General excellence of freedom

Jul 04, 2017
J.C. Ryle (Freedom, 1878)

On this point some readers may think it needless to say anything; they imagine that all men know the value of freedom, and that to dwell on it is mere waste of time. I do not agree with such people at all. I believe that myriads of Englishmen know nothing of the blessings which they enjoy in their own land; they have grown up from infancy to manhood in the midst of free institutions. They have not the least idea of the state of things in other countries; they are ignorant alike of those two worst forms of tyranny, the crushing tyranny of a cruel military despot, and the intolerant tyranny of an unreasoning mob. In short, many Englishmen know nothing of the value of liberty, just because they have been born in the middle of it, and have never been for a moment without it.

I call then on everyone who reads this paper, to remember that liberty is one of the greatest temporal blessings that man can have on this side the grave.

We live in a land where our bodies are free. So long as we hurt nobody’s person, or property, or character — no one can touch us; the poorest man’s house is his castle.

We live in a land where our actions are free. So long as we support ourselves, we are free to choose what we will do, where we will go, and how we will spend our time.

We live in a land where our consciences are free. So long as we hold quietly on our own way, and do not interfere with others, we are free to worship God as we please, and no man can compel us to take his way to Heaven. We live in a land where no foreigner rules over us. Our laws are made and altered by Englishmen like ourselves, and our Governors dwell by our side, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.

In short, we have every kind of freedom to an extent which no other nation on earth can equal. We have personal freedom, civil freedom, religious freedom, and national freedom. We have free bodies, free consciences, free speech, free thought, free action, free Bibles, a free press, and free homes. How vast is this list of privileges! How endless the comforts which it contains! The full value of them can never perhaps be known. Well said the Jewish Rabbis in ancient days: “If the sea were ink and the world parchment — it would never serve to describe the praises of liberty.”

The lack of this freedom has been the most fertile cause of misery to nations in every age of the world. What reader of the Bible can fail to remember the sorrows of the children of Israel, when they were slaves under Pharaoh in Egypt, or under Philistines in Canaan? What student of history needs to be reminded of the woes inflicted on the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and Italy by the hand of foreign oppressors, or the Inquisition? Who, even in our own time, has not heard of that enormous fountain of wretchedness, the slavery of the Negro race? No misery is so great as the misery of slavery.

To win and preserve freedom has been the aim of many national struggles which have deluged the earth with blood. Liberty has been the cause in which myriads of Greeks, and Romans, and Germans, and Poles, and Swiss, and Englishmen, and Americans have willingly laid down their lives. No price has been thought too great to pay in order that nations might be free.

The champions of freedom in every age have been justly esteemed among the greatest benefactors of mankind. Such names as Moses and Gideon in Jewish history, the German Martin Luther, the Swiss William Tell, the Scotch Robert Bruce and John Knox, the English Alfred and Hampden and the Puritans, the American George Washington, are deservedly embalmed in history, and will never be forgotten. To be the mother of many patriots is the highest praise of a nation.

The enemies of freedom in every age have been rightly regarded as the pests and nuisances of their times. Such names as Pharaoh in Egypt, Dionysius at Syracuse, Nero at Rome, Charles IX in France, bloody Mary in England — are names which will never be rescued from disgrace. The public opinion of mankind will never cease to condemn them, on the one ground that they would not let people be free.

But why should I dwell on these things? Time and space would fail me if I were to attempt to say a tenth part of what might be said in praise of freedom. What are the annals of history — but a long record of conflicts between the friends and foes of liberty? Where is the nation upon earth which has ever attained greatness, and left its mark on the world, without freedom? Which are the countries on the face of the globe at this very moment which are making the most progress in trade, in arts, in sciences, in civilization, in philosophy, in morals, in social happiness? Precisely those countries in which there is the greatest amount of true freedom. Which are the countries at this very day where is the greatest amount of internal misery, where we hear continually of secret plots, and murmuring, and discontent, and attempts on life and property? Precisely those countries where freedom does not exist, or exists only in name, where men are treated as serfs and slaves, and are not allowed to think and act for themselves.

No wonder that a mighty American Statesman declared on a great occasion to his assembled countrymen: “Give me liberty, or give me death!” (Patrick Henry)

Let us beware of undervaluing the liberty we enjoy in this country of ours, as Englishmen. I am sure there is need of this warning. There is, perhaps, no country on earth where there is so much grumbling and fault-finding, as there is in England. Men look at the imagined evils which they see around them, and exaggerate both their number and their intensity. They refuse to look at the countless blessings and privileges which surround us, or underrate the advantages of them. They forget that comparison should be applied to everything. With all our faults and defects, there is at this hour no country on earth where there is so much liberty and happiness for all classes, as there is in England. They forget that as long as human nature is corrupt, it is vain to expect perfection here below. No laws or government whatever can possibly prevent a certain quantity of abuses and corruptions.

Once more then, I say, let us beware of undervaluing English liberty, and running eagerly after everyone who proposes sweeping changes. Changes are not always improvements. The old shoes may have some holes and defects — but the new shoes may pinch so much that we cannot walk at all. No doubt we might have better laws and government than we have — but I am quite sure we might easily have worse. At this very day, there is no country on the face of the globe where there is so much care taken of the life, and health, and property, and character, and personal liberty of the poorest inhabitant, as there is in England. Those who want to have more liberty, would soon find, if they crossed the seas, that there is no country on earth where there is so much real liberty as our own!

But while I bid men not undervalue English liberty, so also on the other hand I charge them not to overvalue it. Never forget that temporal slavery is not the only slavery, and temporal freedom not the only freedom. What will it profit you to be a citizen of a free country — so long as your soul is not free?

What is the good of living in a free land like ours, with free thought, free speech, free action, free conscience — so long as you are a slave to sin, and a captive to the devil? Yes, there are tyrants whom no eye can see, as real and destructive as Pharaoh or Nero! There are chains which no hands can touch, as true and heavy and soul-withering as ever crushed the limbs of a slave! It is these tyrants whom I want you to remember today. It is these chains from which I want you to be free. by all means value your earthly liberty — but do not overvalue it. Look higher, further than any earthly freedom. In the highest sense let us ensure that “we are free indeed.”

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