The Institutions of American Liberty

I write of an American tradition of liberty rather than of Liberty as such. I write not of the liberty we would find behind a veil of ignorance nor of the undiluted, principled, liberty some moralists consume straight up. I focus instead on a heritage of liberty, forged out of the particular and peculiar experiences of American history, protected and internalized by a panoply of institutions, and that has produced an American temperament infused with affection and admiration for its unique inheritance. American liberty inspires gratitude and a spirit of improvement that is constructive rather than revolutionary. Unlike Liberty as such, American liberty is not fully consistent, but is the beautifully imperfect expression of ideals wrangled from the messy experiences of a polyglot people.

Perfect Liberty (principled and abstract), much as Equality or Justice, inspires moral fervor. The attractions to simple, universal, and abstract principles are many—they allow the believer to indulge in regular displays of righteous outrage; they equip one with self-evident truths that justify social transformation; they give one’s life a sense of purpose or direction when real life doesn’t. Easy to digest, ready to implement, these abstract principles bear none of the weight of real human experience nor the burden of compromise. They are the moral intoxicants of alienated individuals and they are the primary danger to a regime of ordered liberty.

We ought to be concerned with those who are morally intoxicated. Still, extremism in the defense of American liberty is no vice. Ideological purity in the pursuit of perfect Liberty is, well, not American. Indeed, American liberty depends not on ideological purity but on the health of a fluid yet persistent body of institutions that habituate citizens in the practice of ordered liberty and that imprint on the American temperament a desire for self-rule.

And so, Americans have a heritage of liberty that is inextricably connected to their habit and taste for self-rule. My argument is that this heritage depends on institutions that foster the habits that sustain this heritage as well as the affections that bolster it. The enemy of American liberty is not bald tyranny but Liberty as ideology, which drifts toward tyranny. Devotion to any abstract conception of liberty without a corresponding love for the necessary institutions that give liberty a certain imperfect shape undermines, often unconsciously, the very means of liberty. While this is true whether the ideologue is on the right or left, today the greatest danger to American liberty comes from those on the left who work to weaken (often by way of government intervention) some key supporting institutions while engaged in an ideological take-over of other institutions. To love American liberty well requires that one love and defend the institutions that conserve an inherited liberty and provide the means of steady improvement in the American tradition of liberty.

The most important American institutions were created or altered in response to needs. British institutions and culture, particularly those carried by dissenting Protestants, heavily influenced American settlement in the 17th and 18th centuries. However foundational were these settling influences, British culture and institutions adapted to the institutional weaknesses of the new land. In the context of an emerging species of de facto (not ideological) equality and individualism, Americans crafted new institutions and altered existing ones to suit their reality as self-governing people. Nearly three centuries of town-creation nurtured an enviable faculty for political association as well as a taste for ad hoc institution building. Americans have a long history of bringing order to a new place by working with others in the construction of necessary institutions. Long experience with solving problems in flexible ways imbued Americans with pride of participation and creation (they loved their towns and their civic organizations and their self-imposed laws because they felt like the authors of their own story) and disposed them to take care of themselves and their own by means of this same capacity to create ordered liberty.

Pride of place, in Europe, usually resulted from centuries of attachment to a specific bit of land, families, buildings, and institutions. Not in America—or not as much in America. Here the first deep attachment to place sprang from the creative act of self-rule—by creating a town, by transforming land, by working with neighbors and former strangers to turn space into place in a very short period of time, American place-making transformed aliens into friends, turned competing interests into common causes, and fostered continuous acts of compromise.

Those same conditions necessitated all manner of institution building that bubbled up from the needs and desires of people living together. Putting aside the complex subject of the ordering influence of local or even regional markets through much of American history before the 20th century, we see more conscious efforts to build schools and colleges, to establish newspapers, journals, publishing houses, to start or revive churches, to organize private institutions of reform (e.g., temperance, anti-slavery, prison reform)—in short, a fervor of institution building by people who loved their liberty and sought ordered institutions to both support and express their liberty.

I have stressed the importance of ownership in the creative act. This needs some clarification. The American experience of building institutions, by and large, did not issue from a desire to work out ideological ideas in practice. Theirs was an accelerated and often self-conscious effort to build institutional frameworks that served their existing conditions. Many utopian experiments dotted the American landscape throughout much of its history, but these were small and localized and almost always very short-lived. The more common experience was the practical, self-interested, and limited efforts to secure the order necessary for individuals and families to work, worship, play, and live in an ordered place that reflected their values and supported their liberty to take care of themselves. One cannot stress enough that American liberty emerged from these “places” of engagement and creative ferment—American liberty began with experiences on a very human scale.

At least until the 20th century, the governments these Americans produced were heavy on politics and light on administration. They were civic institutions that helped internalize the relationship between order and liberty, that forced the reality of circumstances into all calculations of political purpose, and that left expansive space for non-political institutions to serve different roles and to govern themselves on terms appropriate to their members. This combination of being vested in a local and almost palpable government along with a disposition to solve as many problems and serve as many needs as possible by way of voluntary associations and self-governing institutions, fostered the most basic form of American liberty. With this liberty of self-rule each individual understands himself to be capable of taking care of his most immediate needs and then taught him to look around to those near him and like him (equality of condition) to work together, out of collective self-interest, to solve larger problems. Not only does this habit and taste for self-rule serve as the locus of American liberty but it also nourishes affections for the layers of institutions that intersect their lives.

The quickest way to destroy this liberty is to produce an administrative state that severs people from their most immediate form of political involvement and that robs them of their need to create with neighbors and allies the institutions that serve their needs. The administrative state not only alters people’s relationship with institutions and each other, it alters their affections, alienating them from the associations that helped turn groups of people in communities.

An ideological devotion to Liberty—or at least one version of Liberty as is manifested in the reigning Progressive ideology—aims at the administrative state which oversees a nation peopled by individuals who are unincorporated in most institutions and who lack affection or allegiance to anything but the administrative government (the current administration reminded us recently that the federal government is the one thing we all have in common). Issuing from a certain definition of Equality, Progressive Liberty aims at liberation rather than self-rule—often by liberating individuals from self-rule to self-expression.

Self-rule begins with the need to regulate one’s desires and to respond to reality as given rather than as one might design it. It begins with limits—not only those imposed by conditions but also those recognized as appropriate to self-impose in order to produce a healthy life—a life oriented to human needs more than human desires. Self-rule presupposes a general understanding that human life aims toward some good and that choosing to order one’s life relative to that good is necessary to a liberty that is not license, to a freedom that is not dissipation.

Liberty defined as self-expression issues from the primordial human urge to create, to be unrestrained, even by one’s own nature. The most basic limitations on self are expressed by the accidents of birth—gender, family, culture, nation, social standing, and the judgmental beliefs of others. Freedom from those accidents gives one the latitude to make one’s life what one wills, and if one’s will changes, so also can the self. Choice is, then, the most sacred expression of the self and therefore a regime of individual choice is the proper aim of the administrative state.

That administrative state, insofar as it is guided by this ideal, seeks to release individuals from the limitations, coercions, or simple influences of institutions that are not constituted for the ongoing revolution of liberation. Since most institutions are conservative by design—they carry forward valued ideas and structures—the administrative state must either take away their independence and thereby their competing source of authority or it must turn the institution into a means of liberation.

Recent history of America’s administrative state suggests that this is the strategy. Not only have local and state governments lost much ground over the last century with regard to their liberty to govern by their own lights (what Alexis de Tocqueville called “township freedom”) but over the last fifty years most efforts to organize people politically at local levels has aimed at advocacy—appeals for redress from a government. The most powerful political institutions that had once encouraged the exercise of self-rule are now too distant and too focused on administrative efforts to serve this role in the same way.

It would be helpful to a have a more or less comprehensive survey of American institutions, their history, their recent changes, and their relationship with the primary claim I make about American liberty emerging out of the habit and taste of self-rule. Such a task is impossible here, so some brief observations about a few such institutions might spark more empirically grounded work in the future.

The goal here is to remind the friends of American liberty of the importance of defending institutions, however imperfect they may be with regard to an abstract idea of Liberty, as the necessary condition of passing down America’s greatest accomplishment.

For obvious reasons, advocates of “Liberty as liberation” have sought to capture rather than weaken educational institutions. In the case of higher education the take-over has been dramatic. Long a haven for subversive ideologies, the biggest development in recent decades has been the transformation—dreamed of by so many radicals in the 1960s—of universities into agents of transformation with an amazing disregard for any obligation of passing down or of garbing students with the vestments of a civilized order, millennia in the making. Universities, which serve as a necessary rite of passage for those who wish power in our society, are designed to equip students to see inequality as injustice, to feel the moral obligation to change or “transform” the received society, and to believe that the objective is the liberation of individuals to be creative authors of their own lives. Liberty as liberation, then, is the goal.

K-12 public schools, to a large degree, have become government schools. Rather than serving the needs and expressing the values of a community—a public—government schools reflect the interests and ideology of those who see schools as the best means of promoting generational change. When public schools are funded by local taxes, when curricula reflect the deliberate choices of the local public, when teachers understand themselves to serve the interest of their community and the values of their student’s parents, then schools are genuinely public. Public schools offer one of the most important institutions to cultivate a sense of community, the habits of self-rule, the art of compromise, and a taste for local freedom. As public schools become functionaries of the administrative state their purposes reflect the ideas and interest of that state rather than the community. More importantly the people of the community are robbed of the opportunity, inherent in the idea of public and local schools, to engage in the practice of civic engagement that binds citizens together in common purposes.

Public schools serve to knit people together while government schools isolate individuals. Because government schools curricula reflect the liberationist ideology that dominates American universities, teachers and administrators think of students as individuals who need the help of this government institution to escape the narrowness of their families and the boundedness of their community and culture. In this way government schools actively undermine American liberty and subvert other institutions that buttress that heritage of liberty.

The American family was something of a new creation—or a dramatic modification of inherited institutional structures. Democratized and highly mobile, the American family had little power to bind several generations to the interests of a duty-encumbering and hierarchical institution of the sort Europeans called family. Until the twentieth century, however, American families served a number of functions that have now been replaced by other institutions. These families once educated their own young and often trained them in a trade. They served as a primary support (often essential) to establishing a young person in a job and of preparing young people to have the means to marry. Most families served as economic institutions, productive units in local and regional markets. In all of these areas, the last hundred years or so have witnessed a dramatic alteration in the function and thereby the nature of the American family.

By the middle of the twentieth century one would be reluctant to affirm in public that families, not individuals, form the basic unit of society—so far had the process of individual liberation altered the arrangements, obligations, and liberties of the American family. Still, by culture and law, marriages and families were understood to be nearly inviolable in certain respects. The divorce revolution of the 1970s was to the family what the French Revolution was to the ancien regime. By loosing all adult individuals from any binding obligation, marriages necessarily become very powerful expressions of individual choice and thereby consistent with the liberationist ideal of liberty that encourages a life as designed and redesigned by the changing will of individuals-in-process. The current trend with regard to gay marriage or other familial choices simply proceed as a logical outgrowth of the divorce revolution. The real transformation took place with divorce laws that altered, subtly and over time, popular conceptions of the nature and purpose of both marriage and family. Once the integrity of the family as an institution had been usurped by the moral demands of liberty understood as liberation the supporters of what people often label “traditional marriage” were left without a popularly acceptable appeal to the integrity of the institution over the desires of individuals.

American institutions remain numerous, diverse, and robust. Debates have raged in recent decades over the changing character of voluntary associations, of religious institutions, and a great number of what we might call non-governmental groups, and what these changes mean with regard to healthy individuals, communities and nation. We need more attention still on these institutions with an eye specifically to how these changes in associational life influence either liberationist individualism or American liberty of self-rule. In particular, we ought to think more about the challenges many of these institutions face in having the liberty to govern themselves without coercion—or the threat of coercion—by various arms of the federal government. Still other institutions, like the military and the judiciary, are vulnerable to pressures to change according to reigning ideas of government elites who understand their political purpose in terms of transformation. In this case, long-term institutional changes of great significance can issue from relatively short-term political changes.

Advocates of American liberty ought to be focused much more on the institutions of liberty than in the abstract or philosophical defense of a competing definition of liberty. American liberty survives and flourishes only when it is rooted in the history and in the given reality of American citizens—to present one abstraction as an alternative to another abstraction is to risk losing the advantages that accrue to functioning institutions that build affections, allegiances, and habits of genuine American liberty. The future of American liberty—if it is to have a future—will be found in carrying forward a heritage that adapts to changing circumstances. The future of American liberty depends on institutions that have the latitude, means, and energy to incorporate citizens into a matrix of overlapping and very particular allegiances that call upon them to see in the ordering activity of self-governance the necessary condition for a cherished liberty.

Ted McAllister

Ted McAllister is the Edward L. Gaylord Chair / Associate Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University. Author of Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Post-Liberal Order, he is currently working on a book about Walter Lippmann and the problem of modern liberation.

About the Author


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  1. gabe says

    Beautiful piece! Yes, beautiful – in that it evokes the simple beauty and genius of “American” Liberty.
    Sadly that genius is under sustained attack as is all of the structural elements that the Founders worked so hard to create / employ.

    Interestingly, I am currently reading Yuval Levins’ new book, “The Great Debate…” in which he compares Paine and Burke.
    In some ways this could be an accompaniment to that excellent book.

    again, great piece!

  2. Scott Amorian says

    In this essay McAllister gives us a nice overview of the practical effects of American cultural institutions in the creation of American liberty. He also does a bit of finger pointing at Progressives and at conservative political philosophers who discuss the theory of liberty at the expense of the practical efforts.

    I enjoyed the general overview of the role of local government and other cultural institutions. It reminds me that all politics is local, and that government that is far removed from the local citizens has an inherent tendency to corrupt, at least when the distant government holds rights that are outside of certain proper limits.

    I never understand the thing about finger pointing at Progressives. All that Progressivism really is is democracy when it is not contained effectively by governmental structures. In our case we have the problems of rule by parties in place of rule by the states, of obligations of office holders to people other than their local constituents, the lack of effective separation of powers, and the inherent bias created by the method of appointment of the justices of the Court, which all work to prevent proper limits from being applied to the offices of the national government. The problem of Progressivism is not so much the problem of a conspiracy of ideologues as it is a problem with flaws in the structures of government which do not apply effective checks on democracy.

    The focus of theorists on ideals is only problematic if theorizing is all that is happening. When I read other essayists on this site I see something similar that concerns me the same way as it concerns McAllister, but I also recognize that practical reforms must have a solid foundation of theory before those reforms can be accepted by the general public. It is one thing to propose specific reforms. It is another thing to propose reforms and back them with theory and historical background. Without a solid foundation of theory and background, attempts at reforms will be miscontextualized to an agendized public as just simple-minded reactionary measures against the agenda. Theory is important as long as it is focused on justifying reform. Theory must solidify the foundations of reform.

    The local institutions that foster liberty can only function when they are not kept at heel by the kinds of national social agendas that inevitable occur when democratic government is not held in check by effective key controls. To support and defend Liberty, necessary corrections to those key controls must become the cause of the day.

    Thank you Ted McAllister and Liberty Law Site for helping fill in some of the theoretical and historical foundations necessary for backing effective reform.

  3. says

    Ted, fantastic and important essay. When the First Things folks get around to fixing their archives, you might check out my American Liberty essays, especially 1 through 3. I hope this is a teaser for more from your forthcoming book with McClay. I also strongly recommend the slightly more philosophic discussion of how contemporary democratic dogmas undermine institutions from Philippe Beneton’s Equality by Default.

    I find C. Bradley Thompson’s response quite inadequate, and quite telling. He wants to suggest that American liberty begins with a man with an axe and a gun, which I can run with to an extent, but he refuses to face up to the fact that it culminates in a township, or institution-creation, as you put it.

    His libertarianism colors all, but I do think he has a point about the elevation of ideas by the Revolution, and the way that made what he calls “Americanism” a philosophy. Your essay does neglect this side of things, which is to say, it has to account better for the existence of “C. Bradley Thompsons” in the American community, who always have been ready to insist upon a reading of the Dec/Founding that makes pursuit of “individual happiness without the interference of others” the core of Americanism, and who always are ready to “light out for the territory” when they get fed up with their community.

    My own framework of 5 fundamental American ideas of liberty– 1) natural rights liberty 2) communitarian/classical liberty, 3) economic individualist liberty, 4) progressive liberty, 5) moral individualist liberty– might help us sort out the main issues here. You bundle 4 and 5 together, as the main enemy. That fits today’s Dems. Thompson bundles 3 and 5 together, as most contemp libertarians do, and strains to show, despite his daunting expertise in Adams and many others, that this is really what the Founders held. But I do think Thompson (or the likes of Thomas West) forces you to take 1) more seriously. Its mixing with (and moderating of) 2) in the healthier periods of American liberty has to be acknowledged, as does its role in allowing the break from Britain, the eventual freeing of the slaves, and in full political and economic citizenship for women and other minorities.

    Looking forward to more from you on this topic in the future.

    • says

      Dear Mr. Scott,

      I think you’ve misunderstood both my appreciation for Ted McAllister’s essay and the substance of my position.

      You write: ” [Thompson] wants to suggest that American liberty begins with a man with an axe and a gun, which I can run with to an extent, but he refuses to face up to the fact that it culminates in a township, or institution-creation, as you [McAllister] put it.”

      I think this does an injustice to what I actually wrote. Consider two early paragraphs in my response to Mr. McAllister.

      I wrote: “There is much in McAllister’s essay that I like and agree with. For instance, I very much approve of his Burkean-Tocquevillian-Hayekian analysis of the origins and growth of American liberty. Liberty, rightly understood, was not created by a top-down process imposed on the American people by its intellectuals and politicians, but rather was ‘forged out of the particular and peculiar experiences of American history, protected and internalized by a panoply of institutions.’ This is true, or at least mostly true.

      American liberty developed in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries from the bottom-up, i.e., out the interaction between Old World settlers who transported certain elements of British culture and institutions to the New World but then adapted those traditions to their unique circumstances. McAllister is also right to emphasize the important role of ‘town-creation’ in the development of American-style liberty. For two-and-a-half centuries, political power in America was imploded down to the local level, where millions of ordinary Americans developed the institutions and habits of self-government. It was through this process of town-creation—repeated thousands of times between 1607 and the end of the nineteenth century—that social order emerged spontaneously out of liberty’s footprint.”

      I’m not simply restating Ted McAllister’s position here. I’m also stating my own understanding of antebellum American history.

      According to your schema of American liberty, you say that I bundle nos. 3 and 5 together. Maybe. Let me suggest that in my essay “On Declaring the Laws and Rights of Nature (,” I also make a case for no. 1 as well.

      Brad Thompson

    • says

      Brad, I have read and I think profited from your essay “On Declaring the Laws and Rights of Nature,” and it is one of the main reason people should purchase the essay collection it’s a part of, Natural Rights Individualism and the Progressivism in American Political Philosophy, which also features Thomas West, Jim Ceaser, and others. Your exposition of the thought of Jefferson, Adams, Otis, and lesser-knows such as Ethan Allen, Elihu Palmer, etc. is impressive and provocative. It is an interpretation that makes the Founding very grounded upon state-of-nature thinking, i.e., very philosophic and very individualistic, at least in the fundamental sense.

      My reason for resisting and questioning your interpretation there, is that it feels as if the classical, Christian, and even British inheritances fade from view, or become important only so far as they prepare the Americans to formulate the true Americanism, which is Lockean/modern to its core. You acknowledge the importance of these inheritances, of town creation and institution creation, but I don’t think this enough to keep your Americanism from being at its heart about the individual, even if it issues in a spontaneous order that often encourages associational patterns.

      You go further along these lines, I think, in this response to McAllister than in that essay, saying that “Americanism… declared that government should be strictly limited to protecting individual rights”–you go on to elaborate how that leaves some room, in a system of separations, for institution-creation, but whatever this Americanism is, it does not seem to be what Sam Adams had in mind when he said Massachusetts ought to be a Christian Sparta, or to capture what Abigail and John had in mind when they spoke of the better inculcation of citizen virtue in New England than elsewhere, or to capture what many early Americans had in mind by their multiple efforts in state constitutions(!)to cultivate “citizen character,” as John Dinan has documented. All these seem to think that at the state and local levels, government should not be “strictly limited” to protecting rights.

      I am out of time, and I’m sorry I really haven’t been able to address you complaint about my injustice to your argument–I’ll just let readers judge how guilty I am of that for themselves, and I’m sure I’m at least a tad. This is rushed commenting, after all.

      My overall resistance to your interpretation, which I suspect McAllister would share, is that I think it makes the Founding more 1) unified than it was, and more 2) friendly to contemporary libertarianism than it was.

      I look forward to more of your contributions, and again highly recommend your essay to everyone.

  4. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    Professor McAllister’s debt to Tocqueville is clear enough. But so many today who read and apply Tocqueville indulge too much the temptation to privilege Puritan New England (dissenting Protestantism, town formation, etc.) and to undervalue the experience of those portions of 18th century America that took their cultural vision from the dominant religion of the 18th century British empire–which was the rational, non-evangelical Protestantism of the Church of England.

    To see this, name as many of the founders as you can recall, and ask yourself how many of them were formed by life within the liturgical and non-evangelical strains of Protestantism. Founders from Maryland and Delaware South, as well as many from New York, were men raised within the dominant religious tradition of the empire. As Jack P. Greene so cogently argued more than 20 years ago (PURSUITS OF HAPPINESS: THE SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT OF EARLY MODERN BRITISH COLONIES AND THE FORMATION OF AMERICAN CULTURE), the culturally formative regions that defined the culture of what later became the United States were southern and Anglican, not New England and Puritan.

    The reasons for these errors of emphasis are complex–but it is worth noting that while Tocqueville travelled throughout the United States, those places that match up best with his own analysis were New England places.

    • Hans Eicholz says

      Your point is well taken that we should not look exclusively to New England, but if the implication is that a vibrant civil associational life did not also apply to the mid Atlantic and the South, that would be unfortunate. Certainly the New England town was its own unique form, but we have to look more broadly.

      I know that some take the economic hurly burly of Jack Green’s competitive individualism to mean an absence of associations and organizations, but that needs to be corrected by a realization that individuals formed enterprises for all manner of activities both commercial (including land and trade) and religious—because that was literally the only avenue by which to get things done.

      And we should also recognize a capacity to organize for short and immediate purposes as every bit as important an expression of self-government as more enduring institutional forms. The habits of voluntary action were there, repeatedly drawing individuals together on the frontier, and could be called up at a moment’s notice. Claims of the provincial capitals notwithstanding, these colonies provided a sufficient variety in local forms of organizing to offer the seedbed of later revolutionary resistance.

      Madison’s observations on that vast array of different and competing sects which he contended were vital to the maintenance of religious liberty in America drew as much from his own Virginia as from the North. Virginia had undergone first Presbyterian and later Baptist awakenings that challenged the Anglican Gentry. And it would be wrong to assume that the Gentry were themselves simply the passive receivers of an unalloyed Anglican orthodoxy. They mightily resisted the appointment of outside Bishops, jealously guarding their local prerogatives to self-government. This point was forcefully made by Rhys Isaac.

      And from whence came the political support for that Son of Thunder as Henry Mayer titled his biography of Patrick Henry? What Mayer wrote needs repeating, because it shows the connection between individualism and associational liberty so clearly:

      “Evangelical sympathies ran deep in Henry’s family. His wife, his mother, and his sisters all found refreshment by attending ‘preaching,’ and the Winston side of the family had joined the once-reviled but now respectable Presbyterians. Before assisting the Baptists, Henry had helped the Society of Friends with his legislative exemption from military service and earned Quaker accolades as ‘a man of great moderation.’ He had an instinctive appreciation of the rights of conscience and a healthy respect for the assertive individualism that gave energy to the revival.”

      We need to be careful about distinguishing official policy in printed acts and actual practices. Dissent was unstoppable, especially the further west one travelled. One can just feel the palpable frustration of Attorney General John Randolph when he scolded the Anabaptists that their fundamental problem arose from their disregard of the legislature, as Mayer reports. ‘You must not make yourselves your own judges of what is fit to be done,’ Randolph pleaded.

      But what could be done? People were organizing for all sorts of purposes throughout all the colonies. Self-government was just everywhere.

      • Hans Eicholz says

        And this is of course the point that Brad Thompson was making too, where he noted:

        “The American creed of rugged individualism did not mean, though, that men lived alienated and crabbed lives in atomistic isolation from one another. This was no anti-social creed that separated men and confined them to their own spiritual cages, as Tocqueville mistakenly suggested. In fact, quite the opposite was true. Freedom produced unparalleled social cooperation and voluntary association.”

      • Kevin R. Hardwick says


        Jon Kukla is writing a new biography of Henry that (from the chapters I have seen) significantly revise Mayer. I am working on an analysis of the Virginia Ratifying convention in which of course Henry played a major role. Henry defended religious dissentors in Virginia, and adopted elements of the rhetoric of dissenting preachers. But Henry remained in the Church of England his entire life, and there is little evidence at all that the emphasis on cosmopolitanism and sociabilty of the Scots Englightenment had much influence on Henry (or on most Virginians who spoke at the ratifying convention).

        All of this is a digression from your main point, with which I agree completely, Virginians (or North Carolinians, Marylanders, Delawarans, or Kentuckyans) did not live lives of atomic individualism. But the institutional bases of social cooperation operated dramatically differently than they did in New England, arguably were significantly weaker, and had different political and spiritual implications.

        Brad Thompson’s eloqent passage, which you quote above, may or may not have been true for 18th century Virginia. I know that literature cold–it is what I do–and to my knowledge there is little scholarship to demonstrate it, one way or another. The public institutional culture of 18th century Virginia revolved around churches and chapels, court houses, taverns, and the houses of substantial planters (see eg. Rhys Isaac and Norman Risjord). That is a very different set of institutions, and one that surely had very different outcomes, than what was present in 18th century New England. But what those outcomes and implications really were for public life in Virginia is anybody’s guess, because its a question that few other than Isaac have tried to answer–and Isaac’s answer, while undeveloped, cuts hard in the other direction from Thompson’s.

        My point in writing is not to suggest that you are wrong. Rather, it is to problematize, I hope constructively, the argument you are making. The straightforward line of descent from New England that, for example, Barry Shain asserts, becomes much more complex if we take into account the experience of the rest of the country–but especially the South.

        All best wishes,

        • Kevin R. Hardwick says


          I should add, since my concern here may seem very limited and pedantic, that in any narrative, where we begin and how we begin has deep implications for the rest of the story. So getting the beginning right is important for that reason.

          And a final thought–at least for Virginia, the massive shift towards evangelical religion in the final years of the 18th century has huge implications for the story as well.

          To my eye, the narrative of the development and evolution of American associational life is quite complex, and (because sadly, historians have turned away from such questions in the last many decades–much to the impoverishment of our discipline, in my view) hard to fill in with confidence, because the underlying scholarship is so anemic.

          • Hans Eicholz says

            I totally am in agreement with the project to differentiate historical contexts and get the details right. Different forms of social organization of varying intensity mark the contexts of the different regions. Was it so very different though that no common understanding of certain fundamental values like freedom was possible?

            As historians we gravitate to differences–to the particulars of period and place, but that can lead us astray too. Sometimes there were moments of agreement–or at least perceived agreement.

            That social ties were weaker, or different and weaker, or just different in the south, does not to my mind, mean the people of this region were unable to coordinate their activities with northerners around a common project like independence from Britain. The ability to make common cause, needs to be explained as well.

            Understanding that all colonials faced certain common constraints as peripheral settlements, and that common republican language and concepts and to some degree basic religious values too, were also available, I think they were quite able to utilize notions of happiness and liberty as cartographic points of cultural navigation–an ability I would argue that continued to serve them well into the early years of the republic, but which began to come unglued during the Antebellum years.

          • Kevin R. Hardwick says


            An essay I have found very useful on the public and institutional culture of late 18th century Virginia is William E. Nelson, “The Eighteenth-Century Background of John Marshall’s Constitutional Jurisprudence,” Michigan Law Review Vol. 76, No. 6 (May, 1978).

            The second half of the essay is largely focused on Marshall’s jurisprudence–interesting in its own right, but off topic for purposes here. But the first half is an extremely cogent and careful exploration of late 18th century Virginia’s political and institutional culture that is well worth reading. In essence, Nelson locates the extreme emphasis that Virginia elites placed on consensus on the institutional weakness of their society, and in particular the lack of sanction other than the militia or posse comitatus.

            I have also relied on Jack Greene’s several fine essays on revolutionary Virginia’s political culture–which in my view (for what that is worth) are some of the best work that Greene has produced. They are collected in several volumes of essays published by the University Press of Virginia–I am sure you know them, but if for some reason you missed them, I can pull the volumes and give you cites.

            Nelson, Greene, Risjord, and Isaac aside–and the earlier work of Charles Sydnor–it is amazing how little attention has been given to the associational life of the late 18th century. We have good studies, courtesy of the various research institutes in Philadelphia, of that city in the 18th century, and of course numerous excellent studies of New England. But for the rest of the colonies/early states, especially outside the major cities, the topic is largely neglected. A good topic for future graduate students, so it seems to me anyway.

            All best wishes,

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