“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…”
An inexact definition of Liberty allowed the founding fathers of the United States wiggle room they needed bringing together southern slavers, mid-coast aristocrats, and stubborn northerners to begin the American Experiment. But the poorly defined word underlies many disagreements we still have today over how we govern these United States.
You may be shaking your head — “I know what Liberty is!”
The problem isn’t that the word lacks definition. It simply has Too Many. There are strong and different definitions running loose — what it means to me, it might not mean to you.
Perhaps, as I did, you equate Liberty with Freedom?
Is that correct? Read this interesting passage in Colin Woodard’s American Nations A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America regarding how the Mid-Atlantic “Tidewater” gentry viewed the term:
Liberty was something that was granted and was thus a privilege, not a right. Some people were permitted many liberties, others had very few, and many had none at all… Liberties were valuable because most people did not have them and were thought meaningless without the presence of a hierarchy… While they were passionate in defending their liberties, it would never have occurred to them that those liberties might be shared with their subjects. “I am an aristocrat,” Virginian John Randolph would explain decades after the American Revolution. “I love liberty; I hate equality.” (from American Nations by Colin Woodard)
That’s not my idea of Liberty. Where did the concept of Liberty as Freedom come from?
Raised in Massachusetts, now a denizen of Vermont, this is apparently part of my cultural heritage. Yankees were interested in a different kind of Liberty, the idea of enlightened self-interest — I get to have my things my way, so long as it doesn’t interfere with you and yours. Although, in some ways contrary to this, Woodard identified an annoying tendency of Yankees to assume they were correct about Freedom and many other things, and that other should see this — obviously — and fall in line, an attitude leftover from Puritan founders.
Woodard’s book is a fascinating look at the different cultures that created the US and still influence society now, recommended for its insights:
The driving force of American politics hasn’t primarily been a class struggle or tension between agrarian and commercial interests, or even between competing partisan ideologies, although each has played a role. Ultimately the determinative political struggle has been a clash between shifting coalitions of ethnoregional nations, one invariably headed by the Deep South, the other by Yankeedom. (from American Nations by Colin Woodard)
Thanks to this clash, in the case of the word Liberty we have two dominant and competing definitions at work, the legacy of these competing cultures.
One is the idea that Liberty is Freedom with Enlightened Self-Interest. Even beyond the idea of “I get my way so long as it doesn’t hurt yours,” there is a sense that we need to work together so we can all get our way. There’s an underlying concept of society as made up of interconnected individuals whose individual actions can impact many others, and a belief this should foster a sense of awareness of — and responsibility to — a greater whole. The societal, interconnected view.
The Other is the idea that Liberty is Freedom Unrestrained — Without Limits. It’s simple — I get to do what I want. Your welfare is your responsibility, my impacts on it are your problem, not mine. Freedom means freedom from awareness of — and responsibility to — others, or some greater whole or larger good. I can grant you some things might be needed for the “common good” but not many, nor comfortably or for long. The aristocratic, rugged individualist view.
Both of these ideas co-exist, albeit incompatibly, in the American concept of Liberty, and have since the earliest days of the United States. Two-hundred years on in time, however, we are often no longer conscious of these differences. The result?
In the United States when we talk about Liberty we say the same word but don’t mean the same thing.
These differing definitions create different ideas of how we govern, even how we look at government and what we expect from the state. We see our differing ideas of Liberty at war in the headlines today, interconnected versus individualist.
Those who lend unwavering support to President Donald Trump certainly embrace the individualistic definition. Those who oppose Trump? On the influence of the Yankee-led, interconnected view, Woodard writes:
Government, New Englanders believed from the beginning, could defend the public good from the selfish machinations of moneyed interests. It could enforce morals through the prohibition or regulation of undesirable activities. It could create a better society through public spending on infrastructure and schools. More than any other group in America, Yankees conceive of government as being run by and for themselves. Everyone is supposed to participate, and there is no greater outrage than to manipulate the political process for private gain. Yankee idealism never died. (from American Nations by Colin Woodard)
Both sides can talk about Liberty, point to the founding fathers, and find support for their definition. This is a problem. But, while there may be support for both definitions in the writings and philosophies of 18th century early American aristocrats, our world is physically more interconnected than anyone living in the distant past could ever conceive.
Thus, the interconnected view no longer relies on a hypothetical or moral interconnectivity, but actually reflects today’s reality. The rugged individualistic view, on the other hand, requires an increasingly difficult to justify conceit denying the increasingly interconnected aspects and impacts of our society.
Given that the House of Representatives has begun an Impeachment process against this President, it seems the time may have come to decide which definition of Liberty matters. Which one makes sense now? Which one does this country stand for?
Do we ignore our interconnected reality, and cling to a rugged, individualistic definition of Liberty?
Or do we recognize the value of that individualistic past while also recognizing our interconnected reality requires, even more today, an awareness of and responsibility to a larger whole and a greater good?
Our Liberty is At Stake. And? Our Liberty Demands It.