Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, come here from next door and from around the globe. And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks – one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, were innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more.
Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created “Q & Abe” – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here. At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth-seekers – so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions. Come down the rabbit hole with us as we discover answers to these questions.
For this episode, we’re investigating the question: “What’s the difference between liberty and freedom?” Dig in with us as we talk to a historian of the English language, a native French speaker, and a legal expert in the anti-trafficking field.
In addition to the embedded media player below, you can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Stitcher / Google Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. You also can read below for a transcript of the episode (coming soon!)
TRANSCRIPT OF EPISODE 2.3 “What is the difference between Liberty and Freedom?”
Episode 2.3: What’s the difference between liberty and freedom?
Joan Cummins: Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, come here from next door and from around the globe.
Callie Hawkins: And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks, one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, seem innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here.
JC: At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth seekers, so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions.
CH: I’m Callie Hawkins.
JC: And I’m Joan Cummins. This is Q&Abe. Come on down the rabbit hole with us!
CH: Let’s take that half hour now. Hi everybody, just a quick reminder before we dive in. If you’ve been intrigued by what you’ve heard so far from Q&Abe and want to find out more, or if you have a burning question you’d like to hear answered on the show, we encourage you to visit us at President Lincoln’s Cottage.
JC: We are open 362 days a year, and we have tours on the hour starting at 10am. You can get tickets and find out more at lincolncottage.org/visit. Come say hi sometime! For this episode, we’re investigating the question: “What’s the difference between liberty and freedom?”
CH: I was asked this question by a clergyman from Mauritius as I was giving him a tour of the Cottage. And, we got to the library where I was telling him this really beautiful story of, of Lincoln talking about liberty, uh, in the context of the Civil War. And, he stopped me and he said, wait a minute, as a French speaker we only have one word, but you’ve used these words interchangeably, liberty and freedom. What’s the difference? And as I was recounting this to some other colleagues I was really fascinated by the fact that they too had gotten this question many times. And, you know, not only from French speakers.
JC: Knowing just a little bit about linguistics, I was confident that the two words in English were likely to have different etymological roots. We wanted to get some more information on where these words come from, so we spoke to Michael Adams, a professor of the history of English at Indiana University. How would he look at the difference between the two words?
Michael Adams: Yeah, well, they-they-they are similar, and they do overlap in meaning, and it’s fair to say that they’re synonyms, and even if some strict lexicographer who was defining very, very precisely, even that person would have to admit that in use, um, Americans use liberty and freedom more or less interchangeably. The two words do have an interesting historical relation, or you might say non-relation, because freedom is the Anglo-Saxon or Old English word of the two, and uh, was used to mean, in a broad sense, all of the things we take it to mean today, even back, uh uh, in uh, say the year 800 of the Common Era. Liberty is a more recent addition to English. You would assume that’s true just because it has the markings of a French or a Latin word, uh, so would be, uh, newer than an Old English word. It’s
kind of surprising that liberty isn’t adopted into English until, uh, the 14th century as far as we can tell. Which means that it’s kind of a late, legal term that ends up being adopted into general use in-in English, it comes out of the French system of government, uh, when the French were in ascendancy over England. And, you know, there are lots of terms in law and politics that are French in their origin, uh, they have a little bit less to do with the United States, uh, maybe than they do with Britain, but uh, parliament is from a French word that means the place where people speak, uh, and it was the French who were busy speaking [chuckles] in parliament when they were ascendant over the Anglo-Saxon people they conquered, uh, in the Norman conquest. And then by the 14th century terms like that which had had a sort of, uh, uh, technical use, uh, among the French ascendancy, those filtered down into more common use among, uh, the learned in England. Not necessarily people who were connected to government, uh uh, or law, but many of the people who were writers in that period, just think of someone like Geoffrey Chaucer, an author most of us know.
CH: Given liberty’s origins as a French word, and the fact that the visitor who asked the initial question was a French speaker, we felt we needed more information about how the word might be understood in French.
JC: We got in touch with Didier Saillard, a Frenchman who teaches English as a second language in Dijon. What does liberty mean in French?
Didier Saillard: So uh, liberté is basically the fact that people can do whatever they want, but within the law. And it’s part of our national motto “liberty, equality, fraternity.”
JC: And that dates back to the revolution, right?
DS: Yes, exactly. And that’s when, ah, we also have a woman called Marianne and she’s the allegory of liberté. She’s a woman and she has like, do you know a Phrygian cap? Do you know what it is?
JC: Yeah. It’s like a –
DS: [crosstalk] Okay, so –
JC: Kinda like a beanie, almost.
DS: Exactly. With the ah, what we call the French coquard with the three colors: blue, white, and red.
JC: And where does she show up, like where do you see her?
DS: Oh like, ah, everywhere. Like basically she’s on stamps, busts, like especially in city halls, um, statues – because you know that in France, like, in about like most, most of our cities, we have Republic Squares, so since she personifies the, ah, the Republic, usually you have ah, a pretty big statue. And, she has a logo on all the official ah, official mails, from the government. So, hah, she appears in a lot of different places, because like ah, she represents the Republic. And the Phrygian cap was ah, was worn – the origin it’s, it was worn by freed slaves in Greece and Rome. People ah, when they went to the ah, the, the Revolution, they decided that they were slaves to ah, to the king, so. And basically when the ah, the First Republic was proclaimed during the Revolution, like they ah, they started feeling free, and that’s when Marianne ah, appeared in French history.
JC: Didier’s invocation of Marianne in her Phrygian cap struck me here, because I was making a connection to the American experience. Both the French revolutionaries and the American revolutionaries described themselves as gaining freedom from their king and then founded new societies on principles of freedom, but neither abolished legal slavery.
CH: And in the US, our Statue of Freedom on top of the Capitol was originally designed to be wearing a Phrygian cap for similar reasons as Marianne’s. They ultimately changed the design, though. But, she’s not the same as the Statue of Liberty in New York. We also asked Didier how he explains the difference between the two English words to his students.
DS: It’s, it’s, it’s kind of hard because like, when you mentioned the question, I went to, to look into – I tried to look up the words in dictionaries and it’s pretty hard to ah, figure out the difference between the two of them, because sometimes it’s just like one word changing in the definition. So, it’s not really it’s not really obvious, like most of the time, we, we tell them that you can only use them in like, specific expressions. For example, you don’t say “Statue of Freedom,” and you, you can’t say “liberty of speech.” Usually like we don’t really, ah, we don’t really go into details, because it’s – I think it’s ah, it’s pretty hard to ah, to see the difference, especially for French people.
JC: Michael agreed that you can’t quite change one word out for the other whenever you like.
MA: I mean they’re interchangeable in a sense, they’re not interchangeable grammatically all the time. Ah, you could say “give me freedom or give me death,” if you wanted to, ah, but it’s, but it’s much more difficult to talk about – you know, we don’t have a way of saying we’re ah, we’re, we’re a “liberty nation,” you know, we’re a free nation, or we’re a free people, or we’re the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” but we’re not “the land of the liberty people,” or something like that, we don’t, we don’t use liberty in that way grammatically. So there are distinctions like that, and I suppose that distributes the meanings of the two terms a little bit, but I think that in everyday conversation, they’re pretty much the same. Where they’re probably different is in their status as terms to talk about, um, the political history of, of the United States, or you know, Western democracy or something like that. I think there still there’s a distinction ah, maintained where liberty is the, is the primary ah, and precise term for the things that we’re seeking in our political lives.
JC: I thought it was really interesting what you said earlier, that part of the distinction between these two is grammatical, and that you can’t – people don’t say in English, like, “we are the liberty people…”
JC: If you were to use an adjective, you would say “we are the liberated people,” but that implies a past time in which you were previously enslaved.
MA: That’s exactly right, or at least dominated politically by somebody else and, and your rights abridged by them in some act of tyranny, yeah that’s exactly right. [laughter] Freedom’s a very everyday word and liberty is not really an everyday word but is more, more a term, ah, than it is a word.
JC: Exactly, that’s what I was thinking is that the – there’s a certain formality to the word liberty, and everyday people might deploy it, but they would deploy it in situations that are more formal or more explicitly connected to politics. Like you wouldn’t ask your friend, “Are you at liberty tonight?”
MA: And, and you know historically you could, that’s the interesting thing! That, that meaning is in English, we just don’t use it that way nowadays, but we also have never used as much in American English as the English in England ah, have used it in, in their speech. We do say, we could say, you know, thinking about your point about formality, we could say ah, “you” – I could say to my class actually, “You’re free to leave when you want to.” I’d be very unlikely to say, because of the formality, ah, you mentioned, “You are all at liberty to leave the room, unrestrained,” [laughter] “by my tyrannical teacherly behavior…
JC: [crosstalk] Yeah, by that point it sounds like you’re mad at them…
MA: Yeah, exactly, the moment you start talking about liberty, you’ve raised the level of discourse.
CH: Yeah because I, I was just thinking like, oh, you know, I would definitely though say “I’m not at liberty to discuss it,” like if there was something I really didn’t want to talk about.
MA: That’s interesting that you would say it that way, cause I would probably say – to anybody I wasn’t trying to be very formal with, or if – I would probably say “I’m not free to talk about that.” However, I can imagine that if a lawyer were asking me that in a deposition, that I might say “I’m not at liberty to talk about that,” because I am talking not just about the freedom of my behavior but about ah, being restrained by some authority, some civil authority, because there are legitimate constraints on me. And that’s, you know, that is a difference I think semantically between the two words.
CH: Where did this additional formality for liberty come from? Michael told us about how the two words developed differently as America was separating from Britain, specifically in a political and philosophical context.
MA: You know, freedom, we al,l we all have freedoms and we understand what it means to be free, but when people talked political philosophy at about the time of the American Revolution, they were talking about liberty specifically. That’s the term they decided to use philosophically ah, and ethically. Liberty becomes the word that ah, Noah Webster defines most carefully, say, in American dictionary of the English language, because that’s the, that’s the hot political topic of the day. But Webster, quite typically for his age, distinguished between natural liberty and civil liberty. And, and natural liberty, he said, “consists in the power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, except from the laws of nature – it is a state of exemption from the control of others. This liberty is abridged by the establishment of government.” If you come out of political history grounded in Hobbes and a state of nature which is “nasty, brutish, and,” you know, “short,” and if government comes out of the need to escape that state of nature, then the question is, historically and philosophically, how much government? And ah, one, one argument would be to observe ah, natural liberty completely and never allow government to constrain what people wanted to do, but the alternative is civil liberty. And civil liberty abridges natural liberty “as is necessary and expedient,” he says, “for the safety and interest of the society, state, or nation,” and so on one hand you’ve got libertarians who insist on the word ‘necessary,’ you know, who say that government has to be limited to just what is necessary to constitute civil society without abridging natural liberty any further – and I suppose you could say that contemporary Democrats and Republicans are arguing about how much expedience ah, you’re willing to allow, you know, how we, what – what constitutes an expediency that allows government to intrude on what people like Webster and, and the Founders of the country thought of as natural liberty. And, and ah, the revolutionary Founders were so well schooled in those arguments, the political, philosophical arguments from Locke, and the economic arguments from, from Adam Smith ah, but Blackstone’s Commentaries and such, they all, they all knew all about this and, and in making ah, you know, coming up with an innovative political system in America, they had to take the terms they were given but distribute meanings among those terms in ways that ah, made sense at that moment in American political history, something that separated it from the political history of the United Kingdom. And, and so I think that’s, that’s one explanation for why we started to use freedom in certain situations and liberty in other situations. Liberty is the system in which we have the freedoms that we itemize in the Bill of Rights.
JC: Sometimes I forget how innovative the American political system was, right there when it first got started. I always have a follow-up question though, which is, how do the principles become real, on the ground?
CH: That’s the reason the “blessings of liberty” in the Constitution needed additions like the Bill of Rights, which itemizes rights including “freedom of speech.” It’s also the question Lincoln was working on here at the Cottage.
JC: Sometimes I feel like Americans kind of talk a big game about freedom – what do you think about whether we’re living up to it or not?
CH: Oaf. That’s a question I like to ask visitors all the time on tours, and it’s really fascinating – well actually I’ll ask them, do you think that we ah, you know, have a common definition for the word liberty? Meaning also, freedom, and it’s really fascinating because, you know, it’s usually split down the middle and it’s, it’s interesting and kind of fun to tease out where people disagree and sort of what that comes down to, um. It leads to some of my favorite conversations I’ve ever had here at the Cottage. Have you ever asked people that?
JC: I don’t think I’ve ever asked people, like, specifically using the phrase “talk a big game,” but I do like to ask people, when I’m leading a tour, about whether they think America is living up to its principles. And it’s interesting because sometimes you get people who are like, “PSs, not right now,” or, “Not as much as we were when Lincoln was around,” but I’ve also had visitors who are like, “Absolutely. A hundred percent.” My favorite thing about it is that, we’re not, but we’re sure trying to, you know?
CH: Yeah, and always my favorite thing, um, that comes out of this conversation when I talk about it with visitors is invariably we end up in this place where it’s like alright, well, what’s the goal? And somebody will say, “Well the goal is a, a more perfect union” – it’s not a perfect union, it’s a more perfect and so, you know, what does that actually mean and, and where does that, where does that leave us?
JC: Yeah. Yeah. I was also curious about how folks from other countries think about how Americans talk about freedom, so I asked Didier what he thought, and I promised him he could not offend us with his answer.
DS: You seem to have the monopoly of ah, freedom, you know, you are the ah, the “leaders of the free world,” so. No but like for, for example ah, about the ah, the First and the Second Amendment. It’s not really ah, I don’t know if it’s the freedom or it’s just a right, but for example the right to keep and bear arms – here in France it would, it seems like absolutely ah, like I don’t know, alien. Like nobody would think of like authorizing people to ah, to have guns with them. And ah, for example the First Amendment, you, you can have demonstration of ah, for example ah, groups like the Ku Klux Klan would
be absolutely ah, outlaws in France. They could not, they could not exist – they exist but they are like more underground movements. Oh yeah it’s like, for example, it’s, it’s absolutely ah, illegal to ah – not, not really illegal, but ah, like for example, you can’t really show like a, a Nazi ah, flag. Because in this case that, that would be ah, like a, an incitation, like for, to like racial hatred.
JC: I found that super interesting because that charge of incitement, that your speech would cause other people to riot and become violent, and therefore you shouldn’t be allowed to have that speech, was exactly the reason given to arrest American suffragists as they were advocating for women’s right to vote outside the White House.
CH: And I think that’s the question. When do you stop someone from exercising their speech because you believe it’s bad? And when do you abridge liberties to protect people, and protect them from what?
JC: We wanted to know more about how the words, and the choices between them, might affect modern legal understandings about people’s freedom. We spoke with Ambassador Louis cdeBaca, a Fellow at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, and formerly of the State Department’s Office of Trafficking in Persons. He had a quick anecdote right at the top about the Norman Conquest and the doubling up of the words liberty and freedom.
Louis cdeBaca: So one of the things that’s interesting about the concepts of liberty and freedom is that, like so many things in British law these are unitary concepts that have, people have tried to make into different concepts because they’re different words. And there are a number of different places in English law that has that, and it’s because of 1066. You basically have a Norman upper class taking over England, imposing a, a new legal system, but also you have a huge problem of bilingualism. And so you’ve got the Anglo-Saxon ruled, ah, who are still speaking Anglo-Saxon or Old English or Old British, and then you’ve got the Normans, who are coming over with French. And what ends up happening is, that especially with big public pronouncements, there ends up being a simultaneous translation that ends up happening, and so you’ll end up having these kind of dual words – um, so something is null and void. Which is totally repetitive, null and void are the same word, they’re just from two different languages. You tell people to cease and desist – I’m not sure how you would desist without ceasing…
CH: [laughter] That’s great, that’s great! I’d never thought about that, ever…
LdB: And that’s I think the thing that we see with this idea of liberty and freedom.
CH: In terms of liberty and freedom, what did those terms really mean, in a society built around slavery?
LdB: That’s one of the things we have to, to really focus in on, is that you’re talking about a system of slavery that grows up during the Enlightenment. A system of slavery that grows up just as the great scholars, both French and English scholars, are wrestling with this idea of freedom, liberty, the relationship between the governed and the governing bodies, the relationship between kings and duly constituted parliaments – all of those things are being contested in England, especially with the English Civil War, at the same time that laws here in the colonies are basically saying that a class of people are not – not only not capable of being citizens, but are not necessarily even going to be seen as people. And so this exempting out, you know, kind of right at the same time that you’ve got the growth of Parliament um as a counterbalance to the monarchy, ends up being kind of one of those inherent contradictions in the United States. And I think that’s the thing, is that anybody that looks at the United States historically has to, to be able to understand and celebrate our contradictions. We are a country that is born of our
contradictions, and I – to me that’s our strength, but, you know, I think that what we see is, what is… how can you end up squaring that circle? And I think it really comes back to this idea that you end up having to exempt large swaths of folks from this new concept of citizenship. And in the English system then you end up, you know, basically not only having men who are property owners, but here in the United States, in some ways, in order to prevent alliances being made between white and non-white populations, there ends up being that favoring of white men. Um… it’s a lot of slicing and dicing so that at the end of the day you’re talking about a very small people – or, a very small amount of people, who are actually able to conduct democracy. And if you homogenize democracy sufficiently then you don’t have to be as afraid of it, because all those inconvenient desires might not come in ah, if you’re just looking at the land-owning white male class. You know, to some degree over time with usage there’s been kind of folks who’ve said, okay, liberty is your ability to do things vis-a-vis the government, and freedom is kind of just your ability do whatever you want, whenever you want, but it – you know, Patrick Henry could’ve easily have said “Give me freedom or give me death,” but I think the fact that they were arguing against the power of the monarchy, there’s this kind of instinctive use of the word liberty as being something that is for people vis-a-vis their government. Now the problem is, if you’ve got an entire class of people who you have said are not vis-a-vis any government, if you’ve basically outsourced criminal justice and other administrative functions over the lives of the entire African enslaved population to the people who you say own them, you’ve exempted them from not just doing what citizens do in a polity, but from doing what people do in a society – and so the idea by the kind of early 1700s that black folks would be able to go to the local sheriff to deal with an assault, like anyone else should be able to – that wasn’t happening. Your owner ended up being the one who had, almost like a feudal lord 400 years earlier in England, who had total control over crime and punishment on the plantation, who’s marrying whom, you know et cetera. Those things end up I think showing us that this idea of freedom from the state, or “liberty,” is way up there on the Malthusian hierarchy of needs for the enslaved people – they needed freedom in the first instance, which is not being owned.
JC: Lou also added a third word into the mix: emancipation.
LdB: You know what’s interesting is, the other legal use of the word emancipation is not, you know, kind of a class based, it’s not saying everybody who was enslaved now is suddenly no longer enslaved. What it is used for now I think it gives us a hint as to how slavery under chattel slave systems in, in the British and American traditions ended up working, which is that the – almost like in Roman slavery the slaveholder stands not just in the shoes of the state, but they end up standing in the shoes of the father. Because emancipation now in American law is typically something you go to the court to petition for when you are being released from your relationship with your parents. One could probably also describe being released from a foster ah, situation or being released from the custody of, of the, the state, but when you think about that as then ah, that’s the term for the – abolition happens by emancipation, right? So it’s not the Abolition Proclamation.
LdB: It’s the Emancipation Proclamation, and it’s basically saying, we’re releasing you from this idea that you are not capable of personhood.
JC: This made me think of something we’d spoken to Didier about: the French expression “esclave affranchi,” meaning freed slave. The adjective “affranchi” there, in English means something closer to “enfranchised,” as in, given citizenship. And in the US, even the legal rights given by emancipation under
the 13th Amendment didn’t include full citizenship for black Americans. That project would take additional work during Reconstruction.
Callie: The 13th Amendment is still used today to prosecute traffickers and enslavers. But, in the field of anti-trafficking, do activists use the word freedom or liberty?
LdB: You know I tend to see… I think people tend to talk more about freedom. I think that typically liberty ah, you know, were it to be invoked more, I think that it would end up being something that would be discussed vis-a-vis the Chinese, vis-a-vis the North Koreans, you know, et cetera. You know, liberty is such a fancy word.
JC: Not all advocates against trafficking, however, come at the word freedom from the same perspective.
LdB: And yet, you know, that notion of kind of the prostitution-based wing of, of the human trafficking movement right now tends to have I think brought an argument in that neither of them are necessarily all that comfortable using the slavery terms, and the freedom terms, and things like that, because they’re bringing in a pre-existing debate about regulation of prostitution. Which is a crime problem, which is a commerce problem, um, it comes out of the commerce clause rather than out of the 13th Amendment, and so I think that when people from that wing hear us slavery people using words like freedom, and liberty, and everything else they’re – one of the reasons why it, it has a dissonant sound to them is because they’re having a discussion about something that, that starts off at a different place than the enslavement discussion. Of course modern human trafficking is kind of a blend of those two wings of law.
CH: Lou had one more essential thing to add.
LdB: One of the important things when we’re looking at kind of semantic differences, you know, what’s the difference between liberty and freedom, is that so many of the people who end up being enslaved, whether it’s in the old days or, or whether it’s now, are from a socially excluded um, group. Whether it’s, you know, the people who lost the wrong war, um, in Angola, and now the prince is gonna sell a whole bunch of people to the Portuguese, or whether it’s, you know, Roma children in Europe today. And yet what we see, when we talk to survivors of modern slavery, when we look at slave narratives from before the US Civil War, before British emancipation – you see that no matter where people are from, what their native language was, that there is a baseline understanding of what’s fair and what’s not fair. And so, in some ways, us trying to then shoehorn their experience into whether it’s, oh, well this is a violation of Section 1584 as opposed to 1589, or I should prosecute this as a 13th Amendment violation or maybe under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which is a little bit broader, you know – this is liberty versus this is freedom, this is slavery versus this is trafficking, all of the different semantic things that happen in the modern slavery movement but also, you know, with historians looking at antebellum slavery, at the end of the day probably the more important inquiry is: what did the people who lived through it think was happening to them? And is there a way that we can then effectuate and honor that in policy, um, and in action? When we do well in this fight is when we are closest to being able to accurately describe their experiences, but to do that we have to listen.
JC: I tend to agree with Lou that, yes, semantically there’s a slight difference between liberty and freedom, but it just pales entirely in the face of the difference between free and unfree. Lincoln said, in that story Callie spoke of in the beginning of the episode, that Americans cannot agree on a definition of
liberty, and that the country can’t move forward until we figure one out. In the wake of this conversation, I feel more urgently than ever that, however we’re thinking about freedom or liberty, we always have to double check and make sure our scope is wide enough to encompass everyone around us too.
CH: We want to encourage you to think about: What freedoms do you enjoy that you might not have paid attention to in a while? What does liberty mean to you? And do you think Americans currently have a common definition for the word liberty?
JC: This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, and Callie Hawkins. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted, by Clancy Newman.
CH: Q&Abe is possible thanks to generous supporters of President Lincoln’s Cottage. To find out how you can support this podcast and other programming, visit www.lincolncottage.org.
Joan: To the visitor who asked the question behind this episode, thanks for giving us the opportunity to examine not only our vocabulary but also our principles more closely.
Callie: Comments? Questions? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave us a review on your podcast app.
Joan: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!