The Revolution in Ideas and Practice That Elevated American Liberty

Ted McAllister and the Liberty Law Forum at Liberty Fund are to be thanked for resurrecting a vitally important but seemingly forgotten, or, at least, neglected topic. The subject of McAllister’s essay is the American tradition of liberty, which he contrasts with perfect or abstract liberty. He asks two important questions: What is distinctive about this American-style liberty, and how does it differ from the liberationist liberty of the modern progressive? For McAllister, American liberty is unique, precious, and worth fighting for.

There is much in McAllister’s essay that I like and agree with. For instance, I very much approve of his Burkean-Tocquevillian-Hayekian analysis of the origins and growth of American liberty. Liberty, rightly understood, was not created by a top-down process imposed on the American people by its intellectuals and politicians, but rather was “forged out of the particular and peculiar experiences of American history, protected and internalized by a panoply of institutions.” This is true, or at least mostly true.

American liberty developed in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries from the bottom-up, i.e., out the interaction between Old World settlers who transported certain elements of British culture and institutions to the New World but then adapted those traditions to their unique circumstances. McAllister is also right to emphasize the important role of “town-creation” in the development of American-style liberty. For two-and-a-half centuries, political power in America was imploded down to the local level, where millions of ordinary Americans developed the institutions and habits of self-government. It was through this process of town-creation—repeated thousands of times between 1607 and the end of the nineteenth century—that social order emerged spontaneously out of liberty’s footprint.

McAllister’s attempt to resurrect this largely forgotten history is laudable and important, but I also think it is incomplete in one important sense. After 1776, American liberty was enhanced and strengthened through a parallel process that elevated the role of ideas in human affairs to a prominent place. As John Adams wrote, the true American Revolution was not the war but the revolution in ideas that took place in America in the years between 1760 and 1775. Those revolutionary ideas—ideas about liberty and justice—were institutionalized in the Revolutionary state constitutions and the federal constitution of 1787.

From the founding period forward, American liberty itself became a philosophy—not an abstract philosophy that floated in the clouds but a philosophy that was translated into the day-to-day practice of ordinary Americans. Let us not forget that the United States of America is the first country in history to have a philosophy and a way of life named after it—“Americanism.” Though conceived in the century before independence, Americanism was born with America’s founding moment. It began, as Alexander Hamilton put it so memorably in Federalist #1, when the American people accepted the challenge “to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” From this point forward, their ideas had political, economic, and social consequences that percolated down and through the culture. As with Hayek (who mysteriously avoided any discussion of the American founding), though, McAllister’s account of American liberty neglects the role that the “founding” played in advancing how Americans experienced and lived out their liberty. In what follows, I’d like to complement McAllister’s history with an important parallel track that helps to complete the story of American liberty.

What is the “ism” in Americanism? Defined most broadly, Americanism is that political philosophy which identifies and defines the way of life and moral character unique to the people of the United States. The Declaration of Independence was the practical and theoretical symbol of this new ideology. It forever associated the American way of life with a social system that recognized, defined, and protected the rights of individuals as sacrosanct. Morally, Americanism insisted that men have a right to be free—free to pursue their individual happiness without the interference of others. Politically, it declared that government should be strictly limited to protecting individual rights, which meant creating a sphere of freedom institutionalized by a separation of church and State, school and State, and economy and State. Economically, it said that individuals should be free to produce and exchange their goods and services free of government control, and that they should be able to keep and/or dispose of their wealth without it being taken by the government. In sum, Americanism meant a principled commitment to freedom.

The ultimate success of the American experiment required that theory be translated into practice. The way of life associated with Americanism was born of a fortuitous meeting between the freedom philosophy of men such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and the actions of men such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Thus the idea of freedom and the experience of life on the frontier played a critical role in creating and defining this uniquely American spirit. The very American way of life that was created when the ideas of the Revolution spread westward through the Cumberland Gap and then lived day-to-day on the frontier can be summed up in another uniquely American concept: the idea of rugged individualism. This distinctively American ethos said that individuals are morally sovereign and that they must be self-starting, self-governing, and self-reliant in order to succeed in life.

Antebellum Americans were a radically independent lot who wanted “no government to regulate their private concerns; to prescribe the course and mete out the profits of industry.” They wanted “no fireside legislators; no executive interference in their workshops and fields.”[1] They wanted, in other words, to be left alone.In America, wrote the nineteenth-century individualist Josiah Warren, “Everyone must feel that he is the supreme arbiter of his own [destiny], that no power on earth shall rise over him, that he is and always shall be sovereign of himself and all relating to his individuality.”[2] The American individualist thought and judged independently; he acted without the permission of others; he did not accept unchosen obligations; he took pride in rarely asking for favors; and he constantly looked for new ways to enhance his life.

As a social philosophy, Americanism heralded the natural aristocracy of ability, inventiveness, daring, and hard work. Life on the frontier unleashed in America’s new-model man a primordial energy that would conquer a broad and wild continent and build a new kind of meritocratic society. The new frontier ethos broke down all the Old World social barriers and hierarchies and replaced them with a social order that judged men not by their birth-place but by their destination. Only in America could a man who came from nothing prove his ability and worth and become a man of accomplishment and wealth. Witness the uniquely American careers of men such as Benjamin Franklin, Davy Crockett, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Abraham Lincoln, James J. Hill, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefellar et al.

The code of rugged individualism was a social fact, not some idealized myth. It began with a man and his axe and a gun. American pioneers did not have AFDC, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, social security, food stamps, public housing, government schools, or Amtrak. Shockingly (at least to us in the 21st century), such men lived their lives free of meddling government officers, inspectors, regulators, teachers, and social workers. They built homes, factories, hospitals, stores, roads, bridges, railroad lines, ships, schools, universities, opera houses, museums and all the other assets of a developing industrial nation without the approval or assistance of government bureaucrats.

The frontier system of natural liberty also fostered a system of natural justice. The basic rule of frontier justice taught men that the world doesn’t owe them a living and that they are responsible for creating their own material and spiritual values. Men and women were individually responsible for finding or making work to earn a living for the present and the future, for providing shelter, food, clothing, and education for their children, and for saving some portion of their income for emergencies and retirement. Such men and women were judged by their ability to produce value for themselves and for others.

Frontier life was hard and sometimes desperate, but it created a new model-man driven by a new moral code. Such a man saw only shame in going to others with his hand out. Likewise, he would have thought it immoral to be forced against his best judgment to help the lazy, the shiftless, the dissolute, the profligate, the promiscuous, and the vicious. Each man and every woman had to carry his or her own weight; they earned their living by productive work; they were responsible for the consequences of their errors; they reaped what they sowed confident that the fruits of their labor would not be taken from them and given to someone else; and their rewards were related to their productivity.

The American creed of rugged individualism did not mean, though, that men lived alienated and crabbed lives in atomistic isolation from one another. This was no anti-social creed that separated men and confined them to their own spiritual cages, as Tocqueville mistakenly suggested. In fact, quite the opposite was true. Freedom produced unparalleled social cooperation and voluntary association. American individualism meant that every man had the right to be independent of others if he so chose or to associate with others on a voluntary basis if he so chose; it meant that every man had a right to produce, trade, and associate with others for mutual benefit. It did not mean that Americans were indifferent or un-neighborly to each other, that they didn’t help each other during times of crisis or distress. In fact, quite the opposite was true. They typically joined private, voluntary associations that built “public goods” that we today consider the special domain of governments—e.g., hospitals, fire departments, nursing homes, asylums, and roads.

During the “Era of Freedom and Enterprise,” Americans demonstrated a remarkably generous spirit of neighborly charity.[3] The rugged individualists of the frontier-era built little platoons of social benevolence all over America. They understood that it was in their rational self-interest to join together with others in order to help their neighbors during emergencies. Mutual-aid societies, fraternal organizations, churches, neighbors, and families took care of the poor and indigent. Private charity, however, was conditional on the recipients working for their assistance. It also demanded that recipients accept certain moral responsibilities, and it made a distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, between those who could not help themselves and those who could. Unlike today, no one was forced to help or serve others, and yet the people of the United States became the most charitable in the history of mankind.

Ironically, it turns out that freedom and the system of self-interest (rightly understood) breeds true kindness, generosity, and friendship. Not surprisingly, the bonds of community in America were the strongest when its citizens were the freest. There was less government in pre-Progressive America and more civil society. Political power was weak but social benevolence was strong.

This is what true freedom looks like. And yes, it’s worth restoring.

[1] William Leggett, “The Reserved Rights of the People,” in Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy, compiled, edited and with a Foreword by Lawrence H. White (Indianapolis, IN: LibertyPress, 1984), 8.

[2] Warren quoted in Arieli, Individualism and Nationalism in American Ideology, 287.

[3] David Beito, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).