Freedom and Liberty in American Historical Documents Essay

October 14, 2020 by Essay Writer


Competing visions of freedom and liberty have always been a hallmark of the development of the United States. Throughout the years, many ideas emerged concerning the interpretation of these notions, and multiple approached were designed.

The competition between these standpoints is crucial for the development of a democratic state. The 1920s and the 1930s saw particularly ardent debates on these issues since it was the time of the First World War and the development of the American sense of identity at the same time. International relations during wartime influenced the treatment of the immigrants in the U.S., which, in turn, led to many discrepancies between the assertions about the civil liberties and their actual enforcement. The attitude towards economic liberties was influenced by the War as well, leading to a substantial disagreement in the 1930s.

Discussions Sparked by the First World War

The document entitled The Fight for Civil Liberties (1921) provides an explanation for the inordinate amount of attention given to the notions of liberty and freedom. Due to the atrocities of World War I, human rights protection became a burning issue. In 1920, progressive politicians and lawyers formed an organization called the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The purpose of the organization was to make every effort to protect the human rights of every American regardless of their racial characteristics.

To this end, a general statement was issued. However, it would take years for the principles of this statement to be enforced, but it proved to be an important step nonetheless. Among the most important points of the statement issued by the ACLU were the freedom of speech, press, and assemblages, the right to strike, liberty in education, racial equality, and the right to a fair trial. The ACLU acknowledged that it is difficult to secure the human rights protection in a given political situation of repression.

Nevertheless, the aggressive policy of publicity and demonstrations should eventually help attain the goal. Organized labor and farmer movements are identified as the primary driving forces of the movement since they are the interested parties in achieving an increased control of the industry. According to the discussed document, freedom, liberty, and other human rights were to be struggled for by the citizens, who were not indifferent to their fate and the fate of their country. They were to take a stand against injustice and secure their rights.

The Issue of Education

The document entitled Meyer v. Nebraska and the Meaning of Liberty (1923) sheds further light on the discussion at the time that covered different interpretations of liberty. According to the law of 1919, no seat of learning could teach in a foreign language. When Robert Meyer, a parochial school teacher in Nebraska, violated that rule, he was forced to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, after the conviction was pronounced by the Supreme Court of Nebraska.

The incident sparked a flow of discussion. Whether it was necessary to enforce the English language as the only academic language was the major question. The court of Nebraska subscribed to the idea that it was harmful and dangerous for the interests of the country to allow the immigrants’ foreign languages to be taught at school. It could be assumed that such an opinion was maintained out of concern for the American identity and the dominance of the English language as such. Therefore, the concept of freedom in this context pertains to the necessity of protecting the dominant cultural attribute – the English language. On the other hand, civil liberties were clearly infringed by the 1919 legislation.

Indeed, it is emphasized in the document that the civil liberties must not be “interfered with, under the guise of protecting the public interest, by legislative action which is arbitrary or without reasonable relation to some purpose within the competency of the state to effect” (“Meyer v. Nebraska and the Meaning of Liberty (1923)” 147). Similar to the first analyzed document, these debates are also explained partially by the events of World War I. The war atrocities, as well as overall international relations during the war shaped such radical ideas. Therefore, the discrepancy between the two sides of the debate is explained by the existence of two approaches: a radical and a moderate approach.

Those choosing the radical approach were eager to break away any connections to the military enemies of the First World War, including the ban on foreign languages. It was seen as a safety measure aimed at protecting the American people from the immigrants, which were inadvertently associated with the European powers participating in the War. Luckily, in the described case, the moderate approach prevailed, and the U.S. Supreme Court declared the 1919 law unconstitutional. It is emphasized in the document that in time of peace and tranquility no such measures are necessary.

The Issue of Economic Freedom

The document entitled Herbert Hoover on the New Deal and Liberty (1936) sheds light on the understanding of economic freedom in the 1930s and explains the differences of opinion in the matter. Hoover strongly criticizes Roosevelt’s take on the economic freedom that included an absence of restraints for the entrepreneurship. Hoover declares that “Roosevelt (…) was either operating out of sheer opportunism, with no coherent purpose of the policy or was conspiring to impose “European ideas” on the United States” (“Herbert Hoover on the New Deal and Liberty (1936)” 170).

The elections, Hoover maintained, had a grave significance, as they would determine the future of freedom in the country. Ironically, Hoover sees the unrestrained economic liberties as European ideas that would eventually limit the freedom of Americans. Hoover’s idea of liberty differs significantly from Roosevelt’s notion. Hoover believes that the New Deal is harmful to the American economy, leaving them destitute in dire need, forced to pay unreasonable taxes.

He points out that only by means of diversification can the economy be boosted and the well-being of people improved. Hoover also thinks that the damage inflicted by the War is the cause of Roosevelt’s mistake and misinterpretation of the idea of economic freedom. However, as the years go by, it is necessary to abandon the mild and populist political gestures aimed at merely securing support. “While the design of the structure of betterment for the common man must be inspired by heart, it can only be achieved by the intellect (…) by the painstaking sifting of truth from the collection of fact and experience” (“Herbert Hoover on the New Deal and Liberty (1936)” 172).

Therefore, it is clear that the difference of opinion regarding the economic freedom presented in this particular document was also caused by wartime experiences.

The Negro Congress of 1935

The document entitled Goals of the National Negro Congress 1935 to emphasize that over the years of the economic depression, the African-Americans were subject to double exploitation. Worse still, while their exploitation continued, wages were falling, prices were on the increase, and the discrimination was aggravating. The injustice against the African-Americans was becoming increasingly severe, with the courts ignoring the need to enforce an anti-lynching law, and subjecting them to unfair trials and denying justice. The war that fascist Italy led against Ethiopia is mentioned in the document as a major concern: “Negroes in America observe with deep indignation the war on Ethiopia by fascist Italy, threatening, as it does, to throw the entire world into a terrible war” (“Goals of the National Negro Congress, 1935” 258).

Thus, the Negro Congress was aimed at addressing all the burning issues, the injustice and unfair trials, the exploitation, and the discrimination, as well as organizing support in favor of struggling Negroes of Ethiopia. It is emphasized that the unity of action is necessary for the organization’s success. The goals formulated by the Congress included decent living wages, social insurance with no discrimination, alleviating the burden of taxation, enforcing the anti-lynching legislation, equal academic opportunities for African-American young people, equal rights for the African-American women, as well as to support Ethiopian struggle against Italian oppression.


Contrasting viewpoints regarding the notions of freedom and liberty in America have always been a typical feature of the development of the country. The documents discussed above outline the basic differences of opinion regarding the mentioned notions. The discrepancies are explained by an array of reasons, the most important of which are the atrocities of the First World War. The latter had a significant impact on the perception of civil liberties and economic freedom, including the perception of the immigrants and whether they present any threat to American society. The competing visions of freedom and liberty in the 1920s and the 1930s were, therefore, a consequence of international events, international relations with Europe, as well as of the post-war atmosphere that was mentioned by Hoover in his criticism of Roosevelt’s policies.

Work Cited

“Goals of the National Negro Congress, 1935”. Black Protest: History, Documents, and Analyses, 1619 to the Present by Joanne Grant. Quoted in Eric Foner. Voices of Freedom. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 257-259. Print.

“Herbert Hoover on the New Deal and Liberty (1936)”, Herbert Hoover: “On the New Deal and Liberty,” Official Report of the Proceedings of the 21st Republican National Convention, 1936, 115-119, 122-124. Reprinted by permission of the Republican National Committee. Quoted in Eric Foner. Voices of Freedom. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 170-173. Print.

“Meyer v. Nebraska and the Meaning of Liberty (1923)”, Opinion of the Court, Meyer v. Nebraska 262 U.S. 390 (1923). Quoted in Eric Foner. Voices of Freedom. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 146-150. Print.

“The Fight for Civil Liberties (1921)”, American Civil Liberties Union, The Fight for Free Speech (New York, 1921), 15-18. Quoted in Eric Foner. Voices of Freedom. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 135-140. Print.

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