Becoming a Free People Again

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)

Is there anyone, liberal or conservative, who thinks that things are actually getting better in America or in the West? Does anyone believe that we are becoming a freer people or a freer society? The ACLU agitates for the right of Muslim radicals to not be wiretapped, but the rest of us are oppressed by intrusive security checks at airports which would be unnecessary if it were not for the presence of those Muslims in our society. An intrusive political correctness suppresses speech by legal as well as extralegal means. Numerous other examples could be cited.

Something is not right here. Perhaps we need to take a look at exactly what we mean by “liberty” and some of our other beloved concepts. 

Russell Kirk’s The Portable Conservative Reader (1982) (1) includes a gem of an essay by James Fenimore Cooper that offers a valuable conservative perspective on these issues. Last week I discussed the early New York community described in Cooper’s novel The Pioneers (1823), and suggested that although American society as embodied in such towns indeed included people of varied background and beliefs, it was held together by an underlying racial, cultural, and religious homogeneity, along with a strong hierarchy of rank and authority represented by the founder and leader of the town, Marmaduke Temple. 

The essay is entitled “On Equality,” from Cooper’s book The American Democrat (1838). Kirk prefaces the piece by explaining that “[t]he modern passion for equality of condition alarmed conservatives on either side of the Atlantic, as both Britain and America moved toward universal suffrage during the 1830s and 1840s.” He continues: “Like Walter Scott, Cooper believed in order, class, and the idea of a gentleman – convictions that run through the historical novels of both writers” (p. 183). In other words, Cooper was a genuine conservative. 

In “On Equality,” Cooper discusses the concepts of “equality” and “liberty” in the context of American democracy and warns against expanding them into ruling principles of society. Rather, they are qualities found within a particular social body and must not be allowed to undermine the order needed for civilization or other essential needs of the community. 

On equality, Cooper writes: 

Equality of condition is incompatible with civilization, and is found only to exist in those communities that are but slightly removed from the savage state. In practice, it can only mean a common misery. (p. 183)

Regarding liberty, he says: 

Liberty, like equality, is a word more used than understood. Perfect and absolute liberty is as incompatible with the existence of society, as equality of condition. It is impracticable in a state of nature even, since, without the protection of the law, the strong would oppress and enslave the weak. We are then to understand by liberty, merely such a state of the social compact as permits the members of a community to lay no more restraints on themselves, than are required by their real necessities, and obvious interests. To this definition may be added, that it is a requisite of liberty, that the body of a nation should retain the power to modify its institutions, as circumstances shall require. (p. 189) 

Cooper’s essay, a beautiful example of balanced and non-ideological conservative reasoning, is an excellent antidote to the unthinking exaltation of “liberty” and “equality” we hear from left and right alike in our liberal society. His particular concern seems to be with excessive expansion of the suffrage, and he implicitly accepts the limits on it prevalent in his day, believing that the non-slave states have taken equality “perhaps, to as great a degree as is practicable.” Incidentally, he gives a very clear statement on why women in his day were denied the vote:

The interests of women being thought to be so identified with those of their male relatives as to become, in a great degree, inseparable, females are, almost generally, excluded from the possession of political rights. There can be no doubt that society is greatly the gainer, by thus excluding one half its members, and the half that is best adapted to give a tone to its domestic happiness, from the strife of parties, and the fierce struggles of political controversies. (p. 185)

(I quote this statement not because I am sure it is correct, but because it shows that our forebears had reasons for excluding women from the suffrage, related to a larger concept of the structure of society and the different roles of men and women within it. They were not just males protecting their own privilege.) 

Cooper denies that equality of civil rights is or should be the aim of American politics: 

Equality is no where laid down as a governing principle of the institutions of the United States, neither the word, nor any inference that can be fairly deduced from its meaning, occurring in the constitution. As respect the states, themselves, the professions of an equality of rights are more clear, and slavery excepted [Cooper appears to take a mildly anti-slavery position], the intention in all their governments is to maintain it as far is practicable, though equality of condition is no where mentioned, all political economists knowing that it is unattainable, if, indeed, it be desirable…. (p. 189)

What is most intriguing to me in Cooper’s discussion is his conception of American freedom and in what respect Americans, in his day, could be said to be freer than the citizens of other nations like France and England. Now, Americans to this day tend to hold the misconception that the freedom of speech and association and privacy we enjoy here is somehow unique in the world; and the same was true in Cooper’s day. He is eager to refute this assumption. To Cooper, the uniqueness of American liberty is not found in the extent of the freedoms enjoyed by individuals, but in the ability of the nation or people as a whole to create their own laws according to their needs. This concept of freedom is very far from the libertarian view argued for by John Wright a few weeks ago in his reply to an article in this blog. Cooper writes: 

The natural disposition of all men being to enjoy a perfect freedom of action, it is a common error to suppose that the nation which possesses the mildest laws, or laws that impose the least personal restraints, is the freest. This opinion is untenable, since the power that concedes this freedom of action, can recall it. Unless it is lodged in the body of the community itself, there is, therefore, no pledge for the continuance of such a liberty. (p. 190) 

What is unique to America, says Cooper, is that the American people (not all individuals, but a properly representative class of individuals) have the power to change unjust laws as a community. For example, in England as well as in America citizens have the right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus, but in England this is a “franchise” granted from above, while in America it exists as a right, “a provision of [a citizen’s] own, against the abuses of ordinances that he had a voice in framing.” However, lest we suppose Cooper is advocating radical democracy, he takes pains to heavily qualify what is meant by majority rule: 

It ought to be impressed on every man’s mind, in letters of brass, “That, in a democracy, the publick has no power that is not expressly conceded by the institutions, and that this power, moreover, is only to be used under the forms prescribed by the constitution. All beyond this, is oppression, when it takes the character of acts, and not unfrequently when it is confined to opinion.” (p. 199) 

Cooper is perhaps more of a libertarian in his decrying of extra-legal social control in American society. 

Although the political liberty of this country is greater than that of nearly every other civilized nation, its personal liberty is said to be less. In other words, men are thought to be more under the control of extra-legal authority, and to defer more to those around them, in pursuing even their lawful and innocent occupations, than almost every other country. (p. 201)

The concept of the freedom of a people to be themselves and to exercise control over their own destiny, is urgently in need of revival. In the United States today, rights belong to individuals and to ethnic and other non-traditional classes of people. However, the founding people of the United States – the ones I call heritage Americans – are unfree to determine basic policies affecting their future and very existence. Consider the matter of our out-of-control population growth, discussed recently by Rick Darby here and by Brenda Walker here. Now, there cannot be anyone, speaking as an individual citizen, who will seriously claim that population growth (even putting aside ethnic matters) is anything but a liability for our country. Indeed the consequences may well be catastrophic. 

So why does the immigration, which fuels most of the growth, continue? Because individual businesses profit from growth; because government welfare organizations and liberal churches and ESL teachers exist to serve their needy wards; because Indian and Chinese and Hispanic immigrants, as individuals, want to bring more of their friends and relatives to this country and are granted the right to do so. (Think about that! They have a right that regular Americans don’t have, because those of us born and raised in America have no relatives abroad who can be brought here for “family reunification.”) And without a national right to self-determination, individual rights are diminished in value – as I said rather hyperbolically recently when I stated that “freedom of speech becomes worthless.” Not worthless, of course. But not nearly enough. The train continues to roll towards the tunnel from which it will never emerge. 

Individual liberty is vital. But it is not enough. We need to reclaim our freedom as a people. Which must start with recognizing our identity as a people. 


(1) Russell Kirk, The Portable Conservative Reader, New York: Penguin Books, 1982.


4 Responses to Becoming a Free People Again

  1. Terry Morris says:

    Another great post, Stephen. Very impressive.

    This concept of a “collective liberty,” something that libertarians claim simply does not and cannot exist under any circumstances, is embodied in our founding documents — We the People, in order to form a more perfect union, in order to establish justice, in order to ensure domestic tranquility, in order to provide for the common defense, and so on. Also there’s this idea floating around libertarian circles that the idea of a higher good or higher collective purpose is illegitimate and incompatible with liberty. But as I’ve pointed out to them before, libertarians believe in a higher good. If they didn’t they wouldn’t advocate libertarian ideology as the best good for everyone; the ruling principle for society. So in reality everyone, including libertarians, advocates a “higher good,” we just disagree on what that “higher good” is and how to achieve it.

    I’d have to do some research to get the exact quotes and from whom, but I’ve read before where some of our founders explained why they preferred the word “liberty” over “freedom.” To them the idea of liberty carried with it and implied responsibility, whereas the word freedom implied license. In today’s terms liberty means almost the exact opposite of what the founders deemed it to mean. But our founding documents like the Constitution cannot be properly understood unless we know what the framers meant by these terms.

    But anything can be taken to the extreme, and anything taken to the extreme is bad.

  2. stephenhopewell says:

    Thank you for the encouragement, Terry. Your comments fill out what I was trying to say nicely. The distinction you mention between “liberty” and “freedom” is interesting – maybe you can write more about it sometime.

  3. It’s quite an essay. One finds no chink in it.

  4. stephenhopewell says:

    Thank you, Howard. (I thought this comment went to a different post.)

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