The Spirit of Liberty

In 1940, Congress established the national holiday I Am an American Day to celebrate American citizenship. The holiday recognized newly naturalized US citizens as well as natural-born citizens who had recently attained voting age.

Summary Overview

In 1940, Congress established the national holiday I Am an American Day to celebrate American citizenship. The holiday recognized newly naturalized US citizens as well as natural-born citizens who had recently attained voting age.

In 1944, federal judge Learned Hand gave a speech in honor of I Am an American Day to one-and-a-half million people in New York City’s Central Park. “The Spirit of Liberty” was primarily directed at new Americans, but his message applied to all citizens equally. He explained that liberty did not mean the “freedom to do as one likes,” because this leads to the denial of the liberty of others. Instead, he emphasized that, in order to protect liberty, Americans must consider one another as equals and without bias. He cautioned Americans against becoming complacent during times of prosperity and encouraged everyone to make the spirit of liberty “a standard to which the best hopes of mankind will ever turn.”

Defining Moment

Historically, foreign wars caused bouts of intense patriotism in the United States. Some credit this to national pride and the desire to defend liberty, democracy, and the American way of life. Others allege the “patriotism” was driven by racism and fear, citing widespread arrests and deportations of foreign nationals who did not pose a direct threat to the United States. The period immediately preceding US involvement in World War II was no exception to this pattern.

In 1940, Congress established I Am an American Day. Several stories exist regarding the inception of I Am an American Day. By one account, in 1939, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst suggested creating a holiday for celebrating American citizenship. Using the influence of his daily newspapers and political connections, he successfully lobbied Congress to establish such a holiday.

According to publicist Martin Pine, the name of the holiday was inspired by his brother Arthur during the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Arthur and his agency were handling publicity for popular bandleader Gray Gordon when he heard of a new song entitled “I Am an American.” Arthur arranged for the song to be performed and recorded, and organized a day for newspaper and broadcasting tie-ins to celebrate the song and its patriotic sentiments. The national attention received by New York for its new I Am an American Day inspired others to take up the cause, and in March 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt named it an official holiday.

Regardless of its origins, I Am an American Day immediately became quite popular, and soon the US Immigration and Naturalization Service encouraged its celebration across the country. During World War II and in the years following, I Am an American Day was widely celebrated in all forty-eight states then part of the Union. Major cities organized large public gatherings with speeches and parades, and millions of people turned out to celebrate American citizenship on the third Sunday in May.

In 1944, Hearst sponsored the creation of a sixteen-minute film, I Am an American, which played in theaters across the United States. The film features several major actors of the time and tells the story of a fictional Eastern European family immigrating to the United States during the nineteenth century. The family initially become farmers, but their children and grandchildren go on to receive educations and become thriving professionals. The film was very popular and further inspired I Am an American Day celebrations across the country.

In 1944, as part of one such celebration, federal judge Learned Hand delivered a speech to nearly 1.5 million people in New York City’s Central Park. His speech was primarily aimed at newly minted citizens but contained an important message about the foundations of liberty relevant to all Americans.

Author Biography

Billings Learned Hand was born on January 27, 1872, in Albany, New York. He studied philosophy at Harvard College, stayed on to earn a law degree from his alma mater, and practiced law in Albany and New York City. In 1909, Hand was appointed a federal district judge in New York. Then in 1924, he was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit by President Calvin Coolidge, where he became chief judge in 1939. He was considered for the US Supreme Court on several occasions but never appointed.

Hand gained notoriety outside the judicial realm with his 1944 speech “The Spirit of Liberty,” which he delivered to a large crowd in New York City’s Central Park in celebration of I Am an American Day. Hand officially retired from the Second Circuit in 1951 but continued to hear cases over the next decade. In 1952, editor Irving Dillard published a collection of Hand’s papers and speeches in a book titled The Spirit of Liberty, after Hand’s best-known public speech. Hand died on August 18, 1961.

Historical Document

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; 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.


unbridled: not controlled or restrained; not fitted with a bridle, which is part of a harness for a horse.

Document Analysis

Judge Learned Hand begins his speech by reminding the audience that the purpose of their assembly is to affirm “a faith in a common purpose, a common conviction, a common devotion.” The words he chooses reflect the importance of his chosen topic: the spirit of liberty. Hand notes that some members of the audience chose to immigrate to the United States, while others—those who were born in the United States—are the direct descendants of people who chose to immigrate. He says that those who made the difficult choice to relocate to a new country did so seeking liberty: “freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom to be ourselves.”

Hand then questions what it means to seek liberty. He says that liberty is not about constitutions, laws, and courts, but rather is something that “lies in the hearts of men and women.” He clarifies that liberty is not the unchecked “freedom to do as one likes,” because this leads directly to a society wherein “freedom is the possession of only a savage few.” He notes that Americans have learned painfully that such a society denies the liberty of others, thereby emphasizing that liberty is not the same as anarchy and explaining how liberty can still exist even under a rule of law.

After addressing what the spirit of liberty is not, Hand explains that he cannot precisely define what the spirit of liberty is. He instead describes his own belief, which is that liberty requires individuals to seek to “understand the mind of other men and women.” He says it is important to consider other points of view and to weigh other people’s ideas on their merits and without bias.

Hand reiterates that the spirit of liberty is an aspiration that lives in all Americans but is one that can be lost to the feelings of prosperity and security. He reminds the audience that young men are fighting in World War II to secure their continued liberty and that everyone must “strive to make it a signal, a beacon, a standard to which the best hopes of mankind will ever turn.” Hand concludes by asking the audience to join him in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Essential Themes

Among attorneys, judges, and politicians, Hand was highly respected for his thorough and thoughtful judicial opinions and speeches. Although he never served on the US Supreme Court, many regarded him as a better judge than most of those who had. Those who knew Hand personally observed that he experienced significant self-doubt and often questioned his own knowledge, significance, and authority on the subjects he was called to rule upon. These feelings seemed to influence his approach in “The Spirit of Liberty”: he expressed his inability to clearly define liberty and emphasized the role played by doubt in understanding the concept of liberty.

An important part of his message is that liberty is a complex idea and that people cannot rely on government constructs, such as laws and courts, to protect it. True liberty, he believed, is about how people relate to and interact with one another. Everyone must do so with open-minded respect if liberty is to be preserved. This requires everyone’s willingness to question their own beliefs and actions, and to listen with an open mind when their beliefs and actions are questioned by others. This message was quite radical during a time when individuals could be jailed or deported for expressing any idea believed to be contrary to American freedom or democracy.

“The Spirit of Liberty” brought Judge Hand wider recognition outside of the legal world and contributed to his continued reputation as an influential jurist to this day. However, the fate of I Am an American Day is lackluster by comparison. Cities and towns across the United States celebrated the holiday during the 1940s and early 1950s; enthusiasm for American citizenship remained at an all-time high as postwar fears of Communist influence continued to grip the nation. However, in 1952, Ohio resident Olga T. Weber petitioned Congress to move the holiday to September 17, the anniversary of the signing of the US Constitution, and rename it Citizenship Day. Congress, Senate, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved (and in 2004, Congress renamed it once again, making it Constitution Day and Citizenship Day). The popularity of the holiday waned, and while some American towns and cities continue to observe Citizenship Day, it no longer enjoys the fanfare of its 1940s heyday.

Bibliography and Additional Reading

  • Dillard, Irving, ed.The Spirit of Liberty: Papers and Addresses of Learned Hand. By Learned Hand. New York: Knopf, 1952. Print.
  • Gunther, Gerald.Learned Hand: The Man and the Judge. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.
  • “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.” Law Library of Congress. Lib. of Congress, 16 Sept. 2014. Web. 9 Oct. 2014.
  • Harrington, Burritt C.Community Recognition of USA Citizenship: A Handbook for I Am an American Day Committees. Washington: Dept. of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1944. Print.
  • I Am an American. Dir. Crane Wilber. Warner Bros., 1944. Film.