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A Short Historical Sketch on the Idea of Freedom (An Introduction by James P. Young)

The American Adaptation of Locke

Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States

Locke's influence on the thinking of Thomas Jefferson is obvious. Jefferson considered him, along with Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, to be one of the three greatest men who ever lived. The theory of revolution expressed in the Declaration of Independence clearly reflects a Lockean inspiration, as do the document's "self-evident" truths that "all men are created equal," that they are born with "inalienable rights," and that these rights include "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Jefferson, who was a slaveholder, daily violated these rights, but as the modern scholar Judith Shklar correctly pointed out, he will long be remembered as the man who put them into play in world politics. It is also fair to note that Jefferson was plagued by guilt to the end of his days, fully understanding that his practice constantly violated his principles. He knew that the problem of slavery had to be solved eventually, and indeed it was solved, at enormous cost, as discussed below.

Armed with Locke's ideas about natural rights and the notion that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed, Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence provided a list of the king's alleged violations of the colonist's rights, followed by the conclusion that the colonies were justified in severing their links to the crown and establishing an independent nation. Still, as Shklar remarked, Locke's ideas are considerably Americanized in the Declaration. The founders had little faith that simple majority rule would provide sufficient protection for individual rights, and the substitution of the phrase "pursuit of happiness" for Locke's "estate" is striking and worthy of discussion. Notice, in particular, that we are guaranteed not happiness, but the right to pursue it; such a pursuit may ultimately lead to considerable unhappiness.

The tradition of Lockean liberalism has been absolutely central to American thought and politics. Seizing on Alexis de Tocqueville's remark in Democracy in America (1835) that Americans had been born equal rather than having to become so, the modern scholar Louis Hartz argued in The Liberal Tradition in America that all of American history has been enveloped in a liberal, essentially Lockean consensus, a consensus so deep that it was unconscious.

Alexis de Tocqueville, French political thinker and author of Democracy in America
Because of this, Hartz claimed, it is sometimes difficult for Americans to understand other political cultures that do not share these ideas. Of course a shrewd observer like Tocqueville knew better than to claim that all Americans were in fact equal. His statement was intended to draw a comparison with France, which he saw as more encumbered by class structures—and thus more violent in forging an egalitarian, postrevolutionary society—than the United States. Hartz similarly noted that the United States, unlike France, had essentially skipped feudalism and arrived at independence as a modern, rights-oriented, middle-class society. This theory is widely disputed, as it apparently overlooks America's great conflicts over slavery, industrialization, labor relations, and ethnicity. Nevertheless, it is true that the United States has historically been highly individualistic, rights-oriented in principle if not in practice, substantially middle class, and overwhelmingly capitalist in its economic tendencies. Hartz, despite the serious limitations of his analysis, offers great insights into this political culture.

The Constitution is basically a liberal document, in that it is predicated on the perception of government as a potential threat to individual rights and freedoms. Consider the Federalist Papers, often cited as an authority in attempts to interpret the intent of the framers of the Constitution. The papers, written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison as part of the campaign to ratify the Constitution, describe the document as deliberately designed to make governmental decision making difficult so as to reduce the possibility of abuse of power and thereby maximize freedom. The key papers are Numbers 10 and 51 by Madison and Number 78 by Hamilton. (Whether the papers truly represent the intent of the framers is highly debatable. Hamilton in particular favored a much stronger central government and settled for the final document as the best that could be attained under the circumstances.)

The Constitution is basically a liberal document. 

Madison's contributions emphasized the fragmentation of political and governmental power. Older theories of republican government held that republics could succeed only if they were quite small, since larger historical republics had been plagued by factional divisions. Faction was defined essentially as the subordination of public to private interests, or the permanent domination of the state by a single group. But Madison turned this theory on its head, arguing in Federalist 10 that the solution to the problem of faction was to increase the size of the political system. This in turn would increase the likelihood of a large number of factions whose competition would lead to a genuine balance of interests. Federalist 51 offers a similar argument with respect to the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches.

Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, first United States Secretary of the Treasury
"Ambition must be made to counter ambition," Madison writes, predicting that the president, the Senate, and the House of Representatives would jockey for power and check one another. In Federalist 78, Hamilton adds to these two levels of complexity a theory of judicial review, giving the Supreme Court the power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional. As noted above, Chief Justice John Marshall solidified this power in Marbury v. Madison (1803). Finally, the country's constitutional fragmentation of power at the national level is enhanced by the significant authority reserved by the states.

Every limited democratic government faces a fundamental problem in that it must follow the Lockean principle of majority rule while still protecting the inviolable rights of the minority. The difficult question of when minority rights are important enough to trump the will of the majority is central to debates on the meaning and requirements of freedom.

These freedoms are of two types: positive and negative. 

To protect against the tyranny of the majority and further constrain the powers of government, the Constitution includes a considerable number of provisions that can best be understood as claims to various freedoms. Bills of attainder (legislative declarations of guilt) and ex post facto laws are forbidden. Jury trials are required, treason is carefully defined, and religious tests for public office are prohibited. In 1787, these were fairly advanced ideas, though even some who supported ratification of the Constitution, including Jefferson, were dissatisfied by the absence of a formal, systematic statement of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. A Bill of Rights, of which James Madison was the principal author, was soon attached to the newly ratified Constitution in the form of 10 amendments. Among other things, they guarantee freedom of the press, religion, and assembly; due process of law and fair trials; and protection against compulsory self-incrimination, unreasonable searches and seizures, double jeopardy, and cruel and unusual punishment.

James Madison, principal author of the Constitution of the United States of America and fourth President of the United States
These freedoms are of two types: positive and negative. Those like freedom of speech and the freedom to assemble are positive, in the sense that they represent "freedom to" do certain things. Many of the others are negative, since they promise "freedom from" certain actions by the government. The positive freedoms, which essentially describe democratic political activity and the exercise of civic freedom, depend on the negative freedoms, without which such activity would be impossible. Democracy in turn is necessary if personal liberty is to be preserved.

Following these improvements, the Constitution retained a glaring flaw in its tacit acceptance of slavery, the most fundamental denial of freedom imaginable and the issue that came to dominate 19th-century politics.

However, before turning to this problem, a few comments on the political structure of the Constitution are necessary. Though it was a liberal document, designed to protect individual rights and circumscribe the actions of government, it was, at best, imperfectly democratic. Suffrage was limited to free male citizens, and there were also property qualifications for the vote in many states. In fairness to the framers, the right to vote was more extensive in the early United States than anywhere else at the time, and the system proved capable of accommodating subsequent expansions of suffrage, though often not without great struggle. Equally troublesome was the electoral college system created by the Constitution, which makes it possible for the loser of the popular vote to win the presidency. And until the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, senators were elected by state legislatures rather than popular vote; even after the change, the fact that each state elects two senators gives lightly populated states a disproportionate influence. Moreover, as the political theorist George Kateb has pointed out, there are fewer limitations on the power of the Supreme Court than on the elected branches of the government.

Such apparently antidemocratic structures were in keeping with the founders" wariness of direct participation in politics by the citizenry as a whole. In Federalist 10, Madison was explicitly skeptical of the sort of civic freedom exemplified by ancient Athens, and in Federalist 55 he bluntly concludes that "had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob." It is difficult to imagine an American polity as a direct democracy rather than a republic with representative institutions, but the low rate of popular participation in American politics today remains a concern. Finding the correct balance between democracy and constitutional limitations is critically important, but difficult to achieve.

By the 1830s, some of the obstacles to democracy described above were eroded by the elimination of property qualifications for suffrage.

Tocqueville believed that American democracy was the wave of the
The period was marked by a high degree of democratization, as discussed by Tocqueville in his classic Democracy in America, widely cited as one of the greatest books ever written on the United States. It is also considered an important contribution to democratic theory and one of the foundational works of political sociology. As hinted earlier, democracy and egalitarianism were essentially synonymous for Tocqueville. He believed that American democracy was the wave of the future. His teacher, the French historian Francois Guizot, said to him, "You judge 'democracy' like an aristocrat who has been vanquished, and is convinced that his conqueror is right." Indeed Tocqueville was probably less worried by democratic forces than was Madison. As long as there was no strong, centralized state and Americans continued to show a propensity to create many active local political groups, he concluded, democracy was secure. Political participation, specifically in local voluntary associations, provided "great free schools" for citizenship. Local associations and the influence of religion fostered the pursuit of "self-interest rightly understood," by which Tocqueville means a balance between the public and private interest. This did not lead to a "sublime" public philosophy, but rather one that produced orderly, self-controlled citizens who were ready to cooperate with their fellows to further the general welfare.

Still, Tocqueville feared the development of American materialism and the emergence of a "manufacturing aristocracy." The greatest danger he saw in America was the potential conversion of the active citizens he observed into an apathetic mass, a condition that might arise out of egoistic individualism. Under these conditions, the tyranny of the majority, the "soft despotism" of public opinion, was a real problem. Beyond this, Tocqueville was deeply concerned with the possibility that the unsolved problem of slavery could lead to large-scale violence, as it later did.

Tocqueville's ideas had a considerable influence on his friend and contemporary John Stuart Mill.