The Colonial Origins of American Liberty

The Union—Next to Our Liberties, Most Dear!

Thomas Woods, Jr., is a professor of history at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood, New York. An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the January 2000 Ludwig von Mises Institute conference, “The History of Liberty,” and appeared on

It has recently been suggested that we cease to use the term “Founders” to refer to those American thinkers and politicians who influenced the formation of the American union and the writing of the Constitution and insist instead on the term “framers.” This idea has much to recommend it. “Founders” possesses certain unacceptable overtones. It suggests that a group of men at a discrete moment in time “founded” the United States out of thin air, as though nothing were owed to the colonial inheritance. But to understand the true history of American liberty, we have to begin not with the 1780s and the Constitution, but with Jamestown and Massachusetts.

By now the thesis of David Hackett Fischer’s important book Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America is familiar to students of colonial America. The period from 1629 through 1775, commencing with the emigration of English Puritans from the east of England to Massachusetts Bay and concluding with the stirrings of revolution, was characterized by the migration of peoples from four distinct regions of England. Following the Puritans, Fischer identifies as a second group a small, putative aristocracy and a sizable number of indentured servants who originated in the south of England who made their way to Virginia (c. 1642-75). The third migration originated in the North Midlands of England and Wales and terminated in the Delaware Valley (c. 1675-1725). Finally, from approximately 1718 through 1775, a fourth group, consisting of immigrants from the borders of North Britain and northern Ireland, made their way to the Appalachian backcountry.[1]

Naturally, these groups shared a number of obvious and important traits. They hailed from the same part of Europe, spoke a common language, and at least in a broad sense shared the same religion. Indeed, it was precisely these shared characteristics that John Jay cited in the Federalist Papers—specifically #2—as a crucial source of the comity and order that characterized the American republic. “Providence,” he wrote, “has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.” In other words, the peoples of the various colonies possessed enough common characteristics to make a federal union a plausible idea and at least theoretically possible in practice.

But while much of Jay’s analysis is well taken, Fischer insists that the cultural differences between the peoples who comprised the United States were real, significant, and enduring. In the mid-seventeenth century one Puritan, speaking of Virginians, declared them “the farthest from conscience and moral honesty of any such number together in the world.” Likewise, the Virginian William Byrd II, referring to the Puritans, warned a correspondent that “a watchful eye must be kept on these foul traders.” The two groups, in turn, shared a dislike of the Quakers. (It was frequently said that members of the Society of Friends, as the Quakers were known, would “pray for their fellow men one day a week, and on them the other six.”) The Quakers returned the favor. Although the Puritans thought they had purged their worship of the ritual and “superstition” that had made the Church of England so distasteful to them, theirs was still too outward and formalistic a religion for the Quakers. Decades before William Penn settled Pennsylvania in the 1680s, Quakers living in Rhode Island and elsewhere would make their way up to Massachusetts in an effort to rouse its benighted inhabitants from their dogmatic slumber and awaken them to the aridity of their faith. Quakers would disrupt Puritan church services, heckle ministers, and on occasion would even walk naked up and down the church aisles. The Friends were banned repeatedly from Massachusetts. In turn, as late as 1795 one Quaker referred to New England in general as “the flock of Cain.”[2]

The mutual antagonism of these groups contributed in a peculiar way to the development of American liberty. Each of these peoples would be vigilant to exclude interference in their internal affairs by any of the others. The much-heralded problem of reconciling the interests of large and small states at the Constitutional Convention has, in Fischer’s view, obscured the more interesting, meaningful, and revealing task of the framers, which was “to reconcile different political cultures,” as they were found in the various regions. (One of the reasons Patrick Henry opposed the Constitution was that he believed it did not go far enough in ensuring regional integrity; he was sure that when one section became powerful enough, it would use its clout to oppress the others.)

Delicate Balance

Balancing these different political cultures was often a delicate procedure indeed. The very idea of freedom possessed varying connotations in the several colonies. When, for example, the First Amendment declared that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” this “deceptively simple statement,” in Fischer’s view, concealed a “regional compromise of high complexity.” “Its intent,” he goes on, “was to preserve religious freedom of Virginia and Pennsylvania, and at the same time to protect the religious establishments of New England from outside interference.”[3] To develop a policy that would be satisfactory to all, therefore, it was simply decided that the federal government should have no authority whatever vis-à-vis the various religious postures adopted by the several states.

There was, of course, a great deal more than mutual antagonism that gave impetus to the tradition of American liberty. What characterized the American colonists, for the most part was, first, sheer practicality—they were practical men, not schemers—and second, an unswerving commitment to self-government. These two qualities are not easily separated; when, for example, the states cautiously ratified the federal Constitution in the 1780s, their insistence that it remain a strictly limited union was based partly on their unwillingness to relinquish major prerogatives of self-government, and partly on their lack of interest in making a confederation an end in itself, or a self-justifying goal, as Clyde Wilson put it. The American revolutionaries were not like the French, the most radical of whom sought to extirpate the smallest remnant of pre-revolutionary France from historical memory. The Americans had no intention of anticipating the French example by abandoning the Gregorian calendar and beginning anew with the Year I in commemoration of the establishment of the new republic. The American union was simply a practical arrangement, brought into being to accomplish specific and finite objectives.

Lasting Liberty

It was precisely the lack of inclination among any of these peoples to remake the world, or even their own civilization, according to an arbitrary blueprint that helped make American liberty both possible and lasting. The nineteenth-century Massachusetts Whig Rufus Choate, an important American legal thinker and sometime congressman and senator, pointed with pride to the sober judgment and statesmanship of his native section:

There was another great work, different from this, and more difficult, more glorious, more improving, which they had to do, and that was to establish their system of colonial government, to frame their code of internal law, and to administer the vast and perplexing political business of the colonies in their novel and trying relations to England, through the whole colonial age. Of all their labors this was the grandest, the most intellectual, the best calculated to fit them for independence. Consider how much patient thought, how much observation of man and life, how much sagacity, how much communication of mind with mind, how many general councils, plots, and marshalling of affairs, how much slow accumulation, how much careful transmission of wisdom, that labor demanded. And what a school of civil capacity this must have proved to them who partook in it! Hence, I think, the sober, rational, and practical views and conduct which distinguished even the first fervid years of the Revolutionary age. How little giddiness, rant, and foolery do you see there! No riotous and shouting processions, no grand festivals of the goddess of reason, no impious dream of human perfectibility, no unloosing of the hoarded-up passions of ages from the restraints of law, order, morality, and religion, such as shamed and frightened away the new-born liberty of revolutionary France. Hence our victories of peace were more brilliant, more beneficial, than our victories of war.[4]

Nothing could have been further from the minds of the colonists than the suggestion that by virtue of having settled in a new land they had inherited a unique divine mandate to remake the world. The Puritans, it is true, spoke in terms of a divine mission. John Winthrop’s biblical allusion to a “city on a hill” suggested that the godly community of Massachusetts Bay might lead to a regeneration of the Church of England and indeed the entire world. The important proviso, however, was that this regeneration was to take place by example rather than force. With their gaze fixed firmly heavenward, the Puritans would have considered it an act of supreme impiety and classic human folly to expect the regeneration of the world through any mere human enterprise. It was only when the stern Calvinism of the Puritans had given way to the optimistic Unitarianism of nineteenth-century New England, and ultimately to the secular utopias of Progressivism and social democracy, that the city on a hill imagery came to possess the imperialistic overtones with which we are so familiar today.

That the original Massachusetts settlements had their theocratic aspect is not really in question. The law was expected to reflect biblical precept as precisely as possible. The franchise was restricted to church members; to become a church member, one had to undergo a process for which interrogation is probably too strong a word, but one by which so-called “pillars of the church” would attempt to determine, as far as it lay within the province of human capacity to discern, whether a prospective member belonged to the elect—that is, had been eternally predestined to heaven—or to the damned. The latter group, although excluded from the franchise and from reception of the Lord’s Supper, were nevertheless required to attend church. Steeped as they were in covenant theology, the Puritans believed that if they succeeded in establishing a truly godly community, God would look upon them with favor; if they failed, they would be subject to His wrath. They wished to live among like-minded folk in order better to live out a shared ideal.

In the Dedham (Massachusetts) Covenant drawn up during the 1630s, it was resolved “that we shall by all means labor to keep off from us all such as are contrary minded, and receive only such unto us as may probably be of one heart with us.”[5] The entire enterprise contained an element of utopianism, to be sure, in that the settlers sought to “build the most perfect possible community, as perfectly united, perfectly at peace, and perfectly ordered as man could arrange.”[6] It was, however, a utopianism that ended at the community’s borderline. They wanted simply to be left alone.

Forgotten Commitment to Liberty

The community aspect of early New England has been so often emphasized that the Puritans’ commitment to traditional English liberties has tended to be forgotten. Relatively little known outside the rarefied circles of colonial scholarship is the fact that it was a popular movement in the late 1630s that demanded the explicit codification of the colonists’ rights. Winthrop, the key figure in the Puritan migration and a longtime governor of Massachusetts Bay, had always favored having as little written law as possible in order to give him and to give his judges the discretionary authority they believed they needed to rule in accordance with the Bible. In the minds of the colonists themselves, however, this discretion was simply too great.

In 1641, with Winthrop temporarily voted out of office on these very grounds, they secured passage of what became known as the Massachusetts Body of Liberties. The document’s provisions, of which there are over 100, include items familiar to the student of British law and politics: the principle of no taxation without representation, the right to a jury trial, and the guarantee that no person would be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. (It also contains a peculiar provision prohibiting wife beating, excepting when the husband is acting in self-defense.)[7]

Over time, a series of factors would gradually dissolve what some might consider the more disagreeable aspects of community life in Puritan New England. The factors included the pressures of a growing population, which forced people to settle ever further from the town center—thereby rendering themselves less easily observed and controlled by government and religious authority—as well as the increasing attraction of theological liberalism. Thus what had once been a self-consciously corporate enterprise would eventually make room for a greater degree of individual liberty.

Virginia’s development took just the opposite path. It started off as a distinctly individualistic colony. The early settlement of Virginia was dominated by young single males. A host of factors, prominent among them Virginia’s (not entirely undeserved) reputation as a disease-ridden deathtrap, served to discourage the kind of self-consciously corporate and family-oriented migration that had characterized the Puritan experience. Gradually, as the mortality rate declined and the colony’s prosperity became widely known, it became more sensible for entire families to make their homes in the Chesapeake.

As Virginia became more settled and established, it also became more aristocratic. The Virginia aristocracy would grow attached to the principle of self-government, and these men took their responsibilities seriously. It was a strict requirement that every member be present especially for the opening session of the House of Burgesses, and that any absence had to be excused. Poor James Bray: in 1691 the House of Burgesses was so offended by his explanation for his absence that the Speaker actually issued a warrant for his arrest, and held him in custody until he made an apology.[8] This was government by an elite and with a restricted franchise, it is true, but the importance of the franchise in safeguarding liberty has been greatly exaggerated. (Recall that F. A. Hayek warned of making a “fetish of democracy.”) What is important is that this elite was composed of an extraordinarily talented group of men who, when the crisis came, were able to articulate precisely where and how American rights and liberties were being threatened.

In keeping with most of the colonial tradition, the Virginians were also men of a uniquely practical bent. This aspect of the Virginia gentry has frequently been obscured by historians’ careless conflation of this colonial elite with the French philosophes. It is true that Virginia planters were skilled in law, meteorology, medicine, and so forth, but this was not because they were trying to make an ideological statement about the sovereign unity of reason or any such thing. As Daniel Boorstin observes, “How devious it is to explain these plantation necessities as if they were inspired by the distant example and abstract teachings of the European Enlightenment! They were nothing more than an index to the problems of a Virginia planter.”[9]

Moreover, and again in contrast with the philosophes, the Virginians were especially devoted to their region, to their particular plot of earth. “Their localism has been given far too little attention and too little credit,” Boorstin notes. “In these days, when States’ rights are out of fashion, we are too often told that a man’s preoccupation with the habits of the place where he lives can only drag the national progress. We are fortunate that 18th-century Virginians thought differently. Their concern with the special requirements of their own particular place on earth not only flavored their political life and expectations; it gave all their thinking the aroma of the specific and kept all their social ideals within finite bounds.”[10]

Intermediary Institutions

Ultimately, therefore, the colonies succeeded in providing the individual liberty that makes a rational and civilized life possible, while at the same time cultivating a corporate sentiment that provided a source of resistance to centralizing and consolidationist schemes. With the advantage of hindsight we can see the importance of this latter consideration, which in some libertarian analyses might be overlooked. The need for vigorous intermediary institutions was especially emphasized by the outstanding classical liberal Benjamin Constant: “The interests and memories which are born of local customs contain a germ of resistance which authority suffers only with regret, and which it hastens to eradicate. With individuals it has its way more easily; it rolls its enormous weight over them effortlessly, as over sand.”[11]

The French revolutionaries, for example, despised the local customs and peculiarities that dotted their country’s landscape and reorganized France into arbitrary “departments” that bore no relation to its historic regions. In our own century, the deliberate and coordinated destruction of local institutions and intermediary associations has been a principal weapon of various totalitarian systems in eliminating potential sources of resistance. Hitler, of course, despised German federalism, which he correctly perceived as an obstacle to his consolidation of power. Stalin, for his part, attempted to starve the Ukraine into submission when standard Soviet propaganda proved insufficient to divest it of its traditional national feeling. In the soft totalitarianism of social democracy, we have seen how our own government has abetted social upheavals at the local level in order to strengthen its control everywhere.

It was the combination of their strict practicality and their well-cultivated corporate identity that caused the American colonists to look with suspicion on confederations of any kind. That good reasons could be adduced for uniting with their fellow colonies for limited and practical purposes was not in doubt. But the terms of such confederations would have to be spelled out clearly and explicitly, and any such intercolonial alliance would have to be kept under a vigilant watch. Thus it was only belatedly that the Puritans banded together in an intercolonial alliance, the so-called Confederation of New England. Persistent rumors of imminent Indian hostilities, and ongoing suspicions of the Narragansett tribe in particular, led the colonies to consider such a move. And yet, in the classic American tradition, the colonists kept a close watch on this Confederation.

New England had lived without incident for some years in increasing proximity to New Netherland. But when in 1652 Cromwell attacked the Netherlands and the two mother countries were thus at war, the possibility of a colonial clash, with each side arming its Indian allies, worried New Englanders. Connecticut and New Haven began to beat the drums for war. “Massachusetts chose this moment,” Alden Vaughan notes, “to question the fundamental right of the United Colonies to declare offensive war over the objections of any General Court. Massachusetts was not about to be dragged into an international war by its three small and imperious neighbors.” Vaughan also observes that the strength of the Confederation was seriously impaired by Massachusetts’s constitutional challenge, but this outcome only reinforces the point that the integrity of self-government was the overriding consideration in the minds of the colonists.[12]

Overreaching Crown

That the robust if zealous character of community life in Puritan New England had accustomed its inhabitants to the principle of self-government was made dramatically apparent toward the end of the seventeenth century when the Crown attempted to establish its authority more firmly there and elsewhere. Partly in an effort to ensure that British trade regulations would be properly enforced, and partly out of a legitimate concern for the colonies’ effective defense against a potentially aggressive New France, King James II established during the 1680s the so-called Dominion of New England, which combined Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire into a single government under a single royal governor. As time went on, James II would annex Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and the Jerseys to the Dominion, and had his sights on Pennsylvania at the time he was deposed.[13] Its first governor was the hapless Joseph Dudley, the son of the old Puritan governor Thomas Dudley, but the most memorable figure associated with the Dominion was the hated Sir Edmund Andros, who took power in late 1686.

Given the colonists’ attachment to self-government, Andros would have aroused bitterness under the best of circumstances. But he was by temperament distinctly unsuited to the task. His style of governance seemed calculated to create resentment: he levied taxes by his own fiat, for example, and jailed those who protested these usurpations. The enraged colonists, vigilant in protecting their liberties, were waiting for an opportunity to strike. It came with the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Communication was slow in the seventeenth century, so it was several months after the fact that the American colonies learned that James II had been deposed and William and Mary installed. On April 4, 1689, word reached Boston that the new king and queen wanted “all magistrates who have been unjustly turned out” to resume “their former employment.” That was all the citizenry needed to hear. “The machine-like precision with which [this parallel revolution] unrolled points to careful plans and leadership, which no one has yet unearthed,” writes Samuel Eliot Morison. “The townspeople rose, the countryside rose, Andros and some of his principal councillors were thrown into jail.” A meeting presided over by the last governor under the Bay Colony charter adopted the “Declaration of the Gentlemen, Merchants, and Inhabitants” that had been drawn up by the eminent Puritan divine Cotton Mather.[14] The Dominion was at an end and self-rule was again in effect.

It was the same spirit that led the colonists to reject Benjamin Franklin’s proposed Albany Plan of Union in 1754. Under the pressure of Indian war, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Hutchinson—the latter of whom would play an ignominious role in the events leading up to the American War for Independence—drew up a scheme according to which the colonies would yield a considerable amount of their authority to a new inter-colonial governing structure. Not a single colonial assembly ratified the plan.

We can see, then, why it is misleading to date the tradition of American liberty from the late 1780s, since the Constitution of the United States was in fact only the culmination of generations of practical self-government on the part of Americans. At the time of the framing of the Constitution and the formation of an allegedly “more perfect union,” the colonists had precedents for challenging the powers of a confederation, as in the case of the Confederation of New England, for rejecting a confederation, as in the case of the Albany Plan of Union, and for bringing down a confederation by force, as in the case of the Dominion of New England. It can hardly be surprising, therefore, to learn that at the time of the ratification of the Constitution, three states—Virginia, New York, and Rhode -Island—in acceding to the new confederation, explicitly reserved the right to withdraw from the union at such time as it should become oppressive. In so doing they were only exercising the vigilance and libertarian principle that had animated the American experience during the colonial period.

Thus when a union of polities becomes an end in itself, as it had in the minds of some by the time of Daniel Webster, but certainly since the Civil War, the repudiation and indeed perversion of the colonial ideal is complete. Nothing could be more obvious than the traditional American wariness of confederations—which, whatever their advantages, the colonists consistently viewed in terms of the threats they posed to self-government. Had the American union, the confederation inaugurated by the Constitution, been understood to be perpetual and indestructible, the states, which had just fought a war for self-government against the British empire, would never have entered it. What the colonial period has to teach us, then, is that the truly American sentiment is not Andrew Jackson’s famous toast, “Our federal Union—It must be preserved!” but John C. Calhoun’s reply, “The Union—Next to our liberties, most dear!” []


  1. David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 6.
  2. Ibid., pp. 821-22.
  3. Ibid., p. 830.
  4. Rufus Choate, “The Colonial Age of New England,” in The Works of Rufus Choate, with a Memoir of His Life, ed. Samuel Gilman Brown (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1862), pp. 365-66.
  5. Kenneth A. Lockridge, A New England Town: The First Hundred Years (New York: W.W. Norton, 1985), p. 5.
  6. Ibid., p. 16.
  7. Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, & Co., 1958), pp. 155-73; Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People, vol. 1, Prehistory to 1789 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 108-109.
  8. Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The Colonial Experience (New York: Random House, 1958), p. 113.
  9. Ibid., p. 108.
  10. Ibid., p. 141.
  11. Quoted in Ralph Raico, “Benjamin Constant,” New Individualist Review, Winter 1964, p. 53.
  12. Alden T. Vaughan, New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675, 3rd ed. (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), pp. 174-75.
  13. Morison, p. 167.
  14. Ibid., p. 171.