December 28, 2019


America's Proud Legacy of Liberty (Peter Berkowitz, December 28, 2019, Real Clear Politics)

Reformers can draw inspiration from Richard Brookhiser's "Give Me Liberty: A History of America's Exceptional Idea." A veteran senior editor at National Review and author of 13 previous books, Brookhiser concisely and compellingly relates the stories of "thirteen documents, from 1619 to 1987, that represent snapshots from the album of our long marriage to liberty."

He rejects the view -- once a staple of the left and recently embraced on the right -- that classical liberalism, which holds that government's purpose is to protect individual freedom, is inherently incompatible with nationalism, which champions government's promotion of a particular people's traditions and political aspirations. Certainly, national traditions can be chauvinistic and authoritarian, rooted in subjugation of the individual to the collective good, and bound up with conquest of other peoples. But the United States, notwithstanding the blemishes and flaws it shares with all countries, is different.

"The unique feature of America's nationalism is its concern for liberty," writes Brookhiser. "We have been securing it, defining it, recovering it, and fighting for it for four hundred years.  We have been doing it since we were a floundering settlement on a New World river, long before we were a country.  We do it now on podiums and battlefields beyond our borders." [...]

Religious liberty and free speech gained strength in pre-revolutionary America. The 1657 Flushing Remonstrance rebuked Peter Stuyvesant, director-general of New Amsterdam (the Dutch colony headquartered on what would become Manhattan), for intolerance of Quakers. Signed by 26 town residents, none of whom were Quaker, the Remonstrance argued that religious freedom was a biblical imperative. In the 1735 trial of New York newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger for seditious libel, which resulted in a verdict of not guilty, defense lawyer Andrew Hamilton stirringly rejected the idea that speaking the truth about government, however critical, was punishable by law.

America's founding documents, Brookhiser emphasizes, put freedom at the center. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that legitimate government is grounded in the consent of the governed and has as its proper purpose the protection of unalienable rights, which by definition inhere in all persons. In 1787, the drafters of the Constitution presented for ratification to the people of the 13 states a charter of government carefully crafted to secure those rights. And in 1863 at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln paid tribute to the fallen soldiers who fought to preserve a "nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," while summoning his fellow citizens to rededicate themselves to the equality in freedom in which the nation was born.

Two of the documents to which Brookhiser devotes chapters illustrate citizens' role in extending freedom. The 1785 constitution of the New-York Manumission Society maintained that slavery had no place in a free society because God gave to all human beings an "equal right to life, liberty, and property." The 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments rallied support for women's equality by appealing to the unalienable rights that inspired the nation's founding.

American views about immigration and the economy also reflect an enduring commitment to freedom. In "The New Colossus," composed in 1883 and installed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903, Emma Lazarus connects freedom to refuge for the oppressed: "Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/ Send them, the homeless, tempest-tost to me/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door."  In his 1896 "Cross of Gold" speech delivered in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention, William Jennings Bryan presented equal treatment for workers as an imperative of freedom.

Great interview with Mr. Brookhiser here.  Of course, two basic point: (1) subjugation of individual freedom to the common good is the definition of liberty; and, (2) liberty is the opposite of Nationalism, which only pertains to "a particular people."  That is why our liberty has been so easily extended both at home and abroad to encompass all peoples.

Posted by at December 28, 2019 8:24 AM