Friday, February 24, 2006

Types of Liberty

A post from last week over at the excellent Albion's Seedlings reminded me of a topic I had intended to post on weeks ago: the varieties of meaning of the word "liberty" in the American Colonies from the time of founding to independence.

We think we mean the same thing when we use a word, but this is not often so, especially with large abstracts like kindness, or community. While the concepts of liberty converged somewhat leading up to the Revolution, they sprang from at least four different concepts, associated with the four distinct areas of settlement.

These founding folkways, and much else besides, led to quite distinct, and often diametrically opposed, ideas about liberty. David Hackett Fischer calls the New England idea "ordered liberty" (freedom to determine the course of one's own society), at worst exemplified in the stifling, moralistic conformism that we still associate with the word "Puritan", at best in the strong town-based democracies (and suspicion of anything but local power) still evident in parts of northern New England.

The Virginia idea was that of "hegemonic liberty" (freedom to rule and not be ruled), at worst exemplified in the hierarchical "Slaveocracy" that valued freedom for those at the top but not for poor white trash or black slaves, at best in the aristocratic excellence of men such as George Washington.

The Quaker idea was that of "reciprocal liberty" (freedom for me and for thou), at worst exemplified in the pacifistic pursuit of commerce without regard for nation or principle, at best in a quite modern-sounding respect for all human beings to pursue their own fulfillment.

The frontier idea was that of "natural liberty" (a freedom without restraints of law or custom), at worst exemplified in the violent and often-emotionalistic chaos of life beyond the reach of civilized norms, at best in eternal vigilance with regard to the sovereignty of the individual.


Frontier in the above means the Appalachian areas settled by the Scots-Irish and English Borderers throughout the middle of the 18th C. Quaker refers not only to the settling of Pennsylvania in the late 17th C, but the other mid-Atlantic states as well. The overall concept is taken from Fischer's marvellous Albion's Seed, which traces the founding of the American regions back to distinctive regions of Great Britain.

New England -- ordered liberty -- freedom to determine the course of one's own society. I touched on this two weeks ago. It is close to the idea of Christian Community and consensus living. A modern equivalent would be an environmentalist community which would agree to bind itself to certain principles of organic farming. The individual would not have liberty to do as he pleases in pesticides and fertilizer, but would adhere to group norms, so that all other members could have food free of taint. The European aspirations come closest to this model.

Virginia -- hegemonic liberty -- freedom to rule and not be ruled. The right of the few to achieve enormous freedom -- by birth, merit, or assignment -- is preserved, even at the expense of the many. Americans rebel against such an equality being granted by birth into nobility -- but many conservatives are fine with it occurring by merit. Whether justified or no, this is the stereotype of conservatives that liberals rail against.

Mid-Atlantic -- reciprocal liberty -- freedom for me and for thee. This is some midpoint between the two above. "I will consent to give up some freedoms, but no one shall force me to give up others."

Appalachia -- natural liberty -- freedom without restraints of law or custom. This would be closer to a libertarian (or hyper-libertarian) framing. The freedom of the individual trumps even local control. Think Alaska.

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