All Commentary
Tuesday, May 1, 1962

Individual Liberty In The Crucible Of History: The Foundations of American Liberty

Dr. Carson is Associate Professor of History at Jacksonville State College in Alabama. This is the first of six articles in a series on In­dividual Liberty in the Crucible of History. The second one, “Undermining the Foundations,” appears next month.

There is a growing awareness that we Americans, individually and as a people, have lost our bearings. Some try to still the un­easiness that this awareness arouses by adopting public pos­tures of confidence. Others react by denouncing those who suggest that everything is not just as it should be. Groups are being formed throughout the land that focus on this or that ailment as the source of our troubles. The ex­tremes are represented by the quietism of President Kennedy and the near hysteria of the Minute Men.

Our actual condition may be likened to that of a company of people which, having set out upon a journey, has been lost in a jun­gle. The acknowledged leaders, fearing to divide and frighten the people, refuse to admit they have lost their way. As for the rest, they are divided, and fall roughly into three camps. The first group would have everyone turn back, retracing their steps to the place from whence they had come. The second group favors staying where they are. The situation, they say, is tolerable, and conditions are familiar. The third group, to which the leaders profess to be­long, urges moving on, though none claims to know where such a course would lead. Dangers lie be­hind, for many have seen them and some have fallen victim to them on the way. Ahead lie even more formidable dangers, possibly, and the way is not even marked out. There is considerable inducement for the company to stay where they are, and, despite the bold proclamations of the leaders about pressing on to new frontiers, a disinterested observer would be able to discern little movement, if the milling around be discounted.

This parable, however, does little more than reduce our conditions to a figurative language, in terms of which we may be able to grasp it. It affirms the estimate that we have lost our way. But why are we lost? What is it that we have lost? How is our sense of direction (or purpose) to be restored?

Paths Already Explored


We have already taken some of the false paths out of the wilder­ness. There is no need, for ex­ample, to appoint commissions of men whose sense of reality has been dulled by years of bureau­cratic endeavor, to name national goals. They will, predictably and demonstrably (re: President’s

Commission on National Goals), only rework the tired clichés of a bankrupt “liberalism.” Nor should we turn to the psychologizers who will give us their pet theories about why we think something is wrong. Already men of this ilk are spreading their preconceived ex­planations of the sources of the new conservatism. It would be wiser to follow medical practice and check the physical condition of the patient first before concluding that his ills are psychological. Nor, if we have lost our sense of purpose, as I think, should the contest with the Soviet Union for world influence be substituted for real and vital purposes. It is of little value to affirm that commu­nism conflicts with our way of life if we do not know what that way is.

Unity that forever depends upon external threats of destruction is negative and pointless. If all ene­mies were to disappear, there would be every incentive to invent one, as George Orwell foresaw in 1984. We have followed too long the path of mustering national ac­tion by proclaiming national emergencies. That Presidents should find it necessary to do this simply underscores the loss of di­rection, purpose, and orientation.

Mark well, too, that the cry for leaders and ideologies, which wells up from among us, is the preface o the creation of dictatorships and totalitarian states. Twentieth century Europe has already fol­lowed this broad path to destruc­tion. Must we follow their ex­ample, our eyes closed to the al­ready demonstrated catastrophe which awaits at its end?

There is another way whose out­line has begun to take shape for some of us. Let me describe it first by way of analogy. A man who realizes that he may have lost his way will begin to look for familiar landmarks. If there are none ahead, he does well to turn back and to retrace his steps to the point where he knows he is on the right road. In terms of na­tional purpose, this means a re­turn to foundations. It means that the foundations will have to be un­covered and explored anew, and that plans for action will have to be measured in terms of con­sistency with them.

This is no easy way. There are no guarantees that it will work. No leaders can shoulder the bur­den while we bask in the sunshine of their favor. Yet it accords well with the basic experience of man, and this in itself should commend the course to us.

Indeed, our very terminology implies that retracing our steps is the right course. That we are lost suggests that once we were on the right path. The initial effort, then, should be made to rediscover the way, to return to the point where we went astray. In short, the prob­lem is in part historical. That it should be so is a tremendous ad­vantage. It means that we can uti­lize memory and imagination, ap­pealing to such records as have been kept along the way. This part of the task is one for the historian, which is why I venture to speak.

Return to the Starting Point: Ideals Marked “Liberty”


Let us return first, not to the place where we went astray, but to the point from which we started. The historical course of America was plotted from that point of the compass of our ideals marked Liberty. Our disorienta­tion can only mean that we have wandered, or been led, off this course. The writings of the Found­ing Fathers are replete with ref­erences to liberty as the goal. George Washington did not ex­pect to be gainsaid when he said, in his Farewell Address, “Inter­woven as is the love of liberty, with every ligament of your hearts, no recommendation of mine is necessary to fortify or confirm the attachment.”

All of the major documents of our Revolutionary and early Con­stitutional era are premised on this attachment to liberty. Nor would anyone have thought it possible at that time to found a gov­ernment which would preserve liberty if a time should come when Americans should cease to vener­ate it.

Our quest for foundations, then, will begin and end with an ex­ploration of the foundations of American liberty.

The three basic foundations of our liberty are: (1) beliefs which support it, (2) institutions which protect it, and (3) personal in­dependence without which it is meaningless and impossible.

Let us turn first to the beliefs which support liberty. Liberty is not an end in and of itself. It is not even an ideal in the Platonic sense; that is, it does not rank with Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Justice. Rather, liberty is a con­dition, a means to greater ends, not less but more important for that very reason. Choice is possi­ble among many goals and the several ideals when there is liberty, but without liberty there is no choice. Liberty is the gate­way through which choice is made possible; it is the keystone of the arch of individual fulfillment and social progress.

Those men who conceived and founded these United States must have known something of the deep underlying significance of liberty, but they rarely, if ever, expounded upon it. Much of the thought of the eighteenth century (that thought which informed our insti­tutions and practices) was super­ficial, but it rested upon a pro­found legacy of traditions and beliefs. The Founding Fathers were men of affairs, not philoso­phers, and they did not custom­arily expose the deep roots of their beliefs. Indeed, they felt no need to do so, for they supposed their beliefs to be deeply rooted and secure.

The Need to Learn Again


We are not so happily situated in our times. For us it is necessary to learn again the deep meanings of things which, because they lay beneath the surface of things, have been forgotten. The reverence for liberty can only be reawakened by re-establishing its connection with a reality which gives it vitality.

Liberty was once believed to be a God-given condition. The respect for and observance of it had the force of divine imperative. Think­ers of the eighteenth century con­ceived the matter in this way. God created the universe and all the natural things that are in it. In so doing, he provided natural con­ditions of liberty, thus implicitly setting his seal upon liberty as the proper condition for man.

There are no restraints, only punishments, built into the natural scheme. Thus man is at liberty to ump from a high cliff; but if he does so in violation of natural law, he will likely be punished with a broken neck. Man, in nature, is free, for the simple reason that he is not restrained. This is the liberty with which man is endowed by the “Nature and Nature’s God” to which Jefferson refers in the Declaration of Independence.

Liberty, then, is a natural right based on a condition prior to man. Restraints are tyrannical efforts of man to meddle with the natural (divine) order. Tyranny is a vio­lation of ultimate law; to acquiesce in it is tacitly to participate in the abrogation of divine law.

Open-Ended Liberty


Quite properly, the Founding Fathers did not spell out the spe­cific ends for which liberty exists. They did set forth in the Pream­ble to the Constitution the pur­poses for founding a government, but they did not presume to an­nounce the purpose of life for in­dividuals within it or the goals of the society itself. Had they done so, they would have been setting the stage for some new tyranny which could bend men toward that end. Governments can act only by coercion, whether it be the coercion of the mind by propaganda or the coercion of the body by force. When government acts to realize an ideology—any ideology—it must become totalitarian. It is one thing to have a system of ideas (an ideology, if that hateful word must be used); it is quite another to prescribe that system of ideas for everyone in the society by law.

There is a vast difference be­tween the Declaration of Inde­pendence and the United States Constitution. The Declaration has an explicit ideology while the Con­stitution has none. The first is a revolutionary document, drawn and used primarily for purposes of propaganda. The second is a carefully drawn instrument to pro­vide for the governance of a peo­ple. The Declaration is not now, never was, and never should be­come a part of the law of this land. Everyone should be free to accept its basic premises, as I do, but no one should be compelled to believe anything. The men who founded this country believed that free men should be entrusted with the task of providing for their needs, de­fining their purposes, and devising means to their ends.

Many, perhaps most, Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries believed that the ulti­mate aim of life is the eternal sal­vation of the soul. These United States were founded on the prem­ise that salvation is primarily an individual rather than a social matter. It is individual in that only individual souls survive in eternity, not groups, nor collec­tives, nor states. It is a spiritual condition, and lies beyond the power of the state to grant, with­hold, compel, or require. The most that the state can do is to ac­knowledge that liberty within which each man may use his varied talents, make his own mo­mentous choices, give voice to his particular insights into truth, obey those divine imperatives which fall to his lot, and develop such potentialities as are latent within him.

So far as earthly social goals were concerned, our political pro­genitors believed implicitly that the general welfare would be ad­vanced in conditions of greatest liberty for all. If it were not, each individual would have himself pri­marily to blame. The term general welfare has now been subverted to the ends of welfare statists who have given it the utilitarian con­notation of the greatest good for the greatest number. Yet it would have been inconsistent with the government which they actually created if the Founders had used general welfare in this sense in either the Preamble or elsewhere in the Constitution.

The greatest good for the great­est number envisions government action for interest groups. Yet it is likely that general welfare was conceived individually, not collec­tively, by most men who sat in the Constitutional Convention. And it is possible to conceive of action for the general welfare that is in the interest of each and every in­dividual. For example, it is in the interest of everyone that a mur­derer be apprehended and re­strained. In the interest of the murderer, too? Yes, for if he can­not control himself, he needs to be controlled by others. If he can but will not control himself, he needs to be punished. It is the character of a right action that it is good for those disadvantaged as well as those advantaged by it. It is in the nature of things, too, that if a gov­ernment is to act only in the in­terest of everyone, it will be lim­ited in those actions it can take. This is precisely the position of the Founding Fathers.

Social Progress, a By-Product


Liberty was conceived to be not only individually but also socially beneficent. Social progress is never the justification of liberty (a false trail which some thinkers have taken), but it can be and is a valu­able by-product. Free men will rise or fall on their own merits, prosper or fail as they exert themselves, and give or take as they have wisely used their resources. Free men pay a price for their freedom. They are responsible for their own well-being.

This is true because freedom and responsibility are opposite sides of the same coin. Diminish one by a whit and you reduce the other in the same measure. Thus, when men are free, there are pow­erful incentives to build, create, and invent things that they can sell to or exchange with other men. Progress, then, is an almost inevit­able result of leaving men to their own devices in attracting con­sumers for their products and thus providing for their own needs.

Underlying Premises


Liberty is intellectually unsup­portable without certain other be­liefs. It is premised on freedom of the mind and will. Freedom of the mind means that the mind can rea­son out conclusions, can uncompul­sively examine evidence, can choose among ideas the one that is truest or best supported by evidence. Freedom of the will means the pos­sibility of making uncompelled choices and translating these into corresponding actions.

If man is not free in these senses, he is not responsible for his actions. If he is not responsible for his actions, liberty is an uncon­scionable burden to impose upon man and an unworkable arrange­ment for society. Liberty is prac­ticable only if men can be held accountable for the harm that they do to others. Otherwise, they would have to be constrained from committing their acts, which would mean in effect that there could be no liberty. Moreover, if men are not primarily responsible for their conditions, then inequali­ties cannot be squared with our fundamental sense of justice.

Our forefathers had yet another belief which mightily buttressed individual liberty. They believed that man is distinctly a rational being, that he is capable of sub­ordinating his passions to logic and submitting to it as arbiter. Reason was believed to be both the means by which man came to an understanding of his world and the primary protection individuals have against the aggression of others upon their rights. The in­dividual is powerless against com­binations of men if might rules in the world.

The Rule of Reason


But our ancestors believed that reason, not might, should hold sway in the common affairs of men. As Jefferson put it in his First Inaugural Address, “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred prin­ciple, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable….” Reason, if men will submit to it, is a lever by which the individual can move groups and states to observe his rights and yield to something be­yond either one or many. For note that reason is higher authority, man-possessed but not man-made. Our Republic was contrived in this world, but its foundations lay in one beyond.

The above, then, are the intel­lectual foundations of American liberty: natural law, freedom of the mind and will, individual re­sponsibility, and rationalism. These in turn were given evoca­tive power by the belief that there is a God who imbedded his im­mutable laws in the visible uni­verse, that the individual has a worth not measurable in human terms, that each individual’s good is inseparable from the general welfare, and that liberty is price­less for the individual and socially beneficial.

Institutional Protections


The institutional protections of our liberties were laid down in the early years of the Republic. The individual was protected from his government by enumerations of powers granted and prohibitions aimed at preventing governments from exercising certain forbidden powers. The agents of the govern­ment were limited in their exer­cise of power by the separation of powers.

The populace at large was in­hibited from taking precipitate actions by the representative prin­ciple and by the differing terms of office of those elected. The popu­lace was further limited by mak­ing the judiciary—the final pro­tectors of individual liberty—ap­pointive rather than elective. The federal system of government—a system in which powers are di­vided between the central and local governments—was conceived as a further protection of liberty.

Many of the protections of indi­vidual liberty were not new to the United States; they were pre­served and continued. Such were the right to a writ of habeas cor­pus, the requirement that a man be deprived of his life or liberty only by due process of law, and the right to own and use property. New protections were set forth as well, however: the constitutional prohibitions against bills of attain­der and ex post facto laws, the state disestablishment of churches, the abolition of primogeniture and entail.

Personal independence was for­warded by American conditions and practices. Those virtues by which a man might become inde­pendent were much admired, i. e., thrift, prudence, hard work, fru­gality, and careful husbandry. It was once considered better to do without than to go into debt, and it is ever so that indebtedness increases dependence. The phrase that a male is “a man of his own” may now only evoke memories among older Americans, but it once meant that he had reached the age of twenty-one, was at lib­erty to seek his own well-being, and was responsible for providing for his needs. The family, at its best, encouraged personal independence by maintaining author­ity over those who forsook inde­pendence for its shelter. You could have independence or security, but not both. The community at large venerated self-reliance, individual initiative, personal independence, and individual achievement.

These were the primary founda­tions of American liberty.





The first question asked is, “What!

Would you allow a thoughtless col­lier to light his pipe in the work­ings?” or, “Would you let the rail­way companies charge what they like?” or, “Would you have all the land thrown out of cultivation?” or, “Would you have all the crops de­voured by vermin?” or something equally irrelevant.

Now the answer to all these and similar questions is, that it is not the expediency or appropriateness of this or that regulation with which indi­vidualism concerns itself. It may be an excellent provision that passenger trains should not run at more than sixty miles an hour, or it may not; if it is, let the companies make such a rule, or let the public refrain from traveling by lines which have no such rule; but let not Parliament in­terfere in the matter.

Again, as to the naked lights in a coal pit, is it really believed that col­liers are so absurdly reckless of their own lives as to imperil them for the sake of a whiff of tobacco? And even granting that there are a few such dangerous lunatics in the pits, as out of them, is the mine owner so anxious himself for a meeting with his creditors as to allow such doings if they can possibly be prevented? The plain fact is, apart from theory, that before the passing of any Acts relating to mines, the most stringent regulations were in force concerning the use of lights and lamps in the workings rules not so much imposed by the masters, as agreed to alike by owners, managers, and men, for the common safety,

It is the ability to make such rules, to obey them, and to enforce them, which makes the Anglo-Saxon race what it is a colonizing people, a people fit for self-government. And it is the weakening and supplanting of these contractual rules by rules emanating from a central legislature which will some day, if persisted in, reduce the Englishman to the level of his continental neighbors.

It is not from any horror of law and order, of method and regulation in all things, that individualism is opposed to state interference; on the contrary, it is rather the reverse; it is because it attaches so high a value to these things, and because it fears to see the habits of self-rule crushed out by the enervating effects of grandmotherly government.

Wadsworth Donisthorpe, Individualism, A System of Polities (1889)

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.