American Creed

Ilana Mercer, January 31, 2005

[Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas, David Hackett Fischer, Oxford University Press, 851 pages]

In 1843, 91-year-old Capt. Levi Preston was asked by a young historian why he had fought in the American Revolution. Was it the Stamp Act, the Tea Act, perhaps the treatises of John Locke? “No, sirree,” the captain countered. He had not seen any stamps, sipped any tea, or read anything other than the Bible, the catechism, and Watts’s Psalms. “What we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had been free, and we meant to be always free. They didn’t mean we should.”

Levi Preston is the archetypal American.

If asked whether their love of liberty was inspired by Greek democracy, Roman republicanism, natural rights, or the Enlightenment, Americans of every generation since Preston’s would have been as baffled as he had been. American affinity for liberty and freedom is rooted less in a familiarity with distant events and formal texts than in, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, the “customs, beliefs, traditions, and folkways of free people.” “Love of liberty,” he wrote in The Old Regime, “defies analysis … It is something one must feel, and logic has no part in it.” These enduring “habits of the heart” are the soul of David Hackett Fischer’s Liberty And Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas.

The innate quality of his subject, however, has placed Fischer in a bit of a pickle. How was he best to advance the understanding of such a “sublime sentiment,” in Tocqueville’s words? And what was the point of mining manuscripts Captain Preston and his descendants had never read, alluding to events they were unfamiliar with, or analyzing philosophical abstractions as good as Greek to them?

Instead, with passion and invention (and a whole lot of style), Fischer has produced an historical exegesis with a difference. Heeding Horace, who said that a picture is a poem without words, he has added poetry to the inscribed annals of America. Visions, images, and words combine to depict the “dynamic tension” between liberty and freedom in a chronicle of America that is anything but arcane. Liberty And Freedom surveys the stories and symbols, facts and artifacts by which the tale of America is told.

Fischer begins his inquiry with the distinction between “liberty” and “freedom.” Derived from an Indo-European root that means beloved, freedom denotes the “rights of belonging within a community of free people.” Liberty originated in the ancient Mediterranean and refers to “ideas of independence, separations, and autonomy for an individual or a group.” According to Fischer, the “dynamic tension” between “liberty-as-separation and freedom-as-belonging to a community of free people is unique to the English-speaking world.” Nowhere is this tension better expressed than in the various traditions of “order, power, freedom, and liberty” that developed in the New World.

The Revolutionary generation spoke of “liberty in its classical sense of separation.” There’s the Liberty Tree and its iconography. Its originators were a small club of Boston Whigs—The Loyal Nine—who hung on the original tree an effigy of “the moving spirit behind the Stamp Tax,” stampmaster Andrew Oliver. The Liberty Tree became the leading symbol of the patriot cause in New England and beyond. Virginia’s Declaration of Rights and its languidly controversial state seal (which, until Thomas Jefferson changed it in 1779, displayed the motto libertas and otium—liberty and leisure) also expressed powerful ideas of liberty, coexisting paradoxically with slavery.

Later, according to received opinion (which goes unchallenged by Fischer), the South went to war to preserve its peculiar institution. Dixie’s war iconography, however, is at odds with this view. The casus belli cited by the Levi Prestons south of the Mason-Dixon Line was the failure of the Yankees to “Let Us Alone” and allow the South “Liberty and Independence.” At least their emblems were so emblazoned. Robert E. Lee abhorred slavery and freed his own in 1862. Lee declared that he fought for the classical (Stoic) idea of liberty, including the idea of States’ Rights.

General Lee was certainly in the “negative liberty” camp. Our author, by contrast, is most definitely in the “positive liberty” camp. As defined by Richard Pipes, negative rights are “the guarantees given to individuals that neither the state nor society will infringe on their life, liberty, and possessions.” Whereas a positive right is “the right to the necessities of life at public expense, i.e., the right to something that was not one’s own.” Fischer is of the view that liberty and freedom should expand and evolve: “Ancient and timeless principles” are better understood “as ever-changing modern ideas that derived their meaning from their relevance to the present and their promise for the future.”

Unfortunately, Fischer has rejected the distinction between positive and negative liberty as inadequate to the task of historical investigation. One unintended consequence of this is to diminish the evils of slavery. Consider “Josiah Wedgwood’s antislavery medallion of an African in chains, who reached out to others and asked, ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?'” What a powerful symbol of the right to live unenslaved! Yet by default, in Fischer’s account, the right to live free is lumped in with an egalitarian litany of “causes” pursued by reformers, among them the causes of wealth and land redistribution and the establishment of “tax-supported common schools.”

Fischer’s aversion to the positive/negative distinction notwithstanding, it is precisely the fertility of thought in this book—the bold if subtle melding of history and political philosophy—that obligates him to provide his readers with a precise definition of what it means to enjoy freedom and liberty. Had the author confined his observations to dry-as-dust facts, he’d be exempt. Fortunately for his readers (as it makes for a good read), Fischer has the courage of his convictions: “Every American generation without exception has become more free,” he declares. But asserting that Americans have come to enjoy greater liberty and freedom can’t be substantiated absent some measure of the thing that is (allegedly) perpetually burgeoning. It was Fischer’s duty to go beyond describing liberty and freedom merely as a dialectic between individual autonomy and the social contract. But he hasn’t.

It was also incumbent on Fischer to explain how an expanding and expansive view of liberty results in greater liberty and freedom for Americans. Particularly poignant to consider today is the Wilsonian missionary movement, the philosophical progenitor of George W. Bush’s muscular democratic proselytizing. The author identifies World War I and Woodrow Wilson’s highly authoritarian progressive administration as the dawn of a new vision of America as a world crusader for freedom, liberty, and democracy. In foreign policy, “The motives of the great republic were never pure … But for better or for worse, large ideas of liberty and freedom were always near the center of American approaches to world affairs.”

With the creation of the Committee on Public Information (circa 1917), and under the deft supervision of George Creel, the Karl Rove of his day, “Visions of liberty and freedom became tools of war … The American war aims were converted into advertising slogans and broadcast on radio, fliers, and billboards.” Images conjuring “conscripted freedom and regimented liberty” (“Get behind the Government” blared one typical dirigiste slogan) represent “ordered freedom,” says Fischer. He argues that this “ordered freedom”—drafting individuals in the service of the greater good, the hallmark of the Wilson years—is not necessarily inimical to individual rights, but can at times function as an instrument of their promotion. Once again, however, the author gives us no criteria by which to assess this vexed statement. His commitment to an ever-changing, relative definition of rights mars what is otherwise a triumph of a book.

The historicist approach to the study of liberty and freedom presents yet another problem. Any current practice or perspective is considered an organic extension of the American tradition of liberty and freedom. For example, Clinton’s “ill-fated attempt to create a national health program” Fischer describes as part of a vision of a community of free people with universal rights. In that case, we share DNA with the former Soviet Union, North Korea, and Cuba. Surely political evolution, like biological evolution, can yield unhealthy mutations?

Trumping all the election postmortems I’ve seen is Fischer’s insight into the decisive factor in American elections. If the Jeffersonian Democrats from 1800 to 1824 and the Republican Party from 1860 to 1884 and today prove anything, it is that, “In American politics, victory always went to the parties and leaders with the strongest and clearest vision of liberty and freedom…” There is no doubt that George W. Bush won a second term because he sold Americans on a mightily powerful narrative of freedom and liberty. But when did Americans become incapable of distinguishing rhetoric from reality?

Fischer claims our leaders are passionate defenders of a free society, but have a narrow vision of freedom: “If a free society is ever destroyed in America, it will be done in the name of one particular vision of liberty and freedom,” he warns. Au contraire: If our free society is ever destroyed it will be because we have abandoned the eternal verities of republicanism and limited government.

©2005 Ilana Mercer
   Reviewed in The American Conservative
   January 31

CATEGORIES: America, Founding Fathers, History, Liberty, Natural rights, Positive Rights, The South