The Corner

Taking Liberties

Whoa there, Iain. There is much more to be said about liberty than that.

In the context of American liberty, David Hackett Fischer gives good coverage in his classic Albion’s Seed. The four root stocks of Britons who formed the founding population of the U.S.A. brought four subtly different notions of liberty with them to the New World (says Fischer).

•  The East Anglian Puritans who populated New England used the word “liberty” in at least three ways. There was publick liberty, a collective notion perfectly consistent with close restraint on individuals. Then there were liberties a person might be entitled to: “understood as specific exemptions from conditions of prior restraint … The General Court [of Massachusetts], for example, enacted laws which extended ‘liberties and privileges of fishing and fowling’ to certain inhabitants, and thereby denied them to everyone else.” Then there was soul liberty, which seems to have meant “freedom to order one’s acts in a godly way — but not in any other.”•  The “distressed cavaliers,” mainly from England’s West Country, who populated the Tidewater South, practiced hegemonic liberty, which, as Fischer says, Burke understood very well, as it was the common conception of 18th-century English gentlemen. Notions of pride, rank, and genealogy were to the fore here; and obviously this style of liberty cohabited quite comfortably with race slavery (as Burke pointed out in a speech to Parliament, quoted at length in Fischer, p.414).•  The Quakers from the English North Midlands who settled the Delaware valley looked to reciprocal liberty. This embraced all of humanity. Its central idea was freedom of the individual conscience. William Penn: “Conscience is God’s throne in man, and the power of it his prerogative.”•  The Scotch-Irish — border Scots and their Ulster relatives — cherished natural liberty, and took this to the colonial back-country they populated in the middle two quarters of the 18th century. Fischer quotes an observer: “They shun everything which appears to demand of them law and order, and anything that preaches constraint … They hate the name of a justice, and yet they are not transgressors. Their object is merely wild. Altogether, natural freedom … is what pleases them.”

It’s not hard to pick up echoes of these different “freedom ways” in today’s debates. Probably each of us finds some one of the four more attractive than the others. Very approximately speaking, modern liberalism descends from the first and third of Fischer’s styles, modern conservatism from the second and fourth.

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