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Libertas: Identitarian Liberty

Sunday, March 26, 2017 13:18
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This is why I love doing historical research:

“But the vast majority in this slave society seems to have been compulsively unyielding only in regard to the exertion and maintenance of that love of liberty and personal independence and autonomy that were thought by contemporaries all over the British-American world to be the defining characteristics of free British men and therefore absolutely essential to the credibility of all claims to a British identity …”

Specifically, I want to probe how this love of “liberty,” which had previously been an ethnic marker associated with British identity came to be, you know, perverted into this abstract universal ideal that Thomas Jefferson associated with the 18th century Enlightenment.

There was an older tradition of “liberty” in the Virginia Tidewater which wasn’t universal. Certainly, the African slaves who were being imported to work on the plantations weren’t thought to be entitled to “liberty” in the sense we understand it today. It only makes sense when you realize the lack of liberty of the slaves made the “liberty” of the master caste more meaningful.

As we saw in 2011, Virginia’s aristocracy had a different conception of “liberty”:

“Power in Tidewater had become hereditary. The leading families intermarried in both America and England, creating a close-linked cousinage that dominated Tidewater generally and Virginia in particular. The Virginia Royal Council served as that colony’s senate, supreme court, and executive cabinet, and it controlled the distribution of land. By 1724 every single council member was related by blood or marriage. Two generations later, on the eve of the American Revolution, every member was descended from a councilor who had served in 1660 …

One might ask how such a tyrannical society could have produced some of the greatest champions of republicanism, such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison. The answer is that Tidewater’s gentry embraced classical republicanism, meaning a republic modeled after those of ancient Greece and Rome. They emulated the learned, slaveholding elite of ancient Athens, basing their enlightened political philosophies around the ancient Latin concept of libertas, or liberty. This was a fundamentally different notion from the Germanic concept of Freiheit, or freedom, which informed the political thought of Yankeedom and the Midlands. Understanding the distinction is essential to comprehending the fundamental disagreements that still plague relations between Tidewater, the Deep South, and New Spain on one hand and Yankeedom and the Midlands on the other.

For the Norse, Anglo-Saxons, Dutch, and other Germanic tribes of Northern Europe, “freedom” was a birthright of free peoples, which they considered themselves to be. Individuals might have differences in status and wealth, but all were literally “born free.” All were equal before the law and had come into the world possessing “rights” that had to be mutually respected on threat of banishment. Tribes had the right to rule themselves through assemblies like Iceland’s Althingi, recognized as the world’s oldest parliament. Until the Norman invasion of 1066, the Anglo-Saxon tribes of England had ruled themselves in this manner. After the invasion, the lords of Normandy imposed manorial feudalism on England, but they never fully  did away with the “free” institutions of the Anglo-Saxons and (Gaelo-Norse) Scots, which survived in village councils, English common law, and the House of Commons. It was this tradition that the Puritans carried to Yankeedom.

The Greek and Roman political philosophy embraced by Tidewater gentry assumed the opposite: most humans were born into bondage. Liberty was something that was granted and was thus a privilege, not a right. Some people were permitted many liberties, others had very few, and many had none at all. The Roman Republic was one in which only a handful of people had the full privileges of speech (senators, magistrates), a minority had the right to vote on what their superiors had decided (citizens), and most people had no say at all (slaves). Liberties were valuable because most people did not have them and were thought meaningless without the presence of a hierarchy. For the Greeks and Romans there was no contradiction between republicanism and slavery, liberty and bondage. This was the political philosophy embraced and jealously guarded by Tidewater’s leaders, whose highborn families saw themselves as descendants not of the “common” Anglo-Saxons, but rather of their aristocratic Norman conquerers. It was a philosophical divide with racial overtones and one that would later drive America’s nations into all-out war with one another.

Tidewater’s leaders imposed libertas on their society in countless ways. They refereed to themselves as “heads” of their respective manors, dictating duties to their “hands” and other subservient appendages. Finding Jamestown and St. Mary’s City too crude, they built new government campuses in Williamburg and Annapolis from central plans inspired by Rome; Williamsburg featured a sumptuous formal “palace” for the governor (surrounded by Versailles-like formal gardens) and the elegant Capitol (not “state house”) decorated with a relief of Jupiter, the god whose temple stood at the center of Roman civic life. They named counties, cities, and colonies after their superiors: English royals (Prince George, Prince William, Princess Anne, Jamestown, Williamsburg, Annapolis, Georgetown, Virginia, Maryland) or high nobles (Albemarle, Baltimore, Beaufort, Calvert, Cecil, Cumberland, Caroline, Anne Arundel, Delaware). While they were passionate in defending their liberties, it would never have occurred to them that those liberties might be shared with their subjects. “I am an aristocrat,” Virginian John Randolph would explain decades after the American Revolution. “I love liberty; I hate equality.”

Jeffrey Tucker said the other day that the Alt-Right doesn’t believe in universals.

While it is true that our ancestors believed in “liberty,” they didn’t attach the same meaning to the term. Liberty was an ethnic marker, not an abstraction. It was thought to be something that made English Protestants different from, say, the Spanish Catholics whose Spanish Armada had been defeated. In Tidewater Virginia, “liberty” had come to mean something even more different than it meant in Britain or to the Scots-Irish. It meant “libertas” in the Greco-Roman sense.

I’m also reminded here of what David Brooks said about our Telos Crisis. Everything I have written over the past weekend has shown the absurdity of an “Exodus narrative” that could unite Americans. The Virginians that I have described today weren’t engaged in any “exodus.” They moved to the colonies to better their lives as Englishmen. Just look at all the places named after English royals including “Virginia” itself which was named in honor of Queen Elizabeth I. These were people who were self consciously trying to become more English and who admired and emulated the English country gentry.


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