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Here’s Judge Learned Hand’s ‘The Spirit of Liberty’ speech
Thursday, 15 July 2021 18:21

EDITOR’s NOTE: Independence Day is long past, but, due to reader demand, the Daily Planet is reprinting Judge Learned Hand’s classic “The Spirit of Libery” speech, which he gave in 1944 in celebration of “I AM an American” Day. 

The requests for this reprint in this newspaper followed an interview with H. Edward Phillips III, attorney for the Society for the Historical Preservation of 26th North Carolina Troops (a group seeking to preserve the Vance Monument in downtown Asheville), that appeared in the July 1-14 edition of the Daily Planet in which, among other things, Phillips referred with great affection and admiration to the character and thinking of Judge Learned Hand — and his “The Spirit of Liberty” speech.

Hand (1872-1961), whose full name at birth was Billings Learned Hand, is widely considered to be the greatest judge NOT to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Reportedly, one of the most-cited quotes from this speech is “The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure it is right” — where Hand is saying that Americans needed to avoid dogmatism and remain open-minded.
e have gathered here to affirm a faith, a faith in a common purpose, a common conviction, a common devotion. 

Some of us have chosen America as the land of our adoption; the rest have come from those who did the same. 

For this reason we have some right to consider ourselves a picked group, a group of those who had the courage to break from the past and brave the dangers and the loneliness of a strange land. 

What was the object that nerved us, or those who went before us, to this choice? 

We sought liberty — freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom to be ourselves. This we then sought; this we now believe that we are by way of winning. 

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. 

And now in that spirit, that spirit of an America which has never been, and which may never be; nay, which never will be except as the conscience and courage of Americans create it; yet in the spirit of that America which lies hidden in some form in the aspirations of us all; in the spirit of that America for which our young men are at this moment fighting and dying; in that spirit of liberty and of America I ask you to rise and with me pledge our faith in the glorious destiny of our beloved country.

 I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands — One nation, Indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.



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