All Commentary
Friday, July 1, 1966

The Spirit of Liberty


These remarks by the late Judge Learned Hand seem as timely today as when delivered on May 31, 1944, at “I Am an American Day” ceremonies in Central Park, New York City.

We have gathered here to affirm a faith, a faith in a common pur­pose, a common conviction, a com­mon devotion. Some of us have chosen America as the land of our adoption; the rest have come from those who did the same. For this reason we have some right to con­sider ourselves a picked group, a group of those who had the courage to break from the past and brave the dangers and the loneliness of a strange land. What was the object that nerved us, or those who went before us, to this choice? We sought liberty; freedom from op­pression, freedom from want, free­dom to be ourselves. This we then sought; this we now believe that we are by way of winning.

What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon con­stitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Lib­erty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no con­stitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.

And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.

What then is the spirit of lib­erty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of lib­erty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.

And now in that spirit, that spirit of an America which has never been, and which may never be; nay, which never will be ex­cept as the conscience and courage of Americans create it; yet in the spirit of that America which lies hidden in some form in the aspira­tions of us all; in the spirit of that America for which our young men are at this moment fighting and dying; in the spirit of liberty and of America I ask you to rise and with me pledge our faith in the glorious destiny of our beloved country.