State Policy Network
How do Americans feel about the term “liberty”?

Debi Ghate, SPN executive fellow and guest contributor

“Give me liberty or give me death!” Patrick Henry famously uttered these words in a 1775 speech. We know his impassioned plea to his fellow Virginians was a key moment in American history, leading to the establishment of an independent militia culminating in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. There we find the right to liberty enshrined as a foundational American value in the preamble.

Do we still agree today that liberty is a shared American value? That’s it worth dying for? That we are all pursuing it along with our individual life and happiness?

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), a philanthropy-serving organization, recently released the findings from its Civic Language Perceptions Project. This large-scale survey collected data from 5,000 Americans of all persuasions and walks of life as part of a multi-year study. Here’s how PACE describes its work:

“At best, are we talking past each other? At worst, are we furthering divisions, disillusionment, or disengagement?…we need to understand what perceptions and associations exist related to ‘ civic and democracy work,’ and how these terms and concepts resonate (or don’t), so that we can work more inclusively, effectively, and constructively.”

Among the concepts and terms studied: Liberty.

Among the civic terms tested, liberty had the second highest positive rating at 63%, with an additional 25% viewing it neutrally. I was personally surprised. As someone whose career has been invested in protecting individual rights and who takes in a wide array of content from diverse audiences, the impression I typically have and share with many colleagues is that liberty is under attack all the time from everywhere. So, this is an encouraging sign: most of the survey respondents like liberty!

The story doesn’t end there. Here are some other key takeaways that help flesh out why I might not be completely wrong in my impression that liberty is a controversial concept:

Could it be that we are generally positive about liberty but also committed to different versions of it? It is worth noting that a definition of liberty was not provided in the survey so people are bringing their own—and possibly different connotations—to their ratings. Is that a consequence of liberty? Has the term become a lightning rod? Is there a way for it to remain a shared common core value?

On the downside, there is also interesting data about those who don’t view liberty as a positive term:

What should we make of these numbers? The less you like other groups, the less you like liberty? Liberty for some but not for all just doesn’t work? It’s hard to draw any solid conclusions from this round of data apart from noting the correlations that surface.

This is just the tip of the iceberg with the data PACE has made available for everyone’s use. I’m going to take my pleasant surprise over a 63% rating on positive affinity with liberty and continue to fight for individual rights and communities. But the sub-findings introduce nuance as to where tensions around the term may validly (or not) arise and provide food for thought about how to talk about liberty as a common shared value. Because, as Patrick Henry and our Declaration of Independence laid out, liberty is core to who we are as Americans. It’s one of those concepts we absolutely cannot let go, as much as its fact will mean we disagree. It’s what gives us the ability to do so.

Please note there is a large margin of error associated with these results of 20%.

Organization: State Policy Network