What is the meaning behind the "Spirit of Liberty" speech by Judge Learned Hand?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I am basing my answer to this question on the excerpt in the link below.

In this excerpt, Hand starts by saying that all Americans either chose to come to America or are the descendants of those who did (in those days, people didn’t think much about the fact that African Americans were descended from people who did not get to choose).  He says that people came here because they wanted liberty.  So then he asks what liberty means.  What was the liberty for which people came to America?

First, he says that liberty cannot be saved by laws or constitutions but only if it “lies in the hearts of men and women.”  What he means is that our constitutional guarantees of rights are useless if people don’t want to support them.  For example, during his time, African Americans were denied the equal protection of the law even though the 14th Amendment guaranteed it.  If the majority is strongly against some form of liberty, it will die, even if the Constitution guarantees it.

So what is this feeling of liberty, he asks.  He says it is not the freedom to do whatever we want.  That is not the kind of liberty he is talking about.  Instead, he says, liberty is more about toleration.  He says a person with the spirit of liberty in them does not believe they are always right.  They accept that they may be wrong so they allow others to have their own opinions.  A person with the spirit of liberty in them tries to understand other people and to think about what other people want and need.  They do not automatically think that something is bad if it is bad for them.  Instead, they think about whether that thing might be good for others or might be something that others feel is important.  Finally, he says, referring to Jesus, the spirit of liberty is the idea that the needs and ideas of the poorest and weakest will be paid attention to just as much as the needs and ideas of the richest and most powerful.

He says that Americans know that we will never achieve perfect liberty in our hearts, but he says that we have to aspire to feel these things.  We have to think that our liberty is more about being tolerant and understanding of others than it is about doing what we want and having things our way.

Sources:

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