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235 years

In 1944, at an “I Am an American Day” celebration in New York City, Judge Learned Hand delivered a short address that has since been widely quoted and anthologized. Today, the 235th anniversary of American independence, I offer you the core passage from it.

What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it. And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.

What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.


Posted by John McIntyre at 8:29 AM | | Comments (9)


Yes, it's a strongly held view that liberty requires positive freedom, not merely the absence of oppression. But absence of oppression, freedom under the law, must be the foundation: "No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right."

To mark the bicentenary of the United States Constitution the then Secretary of the Army planted an oak among the other memorials at Runnymede, with soil from Jamestown, Virginia. The tree "stands in acknowledgement that the ideals of liberty and justice embodied in the Constitution trace their lineage ... to the Magna Carta, sealed at Runnymede on June 15th, 1215."

Your quote from Learned Hand made me think of what the Archangel Michael said to Adam after Adam, in a dream, has been shown Nimrod's part in history:

To whom thus Michael. Justly thou abhorr'st
That Son, who on the quiet state of men [ 80 ]
Such trouble brought, affecting to subdue
Rational Libertie; yet know withall,
Since thy original lapse true Lbertie
Is lost, which alwayes with right Reason dwells
Twinn'd, and from her hath no dividual being: [ 85 ]
Reason in man obscur'd, or not obeyd,
Immediately inordinate desires
And upstart Passions catch the Government
From Reason, and to servitude reduce
Man till then free. Therefore since hee permits [ 90 ]
Within himself unworthie Powers to reign
Over free Reason, God in Judgement just
Subjects him from without to violent Lords;
Who oft as undeservedly enthrall
His outward freedom: Tyrannie must be, [ 95 ]
Though to the Tyrant thereby no excuse.

Learned Hand was an amazing man. How are you enjoying the biography? I take it you have the one by Gerald Gunther. I thought it was outstanding.

As for liberty, this quote clearly delineates the difference between liberty and license and the danger of confusing one with the other. Thank you for sharing it with us at a time when issues of freedom are closer to mind.

It is indeed the Gunther biography, which is first-rate.


Hmm.... I had some nagging, yet very vague suspicion that my birthdate, June 15th, had some major historical significance, and you, dear lad, have managed to jog my moribund memory w/ your earlier post in noting the signing date of the historically groundbreaking document, the Magna Carta at Runnymede, on June 15th, 1215; some 731 years, to the day, before my arriving in this world kicking and screaming in the maternity ward at St. Michael's Hospital, downtown Toronto. Bah! Bah! Bah!

Didn't intend to blow my own horn there, but I guess I just did. Oh well.


June 15th was Waylon Jennings' birthday.

Well there you go, Alex, just choose between Magna Carta and Wayton Jennings.


Hmm........ that would be Waylon (not "Wayton") Jennings, (talk about nitpicky HA!). Although the late country music outlaw legend, and one quarter of the iconic quartet of grizzled old country greats, The Highwaymen, (Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash completing the group), surely loved to be 'waited on' ("Wayton" HA!)----- one of the many perks of celebrity.

Although I'm an inveterate country music buff and appreciate Mr. Jennings' unique contributions to the genre, I do believe, in the greater scheme of world historical events, the June 15th, 1215 signing of the Magna Carta was slightly more impactful, pivotal, and noteworthy than Waylon Jennings' auspicious same-day birth. I'm sure his dear mum, would vociferously disagree. May they both rest in peace.

Sadly, Waylon Jennings passed not that long ago (a year, or so) of complications from a long battle w/ diabetes, having required a foot amputation in his latter days. He was a good-old-boy till the very end, and has been sorely missed by his music peers, and loyal fans.

Picky, surely we are all owed a pass, or two, for unwitting typos, so I hope you appreciate that I'm just being a fussy pain-in-the-butt here. No offense intended, old chap.

Ta! Ta!


Could've been a typo; could've been simple ignorance. I decline to say. I have no doubt that my solicitor will have a full explanation available before long.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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