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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > “On Liberty” – Judge Learned Hand’s Wisdom from 1944 More True Today

By Ralph Nader
October 29, 2021

When I was in Law School, among the most revered legal opinions were those by Judge Learned Hand of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. They were precisely reasoned, not verbose, and reflected a very cultivated sense of justice, in the judgment of my law school professors. We were, nonetheless, encouraged to critique them in class.

What impressed me most about Judge Hand was a brief address he delivered in 1944, in the midst of World War II, to an audience gathered in New York’s Central Park on the occasion of “I Am an American Day.”

There was every temptation to give a “red, white and blue” speech of exuberant patriotic rhetoric. After all, the battles on the European and Pacific fronts were furious and producing mass casualties on all sides. Judge Hand resisted narrating the customary, nationalistic exaltations. Instead, he provided gentle transcendental wisdom for the ages. He spoke of people as being either the progenitors or destroyers of ‘liberty,’ as he broadly and deeply defined that abused word. We give birth or foster the light or darkness of a society. We are responsible, by clear inference, for allowing the concentrations of tyrannical exercises of power by the avaricious, despotic few over the many.

Judge Hand was fallible in his short discourse. Immigrants started to come to settle in America in the 17th century seeking various freedoms from oppression and want.  Unfortunately, these freedoms were collectively exercised at a deadly price to the First Natives of the continent – who bore the brutal brunt of genocide, terror, and armed seizure of their lands.

Read Judge Hand’s entire remarks below and note their prophetic pertinence for addressing today’s entrenched power brokers who put excessive profits over principle as they deepen and expand the ravaging corporate state.

The “Spirit of Liberty”

A speech given by Judge Learned Hand on May 21, 1944, in celebration of I Am an American Day.

We 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; freedoms 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.