What Does Freedom Mean?


By NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER, President, Columbia University

Delivered at the Parrish Memorial Art Museum, Southampton, Long Island, September 5, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 710-713.

WHAT does Freedom mean? Today this question is being asked in every part of the world. A most violent, widespread and exhausting war to destroy Freedom and to prevent its restoration is now being waged on every continent and on every ocean. A determined effort on the part of the American people to preserve, to protect and to strengthen the power of Freedom is the ruling purpose and aspiration not only of our own people, but of all those who in any part of the world are in alliance with them. It is, therefore, of commanding importance that we should clearly understand what Freedom means, because it is for Freedom that we are making the appalling sacrifices which cost so much both in human life and in the earnings and savings of our people for generations. What then does Freedom mean?

For some three hundred years in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries this question was asked and debated first by philosophers, theologians, intellectual leaders and statesmen and later by large numbers of people of all classes throughout Europe and such part of the Americas as had then been settled. A chief obstacle to the development and establishment of Freedom lay in the influence of the feudal system. This system had in its time performed an important service for Europe, but had outlived its usefulness and become the foundation for economic discrimination and unfairness, such as the steadily developing modern mind would not permit. This explains the succession of revolutions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These were first those in Great Britain and then in the American colonies and in France. When these three great revolutions had beenaccomplished, the ruling question was how to define Freedom in detail, how to establish it in respect to cooperative and governmental action and how to protect it from attack from without and from undermining from within. The peoples of Great Britain, of the American colonies and of France then believed that, to all intents and purposes, they had accomplished these aims. Of such vital importance did this matter seem to the people of the newly organized United States of America, that they did not even accept their own republican Federal Constitution as wholly adequate, but insisted upon adding to it its first ten amendments which constitute the Bill of Rights.

It did not occur to any of the leaders in these revolutions, particularly the American revolution, that the time would ever again come when the foundations of Freedom itself would be once more attacked and its very existence threatened. Of course it was understood that interpretations of Freedom might vary and that from time to time political, economic and social differences would arise as to matters of detail. What never entered the minds of the founders of the American republic was the possibility that within one hundred and fifty years Freedom, as a fundamental principle, would be denied and contested with the purpose of substituting for it a form of unrestricted dictatorship, the fierceness and cruelty of which make the feudal system seem moderate indeed. Yet this is precisely what has happened. Since, therefore, we Americans are today sacrificing our lives and everything we possess in defense of Freedom, we must reflect upon that word and come to see clearly what we mean by it and just what it involves.

Public attention throughout the world has been given to the latest and very important definition of Freedom which was agreed upon by the President of the United States and the Prime Minister in the government of Great Britain and contained in a message to Congress on January 6, 1941. This now famous declaration, considered with the so-called Atlantic Charter, may well be the starting point in any present-day discussion of what Freedom means. This statement says that Freedom today presents itself in four phases. It declares that there must be Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. To these four Freedoms, if the definition is to be complete, there must certainly be added a fifth—the Freedom of Individual Enterprise. All five of these aspects of Freedom are either denied, restricted, or openly opposed by those forces of reaction and cruelty which have forced the Allied powers to defend themselves in this war. If civilization is to continue, this war must be won. The war having been won, foundations must be laid for the rebuilding of this broken and shattered world in terms of true and lasting Freedom. All five of these forms of Freedom relate not only to the individual man but to the economic, the social and the political organization of all free countries in the world, whether large or small.

Freedom of Speech, which includes of course Freedom of the Press, is generally well understood. It means that no man is to be deprived of the right to express his opinions or his judgment, however unpopular these may be, or however widely they may differ from those of other men. It does not mean the right to teach immorality, disorder or crime. He who cannot refrain from doing any one of these things in the exercise of his right to free speech is not on that moral plane which all free men must reach, in order to be really free and to understand their Freedom. It is often difficult not to resent the use of free speech because of much that is said and written, but it is far better to tolerateit than to attempt to suppress it. Out of the use of free speech should grow its constantly better use.

Freedom of Worship has been indeed difficult to attain and even now is by no means established as widely or as completely as it should be. From the very beginnings of the history of the Western World, religious persecution has manifested itself, sometimes with great violence and over wide areas. Some of these forms of persecution, particularly that of the Jews, are racial as well as religious. That such persecution is cruel and heartless should go without saying. There has also been in the United States a persecution of members of the Roman Catholic Church and particularly those individuals who have become candidates for public office. This has been done by a shocking organization known as the Ku Klux Klan. That this organization has faded into the background during the last few years is welcome news indeed. There remain minor forms of religious persecution, or what amounts to that, on the part of some of the various Protestant denominations. Frequently we have seen evidence that some members of these organizations are more concerned with their dislike and even hatred of those who differ from them as to church organization and form of religious worship than they are in the fundamental articles of their common faith. The essentials of the Christian religion are to be found in the three most important documents which history records: the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed. He who accepts these and believes in them is a Christian, whatever may be his preference for form of worship or church organization. Religious freedom will not have been fully achieved until these fundamental facts and principles are realized and acted upon.

Freedom from Want is a relatively new principle of social and economic life. It has been usual to allow those in need, however desperate, to depend solely upon private charity, or upon some form of public organization which took extraordinary cases of want under its care. Freedom from Want involves, however, much more than this. It means that in a modern democratic state everyone young or old, strong or weak, should be made to feel that he will not be permitted to suffer from Want, since to protect and to care for him are fundamental functions of any organized social order, based upon moral principles. As yet, we are only beginning to find a solution of the problem of Want as it presents itself in the social order of today. Much thought is being given to this subject, and here and there some practical action is being taken. We have still, however, a long distance to go before a wise and sound and fair solution of the problem of Want is arrived at. It may be presented by reason of old age, by reason of illness, of physical incapacity or incompetence, or by reason of circumstances over which an individual has no direct control. It is quite certain that this aspect of Freedom will occupy the attention of men more and more in the near future until the wise and practical solution of the problem has been found.

Freedom from Fear means that there must be a way to protect the weak from danger of attack and humiliation by the strong. This applies to individuals as well as to nations. He who has a powerful mind or a strong body or an influential economic position must not be permitted so to conduct himself that his weaker neighbor is in fear of discrimination or humiliation. There can be no satisfactory working world organization until every nation, however small, is made fully conscious of its independence and its Freedom and protected in its exercise of that Freedom. From one point of view this Freedom is a question of morals. From another it is a question of mere brute force and its use against the weak. The highest type of political organization which has yet beenachieved, namely, the Federal Union of the United States, shows clearly how this may be accomplished. The small states of Rhode Island and Delaware are as safe and as self-governing as are the large states of New York, Texas and California. Just this same relationship must exist in that world organization toward which we are so steadily moving. There will be a United States of America, there will be a British Commonwealth of Nations, there will be a Russia, and there will be a China, but there will also be a Czechoslovakia, a Yugoslavia and a Greece and a Portugal, just as there will be on this side of the Atlantic a Paraguay, a Uruguay and a Bolivia all looking out upon the great area, resources and population of a Brazil. This relationship, like so many others, rests fundamentally upon sound moral principles. Freedom from Fear once assured will aid every nation in developing a prosperous, well educated and useful population.

We come now to the fifth Freedom, Freedom of Individual Enterprise, which is the most important of all. This fifth Freedom is in reality the cornerstone of the foundation upon which the other four Freedoms must rest. It recognizes that the individual human body, the individual human intellectand the individual human soul are fundamental and the moving and guiding forces in any form of true civilization. Making allowance for differences of heredity and of environment, the life of every individual has its beginning in the cradle. Where will that life end? The answer will be found in the fact that every human being must himself give reply to this question, by the use which he is able to make of the years of his life whatever his environment or whatever his opportunities may be. No individual must be looked upon as a member of a permanent class or group. He must be free to move about as he likes economically, socially and politically. He must be free to make the most of all opportunities which are offered to him and to shape his life with all the intelligence which he possesses with a view to advancing not only his own welfare but the interests of his fellow men and those of the civilization which he shares with them. It is to the people of these United States that this modern world may well look for commanding and convincing illustration of the meaning of this fifth Freedom. The army private of today is the major general of tomorrow. He who begins his life as a manual worker or as a clerk may, as we well know, come to wield large influence and authority as an administrator, an organizer of men and of industry. This is the secret of true progress. Given the fifth Freedom, then the other four Freedoms take their place as part of the life of every free man.

Most of what the free man does to advance himself in life is done in cooperation with his like-minded fellow men. The corporation in the field of industry, of finance, of education or elsewhere has long been a most effective instrumentality in enabling individuals to cooperate in the public service. The man of small means cannot possibly take any part in the organization and development of industry or of finance save by associating himself with a group of other men through becoming a stockholder in a corporation whose purpose is of great public benefit. By holding shares in a well managed corporation the individual of small means will have opportunity to cooperate effectively in shaping and developing the economic life of the American people, particularly in the fields of production and transportation.

There is an insurmountable barrier between voluntary and compulsory cooperation with one's fellow men. The latter is inconsistent with the fifth Freedom and violates both the principles and the ideals of modern democracy Persuasive and convincing argument is one thing, but compulsion whether by threat or by force is a very different thing. Thefree man will eagerly seek the one and will turn his back upon the other. To put any individual human being in the chains of an organization of this kind closes to him the door of opportunity.

In our modern society there is but one form of equality. That is equality before the law. Men have always differed and will always continue to differ in health, in strength and in mental power, in personal relationships as well as in opportunities, in efficiency and in practical ability. It is imperative that each individual be trained and encouraged to take advantage of the opportunities which are open to him and to make the most of them. Some will gain large personal influence, some large fortunes, some high repute in letters or in science, in art or in music, while others will develop administrative capacity which will enable them to organize and to guide the combined efforts of themselves and of others toward the accomplishment of a definite and constructive purpose. All these are manifestations of the fifth Freedom of Individual Enterprise. As society develops and as intelligence and insight strengthen and multiply, it is of commanding importance that the family, the school and the church unite in theexercise of these constructive educational influences and methods which will give increasing significance to the Freedom of Individual Enterprise as each generation comes to maturity.

The American conception of a democratically organized and administered society is definitely recorded in the Declaration of Independence and in the Federal Constitution with its Bill of Rights. Both great documents were written by free men who accomplished through them wholeheartedly and with satisfaction an end the influence and significance of which have steadily increased as the years have passed. Straight thinking in respect to these fundamental principles makes it perfectly clear that Freedom is not the creation of government, but that Freedom sets up government to be its servant and so defines its organization and limitations that government may be the instrument of Freedom in moving toward the accomplishment of its high aims. There can be no greater fallacy than to assume that in a democratic society government comes first and that Freedom exists incidentally and afterward. Precisely the opposite is the fact. Moreover, it is of vital importance that government be guided and controlled by the voice of the entire people whose government it is. It must never be guided and controlled by organized and self-seeking groups working only for their own advantage and authority. In the modern social and economic order there is constant, almost continuing, war between public opinion and the public will on the one hand and highly organized, self-seeking pressure groups on the other. Nothing could more certainly or more completely undermine democracy than if it were possible to displace the power of public opinion by the influence and power of self-seeking groups.

Public opinion, particularly in the United States, is sometimes very patient, often too patient. Before expressing itself with clearness and emphasis it frequently hesitates until governmental acts and policies to which it objects have done no small damage. When this public opinion is ready to express itself, however, it does so in its own most emphatic way. The political history of the past fifty years abounds in illustrations of this fact. The executive and legislative departments of government, whether State or Federal, are made directly responsible to public opinion by reason of frequent elections. It is in connection with these elections that selfish and well organized pressure groups so often attempt to gain advantage under the guise of claiming to express public opinion. Time and time again a certain measure of success has attendedthese efforts, usually in the selection of members of the legislative branch of government. If and when there are two highly organized political parties, one liberal and one conservative, we have the almost ideal organization for the choice and carrying on of governmental policies by public opinion. The conservative and the liberal represent the two fundamental types of human thinking in respect to public affairs. The conservative would move very slowly making few, if any, changes in existing institutions and practices. The liberal would be looking forward for ways of making men happier and more comfortable and government more efficient, even at the cost of changing, sometimes in large degree, the details of the organization and practice of government itself. When the conservative holds back too hard and too long, the liberal wins in the next election. When the liberal goes forward too rapidly and without good judgment, the conservative displaces him in public opinion and gets a new chance to express himself. All these happenings are part of the fifth Freedom. They and they alone can establish, maintain and express democratic principles and accomplish progress. They and they alone can assure that form of progress which means order, justice and true liberty. Therefore, it is the fact that the fifth Freedom, the Freedom of Individual Enterprise, is, as has been already said, the keystone of the arch on which the other four Freedoms rest. This is what Freedom means.

It is this true conception of Freedom which must guide and shape those policies of international understanding and international cooperation to which men will turn when the world-wide war now raging has been won by the forces of liberty. These same principles which within a democratic nation give guidance to personal and national conduct and life will also give guidance and direction to the life of those free nations which must cooperate not only to win this war, but to establish a new world organization to promote economic prosperity and to insure and protect international peace. It is important that the minds of men should be fixedupon these fundamental principles and not be permitted to wander hither and yon in the discussion of minor and often trivial problems of national and international policy. It must be made clear to the smaller, but highly self-conscious nations, that their safety and independence are to be as secure as are those of the great nations having vast populations and almost unlimited wealth.

All peoples must come to understand that the fundamental doctrines contained in the American Declaration of Independence and in the Federal Constitution with its Bill of Rights, apply to nations, whether great or small, which participate in a world organization, as well as to individuals living under a single government. It is upon Freedom that the minds of men must be fixed, but that Freedom must be so well defined and so clearly understood that all nations can and will move forward in cooperation toward its establishment and protection with confidence and with satisfaction. It may well be that when peace comes it will be found desirable to propose and to urge migration from one part of the world to another. In the years to come it may prove to be useful and helpful if still sparsely settled parts of the continents of Asia, of Africa and of the Americas should increase their populations in order to multiply their productive economic capacity and development and to relieve pressure elsewhere. It might well prove to be that a new and carefully organized Exodus would result in a new and most helpful Genesis.

Confidence is what human nature needs for happiness and prosperity, and confidence is what a modern democratic nation needs for independence and political and economic accomplishment. Therefore, it is that confidence in a wisely guided, a clearly conceived and a well defended Freedom which is the essential need of this twentieth-century world as it looks forward to the years which are to follow.

It was Confucius who said that men cannot work together unless they have common principles.