Competing views of liberty

5 Aug

It wasn’t long after the American Revolution that France experienced a Revolution of its own.

At first, many American pastors seemed to welcome the French Revolution. One of the reasons being, they thought it meant the defeat of Catholicism. But, as they came to better to understand what was happening in France, their attitude changed. Though the French were fighting for freedom, they saw the kind of freedom they were fighting for as something entirely different than the freedom they were seeking in America.

In his book, A Field of Divine Wonders, David Kling explains, “Liberty, as Americans knew from their own experience, meant many things, and it was imperative for the survival of the Republic that they get it right. Dwight was quick to point out that the ‘liberty of the Infidels was not the liberty of New England.’ What was the difference? On the one hand, the person who embraced the liberty of the infidels was ‘a mere beast of prey.’ Infidel liberty was ‘licentiousness,…the spring of continual alarm, bondage, and misery.’ On the other hand, the true liberty of the American republic was characterized by restraint, ‘by equitable laws, by the religion of the Scriptures.’ This kind of liberty was ‘far less burdensome and distressing than the boasted freedom of the Infidels.”

He continues,

“True liberty was restrained liberty, by which citizens understood ‘the perfect consistency of being free and being governed.’ Enlightened political leaders, steeped in classical authors and in seventeenth-century English and radical Whig political theorists, and evangelical Calvinists immersed in Scripture, while drawing their views from different sources, reached similar conclusions. Together they embraced the classical republican definition of liberty. The New Divinity contributed to the larger national debate that raged in the 1790s over competing visions of liberty. How was the nation to interpret republican ideals? All agreed that liberty was the prized possession of the people. But according to the classic republican view, the will of the people was not ‘every man doing that which was right in his own eyes,’ but the expression of virtuous behavior. Liberty was ultimately grounded in virtue, the willingness of individuals to sacrifice selfish desires for the good of the community. A more liberal, Lockean conception of liberty clashed with this conservative, classical view. ‘Instrumental, utilitarian, individualistic, egalitarian, abstract, and rational, the liberal view of liberty,’notes Joyce Appelby, ‘was everything that the classical republican concept was not.”

I wonder, some two hundred years later, in the average American’s mind, which view of liberty do you think has won? Has the American revolution become the French one?

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