Front Page Titles (by Subject) II: History & Liberty - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1982, vol. 5, No. 1
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II: History & Liberty - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1982, vol. 5, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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History & Liberty
The following summaries contain two distinct but interrelated kinds of topics: the historiography of individual liberty and individuals who have advanced our understanding of liberty in history. Particularly relevant to our lead essay on the French liberal historian Alexis de Tocqueville are those summaries discussing the historiographical traditions which view history as the drama of liberty: the advance of civilization is the progress of individual freedom and emancipation from arbitrary power and authority. A suitable introduction to such a liberal historiography is Mark Glat's opening analysis which argues that John Locke, a founder of the classical liberal tradition, was not the caricature of the ahistorical rationalist, but, in fact, possessed a lively and sophisticated historical sensibility. Related notes on the developed historical sense found in various champions of the liberal temper are found in other summaries by Seaberg, Shklar, Winthrop (on Tocqueville's Old Régime), Tenenbaum, Dodge, and Porter.
To supplement these studies, the reader is advised to consult the Bibliography to John Lukacs' Tocqueville essay (pp. 36–42), especially the following studies:
Gargan, Edward T. De Tocqueville. Studies in Modern European Literature and Thought. London: Bowes and Bowes, 1965.
—, “The Formation of Tocqueville's Historical Thought.” Review of Politics 24 (January 1962): 48–61.
Liggio, Leonard P. “Charles Dunoyer and French Classical Liberalism.” The Journal of Libertarian Studies 1 (Summer 1977): 153–178.
Mellon, Stanley. The Political Uses of History: A Study of Historians in the French Restoration. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958.
Siedentop, Larry. “Two Liberal Traditions.” In The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin. Ed. by Alan Ryan. Oxford & New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979, pp. 153–174.
White, Hayden V. “Tocqueville: Historical Realism as Tragedy.” In Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe. Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973, pp. 45–58.
Of particular value in orienting one to the intellectual currents and themes animating Tocqueville's French liberal historiography are the Mellon and Siedentop studies cited above. These essays place Tocqueville in his own historical context which was deeply influenced by Francois Guizot and Mme. de Staël's Coppet circle. (see Tenenbaum's summary on Coppet and Constant). A clear line of historical continuity unites Enlightenment historiography, the Coppet circle, and Tocqueville: all regarded history as the advance of individual freedom.
Locke, Liberalism, and the Historical Sense
“John Locke's Historical Sense.” The Review of Politics 43 (January 1981): 3–21.
J.G.A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner have shown that “what was central to early modern political thought was not so much its concern with reason, but its interest in, and development of, a truly modern historical analysis of politics.” However, Pocock paradoxically relapses into the conventional rationalist interpretation of Locke by believing that Locke was ahistorical. On the contrary, Locke, the empiricist philosopher, developed modern ideas about the study of history that paralleled the sophisticated historical sense of French and Continental historians, especially Jean Bodin (1530–1596), who sought “to return facts to their (historical) contexts and interpret them there.” (Early in his career, Locke assigned his Oxford students Bodin's Method for the Easy Comprehension of History).
In returning facts to their historical context, Locke rejected traditional English historical thought and its non-modern forms of political argument. Locke's complex epistemological caution in assessing the validity and meaning of the historical past points to “a rather different sort of relationship between the origins of liberalism in Locke and the study of history than has hitherto been noticed.” The origins of liberal thought cannot be dismissed as “ahistorical” simply because the English empiricists of the seventeenth century identified methodological problems in gaining certain knowledge of past historical events. Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, a classic exposition of empiricist epistemology, together with Locke's other writings show that he was not ahistorical; they rather caution us to exercise a careful method in regard to historical meaning and linguistic intention in order to understand how our beliefs and opinions developed over time. By conceiving of the past as distinct from the historical present, Locke reveals the modern understanding of history practiced by Renaissance historians like Bodin.
Locke conceptualized history as events whose meaning contexts changed over time. Such foreign events required our applying careful rules before we could assent to such probable knowledge of the historical. The discriminating self which sorts out such probable knowledge is the nexus between empiricist philosophy and critical history in Locke's thought. Locke grew more historically oriented through his empiricist philosophy and developed highly creative ideas concerning historical reconstruction and interpretation.
Locke objected on both philosophical and historical grounds to the traditionalist attempt of Whig historians to reconcile reason and history by appealing to a parochial English “immemorial custom.” His historical sense as revealed in the Two Treatises rejected such conservative ahistoricism in the relations between reason, history, and politics. In Locke's arguments regarding the development of private property and the emergence of political society out of the state of nature, we see a highly original deployment of his historical sense as a liberal political thinker. Locke avoided narrow references to the English past and made use of historical ethnography, 17th-century cosmopolitan travel literature, and the “history of mankind” to depict the condition of man both in and out of political society. Locke used the New World descriptions of pre-political societies to historically explain the universal origins of political power in consent. Comparative social anthropology (especially dealing with the New World peoples of America) undermined Whig contractarian conservatism and established “the historical character of the liberal political rights of Englishmen.” For Locke, the “proof of man's historical freedom was discoverable in all ages of the world once we had learned how to read history as the general interpretation of man's intentional actions.” (Prof. Glat pursues these questions in his 1978 Rutgers dissertation, “The Political Anthropology of John Locke and the Origins of Modern Politics.”)
Levellers: Historical Continuity & Rights
“The Norman Conquest and the Common Law: The Levellers and the Argument from Continuity.” The Historical Journal (England) 24, 4 (1981): 791–806.
J.G.A. Pocock, Christopher Hill, and Quentin Skinner have contributed to the theory that the Levellers, 17th-century revolutionary advocates of natural rights, viewed common law as a yoke imposed by the Norman conquest, which ruptured the historical continuity with the earlier righteous customs and laws of the Anglo-Saxons. Hill contrasted the ideological camp of Sir Edward Coke who (rejecting a disruptive ‘conquest’) adhered to the common law theory of continuity with the camp of the Levellers who saw the Norman conquest as the end of the rule of just law. Quentin Skinner has further contrasted the two groups, asserting that the Levellers' view of the Norman conquest as a ‘fatal breach’ in the continuity of English law moved them away from history and common law for their political justification towards natural rights theory as the groundwork of their political platform.
This composite interpretation, however, suffers from two fatal fallacies. “First it depends on the mistaken assumption that the Levellers perceived all existing rule as an alien yoke dating back to 1066. In point of fact, the leaders adopted a particular view of English law, based on their reading of historians and legists, which allowed them to turn the law against itself while always using the law as a yardstick by which to measure arbitrariness.” Second, the Levellers sense of historical and legal continuity was “no simple belief in unchanging law, but represented a more complex view of a basic rhythm in English history.”
By studying the Leveller tracts and the historians and chroniclers whom the Levellers drew upon for their interpretation of English history and law, we note that the Levellers were animated by a sense of continuity with the ancient constitution and liberties which were not fatally breached by the Norman conquest. They saw themselves as actors in a recurrent drama of reasserting rule by law and preserving neglected rights and laws. The Levellers' favorite historians—Raphael Hollinshed, Samuel Daniel, John Speed, and William Martyn—did indeed view the Norman conquest as an administrative yoke of thraldom; but one that did not totally destroy England's substantive connection with her more righteous common law heritage. Overton and other Levellers could view the post-Norman Magna Carta as a pledge of true liberties; likewise Lilburne and Walwyn adopted Coke's version (against the chroniclers) of trial by jury as no Norman import but a living relic of pre-Norman justice. Lilburne and Wildman also robbed the Norman conquest of its ‘fatality’ by recognizing how William the Conqueror submitted to the historic continuity of the coronation oaths, which asserted the peoples ‘historic rights’ and ‘ancient customs.’
In sum, the Levellers made peace with the English Middle Ages and their continuity with the common law. In their political theory the Levellers conceived of themselves as heirs of the unbroken English tradition of right reason imbedded in law. Their view of natural rights was defined in such a way as to be identical with the best parts of the common law tradition.
Scholastic Origins of Popular Resistance Theory
“The Origins of the Calvinist Theory of Revolution.” In After the Reformation: Essays in Honor of J.H. Hexter. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980, pp. 307–330.
When and where did a recognizably modern justification of revolution first come to be stated in early modern Europe? In other words, what are the true origins of John Locke's arguments for active political resistance as formulated in his Two Treatises of Government (1690)? To qualify as an authentic source of such a revolutionary doctrine, Locke's predecessors' doctrines must be both secular and populist, and exhibit these three fundamentals: (1) The right of resistance to tyranny must be held to be lodged with the body of the people at all times, and sometimes delegated but not alienated to a minister (thus opposing the more conservative form of populism espoused by such Thomists as Molina and Suárez); (2) The possibility of resistance must be seen as a natural right, not simply the people's religious duty to uphold God's law (thus opposing Knox's belief); The right of resistance must be treated as the possession of each individual citizen, and hence of the whole body of the people viewed as a legal entity (thus opposing the more conservative doctrine of the sixteenth-century French monarchomachs who held that constitutional officials alone were entitled to declare and conduct resistance). Who, of Locke's predecessors, can rightly hold title to being the originator of such a secular and populist doctrine of political resistance?
For some time the study of radical politics in early modern Europe has been dominated by the concept of the originality of the Calvinist theory of revolution. Arguing against the priority of the Calvinists in shaping the secular and populist right to political resistance, Skinner maintains that it is misleading to look to the 16th-century Calvinists as the originators of radical resistance theory (as does Michael Walzer). Skinner concedes that the 16th-century European revolutions were largely conducted by professed Calvinists, but points out that the justifying theories behind these actions were not specifically Calvinist. When the Calvinist George Buchanan, in The Right of the Kingdom among the Scots (written in Scotland in 1567, but not published until 1579) stated for the first time in defense of the Reformed Churches a fully secularized and populist theory of political resistance, he was largely restating a position already elaborated by the Scot, John Mair (1467–1550).
Mair and his more radical student, James Almain (1480–1515) revived in the early 16th century two important strands of late medieval legal and political thought. The radical scholastic doctrine of William of Ockham developed the Roman legal doctrine of the licitness of repelling unjust force with force and held that it is “lawful for the people to depose their king.” The other and even more important basis for the development of radical scholastic ideas in the early 16th century was provided by the theorists of the Conciliar movement. At the time of the Great Schism at the end of the 14th century, Jean Gerson (1363–1429) and his followers adapted the Roman law theory of corporations in such a way as to defend popular sovereignty in the Church: no ruler can ever be greater in power than the community whose agent he is. Around 1510, Almain and Mair developed Ockham's and Gerson's ideas to support Louis XIII against Pope Julius II. Mair, in particular, is the channel of the radical scholastic ideas to the Calvinist revolutionaries. His pupils included Calvin, John Knox, and George Buchanan. Almain drew the more radical populist implications of the scholastics' doctrines. The ruler is pictured by both Almain and Mair as a mere “minister” of the people, elected on the condition that he protect their rights, and must be resisted by the people if he fails to discharge his duty.
The Calvinist revolutionaries of the 16th century were voicing Catholic political philosophy of the radical scholastics when they urged popular resistance to rulers. The Calvinists would seem to be wrapping their revolutionary argument in the legitimacy of earlier, Catholic arguments.
The Glorious Revolution & Contract
“'Abdicate' and ‘Contract’ in the Glorious Revolution.” The Historical Journal (England) 24, 2 (1981): 323–337.
Recent revisionist interpretations of the Glorious Revolution and its political debates (1688–1689) had imposed a Tory, anti-Lockean interpretation on the abdication of James II. Such historians as J.P. Kenyon maintain that John Locke's Second Treatise of Government misled historians into believing that parliament deposed James II for breaking the original “contract” between sovereign and people. Kenyon argues that the Lords and Commons were careful to dissociate themselves from the radical contract theory and Whig “revolution principles.” For does not the crucial word “abdicated” (or the Lords' “deserted”) imply a voluntary, unforced choice on James' part rather than ouster for violation of contract?
Kenyon's anti-contractual interpretation of the meaning of James II's “abdication” fails to appreciate the deliberate ambiguity in the Convention Parliament's use of “abdicate” to simultaneously satisfy both Whigs and Tories. Linguistic study of the meaning of “abdication” in contemporary usage and in the parliamentary debates reveals profound tensions and ambiguities. “Abdication” could be either expressed or implied, the result of forced or voluntary renunciation, and either permanent or subject to the capriciousness of power and war.
To build consensus and satisfy both Whigs and Tories, parliament used deliberately ambiguous and contradictory language concerning the Glorious Revolution's political significance. On the one hand, parliament clearly attempted to bind William and Mary and all future monarchs to specific contractual obligations (the altered coronation oath implies a contract to secure rights and liberties). On the other hand the Bill of Rights of 1689 also connected James II's crimes with his abdication. One could thus interpret the abdication “as either the necessary result of James' actions or a voluntary renunciation.” The essence of the Glorious Revolution was certainly its conciliatory nature. This ambiguity, however, allowed Locke and the Whigs to stress the more radical implications of the Revolution as a forced deposition for breach of contract.
History: The Master ‘Science’ of Human Knowledge
“Jean d'Alembert and the Rehabilitation of History.” Journal of the History of Ideas 42 (October–December 1981): 643–664.
One of the crucial problems of Enlightenment thought was to rehabilitate the discredited status of history by establishing it as a justifiable form of knowledge among the valid sciences. Descartes' and Locke's skeptical doubt and empirical polemic against uncertain forms of knowledge had raised epistemological and moral puzzles which discredited the certainty and usefulness of traditional history. Jean d'Alembert (1717–1783), mathematician, scientist, and co-editor of Diderot's Encyclopédie restored history to a more dignified position in the world of learning than any it had occupied for over a century. Writing biographical obituaries (the éloges) in his capacity as the permanent secretary of the Académie Francaise, tracing the history of ideas in his Encyclopédie articles, and reflecting on the role of history as an epistemological master science in organizing a science of the human mind across time, d'Alembert formulated an intellectually scrupulous and balanced position, among the philosophes, on the scope and limits of a rehabilitated science of history.
D'Alembert synthesized Voltaire's skeptical approach to history (inherited from Locke's cautious empiricism), Fontenelle's view of history as the glorification of scientific progress, and Montesquieu's commonsensical conjectural history in defense of liberal values. By d'Alembert's rigorous standards of geometrical certitude, history fell short of the epistemological standards of the mathematical sciences, yet it played an essential political and moral role in liberating man from the tyranny of politics and superstition. The liberal philosophes, thought d'Alembert, needed to be reminded of the relative inexactitude and imperfection of history as a form of knowledge in their polemical uses of history against tyranny. In addition, d'Alembert was wary of treating probable knowledge (as in Condorcet's faith in a new mathematicized calculus of probabilities to be used in moral, social, or political decision-making). D'Alembert's critique of a social calculus of probabilities was motivated by the illiberal uses to which such a posturing pseudo-science must be put. Against other philosophes he dissented as to the superior social utility of making inoculation against smallpox compulsory. In such non-scientific social applications, which lacked mathematical certainty, he argued against compulsion and for the individual right of opinion and choice.
D'Alembert's ruminations on the intellectual status of history as an organizing, active force in establishing and recalling the interconnections among the sciences and human action in general led him finally to view history as a master science which surveyed and unified human knowledge.
Tocqueville: The Old Regime & Liberty
“Tocqueville's Old Regime: Political History.” The Review of Politics 43 (June 1981): 81–111.
Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856), read as its author intended it to be read as political history, merits renewed study today. Tocqueville believed that an examination of historical particulars (the French Revolution and the earlier Old Regime) could yield universal principles of social existence. His work aims at the dual purpose: being both a scholarly study of the Revolution and (since the Revolution failed in its aims of social and political transformation through reason) a politically relevant work for his own day and ours.
Winthrop's detailed analysis of The Old Regime dissects that work's main theme of the contrast of virtue and liberty under the Old Regime and under the Revolution. Under the Old Regime the nobility never lost its spirit of free independence, although this spirit is distinct from one that supports an orderly and lawful political liberty. In Tocqueville's estimation, if the new regime is to be superior to the old, it must nurture man's natural desire for freedom and give precedence to political liberty over selfish economic prosperity. The Old Regime's intellectuals ignored considering liberty for the common people, confusing talk of reason and natural law with their own reason. In its turn, the French Revolution similarly failed since it failed to honor man's whole nature, including all his vices and virtues. “For Tocqueville, the regime that makes a whole of the human soul, of all its needs and desires, is one in which the natural love of liberty predominates.”
Tocqueville's thesis in The Old Regime “is that a proper appreciation of human liberty, its origin, meaning, possibilities, and limitations, is the necessary condition for sound politics and for sound political analysis as well.” His historical argument holds that regimes and individuals rise or fall to the extent that the human soul's desire for liberty is satisfied. Tocqueville wishes his readers to reflect on the themes of religion, Providence, and philosophy in relation to liberty and political history.
As political history, The Old Regime stands in opposition not only to the eighteenth-century French philosophes but to virtually all modern political thought. Against such teaching, Tocqueville insisted that political philosophy needs to combine the love of liberty and public virtue. Without such comprehensive teaching, regimes spawn vice and their own degeneration. Tocqueville saw in Machiavelli's political philosophy of self-interest (carried on by Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau) the ultimate origins (and flaw) of the French Revolution.
Coppet: French Liberal Culture and Politics
“The Coppet Circle: Literary Criticism as Political Discourse.” History of Political Thought 1, no. 3 (December 1980): 453–473.
Coppet, Mme de Staël's (1766–1817) Swiss estate, was the refuge and stage of a brilliant literary and intellectual salon from 1804–1810, the period of Napoleonic hegemony. Coppet's role as a center of political opposition to Bonaparte, the historical traditions of the salon, and the intellectual preoccupations of Coppet's members merged to nourish a concern with the connection between politics and culture—specifically, with the cultural mechanisms of Napoleonic domination.
“The Coppet circle's indictment of Napoleonic despotism was framed by the emergent literary struggle between the ‘classical’ and the ‘romantic.’ What appeared to be an aesthetic quarrel over the appropriate sources of literary inspiration—ancient or modern models—was interpreted by the Coppet group to have a hidden political content. The prevailing governmental classicism, founded on the sterile imitation of archaic models, nurtured the unquestioned ritualistic obedience requisite to despotism. The new romantic aesthetic, expressing the vitality of living historical traditions, incarnated the energies of a free political society. The significance of these claims lies with the Coppet circle's pioneering attempt to bring a consciousness of historical change to bear upon the analysis of culture as a mechanism of political education. They were the first to confront in a systematic fashion the implications of modernity—its potential for liberation or repression as reflected in the ideals of its art. Finally, the Coppet group's aesthetic vision imbued their political theory with a subtlety and complexity rarely acknowledged in scholarly assessments of nineteenth-century French liberalism. The concept of the ‘romantic’ crystallized those tensions and ambivalences they deemed implicit in a free and pluralistic society.”
Tenenbaum's far-ranging study offers historical reflections on the salon as a social milieu; examines those currents of ideas that shaped the Coppet group's perspectives; and concludes by focusing on the political strategies and theoretical contributions of the Coppet circle.
Noteworthy among Coppet's distinguished coterie of intellectuals were Benjamin Constant, A. W. Schlegel, J.C.L. de Sismondi, and Prosper de Barante. Of this inner circle, all but Schlegel were liberal constitutionalists rooted in the cosmopolitan traditions of the Enlightenment. Along with a liberal consensus went an antipathy to the despotism of Bonaparte.
The political objectives of the Coppet circle liberals were twofold: first to condemn the ‘closed’ despotic system of Napoleon; and second, to define the culture of a free society appropriate to post-Revolutionary France. In its cultural-political analysis, the Coppet circle introduced a new sophistication into the study of aesthetic practice under a system of total political domination. Particularly important was Benjamin Constant's essay De l'esprit de conquête, which noted that a reliance on indoctrination to elicit mass support and willing participation distinguished the Revolutionary despotism from older, cruder, and less pervasive forms of domination. The terms of Constant's indictment of the military state of Napoleon recalled the charges levelled against the classical aesthetic in his preface to Wallenstein. Resembling classicism and incompatible with modern society, the spirit of conquest was rooted in “admiration for uniformity...symmetry, and abstract essence, a general idea.”
Benjamin Constant & Liberty
“Conquest, Dictatorship, and Ancient Liberty.” In Benjamin Constant's Philosophy of Liberty: A Study in Politics and Religion. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980, Chapt. 2.
Benjamin Constant (1767 – 1830), French liberal journalist and orator, intimate friend of Mme. de Staël, and part of the Weimar Goethe-Schiller circle, was one of the first to grasp the nature of Bonapartism as the first truly modern dictatorship. Constant's most famous political work—De l'esprit de conquête et de l'usurpation (published 1814 but composed years earlier) — delineated Bonaparte's new kind of despotism which intoned a rhetoric of liberty, general will, and popular sovereignty. In this prophetic work, Constant seems to describe Hitler's Germany (or the mass man of Orwell's 1984), develops a complete philosophy of history, and renders a diagnosis of the ills of modern life under the terms, usurpation and the “spirit of conquest.”
“Usurpation” is Constant's term for the new Napoleonic dictatorship as distinguished from the older, less sophisticated monarchic despotism. Whereas despotism is an abstract institution softened by habit and the checks of a rival body of nobility, usurpation is unlimited with charismatically personal, direct, and centralized power. The despot forbids discussion and exacts only obedience; the modern usurper manipulates the illusion of consent through indoctrination.
Next, Constant's analysis of the new “spirit of conquest” revealed the absolute conformity demanded in the wake of the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution. The modern conqueror sought not merely outward submission but a spiritual, inner conformity that erased diversity and individuality. Constant's connection of variety, diversity, and liberty as opposed to totalitarian conformity may have been influenced by the German liberal Wilhelm von Humboldt's Limits of State Action.
Reversing Rousseau's criticism of industrial society, Constant praised the superior virtues of modern commercial society over ancient military society. Bourgeois society's cultivation of peace and comfort found Napoleon's war and conquest costly and anachronistic. In addition, modern commercial society invidiously compared the politicized citizen with the more admirable private social person. Modern or civil liberty repudiates the older civic virtue for personal rights. Ancient and modern liberty are two distinct historical experiences of liberty. Historical progress made modern liberty preferable, but one might still feel nostalgia for the shared sense of civic solidarity associated with the irretrievable past. Constant himself sought to combine the best elements of civil and political liberty.
Political Expediency vs. Principle
“Political Expediency and Lying: Kant vs. Benjamin Constant.” Journal of the History of Ideas 43 (Jan.–March 1982): 135–144.
Kant's famous essay “On the Supposed Right to Tell a Lie from Altruistic Motives” (1797) seems to paint him as a misguided moral legalist who claims that it is always wrong to tell a lie, even to save a friend from probable murder. Kant's particular moral position is overly rigorous but, to make sense of his essay, we must examine it with reference to the historical and political context. This reveals Kant as a defender of the ideals of the French Revolution against the conservative reaction represented by Benjamin Constant.
Within its historical context, Kant's essay was a reply to a pamphlet by Constant entitled On Political Reactions (1797). Constant rebuked “the German philosopher for advocating inflexible principles contrary to the common sense safety of society.” Constant's ethical subject is actually political propaganda for the Directory which had gained power in France in 1795 as a result of the Thermidorean reaction against the more radically democratic Jacobins. Constant's own essay was intended to provide a reactionary justification for the Directory's political opposition to the demands for universal suffrage and equality of wealth. Being a constitutional monarchist and defender of preserving elements of pre-Revolution society (such as the influence of the aristocracy), Constant wished to justify the bending of (Revolutionary) principles in the name of preserving society (actually the Directory's political interests). Constant found a handle to this political argument in attacking Kant's absolutist prohibition of lying even to murderers.
Kant's 1797 counterattack against Constant reasserts his adherence to the Revolution's and Enlightenment's principles, challenging the Hobbesian view that subordinates duty to ungrounded hedonic rights. To Kant this subordination seemed a reversal of morality and a surrender to unprincipled expediency. Both rights and a social contract call for the logical priority of principled duty to truth and other moral absolutes.
“Liberty and Whiggery in Early Nineteenth-Century England.” The Journal of Modern History 52 (June 1980): 254–278.
Were English Whig appeals to “liberty” hypocritical slogans to legitimatize the ascendancy of a privileged political and social order? To answer this question, we must examine the Whig conception of liberty in the early nineteenth century, and its connection with those social principles which the Whig aristocracy advocated: the inviolability of property, aristocratic honor, and the preservation of a hierarchically ordered society. With the coming of the nineteenth century, Whig aristocrats faced a dilemma when their principles, until now compatible with liberty, suddenly became politically incompatible with it. The ambiguous place of liberty in the Whig hierarchy of values is reflected in the policies they favored when they held the reins of power during the 1830s.
Whigs extolled the love of liberty as a virtue distinguishing their history and heroes (such men as Algernon Sidney and Charles James Fox). By the late eighteenth century the Whigs had usurped title to the seventeenth-century constitutional struggles which had witnessed the shift from “liberties” to “liberty.” The liberties that the Whigs gloried in wresting from the Stuart kings and that seemed applicable to the whole population, had in fact been derived from the more restrictive, less democratic concept of feudal liberties or privileges. Since these privileges were exclusive concessions to special groups, usually the nobility, “modern liberty was in its origin an aristocratic ideal. Thus “liberties” (class privileges) preceded the more universal “liberty.”
These earlier liberties were associated with a corporate hierarchical order of society. This class concept of privileged “liberties” was challenged by the democratic Levellers who attempted to apply liberty as a natural right for all men without distinctions. Later democratic radicals, such as Tom Paine, William Godwin, and Jeremy Bentham, advocated a species of liberty also uncongenial to the aristocratic Whigs who wished to maintain their class' privileged position as mediator between crown and people. Whigs argued that their convictions were “rational liberty” butressed by class honor as distinguished from the “impracticable liberty” of democrats.
The ambiguities and contradictions of the Whig profession of “liberty” is surveyed during the 1830s in such political outrages as the coercive legislation applied to Ireland which was reminiscent of the paternalistic attitudes of the Whigs toward slavery and the slave trade. Even in endorsing the moderate franchise of the Reform Bill, the Whigs wished the people to show subordination and deference to their betters out of respect for aristocratic honor. Tocqueville was right in exposing the Whig's exploitation of liberty. But the Whigs were acutely conscious of the conflict between liberty and other social privileges—property, honor, and hierarchy—on only a few issues, such as the Irish question. This “libertarian aristocratic ethic” valued liberty, but only “within the framework of an ordered society.”
The Protean Enlightenment
“Reading History: The Enlightenment.” History Today 33 (February 1982): 51–52.
In a brief bibliographical overview of interpretations of the Enlightenment, the author stresses that period's diverse and complex nature: “The Enlightenment now looks more Protean but the result has been all gain. The cartoon-character philosophe pursuing Reason is a travesty now consigned to the rubbish bin: in reality the competing claims of nature and culture, reason and feeling, individual and society, order and change demanded, and got, the engaged dialogue of impassioned minds.”
The nineteenth-century Romantic influence scornfully dismissed the Age of Reason and led to Carl Becker's The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932). Twentieth-century scholars took the Enlightenment's convictions more seriously but offered contrasting interpretations. Paul Hazard, in his The European Mind, 1680–1715 and European Thought in the Eighteenth Century, presented that age as one of exciting crisis which unfettered man's mind from narrow religion, criticism, and psychology. Another interpretation, Ernst Cassirer's The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, rebuked those who would look on Leibniz, Montesquieu, Condillac and other philosophes as facile. Enlightenment thinkers dealt with fundamental questions of critical philosophy.
Peter Gay's The Enlightenment (2 vols., 1967 and 1969) was equally sympathetic to the philosophes, viewing them as a “party of humanity” who advocated “modern paganism” and a progressive vision of knowledge as power against despotism and for a new liberal society. Gay's passing over of the illiberal authoritarianism of the philosophes' “reason” was exposed by the Frankfurt School philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment, which claimed that Enlightenment rationality alienated people from passion and repressed free diversity. Following up on this indictment of Enlightenment ideas as an ideology of powerful interests is M.C. Jacobs' recent The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (1981). Ideologically, for example, Newton's law-endowed cosmos could support a variety of interests or could just as easily be rejected if inconvenient to such republican radicals as Toland.
Yet the Enlightenment ideologues, contra Lucien Goldmann's The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, did not serve as champions of laissez-faire individualism or of “bourgeois ideology in the transition from feudalism to capitalism.” Robert Darnton's studies of Diderot's and d'Alembert's Encyclopedie, The Business of Enlightenment (1970) and Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (1968) show that there was “not one but many Enlightenments, high and low, patrician and plebeian, salon and street-corner.” Likewise, the variety of forms the Enlightenment took in various countries is emphasized in Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich's The Enlightenment in National Context (1981) and Henry May's The Enlightenment in America. Additional sources of bibliography for the Enlightenment are given in a concluding note.
Antifederalism: Country vs. Court
“Country, Court and Constitution: Antifederalism and the Historians.” The William and Mary Quarterly 38 (July 1981): 337–368.
The historiography of Revolutionary America reflects the difficulties scholars have experienced in classifying one of the period's most conspicuous groups of losers: the Antifederalists. Historians writing between the beginning of the present century and World War II, the so-called “Progresive” historians, confidently differentiated the Antifederalists from their opponents: Antifederalists were rustic, democratic levelers opposed by merchant capitalists (the Federalists), some of whom had been loyalists. The contestants were cast in sharp relief. They could not be confused.
In the years after World War II, the thrust of historical writings changed in the direction of minimizing the differences between Federalists and Antifederalists, seeing a remarkable “consensus” between the two groups. Far from being simple, shirt-sleeved democrats, the Antifederalists were described as holding political ideas similar to those of their antagonists. Instead of being debt-ridden, subsistence farmers, they were found to contain in their ranks speculators in the capital markets, sophisticated and unscrupulous enough to match the Federalists at their best and worst.
In the first part of his article, Prof. Hutson details the bewildering array of theories propounded to contrast both the political position and socio-economic level of the Antifederalists with those of their opponents. Hutson then proposes what he feels to be the most likely categories to fit these two hitherto unclassifiable groups of antagonists.
The real distinction between the two groups, he asserts, may be found in the words “Country” and “Court,” terms first coined to identify political groupings in Great Britain. “Country” is an ancient name, dating at least from the fourteenth century. By the beginning of Charles I's reign, it had acquired the basic meaning which it retained through the next two centuries: opposition to the exercise of power by government. The adversary of the Country was the “Court,” the collective designation of the monarch, his residence, council, officials, and courtiers. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the terms became more closely identified with contrasting socio-economic groups.
The Court Whigs were patrons not only of commerce but of strong government to secure the new commercial-bureaucratic society then forming. If the Court faction enlisted the beneficiaries of the socio-economic changes occurring in England, the Country rallied its victims. Bearing the brunt of the growing national debt, the landed interests believed that they were being fleeced by the government—that a deliberate policy of income redistribution was underway by which rural wealth was being syphoned into the pockets of city financiers and speculators.
Significantly, both Court and Country shared misgivings about democracy. Both sides agreed that power, being dangerously progressive in nature, should be jealously watched and feared. Both fervently believed in the merits of England's mixed, balanced constitution. Where they differed was in the emphasis on the implementation of their common convictions. The Court, for example, insisted that the balance of the constitution was to be maintained by interdependence between the executive and the House of Commons. The Country claimed that nothing less than the absolute independence of the House of Commons from the executive would do.
In America, the Federalists recognizably fit the Court mold, while the Antifederalists continued the Country tradition. Sharing a common commitment to the limitation of government power, the Antifederalists went far beyond the Federalists in their zeal to root out influence and corruption. The Federalists, on the other hand, found their opponents' suspicions of government power almost pathological. Antifederalist supporters tended, by and large, to be older than their political opposites. As such, they primarily represented the older agrarian-localist stratum of American society, while the Federalists represented the rising “monied interests.”
Prof. Hutson finds in the early disputes over the Constitution a startling replay of the Country and Court debates in England a century before. By applying this model to the United States, he believes, we may finally comprehend and indeed reconcile the conflicting contributions of the Progressive and consensus historians on the Federalist-Antifederalist question.
Tom Paine, Bourgeois Radical Democrat
“Tom Paine: Radical Democrat.” Democracy 1 (January 1981): 127–138.
Alone among the American revolutionary founders of 1776, Tom Paine (1737–1809) was “considered a true democrat—a populist, an egalitarian, a democrat.” In contrast to conservatives and neo-conservatives who see democracy as “problematic,” Paine trusted in the people unfettered by government and thus qualifies as the “first important radical in the American political tradition.” But there are revealing limitations to Paine's world view. His democratic commitment was bound to a liberal framework. “Paine's is a radicalism on the left fringe of the American liberal consensus. But it is a bourgeois radicalism, nonetheless, complete with all the strengths and weaknesses of that tradition.”
Paine enthusiastically rejected the aristocratic world of spendthrift kings and nobility, and he sought to debunk the deceptions and power of “government” which he starkly opposed to the free and natural order of “society,” the harmony of liberal individuals. In doing away with the old trappings of feudal privilege, Paine crusaded to aid the productive poor, the old, and those needing public education. Paine's radical egalitarianism was not protosocialism; in the name of talent, merit, and productive work, it was bound up with the interests of bourgeois liberalism, the principal doctrine behind the assault on the old regime's aristocratic privileges.
Paine's political theory was “vintage liberalism” in assuming the absence of cooperation and fellowship in the political arena. Government had no positive agency to promote justice or virtue; at best, it could preside as an umpire over a world where individualism was the central value. Along with his entrepreneurial friends — the Wedgewoods and the Arkwrights — Paine favored equal opportunity in a competitive individualistic society rather than a political leveling to achieve equal results. Individualist society and its economic institutions were benevolent, free, and productive in marked contrast to the taxing and coercive tyranny of government and its ally, the established Church. In America Paine glimpsed a liberal utopia in which civil society had triumphed over government. “Traditional republican doctrine is turned on its head; self-serving individuals further the common good, and public government serves its own selfish and corrupt interest.”
That government power might serve less abusive ends could not occur to individualistic liberals like Paine. The connection of power, community, and freedom could come only with democratic theorists like Rousseau. Paine was trapped by the limitations of liberal social theory and competitive individualism from seeing nongovernmental threats to freedom, equality, and democracy. We should never forget, despite Paine's limitations, his passionate and radical opposition to privilege.
Economic Peace vs. People's Peace
“Peace vs. Development.” Democracy 2 (January 1982): 53–60.
Peace has a different meaning for each epoch and for each cultural area. Centralized political, economic, and military leaders emphasize “peacekeeping”; on the margin, people, however, hope to be “left in peace.” Illich's thesis holds that under the cover of economic “development,” a “worldwide war has been waged against people's peace.” The principal condition for people to recover their peace is to set limits to economic development.
Each ethnos (people or culture) has been symbolically mirrored by its own ethos—myth, law, goddess, ideal—of peace. The Jewish word for peace—shalom—connotes a benevolent grace flowing from a benevolent source; whereas Roman peace—pax—is an invasive, coercive ordering from an impersonal source. Other cultures have similarly distinct notions of peace which cannot be transferred without violence. In contrast to historians of power, the new historians of peace must appreciate how culturally, historically, and ethnologically distinct is each people's need to be “left in peace.”
We have to contrast popular or “people's peace” with the pax economica of development: the positivist assumption of economists that values are not worth protecting unless they are scarce, measurable, and exchangeable commodities. Development economics represents violence against subsistence-oriented cultures and compells their involuntary integration into an economic system that worships “scarcity,” or dependence on goods and services perceived as scarce. Economic development inevitably imposes pax economica at the cost of every form of popular peace in which people would have preferred to engage in subsistence activities outside the network of production and circulation of unwanted commodities.
The violent pax economica which displaced people's peace assumed its shape at the end of the European Middle Ages. In the twelfth century, pax did not mean the absence of war between lords but rather security of the monk and the poor together with their means of subsistence from the violence of war (Gottesfrieden and Landfrieden). This primarily subsistence-oriented meaning of peace was lost with the Renaissance.
The rise of the nation-state ushered in a new kind of peace and violence. Now the people's subsistence itself became the victim of a supposedly “peaceful” aggression. An abstraction—homo economicus—replaced real communities and a new pax economica served a universal man who lived on the consumption of commodities produced elsewhere. Pax economica first assumed that local people could not provide for themselves. This new peace empowered a new elite to make all peoples' survival dependent on their access to education, police protection, and supermarkets. It exalted the producer and labelled the consumer or subsistent as asocial and unproductive. Next, pax economica assaulted the commons and the environment as a commodity for exploitation. Thirdly, pax economica through inter-changeable wage labor broke down the pre-industrial distinction between men and women—as if homo economicus were a genderless human.
Pax economica coerces all to become players in its game. “Those who refuse to fit the ruling model are either banished as enemies of the peace, or educated until they conform.” This monopoly game of economic development must be challenged by authentic peace research.
Indian Freedom & the American Revolution
“Liberty: The Indian Contribution to the American Revolution.” The Midwest Quarterly 23 (Spring 1981):279–298.
In 1791, the French writer Chateaubri and speculated on the relationship between the presence of Indians and the rise of the revolutionary doctrine of liberty espoused by the American colonists. In his view, there were two forms of liberty: a youthful liberty springing from manners and a mature liberty springing from knowledge. Chateaubriand praised America because, in that land, the mature, rational version of freedom had come to replace the Indian form. Yet, he felt that the continued presence of Indian liberty was the most compelling reason to hope that the mature form would thrive. For Chateaubriand, Indian liberty was a necessary but not a sufficient condition of the freedom of the American nation.
Of course, Indian societies were not as free and irresponsible as early observers judged them to be. Indian society was highly structured with universal kinship obligations. Nonetheless, the meaning of the key Revolutionary concept of “liberty” turned in large part upon the unfettered image held by both sides of Indian freedom. To the British, the Indian was a manifestation of the evils of democracy; to Americans, the Indian way of life symbolized freedom and individualism.
Patriots donned Indian masks at the Boston Tea Party primarily because Indians represented the type of freedom that allowed for revolt against the established political order. The famous frontier soldier, Robert Rogers, told a London audience a decade before the Revolution that: “In short, the great and fundamental principles of their (Indians') policy are that every man is naturally free and independent; that no one or more on earth has any right to deprive him of his freedom and independency and that nothing can be a compensation for the loss of it.”
The image of the Indian as a free man was complicated by the fact that his liberty was, for so many of the literate genteel generation of '76, a “savage” freedom, a freedom opposed to what most colonial thinkers considered as “civilization.” Nonetheless, the strong attraction of Indian culture to less refined colonials led to many of them becoming “indianized”—wholly or partially adopting Indian customs.
Indian captives, European spouses of Indians, as well as frontiersmen having close contact with the tribes experienced the extraordinary appeal of Indian life. It was an important truism among colonial thinkers that whites brought up in an Indian environment almost never could be induced to leave it, whereas Indians brought up in a white environment could almost never be induced to remain.
The colonists' taste for the unlimited freedom of the woods intensified their already strong love for liberty. The over-whelming desire for freedom caused some frontiersmen to resent even the light control exercised over them by British authorities. This shirking of all limits evoked the opposite reaction among other frontiersmen, who fought the same British authorities because they did not exercise enough control over “wild” frontier elements.
The wild, radical elements among colonials were clearly not inspired by the libertarian, philosophical principles enunciated by, say, a Locke or a Tom Paine. Their spirit may, in part, be explained by the empty, untamed milieu in which they settled. Along with a wild, untamed environment, therefore, assimilation of independent Indian mores contributed significantly to the formation of the grass-roots colonial spirit, a spirit which largely despised the constraints of European civilization. The fact of Indian influence upon the colonies was apparent even to Englishmen, one of whom wrote in 1776: “The darling passion of the American is liberty and that in its fullest extent; nor is it the original natives to whom this passion is confined; our colonists sent thither seem to have imbibed the same principles.”