Our Liberty Is Not the Right To Do As We Please, But the Opportunity To Please To Do What Is Right

Peter Marshall? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I once heard an intriguing remark about action and autonomy. It was roughly the following:

May freedom be seen, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.

These words were attributed to a U.S. religious figure, but I do not recall the details. Would you please help me to find the correct statement and ascription?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this comment can be traced back to remarks made during 1947 by Reverend Peter Marshall who was the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate. He clearly believed that this theme was vital, and he returned to it at least three times. The first statement was spoken during a prayer delivered on March 19, 1947. Marshall employed the keyword “liberty” in the following passage. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books. It cost too much to be hoarded. Make us to see that our liberty is not the right to do as we please, but the opportunity to please to do what is right.

Marshall voiced the second statement during a prayer on April 25, 1947. He used the keyword “freedom” instead of “liberty”: 2

Teach us what freedom is. May we all learn the lesson that it is not the right to do as we please, but the opportunity to please to do what is right.

Marshall delivered the third statement during a prayer on July 3, 1947. He again used the keyword “freedom”: 3

May they remember how bitterly our freedom was won, the down payment that was made for it, the installments that have been made since this Republic was born, and the price that must yet be paid for our liberty.

May freedom be seen, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to please to do what is right.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Excerpts from Marshall’s prayers were reprinted in various newspapers during the ensuing years. Sometimes the text was streamlined. For example, in April 1949 a paper in Asheville, North Carolina printed a statement from the first prayer with the phrase “to please” omitted: 4

Make us to see that our liberty is not the right to do as we please but the opportunity to do what is right.”

In 1971 a letter sent to the “Lebanon Daily News” of Pennsylvania included a modified excerpt from the second prayer above. The text was compressed, and the word “rather” was inserted: 5

What a wonderful world this would be if everyone viewed freedom as that great clergyman, Peter Marshall, who defined it thus:

“Freedom is not the right to do as we please, but rather the opportunity to please to do what is right.” (Prayer before the U. S. Senate, April 25, 1947.)

In 1985 a Carbondale, Illinois newspaper printed a church advertisement which included a slightly altered statement from the third prayer above: 6

“May We Think of Freedom not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to please to do what is right” Peter Marshall

In 1997 an advertisement in “The Gaffney Ledger” of South Carolina included another slightly altered statement. Quotation marks signaled that the phrase was not new, but no attribution was specified. The phrase “to please” was omitted: 7

“May freedom be seen, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.”

In conclusion, Peter Marshall should receive credit for the excerpts from the three 1947 prayers shown above. Marshall made three similar statements about freedom/liberty. During subsequent years and decades the remarks attributed to Marshall have been altered and streamlined.

(Great thanks to quotation specialist Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1949, Prayers Offered by the Chaplain, the Rev. Peter Marshall, D.D.: At the Opening of the Daily Sessions of the Senate of the United States During the Eightieth and Eighty-first Congress 1947-1949, Prayer Date: March 19, 1947, Quote Page 15, United States Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1949, Prayers Offered by the Chaplain, the Rev. Peter Marshall, D.D.: At the Opening of the Daily Sessions of the Senate of the United States During the Eightieth and Eighty-first Congress 1947-1949, Prayer Date: April 25, 1947, Quote Page 22, United States Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1949, Prayers Offered by the Chaplain, the Rev. Peter Marshall, D.D.: At the Opening of the Daily Sessions of the Senate of the United States During the Eightieth and Eighty-first Congress 1947-1949, Prayer Date: July 3, 1947, Quote Page 35 and 36, United States Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1949 April 10, Asheville Citizen-Times, Rights And Duties Of Citizens by Gen. John B. Wogan, Quote Page B4, Column 6, Asheville, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1971 December 2, Lebanon Daily News, Public Forum: No Ads for X Movies, (Letter from Mrs. James Tibbitts), Quote Page 18, Column 7, Lebanon, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1985 June 28, Southern Illinoisan, (Advertisement for Victory Baptist Church), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Carbondale, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1997 July 2, The Gaffney Ledger, A Prayer of Gratitude (Advertisement), Quote Page 1B, Column 2, Gaffney, South Carolina. (Newspapers_com)