Political scientists point out that even in a state of nature people are subject to the law of nature and that the rights enjoyed by them in society are historically acquired and not natural except in a strictly social sense. Liberties are acquired through the joining of like-minded individuals to gain special privileges for themselves. Thus, through Magna Carta the English barons in 1215 wrested from King John certain freedoms that in time they had to share with the rest of the people.
The history of liberty in the later Middle Ages is that of numerous corporate groups, such as guilds of artisans and merchants, winning immunity from external control. By agreements with their feudal overlords these groups obtained release from certain feudal dues and bonds, gaining a limited freedom to carry on trade and manufacture, which formed the nucleus of the liberties extended to the bourgeoisie in the 19th cent. Some ethnic minorities, as in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, were able by a show of strength to gain legal status for their language and culture as well as assurance of some political rights. Freedom to follow the trade or profession of one's inclination, as of women to practice medicine, denied in most societies, was gained only in recent times. The feminist movement in the 19th and 20th cent. is a good example of the attempt to gain such rights.
The acquired nature of rights—their dependence on conditions of time and place—also makes them peculiarly subject to danger of loss. Liberties have had to be defended against encroachment, and sometimes populations have had their liberties curtailed. In times of national danger some rights may be suspended, as was the right of habeas corpus by President Abraham Lincoln in the American Civil War, and the struggle for rights not yet acquired may be discontinued.
The freedom for self-expression, as distinguished from the freedom from external restraint, has become increasingly important to the notion of liberty. Since medieval times liberty has been increased by the gradual but advancing removal of restraints once imposed by church and state, by custom and law; in the 20th cent. attention was turned to the creation of certain conditions regarded as necessary if individuals are to develop their fullest potential. The idea of equality, emphasized by the philosophers of the French Revolution, came to be closely associated with the idea of liberty in democratic societies—not equality based on a supposed equality of ability but equality of opportunity. Inequality, especially economic inequality, was held to be as great an obstacle to individual development as any form of external restraint. Therefore it was proposed that the state should seek to equalize as far as possible the conditions in such areas as education, health, and housing, thereby establishing economic and social security, and freedom from want and fear, so that every individual might have equal opportunity for self-realization.
The right of national groups to be independent and sovereign has also come to be regarded as a principle of liberty. Since 1945, more than 50 former colonial areas have become independent states (see imperialism). The UN Commission on Human Rights has sought to promote the extension of political and cultural liberty throughout the world through treaties and covenants, the most important of which has been the Declaration of Human Rights.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.