Freedom Isn’t What It Used To Be

From the ancients to the Founders, a “free” citizen was one who had a voice in making the laws, not one the laws left alone.

Today, the words freedom and liberty are trademarks of the Right. In Congress, the House Freedom Caucus includes only the most right-wing members. Liberty University is where religious right-wingers send their children. FreedomWorks is an arm of the Koch octopus.

The same groups espouse a faith in the Founders that is virtually religious, and sometimes literally so. James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington … if not for monotheism these men would have ascended to godhood by now. A well-known painting by conservative artist Jon McNaughton (reproduced below) shows Jesus standing between Jefferson and Washington with the Constitution in his hands. Madison stands behind the Constitution, while a representative politician, professor, journalist, and Supreme Court justice tremble at the left hand of God in the company of Satan.

The same conservative movement has become very skeptical of democracy and elections. You’ll frequently hear conservatives explain that the Founders made us “a republic, not a democracy”. Elections are only valid if they win, and if not, perhaps it’s time for second amendment remedies to right the ship, or even another civil war. People who rioted in an attempt to usurp the 2020 election are “patriots“, while the president elected with a seven-million vote majority is a “tyrant“.

In any era, it’s tempting to think that words have always meant what they mean now. So quotes from the Founders about freedom and liberty are often co-opted into these arguments.

But is that really what the Founders meant when they they used those words? Did they mean tax cuts, deregulation, and the other standard conservative positions? Would they have been appalled by vaccine mandates and similar expressions of government power, if such power were being exercised by a government of the People, in accordance with the majority will?

The recent book Freedom: an unruly history by Annelien de Dijn offers an alternative view.

In general, I love these history-of-an-idea books, especially if they’re surprising in some way, as this one is. De Dijn tells the story of how freedom started out meaning one thing and then changed to mean something else, and how this change got erased from popular memory.

The two kinds of freedom have been called different things at different times, but I think of them as “public freedom” and “private freedom”. Both kinds of freedom are about self-determination, but at different scales. Private freedom is the right to live your life with minimal interference from outside powers like the government — how today’s conservatives use the word. Public freedom is your right to have a voice in making the laws that govern you.

You could imagine having either kind of freedom without the other: You might live under a dictator who chooses to leave you alone, or under a democracy whose laws constantly get in the way of what you want to do.

De Dijn makes a good case that in ancient times, freedom meant public freedom. Herodotus, for example, contrasted the “free” Greeks against the “enslaved” Persians — not because the Persian laws were significantly more invasive, but because Greek city-states made their own laws rather than receiving them from an emperor. A Greek citizen (especially, but not uniquely, an Athenian) could criticize a law in the assembly and try to convince his neighbors to change it, while a Persian subject dared not. Similarly, Cicero opposed Caesar not because Caesar’s government did terrible things — on the whole, Caesar was a fairly good lawmaker, certainly no worse than the republican consuls who preceded him — but because Caesar issued decrees under his own authority, without consulting the Senate or the popular assembly.

It’s not that classical thinkers didn’t value living their lives without interference, but they regarded public freedom as a long-term precondition for private freedom: If people like you have no voice in making the laws, sooner or later the laws will oppress you.

But when the Roman emperors turned Christian, Christian leaders like St. Augustine abandoned the classical notion of liberty, and taught instead that imperial authority was sanctioned by God. This view persisted through the later Middle Ages, to the point that Dante placed Caesar’s assassins (Brutus and Cassius) next to Judas in the lowest pit of Hell. It survived into the Founding Era as the divine right of kings, which Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence rejected.

When the Renaissance humanists rediscovered classical authors, though, they also revived the classical notion of freedom, i.e., public freedom. This developed into the Enlightenment notion of the social contract, which was the basis not just of the American Revolution, but of a series of revolutions throughout Europe and the former European colonies in the New World. Again, the problem with George III’s government of the American colonies wasn’t that everyday life was oppressive, it was that he denied Americans a voice in making their own laws. The issue wasn’t high taxes, but “taxation without representation”.

The currently popular notion of freedom as purely private freedom, being left alone, is comparatively recent. It developed in the backlash after the French Revolution, and was promoted by the same aristocrats who had opposed democracy all along. This view has also consistently opposed any expansion of democracy, on the grounds that democracy is merely a means to an end (good government) and not a human right. Why, for example, do women need to vote if their husbands treat them well? Haven’t men of property been making better laws for the landless workers than such foolish and poorly educated men would make for themselves?

Along the way, de Dijn answers a question I have occasionally raised in this blog: What is the origin of the currently popular conservative distinction between a republic and a democracy, which the Right uses to justify anti-democratic fossils like the Electoral College, the Senate, and the filibuster?

A Heritage Foundation report titled “America is a Republic, not a Democracy” is typical of the genre:

[C]alls to abolish or circumvent the Electoral College in the selection of our chief executive represent the most visible sign of this democratic antipathy to our republican institutions.

Another symptom Heritage finds worrisome is “the increased dissatisfaction with the efficiency and responsiveness of our deliberative political institutions”, i.e., calls to end the filibuster. Ranked-choice voting is on a list of notions that are suspect because they represent “more effective and immediate ways to express the will of the majority”. (Notice, however, how this conservative critique of majority rule goes away when the local majority wants to ban abortion or outlaw critical race theory.)

Conservatives will tell you the republic/democracy distinction comes from the Founders, particularly James Madison in Federalist 10. If you read that essay, though, you’ll find a purely formal distinction between the two, not the anti-popular-sovereignty sentiment right-wingers now project onto it. Madison defines a democracy as “a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person” and a republic as “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place”. Nothing in his essay argues that a republic’s popular majority is not entitled to elect a majority of representatives, or that this legislative majority should be thwarted in passing popular laws. Madison sees representative government as a temporary buffer against volatile public moods, not a a way to permanently obstruct the will of the People, as the filibuster currently does on any number of issues.

So where does the a-republic-not-a-democracy idea really come from? From the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, not the Founding Era a century before. De Dijn traces it to a Yale professor named William Graham Sumner, who was highly influential in his day, but is now largely forgotten.

[Sumner] believed that liberty could survive only if popular power was checked by strong countermajoritarian institutions. Indeed, he explicitly rejected democratic government, arguing in favor of “republics” instead. By making this distinction, Sumner gave an entirely new meaning to the word “republican.” During the American Revolution and its immediate aftermath, “republic” had been more or less synonymous with popular government.

One final warning: By the time you check Freedom: an unruly history off your reading list, you will have a longer list. Names that were little more than placeholders in your history textbooks will suddenly seem like major holes in your education. (How did I make it this far into life without reading either Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France or Richard Price’s sermon “A Discourse on the Love our Our Country” that Burke was arguing against?)

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  • Barbara J Mantegani  On November 1, 2021 at 11:15 am

    You need to read two books by Colin Woodard: “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” and “American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good.” They posit that the land mass we know as the United States is not now, nor has it ever been, a :country,” but rather is a collection of nation-states that have completely different cultures and values. A closer look suggests that the “conservative movement” you discuss and the nation-states that treasure individual rights over the common good are one and the same. I would love to hear what you think of the books if you have already read them.

  • Bill Camarda  On November 1, 2021 at 11:52 am

    We each longingly search our history — or in some cases desperately ransack it — for stories we can use to ground ourselves in it (and to justify ourselves).

    That’s natural and human; none of us exists de novo, and despite Thomas Paine’s stirring words, we *don’t* have in it our power to begin the world over again. We need to learn and use our history. But carefully, because layering historical figures’ views onto current debates is fraught.

    Consider Benjamin Franklin’s 1783 observation that human beings have a natural right to sufficient property to stay alive and reproduce themselves, but any property they possess they own beyond that is legitimately subject to public regulation and even confiscation, because it was society — the public — that made the rules by which their private property came to exist:

    “…All the Property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it. (

    That’s an argument way to Bernie Sanders’s left, and it ought to shake up anyone who says that America was founded in fierce opposition to anything socialist. [Especially all those who live on land the federal government confiscated from native Americans and redistributed to whites. :)]

    BUT Franklin made the argument in opposition to a populist revolt by some of the nation’s most radical advocates of democracy, against high taxes intended to pay off wealthy and abusive elite creditors. We should know that, too.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On November 1, 2021 at 3:31 pm

    This reminds me of when Chou En-Lai was asked about the effect of the French Revolution, he answered “it’s too soon to tell.”


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