I pity from the bottom of my heart any nation or body of people that is so unfortunate as to get entangled in the net of slavery. I have long since ceased to cherish any spirit of bitterness against the Southern white people on account of the enslavement of my race. No one section of our country was wholly responsible for its introduction, and, besides, it was recognized and protected for years by the General Government. Having once got its tentacles fastened on to the economic and social life of the Republic, it was no easy matter for the country to relieve itself of the institution. Then, when we rid ourselves of prejudice, or racial feeling, and look facts in the face, we must acknowledge that, notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, the ten million Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally, and religiously, than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe. … This I say, not to justify slavery — on the other hand, I condemn it as an institution, as we all know that in America it was established for selfish and financial reasons, and not from a missionary motive — but to call attention to a fact, and to show how Providence so often uses men and institutions to accomplish a purpose.
The problem with liberalism may be that no one knows how to get the government to do the benevolent things liberals want it to do. Or it may be, at least in some cases, that it just isn’t possible for the government to bring about what liberals want it to accomplish. As the leading writers in The Public Interest began demonstrating almost 50 years ago, the intended, beneficial consequences of social policies are routinely overwhelmed by the unintended, harmful consequences they trigger. It may also be, as conservatives have long argued, that achieving liberal goals, no matter how humane they sound, requires kinds and degrees of government coercion fundamentally incompatible with a government created to secure citizens’ inalienable rights, and deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.
When a society rejects the idea of God, it tends to transcendentalize alternatives — such as the ideals of liberty or equality. These now become quasi-divine authorities, which none are permitted to challenge. ¶ Perhaps the most familiar example of this dates from the French Revolution, at a time when traditional notions of God were discarded as obsolete and replaced by transcendentalized human values. In 1792 Madame Rolande was brought to the guillotine to face execution on trumped-up charges. As she prepared to die, she bowed mockingly toward the statue of liberty in the Place de la Révolution and uttered the words for which she is now remembered: “Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name.” Her point is simple, and I believe it to be irrefutable. All ideals — divine, transcendent, human or invented — are capable of being abused. That’s just the way human nature is. And knowing this, rather than lashing out uncritically at religion, we need to work out what to do about it. The problem lies in human nature.
It seems to me that elsewhere in America liberty is far more a matter of law than practice. The Bill of Rights is still on the books and they’d have a hell of a time putting you in jail for just saying something, but how free are we? Whatever the guarantees, I believe liberty resides in its exercise. Liberty is really about the ability to feel free and behave accordingly. You are only as free as you act. Free people must be willing to speak up … and listen. They can’t merely consume the fruits of freedom, they have to produce them. This exercise of liberty requires that people trust one another and the institutions they make together. They have to feel at home in their society. Well, Americans don’t appear to trust each other much these days. Why else would we employ three times more lawyers per capita than we did in 1970? Why else would our universities be so determined to impose tolerance that they’ll expel you for saying what you think and never notice the irony? Why else would we teach our kids to fear all strangers? Why else have we become so afraid to look one another in the eye? We have come to regard trust as foolishness and fear as necessary. We live in terror that the people around us might figure out what we’re actually thinking. Frankly, this America doesn’t feel very free to me at all. What has happened to our liberty? I think much of the answer lies in the critical difference between information and experience. These days we view most of our world through a television screen. Most of our knowledge comes from information about things, not experience with them.
The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow; without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived. No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. 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 is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest. Though this doctrine is anything but new, and, to some persons, may have the air of a truism, there is no doctrine which stands more directly opposed to the general tendency of existing opinion and practice. Society has expended fully as much effort in the attempt (according to its lights) to compel people to conform to its notions of personal, as of social excellence.
To make a government requires no great prudence. Settle the seat of power; teach obedience; and the work is done. To give freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to guide; it only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government; that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind. … But when the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides of the people. If any of them should happen to propose a scheme of liberty, soberly limited, and defined with proper qualifications, he will be immediately outbid by his competitors, who will produce something more splendidly popular. Suspicions will be raised of his fidelity to his cause. Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards, and compromise as the prudence of traitors; until, in hopes of preserving the credit which may enable him to temper and moderate on some occasions, the popular leader is obliged to become active in propagating doctrines, and establishing powers, that will afterwards defeat any sober purpose at which he ultimately might have aimed.