Liberty is the freedom to act without restraint, without impeding the equal freedom of others. The Founders saw liberty as one of the natural rights of man.
Like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, they believed that people trade some of their natural liberty for the protections that come with uniting into a society and forming a government. This is a form of Compact Theory.
Several Founding documents explain the purpose of government as protecting citizens’ liberty and individual rights. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that one purpose of government was to “secure” inalienable rights, including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Preamble to the Constitution explains that it was written “to secure the blessings of liberty.” Both the Fifth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment say that neither the federal government nor states can deprive citizens of “life, liberty or property” without due process.
By creating a federal system of republican government with separated powers, the Founders attempted to strike a balance between liberty and order. An excess of liberty can result in disorder and license, while too much order can be repressive and tyrannical. James Wilson explained, “Without liberty, law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression. Without law, liberty also loses its nature and its name, and becomes licentiousness.” Thomas Jefferson commented, “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.”
The Founders also believed that in order for liberty to survive, citizens must be virtuous. George Mason wrote “no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”