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.