Liberty and Freedom

2005-01-11

Until recent times, many societies throughout the world did not have any words for liberty or freedom -- such words were created or imported on contact with Western civilization. In Europe, the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.) generally have a word derived from the Latin libertas, whereas the Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, etc.) generally have a word derived from the Old Teutonic frijo. But English alone has two words: liberty and freedom.

In his new book Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America's Founding Ideas (which I finished reading last night), David Hackett Fischer explores the tangled and expansive history of liberty and freedom in America. Refreshingly, he explores them not as abstract, philosophical ideas, but as folkways or what Tocqueville called "habits of the heart". The result is a rich, fascinating history of America and Americans, unlike any I have ever read.

The concept at the base of the word "liberty" is "to be released from an existing bond" -- a person at liberty was, in ancient times, no longer a slave. The concept at the base of the word "free" is "to be a member of an independent tribe or nation" ("free" comes from the same Indo-European root as "friend"). Liberty is an individualistic idea; freedom is a communal idea. Liberty assumes a structure of power that grants rights and liberties; freedom assumes no such power structure, but instead assumes that a group (historically a tribe, more recently a nation) is naturally sovereign and independent, and that the individuals in that group derive their independence from the independence of the group. The fact that English has both notions -- compounded by the fact that Americans have always been close to obsessed with both liberty and freedom -- has led to a tangled, inconsistent, but ultimately inspiring national experience in America. Not that America is perfect -- far from it. But David Hackett Fischer shows that both liberty and freedom have continued to expand and grow during the sixteen generations of American society.

He also explains some of the conundrums of American politics. Why did the Federalists fail in the early 1800s, the Whigs in the mid-1800s, the Democrats in the late 1800s, the Republicans in the early to middle 1900s, the Democrats since around 1980? While William Strauss and Neil Howe in The Fourth Turning (which I read last week) would ascribe it all to generational evolution, David Hackett Fischer argues that the political party that is most successful at any given time in American history is the one that identifies most closely with liberty and freedom. Now, one could certainly quibble that New Deal Democrats and Bush Republicans are far from true friends of liberty and freedom; but one can at the same time recognize that they were more successful in claiming the mantle of liberty and freedom than their opponents (who might have focused instead on equality, which generally does not resonate with Americans).

The book is subtitled "A Visual History of America's Founding Ideas", and in that respect it does not disappoint. Although the book has plenty of words (700+ pages' worth!), it also analyzes and explains the many visions and symbols of liberty and freedom in American history: liberty trees, liberty poles, state and national flags, symbolic animals such as snakes and porcupines and the American eagle, American Indians as symbols of American freedom, the goddess Columbia, Miss Liberty, Yankee Doodle, Brother Jonathan, Uncle Sam, and iconic Americans such as George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King. He traces the meaning of liberty and freedom not only in politics but more fundamentally in society: in personal behavior, human interaction, organizations, styles of dress, art, music, literature, and much else besides.

For me personally as a recovered Randian and mellowing libertarian, perhaps the main benefit of the book was that it imparts an overwhelming sense of the American context: where we are, how we got here, and what is possible -- and not possible -- to achieve in American society and politics (hint: anarcho-capitalism is a non-starter). Many libertarians like to hearken back to some golden age in 1776 or the nineteenth century, from which height we have fallen to a modern state of tyranny. Even if that were an accurate account of the course of American freedom (which it is not), it would not especially matter, because what's important is where we stand today and realistically what can be achieved in our lifetimes. Perfection or utopia is not an option. (I'm still not ruling out meta-utopia, though... ;-)

All in all, Liberty and Freedom is a worthy sequel to Albion's Seed.


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