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'Self-evident'? Americans' perceptions of liberty vary

Eric Johnson

Peter Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia (and a great friend of Monticello) wrote a thought-provoking piece in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star about the nature of Americans' views of liberty from the earliest days of the republic:

We Americans live in a "land of liberty" where we may pursue happiness in our own ways, without a powerful state prescribing the routes we take. We may not get there in the end, for "happiness" is not specific. But as authors of our own stories we exult in the journey itself. The Declaration of Independence sets forth "self-evident" truths: "that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness."

In theory, liberty comes first; governments, "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," are "instituted among men" in order "to secure these rights." This is the American creed, the language that makes us a people. It is also a language that can tear us apart, for liberty can mean - and has meant - very different, sometimes irreconcilable, things to Americans. These differences pivot on the role of government. Jefferson and his fellow congressmen knew that Americans had a war to win. As a practical matter, government - the successful exercise of power - came first and liberty followed.

Read the rest of the column in the Free Lance-Star.

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