If you read a lot of old books, one thing you notice is that we don’t understand freedom in the same way that people used to understand freedom.
In the past, freedom was understood to have two sides.
On one side, freedom entailed fewer restraints on your behavior. On the other side, freedom entailed additional responsibilities. In the past, people believed that freedom required both sides. In other words, fewer restraints without additional responsibilities was not an increase in freedom. Similarly, additional responsibilities without fewer restraints was not an increase in freedom. It was only proper to hold someone accountable for their actions if they were relatively unrestrained. Similarly, lack of restraint without responsibility was indicative of childhood, not freedom.
In 21st Century America, our understanding of freedom is much less nuanced. The first side is now the only side recognized. In other words, lack of restraint is the only dimension of freedom that is currently recognized.
One thing to note is that what we currently call freedom was, in the past, recognized as a form of unfreedom. What old writers thought was indicative of childhood is now considered the apex of freedom.
This analysis raises an interesting question: by the old standards of freedom, who is free in 21st Century America?
I’ll leave the answering process to the reader, but in short, my answer is that the same group that was originally allowed to vote in America (plus some Asians and maybe some Indians) are still the only free people in 21st Century America by the old definition. On closer examination then, the mainstream historical suggestion that freedom in American has expanded dramatically in the last 150 years would seem to be over-simplified. At least in part, this expansion of freedom is simply a shift in the definition of what we mean by freedom.
Finally, I think this difference in the meaning of freedom explains the differences between some sects of libertarianism.