Types of Liberty

I just published a flock of posts at my own site and have sought advice what to publish here. Interestingly, one of my earliest posts was suggested. I had reviewed it in December 2019, doing the countdown of my posts at Assistant Village Idiot that had received the most traffic. This was #6 all-time, but had little commentary. I think some of the themes are a propos.

We are now into territory of posts that have 5,000 hits or more, which is darn good for me.  This is from February 2006, one of my first two hundred posts.  I think a few of you will like the topic. I don’t know who has been reading it over the years, as there haven’t been commenters.


A post from last week over at the excellent Albion’s Seedlings reminded me of a topic I had intended to post on weeks ago: the varieties of meaning of the word “liberty” in the American Colonies from the time of founding to independence.

We think we mean the same thing when we use a word, but this is not often so, especially with large abstracts like kindness, or community. While the concepts of liberty converged somewhat leading up to the Revolution, they sprang from at least four different concepts, associated with the four distinct areas of settlement.

These founding folkways, and much else besides, led to quite distinct, and often diametrically opposed, ideas about liberty. David Hackett Fischer calls the New England idea “ordered liberty” (freedom to determine the course of one’s own society), at worst exemplified in the stifling, moralistic conformism that we still associate with the word “Puritan”, at best in the strong town-based democracies (and suspicion of anything but local power) still evident in parts of northern New England.

The Virginia idea was that of “hegemonic liberty” (freedom to rule and not be ruled), at worst exemplified in the hierarchical “Slaveocracy” that valued freedom for those at the top but not for poor white trash or black slaves, at best in the aristocratic excellence of men such as George Washington.

The Quaker idea was that of “reciprocal liberty” (freedom for me and for thou), at worst exemplified in the pacifistic pursuit of commerce without regard for nation or principle, at best in a quite modern-sounding respect for all human beings to pursue their own fulfillment.

The frontier idea was that of “natural liberty” (a freedom without restraints of law or custom), at worst exemplified in the violent and often-emotionalistic chaos of life beyond the reach of civilized norms, at best in eternal vigilance with regard to the sovereignty of the individual.

Frontier in the above means the Appalachian areas settled by the Scots-Irish and English Borderers throughout the middle of the 18th C. Quaker refers not only to the settling of Pennsylvania in the late 17th C, but the other mid-Atlantic states as well. The overall concept is taken from Fischer’s marvellous Albion’s Seed, which traces the founding of the American regions back to distinctive regions of Great Britain.

New England — ordered liberty — freedom to determine the course of one’s own society. I touched on this two weeks ago. It is close to the idea of Christian Community and consensus living. A modern equivalent would be an environmentalist community which would agree to bind itself to certain principles of organic farming. The individual would not have liberty to do as he pleases in pesticides and fertilizer, but would adhere to group norms, so that all other members could have food free of taint. The European aspirations come closest to this model.

Virginia — hegemonic liberty — freedom to rule and not be ruled. The right of the few to achieve enormous freedom — by birth, merit, or assignment — is preserved, even at the expense of the many. Americans rebel against such an equality being granted by birth into nobility — but many conservatives are fine with it occurring by merit. Whether justified or no, this is the stereotype of conservatives that liberals rail against.

Mid-Atlantic — reciprocal liberty — freedom for me and for thee. This is some midpoint between the two above. “I will consent to give up some freedoms, but no one shall force me to give up others.”

Appalachia — natural liberty — freedom without restraints of law or custom. This would be closer to a libertarian (or hyper-libertarian) framing. The freedom of the individual trumps even local control. Think Alaska.

5 thoughts on “Types of Liberty”

  1. Albion’s Seed was a bit of a grind at time, but a fascinating read nonetheless. Before reading it I had been unaware that the English/Brits were such a diverse group.

    It seems that the Puritanical ordered liberty has merged with hegemonic liberty among the elites in government while the Depolorables are in the reciprocal and natural camp.

  2. Another, broader look at the origins of culture in North America can be found in “American Nations”, by Colin Woodard. To the British influence above, Woodard adds the French (Quebec and Louisianna), Spanish and Dutch (New York City and environs). He also draws a distinction between the Cavalier origins of Virginia and the Deep South (Charleston), which he traces to the sugar plantations of Barbados. Worth reading.

    Extending this to the concept of liberty I would make these distinctions :

    1) The Dutch New York view is one of tolerance as an economic virtue – do what you like, as long as you pay. I would actually put at least the intellectual strain of Libertarianism here, rather than Appalachia.
    2) The Quaker vision of absolute freedom of conscience, with a strong dose of pacifism.
    3) Appalachia has its origins in the Borders culture of the Scottish/English borderlands. Clannish and violent, prone to feuds and largely dismissive of outsiders. I would describe it more as isolationist than libertarian, and is the foundation of the Jacksonian strain in America (to bring in another line of thought).
    4) The Deep South/Cavalier distinction is more one of flavors. The Cavaliers were emigres, fleeing the English Civil War, and had an English Country Squire view of ordered liberty. A softer flavor of the raw hegemonic liberty of the Deep South, which was from the beginning built on slavery and domination, exported whole from the sugar islands.

    New England is New England, nothing to quibble about there.

    I do agree though, that the range of concepts that fall somehow under the word “liberty” is rather astonishing. In many ways, the true miracle of the American founding is the Constitution, not the Revolution, as it was the Constitution that found a way, however imperfectly, to bring together such wildly divergent cultures. This is why federalism is a necessary principle in the American system.

  3. He also draws a distinction between the Cavalier origins of Virginia and the Deep South (Charleston), which he traces to the sugar plantations of Barbados

    You can see the difference in their declarations of secession. South Carolina’s rage and indignation are evident at what they see as fanatical betrayal by the North.

    Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States… Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.

    Virginia, on the other hand, is more magisterial, as if they were resigned by the facts to no other course.

    The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.

  4. “… hegemonic liberty — freedom to rule and not be ruled. The right of the few to achieve enormous freedom — by birth, merit, or assignment — is preserved, even at the expense of the many.”

    That sounds rather like the ethos of the top echelons of today’s Democrat Party — one law for the Clintons, another for everyone else. Feudalism might be a better description than liberty. The right kind of people are given fiefdoms, but they have to kiss the ring of the Big Man. Feudalism works for the Democrats when the Big Man is one of theirs – an Obama or a Bush. But an outsider like President Trump is not the right kind of Big Man, and so he finds himself like King John facing the nobles with their self-serving Magna Carta.

    Slavery was not the only poisoned chalice the English dumped on the Americas.

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