Founding Freedoms Four-Square

Those who tend to look at our current political culture from my side of the fence (safely segregated in academia in little pens, somewhat more free-range out there in think-tank land) often talk about the need to return to the ideals of our Founding Fathers as a way out of our nation's contemporary woes. "If only," they remark wistfully, "we could recover the commitment to liberty that our Founding Fathers shared. Then, we could make this country great again."

David Hackett Fischer must be tearing his hair out. Because, you see, as Fischer has shown over and over again, there never was a time at which all Americans shared the same conception of liberty, not even in the colonial period when they were all "English." Okay, even then they weren't all "English," some of them thought of themselves as "not-English" or "Scots." But that is precisely Hackett's point: the four major British folkways brought with them not only different ideas about how to pronounce English or how to build a house or what colors to wear or how to treat old people. They also brought radically different ideas of order and freedom and the proper exercise of power, and it was the tension between these four freedom ways that made our country strong, whereas each individually left unchecked had a tendency to go to self-destructive extremes.

Let's try a little test. Which of these statements do you find most congenial as an answer to our current political debates?
  1. Government should just get out of trying to control everything.
  2. People should be willing to give up a little more in order to help the community.
  3. People need to respect the order of things as they have developed over the history of the country.
  4. People should live and let live, no need for everyone to sing from the same hymnal.
Answer, and I will tell you where your family is from and/or where you grew up.*

1. Government should just get out of trying to control everything. This is the freedom way of the backcounty, the Borderlanders who came to North America fleeing the devastation of their homelands by the incessant wars between the English and the Scots and following the clearances of the Highlands by the Scottish lords after the Union. These Scots Irish Presbyterians brought with them a strong sense of "natural freedom." As the German traveler Johann Schoepf observed in the late eighteenth century: "[The backcountry folk] 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 what pleases them" (p. 777). In Fischer's words: "The backcountry idea of natural liberty was created by a complex interaction between the American environment and a European folk culture. It derived in large part from the British border country, where anarchic violence had long been a condition of life. The natural liberty of the borderers was an idea at once more radically libertarian, more strenuously hostile to ordering institutions than were the other cultures of British America" (p. 777). Patrick Henry was a descendent of British borderers and consistently championed the principles associated with this idea of freedom: "minimal government, light taxes, and the right of armed resistance to authority in all cases which infringed liberty" (p. 778). In 1788, he led the opposition to the new national constitution, on the grounds that "strong government of any sort was hostile to liberty" (p. 780).

2. People should be willing to give up a little more in order to help the community. This is the freedom way of the East Anglian Puritans who came to New England to establish their perfect society. For the Puritans, "'liberty' often described something which belonged not to an individual but to an entire community," and they wrote of "the liberty of New England" or "the liberty of Boston" or "the liberty of the Town." "This idea of collective liberty, or 'publick liberty' as it was sometimes called, was thought to be consistent with close restraints upon individuals" (pp. 199-200). New Englanders willingly accepted these restraints as long as they were "consistent with written laws which they called the 'fundamentals of the commonwealth'" (pp. 200-201). New Englanders also spoke of individual liberties in the plural, in the sense of "specific exemptions from conditions prior constraint," of the liberty of the soul as "freedom to serve God" and "to order one's own acts in a godly way--but not in any other," and of freedom from "the tyranny of circumstance," for example, the "freedom from fear" or "freedom from poverty"(pp. 201-205). New Englanders accepted the restraints of their ordered freedom for the sake of the freedoms from circumstance which they looked to the community to provide. 

3. People need to respect the order of things as they have developed over the history of the country. This is the freedom way of the gentry Anglicans who came to Tidewater Virginia to recreate the landed aristocracy they had left behind at home. The ruling class in Virginia saw itself as belonging at the top of a natural hierarchy, and freedom "mainly as the power to rule, and not to be overruled by others." The opposite of this hegemonic freedom was "'slavery,' a degradation into which true-born Britons descended when they lost their power to rule." This dominion extended not only over other human beings but also over oneself and one's passions. As the English traveler Andrew Burnaby observed: "The public and political character of the Virginians corresponds with their private one: they are haughty and jealous of their liberties, impatient of restraint, and can scarcely bear the thought of being controlled by any superior power" (p. 411). As Fischer remarks: "It never occurred to most Virginia gentlemen that liberty belonged to everyone. It was thought to be the special birthright of free-born Englishmen--a property which set this 'happy breed' apart from other mortals, and gave them a right to rule less fortunate people in the world. Even within their own society, hegemonic liberty was a hierarchical ideal. One's status in Virginia was defined by the liberties that 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. 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'" (p. 412).

4. People should live and let live, no need for everyone to sing from the same hymnal. This is the freedom way of the Quakers from the Midlands of England who came to the Delaware Valley fleeing the persecutions of the Puritans and Anglicans. Unlike the Puritans and Anglicans, Quakers were also welcoming of other ethnic groups; many of the Delaware colonists came from Ireland, Wales, Holland, and the Rhineland. By the late seventeenth century, within a two-mile stretch of Germantown north of Philadelphia there were churches built by Lutherans, Mennonites, Moravians, Quakers, Dunkards, and Calvinists. The bell that now hangs in Independence Hall in Philadelphia was originally a Quaker bell. For the Quakers, the most important liberty was "liberty of conscience": "This was not the conventional Protestant idea of liberty to do only that which is right. The Quakers believed that liberty of conscience extended even to ideas that they believed to be wrong. Their idea of 'soul freedom' protected every Christian conscience'" (p. 597). As with religious confessions, the Quakers insisted that "taxes could be imposed only by the consent of the governed" and "that no taxes should be levied upon the people except those which they were willing to impose on themselves" (p. 600). They extended this right, along with the "rights of an Englishman" identified by the colony's founder William Penn, to all members of their community: "first, a 'right and title to your own lives, liberties and estates; second, representative government; third, trial by jury'" (p. 599). Quakers were particularly important in calling for the abolition of slavery as a way of extending this reciprocal freedom to all human beings.

When I asked my students which of the four answers they preferred, the vast majority chose either #2 or #4, although one or two were almost willing to concede #1. Nobody went for #3. I have a few Facebook friends that might still plump for #1 (Go, Rednecks!), but to judge from my news feed, I am guessing that almost everyone else believes either #2 or #4 is the answer, and that to go with either #1 or #3 would be an unmitigated disaster. The problem, as Fischer has shown, is not only that are #2 and #4 at odds with each other (remember what the Puritans did to the Quakers), but that either by itself would be (and was) impossible to sustain. If the Puritans gave us the Salem witch trials, the Quakers left to their own defenses would have been massacred en masse. And if the drawbacks of the Scots Irish and Tidewater Virginian freedom ways are all too obvious to the present-day descendants of the Quakers (roughly, those who tend to think of themselves as "liberal") and Puritans ("progressives"), their virtues are important not to forget. This is the lesson that Fischer would have us learn: the American tradition of liberty is not singular, but four-square, and it is this diversity that has made us who we are as a model to the world.

In Fischer's words (pp. 897-99):
The persistence of regional cultures in America is more than merely a matter of antiquarian interest. Regional diversity has created a dynamic tension within a single republican system. It has also fostered at least four different ideas of liberty within a common cultural frame. 

These four libertarian traditions were not forms of classical republicanism or European liberalism--even as those alien ideologies were often borrowed as rationales. American ideas of freedom developed from indigenous folkways which were deeply rooted in the inherited culture of the English-speaking world.

Considered in ethical terms, each of these four freedom ways began as a great and noble impulse, but all at first were limited in their expression and defective in their operation. The Puritan idea of ordered freedom was no sooner brought to Massachusetts than it became an instrument of savage persecution [see the Salem witch trials, among other things--FB]. The cavalier conception of hegemonic freedom, when carried to Virginia, permitted and even required the growth of race slavery for its support [basically: slaves were imported to take the place of English serfs in the system--FB]. The Quaker version of reciprocal freedom was a sectarian impulse which could be sustained only by withdrawal from the world [both Puritans and Anglicans persecuted Quakers in England and the colonies, but the Quakers refused to fight back; they only survived in the colonies because the other three groups fought the British elites' attempt to take over all four cultures in the 1760s and 70s--FB]. The backcountry belief in natural freedom sometimes dissolved into cultural anarchy [as every stereotype about Appalachia shows--FB].

But each of these four libertarian [as in "about liberty"--FB] traditions proved capable of continuing growth. New England's Puritan faith in ordered freedom grew far beyond its original limits to become, in Perry Miller's words, "a constellation of ideas basic to any comprehension of the American mind." Virginia's cavalier conceit of hegemonic freedom transcended its association with inequalities of rank and race and gender to become an ethical idea that is relevant to all. Pennsylvania's Quaker inspiration of reciprocal freedom developed from a fragile sectarian vision into a libertarian creed remarkable for toughness of mind and tenacity of purpose. Border and backcountry notions of natural freedom evolved from a folk tradition into an elaborate ideology [which we invoke every time we claim people "naturally" want to be free--FB].

Each of these four freedom ways still preserves its separate existence in the United States. The most important fact about American liberty is that it has never been a single idea, but a set of different and even contrary traditions in creative tension with one another. This diversity of libertarian ideas has created a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be. It has also become the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States. In time [writing hopefully in 1989--FB], this plurality of freedoms may prove to be that nation's most enduring legacy to the world.  
*All quotations from David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

Popular posts from this blog

To a Fault: Body Talk

To a Fault: Puppetry

To a Fault: Word

To a Fault: Tea Party for One

To a Fault: Eyeroll