Originally posted at the Scholar’s Stage, 15 September 2013.
| “The Freedman”
John Quincy Adam Ward. 1863. Displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is a truism long accepted. I do not question the general truth this phrase attempts to convey, but I sometimes find it obscures more than it reveals. Men on opposing lines of battle may both fight in the name of freedom yet be fighting for very different things. “Freedom” comes in all shapes and sizes; when a Pashtun elder uses a word like freedom he may not be thinking anything close to the thoughts expressed at the average American Independence Day parade.
The freedom fighters of the American revolution fought in the name of liberty. The liberty they battled for came in two distinct flavors, each reflecting an esteemed political tradition inherited from their brothers across the sea. The first is the classical liberal tradition; the second the classical republican. In many ways the political history of the republic they founded was an attempt to reconcile these two traditions. 
In the 21st century the word ‘liberal’ is used in odd ways. For Americans it has become associated with multiculturalism, the welfare state, and progressive social policy. This is not the type of liberalism here referred to. Instead we speak of the old fashioned, classical liberal, proto-libertarian, John Locke type liberalism.
I am not a liberal. I like those folks, but I am not one of them and I find their central contribution to theories of freedom – the idea of natural or civil ‘rights’ and the ‘negative liberty’ they imply – less useful and easily manipulated by those in power. The problem is not that ‘rights’ are a meaningless concept or that they should not be protected from violation. Men and women do have rights that deserve to be protected. But a political philosophy fashioned for this purpose is a brittle construction. It looks well in the cloudy realm of philosophers and theoreticians, but crumbles once it contacts the tangible world of people and their politicking.
If you fight for rights then rights will be given – but at what cost and to what purpose? Those who try to live these theories forget the world they live in. Neither the abstract theoretician listing his liberties or the starry eyed idealist crusading for his rights will find comfort in the cold halls of power. It is not their domain, and here the trouble lies. It is just too easy to get these searchers to trade power for the siren promise of rights, never realizing that once their power is gone there is nothing but the good will of those higher up to ensure those rights remain honored and unviolated.
I find myself much more comfortable with the republicans. I do not mean the current monstrosity of a party that bears the name, but the old fashioned, classical, James Madison type republicans. Their great virtue was independence – autonomy, the ability of self governing men in self governing communities to govern themselves. In this view the fundamental building blocks of society are not individuals but families; the goal is not to protect an individual’s ability to choose unobstructed from government, but to empower individuals and their families so that they have the capacity to make real choices in the first place. They recognize that talk of liberty is really just talk of power, and that you cannot have one without the other. Only when power is decentralized – so that families and communities can solve their own problems without relying on their betters and can successfully resist actions imposed on them by others – is real liberty possible. Rights come from freedom; freedom does not come from rights.
Some may wonder if America is growing more or less free. I advise all who try to answer this question to remember the distinction between independence and rights.
Independence? American families, communities, and citizens have grown far less independent with time. Their ability to rely on themselves to solve their own problems has decreased. Their ability to resist and challenge the powers that be has likewise decreased. They have become true liberal individuals – isolated cogs in a great international machine.
Rights? Some individual liberties have increased. Others have not. Which is to be expected. Absent the power to defend and define one’s own freedom, rights and liberties are simply gifts from the machine. One should expect them to change with the whims of those manning the control panel.
 The two main intellectual histories of this period each emphasize a different tradition. See Bernard Baiylin, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press). 1992. Gordon S Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. (University of North Carolina Press). 1998.
8 thoughts on “Independence and Rights”
“The phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is a truism long accepted”: and yet it’s utter drivel, a confusion of ends and means. A freedom fighter is defined by what he is fighting for (or claims to be fighting for), a terrorist by his tactics. You can be one, or both, or neither. For example John Brown, of whom Americans used to sing, was clearly both a freedom fighter and a terrorist.
So what were the worst excesses of the American Revolutionaries that could be considered “terrorism” in modern usage?
The rebels would tar and feather agents of the king and his worst Tory sympathizers. They rioted and burned the property of those agents and Tories. These actions were directed at individuals and/or property (Tea Party?) and not at random populations. They might have done worst to Indian populations that fought as tribes allied to the king but I can’t offer specific examples.
Anyone else with examples of terrorism during the Revolution?
I partly understand what you’re getting at, I think, but I’m afraid this post is something of a rhetorical muddle. That usually means that the author is in an intellectual muddle, in my experience.
Well said. So far, so good.
Huh? If you’re trying to somehow claim powerlessness and social disconnection as a natural consequence of the classical liberal tradition or the idea of negative rights, then you’ve got a lot of explaining and position-defending to do. Just stating it as fact is absurd, especially on this site. I’m sure it made sense to you when you wrote it, but from this angle it’s borderline gibberish. In fact, if you disconnect that quote from the rest of the post, it sounds like standard leftist pseudo-spiritual blather.
Anyone else with examples of terrorism during the Revolution?
war is terrorism dude.
Thank you all for the comments.
First off- I do not take the phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” seriously, for the reasons Dearieme states in his/her comment. I do find the general truth it tries to convey – that one man’s hero is another man’s villain – to be true. But as the rest of the post points out, two self declared “freedom fighters” can be fighting for two very different things.
Second- I found this objection interesting:
Nah. Not nearly as complicated as you are making it out to be.
Powerlessness and social disconnection are not the natural consequence of negative rights. But neither is power and social cohesion. Sometimes they are correlated, but they don’t have to be. The state can leave many negative rights of the people unviolated while also making the people more dependent on the state at the same time. Their rights thus become a gift, enjoyed only because their betters allow it. If the folks up top later decide to violate their rights then those dependent on them really don’t have a choice to do anything but suffer through it.
Or to make this more concrete – a tyrant with total control can allow his subjects freedom of worship. He can allow them freedom to trade without regulations. He could allow them freedom to marry someone of their same sex, or he could allow them freedom to watch any television show they want. But he is still the one who allows. If the people cannot participate in making decisions or contest decisions made then they are not citizens but subjects – no matter how many rights they may still enjoy.
So no, powerlessness is not the natural consequence of negative rights. But if you focus so much on the latter that you entirely forget the former….. well, you get something not too different from what we have now, where hordes will march into the streets in favor of ‘gay rights’ or whatever other liberty is flavor of the moment but utterly ignore the fact that their victories came not from the strength of the people, but from executive or judicial fiat.
Well, there’s the claim that George III resorted to terrorism via “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.”
‘Terrorists’. Back in the days before WW2 we called them ‘outlaws’ because they were people who no longer were protected by the law. They were outside the law and therefore fair game. A popular term aroung 1900 was ‘anarchist’.
‘Terrorists’ like to be called terrorists because they can behave like outlaws but still be protected by the law. To them it is the ultimate joke on a society that no longer deserves to exist.
Interesting post. Much political debate is about labels, or begs questions by labeling and then extrapolating from the labels. There is something to be said for first defining goals and then trying to figure out the best ways to achieve them.
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