Learned Hand and the Spirit of Liberty

In his brief remarks announcing the nomination of Judge Stephen Breyer to the U.S. Supreme Court last week, President Clinton borrowed liberally from a speech by the eminent American jurist Learned Hand.

The speech from which the president quoted was delivered 50 years ago this month and has since come to be regarded as one of the finest public addresses in the nation's history. Entitled "The Spirit of Liberty," its text can still be found in anthologies alongside such peerless models of spoken prose as the Gettysburg Address of 1863 and William Faulkner's incomparable Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech of 1950.


The occasion for Hand's speech was a public patriotic celebration held on the sun-drenched late spring Sunday of May 21, 1944, in New York's Central Park. Nearly a million and a half people, a tenth of whom were newly naturalized citizens, assembled in the park for an event billed as "I Am An American Day." Many who came had fathers or husbands, sons or brothers who would soon invade the European continent, which still groaned under the brutal scourge of Nazi occupation. No one knew what frightful toll in young life that operation would take, nor even whether the invasion would succeed. But on that day the pervasive anxiety was transformed into a reverential patriotism.

The following day the New York Times played the story on Page 1 and carried two photographs of the vast throng in the park. The reporter copiously quoted the main speaker of the day, Sen. Robert F. Wagner. Other speakers, including prominent politicians and clergymen, were also generously quoted.


But the story noted only that the 150,000 new citizens were "led in the pledge of faith by Learned Hand, senior judge of the United States Circuit Court." Not a word from Hand's speech was quoted.

A writer for The New Yorker magazine heard Hand's speech on the radio and was deeply moved. A few days later he called on the judge at his Foley Square chambers to see if a copy might be available. Hand, who by then was 72 and semi-retired after 35 years of illustrious service on the federal bench, confessed that he had not coveted the task, and had written the speech hastily, in longhand.

Two weeks later, The New Yorker, with a gentle rebuke that "not a newspaper in town quoted his remarks," printed a few lines from Hand's speech in the magazine's popular "Talk of the Town" column.

Perhaps heeding the reproach, the Times three weeks later reprinted the speech in its entirety as a "testament of faith" appropriate for Independence Day. Soon afterward, Life magazine and the Reader's Digest followed suit. In a historical touch of irony, a few days later the Times carried a letter to the editor sharply chiding Hand for what the writer perceived to be the judge's lack of certainty of the unalloyed virtue of the American purpose in the war. America, the letter writer declared, was "right -- right to the core, and right to the depths."

But the personal letters Hand received were all adulatory. The old judge was especially moved by reports of how his speech was treasured by America's servicemen who obtained copies overseas.

Eight years later, when Judge Hand was 80 and nine years away from death, Irving Dilliard, a prominent journalist and biographer of the time, published a collection of the jurist's most memorable utterances, drawing the book's title, "The Spirit of Liberty," from Hand's 1944 speech in Central Park.

The text of the speech follows:

* * We are 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 save it; 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 minds 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 2,000 years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has 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 creates 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 America I ask you to rise and with me pledge our faith in the glorious destiny of our beloved country.


Ray Jenkins is the retired editor of The Evening Sun's editorial pages.