The concept of “liberty” is a direct outgrowth of the wide-spread application of its antithesis, tyranny. As the eNotes essay the link to which is provided below points out, British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), taking note of the distinctions between autocratic government and the natural desire on the part of man to exercise basic freedoms, wrote in his Second Treatise that
“To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions, and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending on the will of any other man.”
The concept of liberty had its foundation in ancient Greece with the writings of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, but in its more contemporary formulation, which drew upon those historical antecedents, it was represented most articulately in the principles undergirding the French and American Revolutions, the latter best represented by Thomas Jefferson who, in drafting the Declaration of Independence, wrote:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . .”
Additionally, another British philosopher, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), would similarly write in defense of the concept of liberty in his important treatise On Liberty that
“the only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”
Each of these individuals, all learned men who understood the nature of man in relation to government, believed fervently that any laws that infringed basic freedoms such as on speech were anathema to civil society. “Liberty” is synonymous with “freedom,” and it forms the basis of democratic political systems. They have differed, as we do today, on reasonable limits on personal freedom – for example, Mill was more of a libertarian than Jefferson, a natural distinction between those who understand the exigencies of government and those who don’t – but both appreciated from personal experiences and observations that recognition of the natural rights to certain freedoms had to provide the foundation of a legitimate government.