition of liberty wherein government is forbidden to violate particular, specified liberties. Just as important as the establishment of governmental authority was the creation of the constitutions themselves. In creating these documents, the people were exercising public liberty.

Closely linked with the development of constitutions was another shift in the American concept of liberty. With experimentation in public liberty and the crises of the 1780s came the realization that virtue and disinterestedness, which English and European theorists had argued were needed to sustain republican governments, could be achieved only with difficulty, if at all. From this awareness came the redefining of tyranny, which, in turn, meant the redefining of liberty. Tyranny now, unlike before, could come from any branch of government, including the populace itself. Efforts were made to curb this new tyranny, as well as the excesses of liberty that, as a result of events such as Shays's Rebellion, many thought were occurring in the 1780s. These efforts took the form of the federal Constitution of 1787, ratified the following year, and the Bill of Rights, ratified as constitutional amendments in 1791. Through this redefining and tempering of tyranny, the emphasis upon public liberty began to wane. Evidence of this changing understanding of the sources of tyranny, and along with it the changing concept of liberty, can be found in the Constitution's sanctioning of the separation of powers. Before, European and English political theorists had surmised that the people could not threaten liberty and therefore could be trusted with governmental authority. However, the events of the 1780s caused many American political thinkers to reexamine that belief and conclude that only by constitutionally separating governmental power into distinct branches could liberty be safeguarded.

The crises of the 1780s also demonstrated that the traditional arguments regarding the clash of power and liberty needed recasting. No longer did American theorists view power as the automatic antithesis of liberty. Instead, they developed a new theory which argued that governmental power does not necessarily translate into a loss of liberty. As long as laws were enacted by a government of the people, the people themselves remained ever vigilant towards their liberty, and the people sanctioned a constitution that officially limited government responsibilities and authority, power could be entrusted to the government. This new political theory received its greatest confirmation in the federal Constitution of 1787.

Even more important than the addition of representation, constitutionalism, and the separation of powers to the concept of liberty was the intertwining of liberty and equality. Before the American Revolution, equality and liberty were seldom, if ever, linked, but by the time the American Republic was established, the two concepts were becoming inseparable. The enslavement of hundreds of thousands of blacks during this period makes this linkage appear hypocritical, but when the revolutionaries referred to equality as liberty, they did not mean that the law should force the equality of people. Instead, they desired the equal application of the law. Although modern Americans have become accustomed to a government that legally enforces the equality of people, to eighteenth-century American political theorists, who harbored a deep distrust of governmental power, government could not be trusted to create or enforce such equality. To be sure, associating liberty with the equality of people was becoming part of the American concept of liberty, but this change did not fully emerge until well into the nineteenth and then the twentieth century.

politics, 1765–1820

The concept of liberty played an important role in the politics of the Revolutionary period. Beginning with the Stamp Act of 1765 and ending with the Declaration of Independence of 1776, the colonies justified their resistance to parliamentary measures by claiming to defend their liberty. Although the colonies made continual attempts to reconcile with Britain, each rejection only reinforced the colonists' belief that their liberty was threatened. Seeing no alternative method of securing their liberty, they formally declared independence.

After the Revolution, liberty continued to play an important role in the politics of the new nation. The decade after the Revolution was filled with a series of crises that threatened to overtake the fragile country. In each crisis, whether concerning the financial situation of the states and the nation or the growing power of the states, the concept of liberty played some role. That was particularly so in regard to Shays's Rebellion of 1786–1787 and the Constitutional Convention along with the ratification debates. When disgruntled debtor farmers from western Massachusetts revolted against heavy taxation, among other things, they claimed they were defending their liberty from tyrannical actions of the state legislature. Most political figures disagreed, however, and the rebellion was quickly suppressed. At the Constitutional Convention and the ratification debates, securing liberty was a great concern of every participant. Although concepts of liberty were undergoing change at that very time, the older conceptions remained and were an important element in both the defense of and attacks on the Constitution.

During the Federalist period from 1789 to 1801, and then the Jeffersonian revolution of 1800, liberty was the dominant feature of the political landscape. Nearly every controversial measure during this period, including Alexander Hamilton's financial program, the Jay Treaty (1794), the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Embargo Act (1807), the War of 1812, and even the Missouri Compromise (1820), were all judged by whether or not they threatened liberty. Even the rise of political parties in the 1790s is due in large measure to the fact that both Federalists and Republicans believed that the other side threatened liberty and that only their side could defend and protect it.

culture and society

American society remained deferential during the eighteenth century in the sense that those with better social and economic standing were expected to lead government and society. However, there were increasing strains upon this traditional order of things. Because of the ideas of liberty promulgated during the imperial crisis and the termination of monarchical and aristocratic government with victory in the American Revolution, the idea of equality under the law began to take root. Taking the place of hierarchical arrangements was a culture that began to celebrate the natural equality of people with the argument that liberty should create a level playing field for all individuals and allow those with natural talent to rise to the top levels of their fields of endeavor. This new meaning of liberty was in its embryonic form in the early Republic and excluded both slaves and women, but later events greatly furthered the cause of equality.

See alsoAlien and Sedition Acts; Anti-Federalists; Bill of Rights; Constitutional Convention; Constitutionalism; Democratic Republicans; Federalists; Politics: Political Pamphlets; Politics: Political Thought; Shays's Rebellion .


Appleby, Joyce. "Republicanism in Old and New Contexts." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 43 (1986): 20–34.

Bailyn, Bernard. Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Banning, Lance. The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.

——. The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Kammen, Michael G. Spheres of Liberty: Changing Perceptions of Liberty in American Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.

Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Resistance to Britain, 1765–1776. New York: Knopf, 1972.

McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the American Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

Read, James H. Power Versus Liberty: Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

Reid, John Phillip. The Concept of Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Robbins, Caroline. The Eighteenth-Century Common wealth-man: Studies in the Transmission, Development, and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. Reprint, Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2004.

Rossiter, Clinton. Seedtime of the Republic: The Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953.

Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969.

——. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1991.

Aaron N. Coleman


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The state of being free; enjoying various social, political, or economic rights and privileges The concept of liberty forms the core of all democratic principles. Yet, as a legal concept, it defies clear definition.

The modern conception of liberty as implying certain fundamental or basic rights dates back to the writings of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theorists such as Francis Hutcheson and john locke. Hutcheson believed that all people are equal and that they possess certain basic rights that are conferred by natural law. Locke postulated that humans are born with an innate tendency to be reasonable and tolerant. He also believed that all individuals are entitled to liberty under the natural law that governed them before they formed societies. Locke's concept of natural law required that no one should interfere with another's life, health, liberty, or possessions. According to Locke, governments are necessary only to protect those who live within the laws of nature from those who do not. For this reason, he believed that the power of government and the rule of the majority must be kept in check, and that they are best controlled by protecting and preserving individual liberties. Locke's philosophies gave rise to the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances that are the basis of U.S. government.

Limitless freedom is untenable in a peaceful and orderly society. Yet, the founders of the United States were concerned that individual liberty interests be adequately protected. Echoing Locke's natural-law theory, the Declaration of Independence states that all people have inalienable rights, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Similarly, the Preamble to the Constitution outlines the Framers' intent to establish a government structure that ensures freedom from oppression. It reads, in part, "We the People … in Order to … secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…." The bill of rights sets forth a number of specific protections of individual liberties.

Through these documents, U.S. citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion; freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures; and freedom from slavery or involuntary servitude. Criminal law and procedure require that a person may not be detained unlawfully and that a person who is accused of a crime is entitled to reasonable bail and a speedy trial. The right to be free from unlawful detention has been interpreted to mean not only that the government may not deprive a person of liberty without due process of law, but also that a citizen has a right "to be free in the enjoyment of all his faculties; to be free to use them in all lawful ways; to live and work where he will; to earn his living by any lawful calling; and to pursue any livelihood or vocation" (Allgeyer v. Louisiana, 165 U.S. 578, 17 S. Ct. 427, 41 L. Ed. 832 [1897]). State governments may not regulate individual freedom except for a legitimate public purpose and only by means that are rationally designed to achieve that purpose (see Nebbia v. New York, 291 U.S. 502, 54 S. Ct. 505, 78 L. Ed. 940 [1934]).

The liberties guaranteed to individuals are not granted without restriction. Throughout U.S. history, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that individual freedom may be restricted when necessary to advance a compelling government interest, such as public safety, national security, or the protection of the rights of others. Countless cases have litigated the parameters of justifiable government restriction. In one such case, Perry Education Ass'n v. Perry Local Educators' Ass'n, 460 U.S. 37, 103 S. Ct. 948, 74 L. Ed. 2d 794 (1983), the Court found that the content of a message delivered in a public forum may be restricted if the restriction serves a compelling state interest and is narrowly drawn to achieve that interest. Restrictions on speech in a public forum also may be upheld if the expressive activity being regulated is a of type that is not entitled to full first amendment protection, such as obscenity. If a restriction on speech deals only with the time, place, and manner of the activity, it need only serve a significant government interest and allow ample alternative channels of communication (see Perry). In such an instance, the law does not need to be the least restrictive alternative; it is necessary only that the government's interest would be achieved less effectively without it and that the means chosen are not substantially broader than necessary to achieve the interest (Ward v. Rock against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 109 S. Ct. 2746, 105 L. Ed. 2d 661 [1989]).

The Court has held that the government may infringe on a person's freedom of association by punishing membership in an organization that advocates illegal conduct if the defendant had knowledge of the group's illegal objectives and had the specific intent to further them (see Scales v. United States, 367 U.S. 203, 81 S. Ct. 1469, 6 L. Ed. 2d 782 [1961]; Noto v. United States, 367 U.S. 290, 81 S. Ct. 1517, 6 L. Ed. 2d 836 [1961]).

The Court has also determined that when competing liberty interests clash, the majority may not necessarily impose its belief on the minority. In abington school district v. schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 83 S. Ct. 1560, 10 L. Ed. 2d 844 (1963), the Court held that the freedom to exercise one's religion does not extend to prayer sessions in public schools, even if the proposed prayer is nondenominational and favored by the majority. Justice tom c. clark, writing for the majority, emphasized that the freedom to exercise one's religion ends when it infringes on another's right to be free from state-imposed religious practices. He wrote, "While the Free Exercise Clause clearly prohibits the use of state action to deny the rights of free exercise to anyone, it has never meant that a majority could use the machinery of the State to practice its beliefs." The Court reaffirmed its holding that the Free Exercise Clause does not allow the majority to impose its beliefs on the minority in wallace v. jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 105 S. Ct. 2479, 86 L. Ed. 2d 29 (1985).

The Court has engendered bitter and sustained controversy with its defense of privacy rights in cases such as roe v. wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973), which found the constitutional right to privacy to include the right to obtain an abortion. Critics of such decisions contend that such liberties are not enumerated in the Constitution and that the Court should uphold only rights found in the Constitution. But the Court has consistently held that the liberties enumerated in the Constitution are a continuum that, in the words of Justice john marshall harlan, "includes a freedom from all substantial arbitrary impositions and purposeless restraints … and which also recognizes … that certain interests require particularly careful scrutiny of the state needs asserted to justify their abridgement" (Poe v. Ullman, 367 U.S. 497, 81 S. Ct. 1752, 6 L. Ed. 2d 989 [1961]).

The Court justified its findings of liberty rights that are not enumerated in the Constitution by stating that some rights are basic and fundamental, and that the government has a duty to protect those rights. It has held that the Constitution outlines a "realm of personal liberty which the government may not enter." As an example, it noted that marriage is not mentioned in the Bill of Rights and that interracial marriage was illegal in many places during the nineteenth century, but that the Court has rightly found these activities to be within the liberty interests guaranteed by the Constitution.

The Court has repeatedly held that individual liberties must be protected no matter how repugnant some find the activity or individual involved. For example, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 112 S. Ct. 2791, 120 L. Ed. 28 674 (1992), the Court stated, "Some of us as individuals find abortion offensive to our most basic principles of morality, but that cannot control our decision. Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code." In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 63 S. Ct. 1178, 87 L. Ed. 1628 (1943), the Court invalidated a law mandating that all students salute the flag, and in texas v. johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 109 S. Ct. 2533, 105 L. Ed. 2d 342 (1989), it invalidated a law prohibiting burning of the flag. In all of these cases, the Court emphasized that individuals may disagree about whether the activity is morally acceptable, but the liberty inherent in the activity may not be proscribed even if a majority of the populace thinks that it should be.

Justice louis d. brandeis summarized the Court's general wariness of government intrusion into liberty interests, in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 47 S. Ct. 641, 71 L. Ed. 1095 (1927): "Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free." The Court will continue to grapple with the extent to which organized society may restrict individual liberty without violating that mandate.

further readings

Burris, Alan. 1983. A Liberty Primer. Rochester, N.Y.: Society for Individual Liberty.


Constitution of the United States; Criminal Procedure; Freedom of Speech; Freedom of the Press; School Prayer.


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One of the central concerns of social and political philosophy has been the issue of what limits, if any, there are to the right of the state to restrict the "liberty" of its citizens. Unless one is convinced of the truth of anarchism, there are some actions with which the state may legitimately interfere, and unless one accords no value to personal liberty, there are some actions the state must leave to the discretion of the individual. One of the tasks of political philosophy is to develop and elaborate a theory to determine where these boundaries lie.

In his classical defense of liberalismOn Liberty John Stuart Mill gave one influential answer to this question. The only reason that could justify the use of coercion against a person is to prevent harm to other people. Such a reason might not be decisiveit might be that the use of coercion would be ineffective or too costly or would violate the rights of privacybut it brings the action in question within the scope of legitimate state power.

Other reasons, according to Mill, do not justify legal coercion. One cannot restrict someone's actions because they are harmful to that person; paternalism is not legitimate. One cannot restrict someone's actions because they are wrong or immoral (but not harmful to others); legal moralism is not legitimate. One cannot restrict someone's actions because his or her character would be improved by doing so; moral paternalism is not legitimate.

Obviously, a theory that puts such heavy weight on the notion of harm gives rise to disputes about the nature and limits of that notion. If conduct is offensive to others, does that count as harming them? If not, do we need a separate principle to justify prohibiting offensive conduct such as public nudity or racist graffiti? If we are competing for a job and you get it, am I harmed by this? Does only physical damage count as harm or emotional damage as well? Am I harmed by simply knowing that behind the walls of your house you are engaged in activities that I would find repulsive or wicked? If someone defaces the flag, is anyone harmed by this? If I consent to some action that is otherwise damaging to me, am I still harmed? Can I be harmed after my deathfor example, by attacks on my reputation?

One of the most fully developed views that seeks to provide answers to these and similar questions is that of Joel Feinberg. He argues that any notion of harm that is going to play a role in answering normative questions will itself be normative in character. He accordingly defines the notion of harm in terms of a wrongful setback to a person's interests. To some extent, naturally, this shifts philosophical attention to the concept of interests.


The normative issue raised by paternalism is when, if ever, the state or an individual is entitled to interfere with a person for that person's good. Examples of laws that have been justified in paternalistic terms include requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, forcing patients to receive blood transfusions against their wishes, or requiring individuals to save for their retirement (Social Security).

The reasons that support paternalism are those that support any benevolent actionpromoting the welfare of a person. The reasons against are those that militate against any interference with the autonomy of individualsrespect for their desire to lead their own lives. Normative debates about the legitimacy of paternalism involve disputes about many issues including the nature of welfare (can we produce good for a person against that individual's preferences and evaluations?), the correctness of various normative theories (consequentialism vs. autonomy or rights-based theories), and the relevance of hypothetical consent (in Mill's famous example of the man walking across a bridge that, unknown to him, is about to collapse, we may stop him, since he would not want to cross the bridge if he knew its condition).

Legal Moralism

The issue of whether the state may enforce moralitythe subject that was brought to philosophical prominence by the debate between Lord Devlin and H. L. A. Hartis present in discussions of the legalization of homosexuality, pornography, surrogate motherhood, and active euthanasia. The focus of such discussion is not the harm of such activities but their immorality and whether if they are immoral that is sufficient reason for the state to proscribe them. Since it is clearly the case that one of the grounds for proscribing murder is its immorality, the question arises as to what it might mean to deny that the state should take morality into account in limiting liberty. The best answer is that we may distinguish within the immoral different realmsfor example, matters having to do with rights as opposed to matters having to do with ideals of conduct. Those who are opposed to the enforcement of morality are really opposed to enforcing certain areas of morality. Much of the discussion goes on under the heading of the "neutrality" of the liberal state.

See also Anarchism; Consequentialism; Euthanasia; Feinberg, Joel; Hart, Herbert Lionel Adolphus; Liberalism; Mill, John Stuart; Paternalism; Rights; Social and Political Philosophy.


Acton, Lord. Essays in the History of Liberty. Edited by J. R. Frears. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1985.

Berlin, Isaiah. Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Devlin, P. The Enforcement of Morals. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Dworkin, G. "Paternalism." Monist 56 (1972): 6484.

Feinberg, J. The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law. 4 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 19841988.

Hart, H. L. A. Law, Liberty, and Morality. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1963.

Mill, J. S. On Liberty. London, 1959.

Miller, David, ed. Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Gerald Dworkin (1996)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)


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lib·er·ty / ˈlibərtē/ • n. (pl. -ties) 1. the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one's way of life, behavior, or political views: compulsory retirement would interfere with individual liberty. ∎  (usu. liberties) an instance of this; a right or privilege, esp. a statutory one: the Bill of Rights was intended to secure basic civil liberties. ∎  the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved: people who have lost property or liberty without due process. ∎  (Liberty) the personification of liberty as a female figure.2. the power or scope to act as one pleases: individuals should enjoy the liberty to pursue their own interests and preferences. ∎  Philos. a person's freedom from control by fate or necessity. ∎ inf. a presumptuous remark or action: how did he know what she was thinking?—it was a liberty! ∎  Naut. shore leave granted to a sailor.PHRASES: at liberty1. not imprisoned: he was at liberty for three months before he was recaptured. 2. allowed or entitled to do something: competent adults are generally at liberty to refuse medical treatment.take liberties1. behave in an unduly familiar manner toward a person: you've taken too many liberties with me. 2. treat something freely, without strict faithfulness to the facts or to an original: the scriptwriter has taken few liberties with the original narrative.take the liberty venture to do something without first asking permission: I have taken the liberty of submitting an idea to several of their research departments.THE RIGHT WORD freedom, independence, liberty, license, permission

The Fourth of July is the day on which Americans commemorate their nation's independence, a word that implies the ability to stand alone, without being sustained by anything else.

While independence is usually associated with countries or nations, freedom and liberty more often apply to people. But unlike freedom, which implies an absence of restraint or compulsion ( the freedom to speak openly), liberty implies the power to choose among alternatives rather than merely being unrestrained ( the liberty to select their own form of government). Freedom can also apply to many different types of oppressive influences ( freedom from interruption; freedom to leave the room at any time), while liberty often connotes deliverance or release ( he gave the slaves their liberty).

License may imply the liberty to disobey rules or regulations imposed on others, especially when there is an advantage to be gained in doing so ( poetic license). But more often it refers to an abuse of liberty or the power to do whatever one pleases ( a license to sell drugs).

Permission is an even broader term than license, suggesting the capacity to act without interference or censure, usually with some degree of approval or authority ( permission to be absent from his post).


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At least three American magazines since the late nineteenth century have called themselves Liberty. The most commonly known is the mass-circulation pulp magazine that reached a circulation of 2.4 million during the 1930s, when it was controlled by the eccentric publisher Bernarr Macfadden. Liberty was, however, also the name appropriately chosen by philosophical anarchist Benjamin Ricketson Tucker (1864-1939) for the organ he published from 1881 to 1908. In more recent years, a small libertarian periodical that advocated tax reform and government non-interference in personal freedoms was also called Liberty.

The first issue of Benjamin Ricketson Tucker's Liberty made its appearance in Boston in August of 1881; the magazine moved to New York in 1892 where it was based until a fire put it out of business 16 years later. Its statement of purpose as expressed in the first issue was a militant one: "Monopoly and privilege must be destroyed, opportunity afforded, and competition encouraged. This is Liberty's work and 'Down with Authority' her war-cry." Tucker himself wrote many of the screeds advocating freedom of the individual from domination by the state, and promoting radical causes of the day such as birth control, free love, and women's suffrage. He believed that the state should eventually be dissolved through nonviolent means, which was to him the only way of ending the inequities of the capitalist system; he thus railed loudly against the banking and monetary system for its enslavement of labor. He also urged Americans to refuse to exercise their right to vote, believing that by participating in elections, they were implicating themselves in politics designed to maintain the power structure. In the pages of Liberty, Tucker also espoused the self-reliant philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau and defended Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass against critics who deemed it obscene. When the magazine's offices were destroyed by fire in 1908, Tucker moved to Nice in the south of France, and later to Monte Carlo in Monaco.

The second and most prominent magazine bearing the name of Liberty was ranked as one of America's three major weeklies at the beginning of the 1930s, along with Collier's, Literary Digest and The Saturday Evening Post. Liberty claimed a circulation of 2.4 million when it was purchased by Bernarr Macfadden in 1931 from its previous owners, Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune and Joseph Patterson of the New York Daily News. Macfadden, who made a fortune in publishing somewhat seamy pulp magazines of the true-confession and detective variety, was also publisher of the notorious New York Graphic, a sensation paper that was a prototype of the later "supermarket tabloid." Macfadden first placed Liberty at the service of Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1932 presidential campaign and then, under editor Fulton Oursler, turned it into a cheap, sensation magazine with a focus on adventure stories, sex, and scandal, printed on low-quality newsprint. Each article was accompanied by a "reading time" note to inform supposedly busy readers how many minutes and seconds they could expect to spend on the piece. Macfadden's escapist magazines were popular during the Depression, reaching a combined circulation of seven million by 1935, but Liberty began to decline soon afterwards, a victim of its fuzzy editorial focus, its "little bit of everything" approach, and its failure to define its readership. Even Macfadden's practice of donning a leopard-skin loincloth to lead his employees in morning calisthenics could not save Liberty, which folded in 1942. After leaving the publication, Oursler underwent a well-publicized religious conversion and became a senior editor of the Reader's Digest, to which he contributed inspirational pieces. He remains best known today as the author of The Greatest Story Ever Told, about the life of Jesus Christ.

—Edward Moran

Further Reading:

Reed, David. The Popular Magazine in Britain and the United States. London, British Library, 1997.

Tebbel, John. The American Magazine: A Compact History. New York, Hawthorn Books, 1969.

Tebbel, John, and Mary Ellen Zuckerman. The Magazine in America: 1741-1990. New York, Oxford University Press, 1991.

Wood, James Playsted. Magazines in the United States. New York, The Ronald Press Co., 1978.


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liberty Liberty Bell a bell in Philadelphia first rung on 8 July 1776 to celebrate the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. It bears the legend ‘Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof’ (Leviticus 25:10). It cracked irreparably when rung for George Washington's birthday in 1846 and is now housed near Independence Hall, Philadelphia.
Liberty Hall a place where one may do as one likes. The phrase comes originally from Goldmith's She Stoops to Conquer (1773).
Statue of Liberty a statue at the entrance to New York harbour, a symbol of welcome to immigrants, representing a draped female figure carrying a book of laws in her left hand and holding aloft a torch in her right; it is inscribed with lines by the American poet Emma Lazarus (1849–87). Dedicated in 1886, it was designed by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi and was the gift of the French, commemorating the alliance of France and the US during the War of American Independence. The formal title of the statue is Liberty Enlightening the World.

See also cap of liberty.