The Taste for Freedom


Liberty in America: Liberty and Power, 1600–1760, by Oscar and Lillian Handlin, New York: Harper & Row, 280 pages, $16.95

"Abstract liberty," said 18th-century British philosopher Edmund Burke, "like other mere abstractions, is not to be found." Liberty in America, Oscar and Lillian Handlin argue in Liberty and Power, 1600–1760, is not a matter of abstractions but the product of a distinctive historical process. American freedoms and our conception of individual rights are a historical novelty that we "stumbled into"; our taste for freedom is a historical accident.

The story the Handlins tell has long been a mainstay of American historians. There is little here that will be really new, either in argument or analysis, to those familiar with American history.

The story turns on the peculiar circumstances made possible by the openness and space of the New World confounding the forms and restrictions of the Old World. Freedom in its Old World context, say the Handlins, was freedom from others' raw exercise of power. As such, it depended on power and privilege to secure that freedom. Since power was so dependent upon strength of numbers, the individual's membership in some social group was the only means of securing a realm of freedom. Thus, the Old World order was one of status, position, hierarchy, and rules.

Seventeenth-century efforts to recreate that world in America were continually frustrated by the corrosive effects of a wide-open land. Settlers could be tempted to "turn wild," to move away from the community and its discipline, or to set up new communities more in accord with their peculiar notions of "the common good."

The efforts of would-be feudal barons to duplicate the vast estates and wealth that had been carved out of other colonial possessions like Ireland, and the dreams of English soldiers of fortune to duplicate the looting of the conquistadors, were defeated by North America's lack of population and treasure. The absence of easily extractable sources of wealth meant that America would be spared the development of a ruthless ruling class of the type that arose in South and Central America. (An exception in Central America is the misnamed Costa Rica, which never had much worth stealing and has been able to develop a generally liberal democracy.)

A colonial charter might grant someone absolute power over his dominion, but the need to attract and hold labor restrained the exercise of that power. The extent of the territory under such absolute authority was often too great to police, and the governors lacked the resources to enforce the obedience of scattered settlers.

Most importantly, say the Handlins, in colonies as disparate as the Catholic barony of Lord Baltimore's Maryland, the commercial colony of the Virginia joint-stock company, and the Puritan Plymouth colony, the governors were all forced by circumstances to depend on the consent of those they ruled. Violent protest and resistance, from Bacon's Rebellion (1676) in Virginia to Leisler's Rebellion (1689) in New York, broke out when colonists believed that the exercise of power was inconsistent with their ends. In return for peace and stability, the politics of consent came to be the norm in the colonies. The colonists, in turn, increasingly insisted on written laws as a means of protecting themselves against arbitrary authority.

By the 18th century, many colonists saw their colonial representative assemblies as colonial parliaments and the requirement of their consent as a matter of right. The Zenger libel case (1735), in which a jury upheld Zenger's right to publish anti-government commentary in his newspaper as a fundamental freedom, demonstrated that Americans had transformed slowly accumulated rights into a duty to resist encroachments of lawless power. Rights that had been won over two centuries were now seen as aspects of the human character, natural rights of birth, rather than the accretions of time and circumstance.

American individualism, too, has a past, urge the Handlins. If the openness of the New World was a solvent to older patterns of authority, it was similarly destructive of the notion of a corporate society in which all are knit into one body politic, with a common goal, a common faith, and a common good: that age-old model of society as family writ large. Efforts to punish those who dressed above their station or who worked Sundays were too weak to be effective, owing to the high costs of enforcing the laws. Relations of power and authority within the family were unsettled in the New World: the scarcity of women increased their status and power; scarce labor meant that old rules regarding apprentices and servants began to dissolve and be replaced by ad hoc contracts.

Religious conformity was constantly confounded by the lack of a bishop and the Anglicans' ecclesiastical machinery; the dispersed population on the frontier was prey to itinerant preachers of Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian persuasions, who spread sectarian division and subverted notions of an established church; Puritan divines like Roger Williams turned piety against establishment of religion by declaring that "forced worship stinks in God's nostrils." By the 18th century, a developing pattern of religious toleration and diversity could paradoxically lead authorities to suppress attacks on dissenters as a disturbance of the peace and harmony of all.

But it was the chief draw of the New World—the opportunity for wealth—that was most subversive of corporate society. The first plantations starved until they abandoned their common-labor systems and instituted private plots; common fields and pastures were slowly transformed into private property as the population increased in the 17th century. Efforts to regulate trade and prices for "the common good" were subverted by individuals interested in their own good. Ever-increasing numbers of colonists explicitly embraced the ideas of freedom of trade and access to economic opportunity.

For the poor indentured servant, America was the "best poor man's country in the world," where a small plot of ground or paying trade was not an impossible dream. For the successful merchant, there was the chance to purchase a large, landed estate and status not available to one in England sordidly engaged in trade. For both, freedom meant the opportunity to pursue individual success and improvement.

While the Handlins put forward a wealth of anecdotal material in support of their thesis, much of it is obscure. And readers of this book who expected the graceful, fluid prose of Oscar Handlin's The Uprooted will be disappointed by a too-often disjointed presentation and the book's sometimes leaden academic style.

But a more serious criticism is that the authors exaggerate the novelty of American notions of freedom and overhistoricize the ideal of liberty. The absence of any discussion of the meaning or value of liberty until the end of the book (and here, too, it is overly particularized) underlines their lack of a broader context. Europeans also had a past of mobility and frontiers; authority was never so secure there as the Handlins would have it; the notion of rights that Americans embraced in the 18th century was in fact articulated by English revolutionaries in the mid-17th century. Liberty is not, of course, a matter of pure abstractions, but neither is a taste for freedom something that requires American birth.

Rick Vernier is a graduate student of American history at the University of California, Los Angeles.