Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Give Me Liberty Or..., A Short Think-Piece?

Wow! This blog features article by a pair of David Reynolds (not related) today! Talk about Googlegängers! David (NMI) Reynolds offers a meditation on "Liberty" — that elastic concept that drives the Dumbo rage at Tea Bag rallies as well as those who revere the words: "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." What do we mean when we say "LIberty"? If this is (fair & balanced) libophilism, so be it.

[x HNN]
What After All Do Americans Mean When They Say They Love "Liberty"?
By David Reynolds

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“Liberty” is stitched into the fabric of U.S. history, from Patrick Henry’s cry “Give me liberty or give me death” to George W. Bush’s assertion that liberty is “the plan of heaven for humanity.” But is “liberty” anything more than an American political slogan? As a British historian, writing a book about the sweep of American history, I have been reflecting on these questions. Here are a few thoughts, from a transatlantic perspective.

When Thomas Jefferson in the 1800s famously envisioned the United States as a “great empire of liberty,” he saw no contradiction in two terms that today, for us, stand in tension. This was because he understood “empire” as a loose collection of smaller, self-governing polities, whose greatness would lie both in their geographical spread and also in their respect for local liberties. This was the conception of the new United States that he would champion against Hamiltonianism, real and imagined, a conception based on a negative concept of liberty as freedom from federal government interference.

The conventional narrative of American political history takes us from this negative conception of liberty in the era of the Founders to a positive conception affirming in the later twentieth century the duty and necessity of federal intervention. Milestones in this narrative include the struggle over states rights and secession culminating in the Civil War, the enlarged role of the Federal Government during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt in response to the Depression and World War Two, and the belated federal enforcement of civil rights in the “Second Reconstruction” of the 1960s. Yet the “massive resistance” in the Deep South to this intrusion and, more recently, the current debate about President Obama’s health care plans are reminders that, for millions of Americans, “liberty” is still essentially negative, meaning “freedom from” something rather than “empowerment to do” something.

Alongside this widely shared, if contested, liberal narrative about the trajectory from negative to positive liberty, one finds darker interpretations of America’s story. Recent work on the history of race relations has underlined the centrality of slavery to America’s development. In a country where, compared with Europe, labor was scarce and land abundant, slaves were regarded as indispensable for cultivating cotton and other lucrative cash crops for the transatlantic market. Curtailing the basic freedoms of black people, in a society that so valued the autonomous free man, also raised questions about their full stature as human beings. The persistence of such racist stereotypes underpinned the denial of full civil rights for black Americans in the twentieth century. Slavery and its legacies have therefore been fundamental to American history: for a country “conceived in liberty,” as Lincoln put it, slavery was the original sin. Hence the almost messianic reaction to the election of Barack Obama as the country’s first “black” president.

The polarity of liberty and slavery is so deeply rooted in the discourse of U.S. politics that it was carried over into the rhetoric of the Cold War. For instance, NSC-68, the celebrated national security blueprint of 1950, spoke of a “basic conflict between the idea of freedom under a government of laws, and the idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin.” Back in the 1850s Lincoln had described his country as “half-slave” and “half-free,” predicting that it could not continue in that half-and-half state indefinitely: one side would eventually make the other conform to its values. Now, a century later, American Cold Warriors such as Paul Nitze, principal author of NSC-68, were inscribing Lincoln’s design onto a global plane. These convictions help explain why American right-wingers denounced “dĂ©tente” in the 1970s as coexistence with the devil and, unlike most policymakers in Europe, looked to the eventual collapse of what Reagan called the “evil empire” as the only acceptable denouement of the Cold War.

Of course, apologists for the Soviet bloc claimed that it actually stood for essential human liberties. These claims are usually dismissed as Cold War propaganda but they remind us the complexity of “liberty.” In the United States, drawing on its intellectual heritage from seventeenth-century England, the term has been understood primarily in a political sense. The freedoms that are privileged in U.S. history and law, not least by the Bill of Rights in 1791, relate to voting, assembly, worship, free speech and the like. In 1944 FDR argued that Depression and War had shown that “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence” but his call for a “second Bill of Rights” got nowhere. By contrast, economic and social rights such as employment, housing and health care were fundamental in the new post-war communist states of Eastern Europe, albeit at the expense of political freedoms. In other words, each side in the Cold War cherry-picked from the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to suit its ideological orientation. The United States emerged victorious from this global confrontation, which many triumphalists took as vindication of the American way, but the limits of its definition of liberty still matter, as current debates about health care show.

Yet transatlantic comparison suggests another, more affirmative point about the United States as the land of liberty. The recent historiography on slavery and immigration has stripped away many of the comfortable patriotic nostrums about “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The forced labor of slaves and the squalid exploitation of immigrants were integral to America’s economic development yet, for free immigrants at least, the United States did offer real opportunities compared with Europe. In the 1900s, the German social commentator Werner Sombart attributed the weakness of socialism in the United States, at a time when it was taking off in much of Europe, to the higher American standard of living. “All Socialist utopias,” he stated gloomily, “came to nothing on roast beef and apple pie.” Although painting too rosy a picture of American life, certainly for many first-generation immigrants, Sombart had caught something important. The United States did enjoy higher rates of social mobility, in large part because of its greater geographical mobility: the movement of people from city slums to streetcar suburbs and on westward into new towns and new lands served as a social escalator for millions, opening up better jobs and the chance to own property in ways unparalleled in Europe or, for later immigrants, in South America and East Asia.

A short think-piece like this can only scratch the surface but it may suggest why the elastic concept of “liberty” has remain so potent in the American experience, both as a political slogan and also as historical reality. Ω

[David Reynolds is the Professor of International History at Cambridge University and a Fellow of the British Academy. Reynolds studied at Cambridge (BA) and Harvard (PhD) Universities and has been a regular visitor to the United States since first going there as a graduate student in 1973. He has held visiting posts at Harvard, Nebraska and Oklahoma, as well as at Nihon University in Tokyo. His most recent book is America, Empire of Liberty: A New History of the United States (2009).]

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