The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Freedom, Liberty, Rights and Their Limitations

What is meant by Freedom and Liberty? Do they refer to the same thing? Can they be used interchangeably? Are there limitations on Liberty, or is it something that is supposed to be completely without restriction? If, as the Declaration of Independence declares, all men are created equal with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, does that mean government can do nothing to restrict Liberty?

The full meaning of Freedom and Liberty is the study of politics and government itself. But what the terms themselves mean, and how they are used, is a smaller question that is nevertheless interesting and instructive. Whether these terms represent something that is unlimited in their scope, whether our political system guarantees to its citizens a form of liberty restrained by nothing but the equal rights of others, are questions that are important for a full understanding of republican government.

One should distinguish between the terms "freedom" and "liberty." Speaking generally, Freedom usually means to be free from something, whereas Liberty usually means to be free to do something, although both refer to the quality or state of being free. Jefferson's use of the terms almost always reflected those meanings. Thus, he never spoke of freedom as a right, though liberty is listed in the Declaration as one of our inalienable rights. It is safe to say that whenever Jefferson spoke of freedom, he referred to that state that is free from despotic oppression. The thought of "limitations to freedom" in its general sense was never addressed as such because freedom was not used in the sense of our being free to do anything we want. Consequently, when he spoke of freedom of religion, or of the press, or any other freedom, he was always referring to the release from despotic restraints; nevertheless, one might always assume that there were limitations of one sort or another. But it was not the limitations he was addressing, rather the release from oppressive restriction. All laws can be viewed as a restrictions on freedom, and such restrictions are proper in any well-regulated society. Jefferson recognized that freedom coupled with self-government in improper hands might subvert orderly restrictions and take freedom to extremes, as in the following passage:

    "Everyone, by his property or by his satisfactory situation, is interested in the support of law and order. And such men may safely and advantageously reserve to themselves a wholesome control over their public affairs and a degree of freedom which, in the hands of the canaille of the cities of Europe, would be instantly perverted to the demolition and destruction of everything public and private." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Adams, 1813.

If we think of an activity as existing along a continuum from total oppression to totally without restraint, Jefferson used the term freedom in speaking of the lower end of the scale, free from oppression. He used specific language in his references to the higher end, but rarely if ever in terms of a general "limitation of freedom," as in the following passage:

    "Considering the great importance to the public liberty of the freedom of the press, and the difficulty of submitting it to very precise rules, the laws have thought it less mischievous to give greater scope to its freedom than to the restraint of it." --Thomas Jefferson to the Spanish Commissioners, 1793.

This might seem pedantic, but you will notice that when he speaks of restraint, it is to be taken as applied to a particular subject, namely the press, not to freedom itself. Restrictions to "freedom" are much too abstract and theoretical a consideration; restrictions are to be applied on a case-by-case basis, depending on the nature of the particular matter at hand.

    Limitations on Rights

When we speak of inherent and inalienable rights, such as the right to liberty, then we have shifted from something we are free from to something we are free to do. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness define aspects of human existence that allow human beings to act in fulfillment of their potential. And Jefferson frequently wrote of the limitations on our rights.
    "Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others." --Thomas Jefferson to I. Tiffany, 1819.

    "All natural rights may be abridged or modified in their exercise by law." --Thomas Jefferson: Official Opinion, 1790.

    "Laws abridging the natural right of the citizen should be restrained by rigorous constructions within their narrowest limits." --Thomas Jefferson to I. McPherson, 1813.

Therefore, the idea that there should be any freedoms, any rights, or any liberties that are completely without limitations or restrictions would never be found in the writings of Jefferson. Every activity in life is subject to some kind of limitation. Even government itself is subject to various limitations, included those imposed by the Constitution. So that we might say that Jefferson believed in freedom from despotic oppression, in inherent and inalienable rights, but he also believed that all our actions in the exercise of our freedoms are subject to certain limitations and restraints.

The Declaration of Independence, the document that describes our fundamental rights, includes many implied limitations on government and on the people who live under government. Thus, governments are limited by "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." And if a people find it necessary to alter or abolish government, it is their right "to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." In other words, they may found it and organize it with such limitations placed on the government and on themselves as shall be "most likely to effect their safety and happiness." The very word "govern" implies imposed limitations, so that we might say, "The business of government is to govern." Limitations are the business of government, and are the other side of the coin of freedom itself.

Both reason and experience tell us that the notion of freedom or liberty without limitations is nonsensical, whether we are speaking of government, of life, or of anything else in this world. No rights are absolute and without restraint. And the writings of Thomas Jefferson certainly confirm that judgment.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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