Complications When Considering Liberty

Right now, I’ve been reading Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America which is a discussion of four different periods of emigration from Britain to the New World. In these periods the settlers came for different reasons, where different culturally, and set up very different cultures (or folkways) in America which still influence trends and America today. The four different settler waves are the Puritans (from primarily) East Anglia, the settling of Viriginia, the Quakers in Penn and the Delaware Valley, and a migration from the Borderlands to the Backcountry. Alas so far, I’ve only read half of the book. However, given that Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin took part in penning that influential document with the phrase “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” it is odd that it would seem from “their folkways” or Mr Fischer’s research that the 2nd word “Liberty” would mean very different things than we presume it does today. Today we view Liberty as freedom from undue restraint. That is specifically not what it meant in Puritan New England nor the patriarchal heirarchical Virgiinia colonies. Thus it is very likely that when the authors wrote of Liberty that word meant something very different from what we presume it means today. In fact, it probably meant something different for the Yankee authors Adams and Franklin than it meant for Jefferson.

Liberty in New England
This is taken from pp 199-205 of the above mentioned book, in a section discussing Massachussetts Freedom Ways and the Puritan Idea of Ordered Liberty. In New England, Mr Fischer points out that “liberty” had usage in four distinct ways which ring strange in our ears:

  • To begin with Mr Fischer writes:

    First “liberty” often described something which belonged not to an individual but to an enteir community. For two centuries the founders and leaders of Massachusetts wrote of the “liberty of New England” or the “liberty of Boston” or the “liberty of the Town.” This usage continued from the great migration to the War of Independence and even beyond. Samuel Adams, for example, wrote more often about the “liberty of America” than the liberty of individual Americans.

    Mr Fischer explains that this usage was meant not individual freedoms but quite the opposite. It was consistent with “close restraints upon individuals”. That is the liberty of New England or the Town is the ability of that region to order and closely restrain members of that community.

  • A second usage was usually meant in the plural and placed on individiuals. “Liberties” granted to individuals meant specific exemptions from prior restraint and applied only to a given invidual. If John Smith or the tenants of a particular community were given the a specific “liberty” of fishing in a particular creek, that implied a restraint on individuals not in that group from doing the same. In England it was felt that a persons rank was in part defined by the liberties that he possessed and this was also true in Massachusetts.
  • A third usage of “liberty” in New England was the idea of “soul liberty” or “Christian Liberty” this was a freedom (and obligation) to order ones own acts and life in a Godly way (and not in any other). This is not the idea of religious toleration but of a justification for the opposite, the persecution of Quakers, Baptists, Anglicans, and any other but Puritans.
  • The final meaning of liberty in New England was termed as well with “freedom” and mean freedom or liberty from the tyranny of circumstance. The idea (and somewhat meager implementation) of a economic safety net was implemented not in terms of collective welfare but of freedom from want in the face of circumstances beyond one’s control.

Liberty in Virgiinia
This part is taken fro pp 410-418 of the same book in a section entitled “Vriginia Freedom Ways: The Anglican Idea of Hegemonic Liberty”. Mr Fischer begins:

“How is it” Dr. Samuel Johnson asked, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” That famous question captured a striking paradox in the history of Virginia. Like most other colonists in British America, the firs gentlemen of Vriginia possessed an exceptionally strong consciousness of their English Liberties, even as they took away the liberty others.

What the Virginia gentlemen planters and the rest of Viriginia conceived as liberty was very different from that in New England.

In place of New England’s distinctive idea ordered liberty, the Virginians though of liberty as a hegemonic condition of dominion over others and — equaly important — dominion over oneself

Virginian liberty was the opposite of slavery but … importantly … this was never thought of something which belonged equally to all men. It was thought a property which was the special birthright of free-born English (gentlemen?). One’s status in Virginia was defined by the liberties one possessed.

Men of high estate were thought to have more liberties than others of lesser rank. Servants possessed few liberties, and slaves none at all. This libertarian idea had nothing to do with equality. Many years later, John Randolph of Roanoke summarized his ancestral creed in a sentence: “I am an aristocrat”, he declared, “I love liberty; I hate equality.”

Liberty was consistent in Virginian conception with slavery. Liberty was the power to assert your position in a heirarchical society. To the modern reader, Mr Fischer asserts (and I think rightly) that the idea today of hegemonic liberty would be considered a contradiction in terms, but that is because we do not understand a heirarchical society. Liberty in Virginia was a statement of right and rank.

At the same time, Mr Fischer asserts there was a second, internal, meaning to the word liberty, which was the idea “that a truly free man must be master of his acts and thoughts. At the same time, a gentleman was expected to be the servant of his duty”. This contradiction of freedom as master of self and servant of duty was described as building a character “severely bent against himself”. This ideal of freedom in master of self produced the character of a George Washington and a Robert E. Lee. Mr Fischer asserts their character is not a historical myth and that it was the product of the Virginian culture.

Discussion and Comments
When a phrase like “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” rings so strongly in our modern American consciousness it seems odd this might be so, when two of the authors would have liberty as the right of a local community to strongly order our lives and the third and principle author would hold liberty is a heirarchical hegemonic declaration of right and rank. But to be fair to Mr Jefferson, his statement of liberty was probably not of the hegemonic variety because in the context of that sentence it is the personal liberty (and personal happiness) which is discussed, not a community liberty. In that regard, the autonomous mastery of self and one’s acts and thoughts and servanthood to one’s duty would be the key to the liberty which is being referred. This is still not the modern concept of liberty, but in fact is more in line with an Aristotlean view of happiness and its pursuit. More to the point, studying the different folkways and their implications toward American thought as those folkways interact through the ensuing decades and today.

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8 comments

  1. I haven’t had a chance to intervene yet in the recent discussion between Mark Olson and our own Ed Brayton. (The exchange so far: Olson, Brayton, Olson, Brayton, and finally Olson and Brayton once more.) To summarize, the two of them are discussing the meaning of “liberty” as it is used in the Declaration of Independence. Olson has been reading

  2. Wednesday July 19th 2006, 12:39 pm Filed under: General Ed Brayton and Mark Olson have been discussing the meaning of the word “liberty” especially with regard to the Declaration of Independence and what the Americans may have thought they were fighting for in the American Revolution.  The whole discussion is linked at Positive

  3. ScienceBlogs says:

    Mark Olson has written a response to my reply to his post on the meaning of the word ‘liberty’ in the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, I don’t think he has mitigated any of the logical difficulties with the original post. He begins: First, I didn’t look at the corpus of writings of those particular

  4. BlogWatch says:

    Horn Tooting Tooting my own horn that is … at my site, Pseudo-Polymath I’ve a post on the word liberty as it was understood in Virginia and New England at the birth of our Nation.

  5. […] Over at PseudoPolymath, Mark Olson has what I regard as a very oddly reasoned post about the meaning of liberty in the Declaration of Independence. He has been reading a book called Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Fischer, which according to his recounting, details 4 different waves of immigration to America in 4 different areas of the country and how their views on various things differed. In particular, he notes that they had different conceptions of what the word “liberty” meant. Based upon this, he makes a rather odd argument that concludes that the word “liberty” in the Declaration of Independence means something very different from what we mean today. Let me paste what I take to be the essence of his argument: However, given that Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin took part in penning that influential document with the phrase “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” it is odd that it would seem from “their folkways” or Mr Fischer’s research that the 2nd word “Liberty” would mean very different things than we presume it does today. Today we view Liberty as freedom from undue restraint. That is specifically not what it meant in Puritan New England nor the patriarchal heirarchical Virgiinia colonies. Thus it is very likely that when the authors wrote of Liberty that word meant something very different from what we presume it means today. In fact, it probably meant something different for the Yankee authors Adams and Franklin than it meant for Jefferson. […]

  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Fischer appears to assume, much too blithely, that none of the five members of the committee to write the document had ever read John Locke, who had early written about “life, liberty and property” as key rights of any Englishman. It leads to error to try to ascribe a different meaning to the word “liberty” than Locke meant, which was a personal liberty just as the ACLU defends it today. It is this sense of personal liberty that makes modern free enterprise possible. It is not coincidence that Adam Smith’s most famous work, Wealth of Nations, was also published in 1776. Certainly Jefferson had not read the book at the time he borrowed and modified Locke’s phrase, but certainly he did not mean something completely different.

    Personal liberty is a key to economic and political freedom, the concept that we each probably will arrive at a better solution for ourselves than any government can.

    If Fischer wrote what you describe, he’s just out to lunch. Jefferson’s concepts are well described in his later writings (the Declaration borrowed extensively from an earlier broadside he had written, too). Adams’ ideas are well laid out in many other places. The correspondence between Adams and Jefferson also provides clear clues.

    Fischer’s focus on ignoring the writings of these men suggests he has an agenda other than describing what they meant. They didn’t pose a mystery at all — they wrote exactly what they meant, and Fischer doesn’t appear close to their meaning from your description.

  7. Mark says:

    Ed,
    Fischer does not assume that none of the members of the committee had read Locke (and neither did I). I was just wondering how much regional ideas of Liberty (mostly for Adams and Jefferson) came into consideration in the penning of the document as well as how the people who read that Declaration back then might have interpreted it seeing as most of them would not have read Locke unlike Adams and Jefferson.

    Fischer said nothing about the Declaration of Independence. That was all mine, I had just read the book and it’s wildly different intimations of Liberty (and many other things) which were in the four folkways described. It occurred to me that the document would have been interpreted very differently and then, as Adams and Jefferson, hailed from New England and Virginia respectively I wondered if meanings of Liberty where not just dervied from Locke for those two men as well. As I write in a later essay, there is in fact reason to believe that Adams at least had sympathy with the ideas of “Publick Liberty” common in New England as well as those of Locke.

  8. […] Ed Brayton and Mark Olson have been discussing the meaning of the word “liberty” especially with regard to the Declaration of Independence and what the Americans may have thought they were fighting for in the American Revolution.  The whole discussion is linked at Positive Liberty, and Jason Kuznicki carries the analysis deeper — a good addition to the discussion, since Kuznicki is actually a historian. […]