What After All Do Americans Mean When They Say They Love "Liberty"?

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Mr. Reynolds is the Professor of International History at Cambridge University and a Fellow of the British Academy. His most recent book is America, Empire of Liberty: A New History of the United States published by Basic Books.

“Liberty” is stitched into the fabric of U.S. history, from Patrick Henry’s cry “Give me liberty or give me death” to George W. Bush’s assertion that liberty is “the plan of heaven for humanity.” But is “liberty” anything more than an American political slogan? As a British historian, writing a book about the sweep of American history, I have been reflecting on these questions. Here are a few thoughts, from a transatlantic perspective.

When Thomas Jefferson in the 1800s famously envisioned the United States as a “great empire of liberty,” he saw no contradiction in two terms that today, for us, stand in tension. This was because he understood “empire” as a loose collection of smaller, self-governing polities, whose greatness would lie both in their geographical spread and also in their respect for local liberties. This was the conception of the new United States that he would champion against Hamiltonianism, real and imagined, a conception based on a negative concept of liberty as freedom from federal government interference.

The conventional narrative of American political history takes us from this negative conception of liberty in the era of the Founders to a positive conception affirming in the later twentieth century the duty and necessity of federal intervention. Milestones in this narrative include the struggle over states rights and secession culminating in the Civil War, the enlarged role of the Federal Government during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt in response to the Depression and World War Two, and the belated federal enforcement of civil rights in the “Second Reconstruction” of the 1960s. Yet the “massive resistance” in the Deep South to this intrusion and, more recently, the current debate about President Obama’s health care plans are reminders that, for millions of Americans, “liberty” is still essentially negative, meaning “freedom from” something rather than “empowerment to do” something.

Alongside this widely shared, if contested, liberal narrative about the trajectory from negative to positive liberty, one finds darker interpretations of America’s story. Recent work on the history of race relations has underlined the centrality of slavery to America’s development. In a country where, compared with Europe, labor was scarce and land abundant, slaves were regarded as indispensable for cultivating cotton and other lucrative cash crops for the transatlantic market. Curtailing the basic freedoms of black people, in a society that so valued the autonomous free man, also raised questions about their full stature as human beings. The persistence of such racist stereotypes underpinned the denial of full civil rights for black Americans in the twentieth century. Slavery and its legacies have therefore been fundamental to American history: for a country “conceived in liberty,” as Lincoln put it, slavery was the original sin. Hence the almost messianic reaction to the election of Barack Obama as the country’s first “black” president.

The polarity of liberty and slavery is so deeply rooted in the discourse of U.S. politics that it was carried over into the rhetoric of the Cold War. For instance, NSC-68, the celebrated national security blueprint of 1950, spoke of a “basic conflict between the idea of freedom under a government of laws, and the idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin.” Back in the 1850s Lincoln had described his country as “half-slave” and “half-free,” predicting that it could not continue in that half-and-half state indefinitely: one side would eventually make the other conform to its values. Now, a century later, American Cold Warriors such as Paul Nitze, principal author of NSC-68, were inscribing Lincoln’s design onto a global plane. These convictions help explain why American right-wingers denounced “détente” in the 1970s as coexistence with the devil and, unlike most policymakers in Europe, looked to the eventual collapse of what Reagan called the “evil empire” as the only acceptable denouement of the Cold War.

Of course, apologists for the Soviet bloc claimed that it actually stood for essential human liberties. These claims are usually dismissed as Cold War propaganda but they remind us the complexity of “liberty.” In the United States, drawing on its intellectual heritage from seventeenth-century England, the term has been understood primarily in a political sense. The freedoms that are privileged in U.S. history and law, not least by the Bill of Rights in 1791, relate to voting, assembly, worship, free speech and the like. In 1944 FDR argued that Depression and War had shown that “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence” but his call for a “second Bill of Rights” got nowhere. By contrast, economic and social rights such as employment, housing and health care were fundamental in the new post-war communist states of Eastern Europe, albeit at the expense of political freedoms. In other words, each side in the Cold War cherry-picked from the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to suit its ideological orientation. The United States emerged victorious from this global confrontation, which many triumphalists took as vindication of the American way, but the limits of its definition of liberty still matter, as current debates about health care show.

Yet transatlantic comparison suggests another, more affirmative point about the United States as the land of liberty. The recent historiography on slavery and immigration has stripped away many of the comfortable patriotic nostrums about “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The forced labor of slaves and the squalid exploitation of immigrants were integral to America’s economic development yet, for free immigrants at least, the United States did offer real opportunities compared with Europe. In the 1900s, the German social commentator Werner Sombart attributed the weakness of socialism in the United States, at a time when it was taking off in much of Europe, to the higher American standard of living. “All Socialist utopias,” he stated gloomily, “came to nothing on roast beef and apple pie.” Although painting too rosy a picture of American life, certainly for many first-generation immigrants, Sombart had caught something important. The United States did enjoy higher rates of social mobility, in large part because of its greater geographical mobility: the movement of people from city slums to streetcar suburbs and on westward into new towns and new lands served as a social escalator for millions, opening up better jobs and the chance to own property in ways unparalleled in Europe or, for later immigrants, in South America and East Asia.

A short think-piece like this can only scratch the surface but it may suggest why the elastic concept of “liberty” has remain so potent in the American experience, both as a political slogan and also as historical reality,.


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Arnold Shcherban - 12/4/2009

A-historical comparison!
I would like to see (in theory) where
this greatest of the countries could have been, provided it had experienced the same level of destruction and loss of
life, as the major European powers had
over WWI and WWII, and lived constantly under the threat coming from powerful neighbors (or had other developmental problems unknown to Americans.)

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/3/2009

Hamilton and Jefferson BOTH had faith in the concept of liberty as freedom FROM from the federal government, as outlined by the U.S. Constitution, which is basically a short catalog of powers denied to the federal government, and they both supported it enthusiastically.

Also, it is much too facile to create something called "the centrality of slavery to America's development." In Britain and in your far-flung possessions, you abolished slavery only 20 or 30 years earlier than we did, and both of us were among the first nations in the world to do so.

Charles Dickens tells vividly of life among the lower classes in Victorian England, and theirs was not notably better than that of America's field hands at the same time--or of the white tenant farmers of Ireland and England. In the cities, of course, slaves were carrying sedan chairs for their betters on both sides of the Atlantic even into the 19th century. Over here the feudal system in Dutch New York persisted until the 1840s, another relic of human bondage.

Note that in Europe today, where all countries "enjoy" what you call the "positive concept of liberty," (which many of us would characterize as coercive utopianism), the economies have all been stagnating for years. We in North America have been the world's engine of progress and prosperity, so much so we have even been able to provide for your national defense. I would argue that the European style of "positive liberty" at best will never work, and at worst will only usher in more of the most awful tyrannies the mind of many can conceive.

I would argue, too, that the post WWII communist employment, education and health care cost those people a good deal more than their political freedom: It cost them material prosperity. We in the West, and especially in America, were the ones who created wealth for all, despite occasional moments like the present, when the great cornucopia sputtered around the edges, causing temporary unemployment and commercial failure. Under capitalist governance it always rose promptly to new records of production and consumption... (Some are today trying to apply the European style of governance here, and if they succeed we are likely to join you in the vile dust).

Steven F. Sage - 12/2/2009

As if made to order, Vaughn Davis Bornet’s comment bears out my observation. Perfectly. The question was, What do Americans mean when they say they love “liberty”? To which I observed that (i.e., apart from a few political scientists and academic historians of the early Republic), Americans equate “Liberty” with spatial mobility as experienced at the driver’s seat of a car. VDB then recounted his use of automobiles over the decades as if other types of conveyance did not exist. (As indeed, in much of America, they virtually do not.) Thank you, Vaughn Davis Bornet.

vaughn davis bornet - 12/1/2009

I guess that Sage's automobile essay is in the middle of something I DO know a lot about.

His depressing analysis of all the alleged damage caused by automobiles in our Society doesn't ring any bell with me.

To me, the automobile in the 20th century meant: ability to hold jobs by getting to them; ability to be married when on active duty in WWII; ability to teach classes at a university after the war; ability to get to classes during graduate school; ability to get home to lunch when a faculty bureaucrat; in old age, the ability to serve my wife's needs and, indeed, to function at all.

There is nothing frivolous here! Some of my cars were mammoth; others tiny and insignificant; but all got me around.

Today, my senior citizen daughter goes to art classes clear across the Bay Area; my daughter-in-law goes to downtown Manhattan; my son manages to sell real estate; my granddaughter handles the needs of five daughters; and so on.

Enemies of the automobile and its makers should calm down and recognize that it has facilited middle class American life in my day and yours. It may have made lower class life endurable. One thing is certain: Life as I have known it for close to 93 years would have been unthinkable without it.

My worst auto was made in the 1960s in Japan; my best in 1998 by Oldsmobile (and I'm counting on it lasting as long as I do). A big and powerful Pontiac I bought in 1969 is the stalwart reliance of a nonprofit agency locally and is pushing 260,000 hard-working milescarrying, hauling, and towing.

My first car (1933) may be restored somewhere: a Model A Ford convertible with red wheels.

Call me nostalgic; or emotional; or cockeyed. I don't care. The auto and I grew up together, and I anticipate that its industry will make a comeback--with applause.


Steven F. Sage - 11/30/2009

Deep seated political ideals? No. In America's public mind, a century of Detroit propaganda has long since succeeded at identifying "liberty" and "freedom" with the spatial mobility offered by private automobiles. Cheap gasoline underpinned the equation. The consequences were destroyed cities, a destroyed landscape, destroyed ambiance, destroyed community life, the dismantling of public transportation, the profligate squandering of resources, and far more American lives cut short than were lost in all the wars of the United States, combined. It has been an historical catastrophe. Given the boggling extent of this folly, what could "liberty" possibly mean in the shopping mall, parking-lot world of USA? The camouflage slogans "Liberty" and "freedom" and "America's Way of Life" function merely to bless the mess.

Misha Mazzini Griffith - 11/30/2009

Professor Reynolds, I find your reflections on the change of our perceptions on liberty fascinating. However, the influence of the anti-Communist sentiments in America since the end of World War I and of the Cold War cannot be underestimated in our definition and insistence on the value of liberty. You hit the nail squarely when you wrote about increased social mobility in the U.S. Instead of contrasting liberty with slavery, which is still a painful issue in America, why not contrast liberty with the notion of equality? Social mobility is totally incompatible with equality. America's capitalist economic system demands that each citizen strives independently for greater success and greater capacity in a highly competitive manner. This makes the equality promised by the communist state anathema. The Cold War rhetoric became one of liberty versus equality, with liberty becoming code for everything the United States valued, while equality was the virtue trumpeted by the Warsaw Pact--with the assumption that to be equal was commiserate to being impoverished and enslaved by a tyrannical system. For example, the Soviet Union criticized the United States' treatment of African Americans in the 1950s. LBJ's concept of the "Great Society" focused, not on equal rights, but the end of poverty and the enforcement of "civil" rights. The United States could not even add an "equal rights" amendment to the Constitution in the 1970s. At the same time, we emphasized freedom and liberty as the watchwords of the American myth.
I think if you asked an American to define "liberty," you would not get a unified or even coherent answer. It is an inculcated impulse, not something most Americans have spent time reflecting about, but they are darn happy to have it. I look forward to reading your book.