What Does Freedom Mean?

Each month, Republican volunteers meet many new citizens who want to register as Republican voters on the same day they receive their United States citizen certificates. When asked what motivated them to make the effort to become a U.S. citizen, their first word is “freedom,” followed by “opportunity” and “to seek a better life.


When the American Founding Fathers formed their Declaration of Independence in July, 1776, separating themselves from rule by a distant power, they defined “freedom” as the liberty to manage their own lives with local laws—written by those who understood their need for the individual freedom to provide for their families based on their own capabilities. When the American Constitution was finally ratified in December, 1791, the first two amendments of the Bill of Rights established the freedom to choose and practice the religion of their choice and the individual freedom to own arms for protection of self and family.

The Founding Fathers knew that with freedom and opportunity come the responsibility not to impinge on the freedoms and opportunities of others. It takes time for some to understand and appreciate this responsibility to tolerate divergent viewpoints about governmental administration of a free society. Immigrants during the entire 20th century called this the “American Dream.” Many have risked and some lost their lives trying to join our society to live this dream. As a testament to that dream, many Americans dedicate their lives so we can each enjoy this freedom.

We also have responsibilities to each other. Since 2000, we are just now seeing the first full generation come to adulthood into the 21st century. As this “Millennial” group began to mature into their adult responsibilities, some came to fear their “Baby Boomer” teachers taught them that freedom comes with no responsibility. It seems since the "Great Society” program of 1960, many thought freedom meant personal rights provided to them by the government. Some seem to forget they also have responsibilities not to interfere with others’ freedoms and rights to benefits by their own talent and effort.

It is good to really listen to divergent opinions. Sharing knowledge and considering differing viewpoints can only be done by listening. Silencing those who have a different opinion will only result in mob rule. In societal conflicts around the world since the 1940s, without exception the leaders that succeeded in silencing others’ opinions ended up destroying their own societies and eventually themselves. Freedom of speech means you have a responsibility to listen while others also exercise their freedom of speech. Listening to others may confirm your own viewpoint; it may also provide new information that will deepen your knowledge and broaden your understanding.

When a good schoolteacher makes a statement that is contrary to your views, you have a right to ask, "Is that your opinion or is it a fact?” If they claim it as fact, you may say, “Thank you for the clarification.” Then do your fact checking with reliable sources. If they respond that it is their opinion, you should ask how and why they reached that opinion. Then you can have dialog where both can learn with neither suppressing the other’s freedom of speech. With your friends, the same process allows understanding without conflict. In some countries, government dictators suppress people's free speech. In America, we are all free to speak. By listening and analyzing how and why opinions differ, we learn how to work for the common good of all in our society. 

- Bill Thomas