The proclamation “I contain multitudes” waves like a banner in Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself.” One of the great American bards, Whitman grasped the essential importance of bigness and variety for the United States—from swelling cities to the reaching plains, from the austere Yankee to the hounded slave.
American freedom also contains multitudes. Matching the great diversity of American life, a number of different understandings of freedom have permeated American culture since early colonial days. In his acclaimed 1989 book Albion’s Seed, the historian David Hackett Fischer sketches these different traditions of freedom. Recovering a sense of the diversity of freedom in American culture offers insight into contemporary debates.
Albion’s Seed outlines four clusters of “folkways” of traditions and practices. Each can be derived from groups of early settlers: the East Anglians who established Puritan New England, the pro-royalist cavaliers who settled the Virginia area, the Quakers who gathered in the Delaware Valley, and the independent “borderers” from the British north who took root in Appalachia.
Fischer argues that these different folkways have influenced American life for centuries. For instance, the Appalachian region has long resisted centralized federal control, while New England has often shown more technocratic sympathies. Moreover, these folkways have spread far from the original settlements. For instance, though he spent much of his youth in Hawaii, Barack Obama has many affinities with a Puritan mode of politics (infused with moralizing and managerial sentiments). And he can likely trace his maternal family lineage to the Dunham family, which settled in northern Massachusetts in the 1630s.
As Fischer acknowledges, waves of other immigrants have also influenced American culture, and these four folkways do not give a perfectly comprehensive picture of American life. But they have been influential, and they provide a lens for thinking about the different textures of freedom in the United States and beyond.
According to Fischer, each folkway cluster had a characteristic approach to freedom (what he calls “freedom ways”). The Puritans emphasized ordered liberty and moral duty as part of freedom. In his “Little Speech on Liberty,” early Massachusetts governor John Winthrop argued that “civil or federal” liberty may “also be termed moral, in reference to the covenant between God and man, in the moral law, and the politic covenants and constitutions, amongst men themselves.” For the Puritans, liberty meant the rule of a just authority.
The “reciprocal liberty” of the Quakers, meantime, justified protections for individuals, including liberty of conscience, as part of a project of universal brotherhood. Founding liberty on an ethic of universal human dignity, the Pennsylvania Quakers were among some of the earliest American abolitionists. In 1688, four Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, issued a protest against slavery that invoked universal (and reciprocal) equality: “There is a saying, that we shall doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are.”
Proud and hierarchical, the Virginia cavaliers instead leaned in the direction of what Fischer characterizes as “hegemonic liberty,” which focuses on control; by this tradition, freedom is the ability to rule oneself and not be ruled by others. The entrenched inequalities (as exemplified by racial slavery) of the Virginia colony gave a particular urgency to this question of who shall rule and whom shall be ruled. The project of self-dominion could also involve ethical cultivation in the sense of self-discipline. As John Randolph the Roanoke planter and politician put it, “life is not so important as the duties of life.”
Finally, the “natural liberty” of the Appalachian frontier had a strong libertarian flavor. Those living in the backcountry were inherently skeptical of any centralized authority and anxious for “elbow room.” In opposing the ratification of the Constitution, Patrick Henry (a Virginian of Anglo-Scottish heritage) drew on this theme: he argued that Americans had inherited a tradition in which “liberty is . . . [the] direct end and foundation” of government; empowering a centralized federal government, on this view, would threaten individual freedom.
Fischer’s survey of these freedom ways illustrates how, from its very beginning, American liberty has been characterized by much more than what Isaiah Berlin in the twentieth century would call “negative liberty” (that is, the absence of restraints). The Fischer perspective thus complicates some contemporary debates about America’s classical liberal tradition, which sometimes reduce freedom to the most minimal definition. While limiting government power has long been a key part of the American political tradition, American debates about freedom have ranged far more broadly.
These diverse freedom ways reveal a preoccupation with the ethical. This theme might seem most salient for Puritan ordered liberty and the reciprocal liberty of the Quakers. But John Randolph’s stress on duty suggests one way that the hegemonic liberty tradition could highlight the ethical stakes of self-control. Ethical concerns also factor into the notion of freedom as “elbow room.” Patrick Henry argued that the centralized Constitution would threaten both “the rights of conscience” and “all pretensions to human rights and privileges.” That ethical strand offers a counterpoint to arguments that American freedom is simply about material prosperity. The genealogy of freedom is more complicated.
As part of that complication, these differing approaches to freedom have been invoked by various political coalitions. Within the contemporary progressive coalition, tropes of reciprocal liberty and Puritan managerialism are perhaps the most prominent. Grassroots conservatives often place great emphasis on liberty as the absence of centralized control—invoking the legacy of the frontier. But the celebration of business success and “job creators” (still heard on the right) may speak to the idea of hegemonic liberty: that those who own businesses should have relative freedom to run them.
Further examination reveals that each coalition also invokes a wider gamut of liberty traditions, at times creating tensions. For example, for close to a century now, the American political Left has seen the managerial welfare state as a tool for curbing corporate power. Hence, Democratic politicians portray themselves as the allies of the “little guy” (the free-spirited independent citizen) against centralized corporate power. The Biden administration appears caught between extending the “boardroom liberalism” of the Obama era, in which government partnered with corporate behemoths, and unwinding corporate concentration.
Sometimes, public debates pit these different freedom traditions against one another. For instance, proponents of restricting abortion often rely upon arguments drawing from the reciprocal tradition of liberty. Like the Germantown Quakers, they argue that the unborn deserve the legal protection of life just as much as anyone else. Many arguments against legal restrictions on abortion instead sound more like Patrick Henry and sacralize the idea of “choice.”
Those who disagree on a given policy can appeal to the same freedom tradition. In the recent Supreme Court decision banning race-based affirmative action in college admissions, dissenters and members of the majority both emphasized the language of equality. In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the Constitution’s commitment to equality required “colorblind” policies. As he put it, the “Constitution’s colorblind rule reflects one of the core principles upon which our Nation was founded: that ‘all men are created equal.’” For Thomas, advancing the cause of equality involves deconstructing racialization. In her dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson argued instead that the historical consequences of slavery and past discrimination led to “race-based gaps” that admissions officers (and policymakers in general) should consider. For Jackson, the arc of history demands factoring in race when assessing an applicant. Thomas and Jackson thus both appeal to the Quaker tradition of reciprocal liberty; they differ not in their support for “equality” as a general concept but instead in their concrete interpretations of race.
These different perspectives on liberty are especially important for understanding controversies on the contemporary political right. As the writer Tanner Greer has noted, some on the “new Right” tap into the Puritan tradition of ordered liberty—by calling for industrial policy, for instance, or seeking more restrictions on pornography. Yet proponents of these policies also invoke the republican tradition of liberty, which has affinities with both the cavalier and frontier-freedom ways. For example, supporters of industrial policy claim that such measures are needed to protect American sovereignty.
These liberty traditions can be seen in other contemporary political efforts, too. Drawing from the hegemonic tradition of liberty, the “parents’ rights” movement asserts that parents should have a say in their children’s education and that communities in general should be able to exercise some control over public schools. Populist arguments for breaking up or further regulating large tech companies often appeal to the “natural liberty” tradition, holding that such a concentration of power could threaten individual freedom (where someone could be digitally “un-personed” in retaliation for some public comment, for example).
Proponents of a “realignment” on the right may be moving away from the kind of libertarianism associated with the Tea Party in many press narratives (which themselves elide some of the movement’s complexities). However, they also invoke a range of freedom traditions that have a long pedigree in American life.
Throughout history, American political coalitions have fused these traditions. At first, a tension does seem to exist between the Puritan and the frontiersman—between the world of Hester Prynne and that of Huck Finn. But American history offers numerous examples of ways that successful politicians brought together a “common good” approach to politics and liberty as “elbow room.” Henry Clay was both a politician of the frontier and an architect of an “American system” characterized by federal intervention to promote industrial prosperity. In the 1844 presidential election, Clay’s base of support came from states in Appalachia and New England. A prairie lawyer raised in the frontier, Abraham Lincoln said in a speech at Independence Hall in early 1861 that the Declaration of Independence offered the promise “that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.” Lincoln also sought to extend Clay’s “American system” by implementing ambitious industrial-policy and national-infrastructure programs. Calvin Coolidge was both the quintessential Yankee and a defender of personal liberty; in remarks delivered to the Holy Name Society in Washington, D.C., in 1924, the president celebrated both religious authority and individual liberty.
Being able to blend these traditions is important. When taken to an extreme and not counterbalanced by other impulses, each folkway of freedom leads to dystopia. The Puritanical quest for ordered liberty could froth into the mania of the Salem witch trials. A deification of hegemonic liberty could result in hymns to chattel slavery. An absolute aversion to difference could cause a “Harrison Bergeron”–style enforced mediocrity. A society that reduces freedom only to “elbow room” would dissolve into anarchy.
These traditions of liberty at once stand in tension with and complement each other. A sense of ethical order can keep the desire for freedom of action from straying into debauchery. Respect for the person as the bearer of rights can help ensure that a vision of “ordered liberty” does not become dogmatic repression. Contemporary policy disputes illustrate that balancing act. For example, folk-libertarian resistance to Covid containment measures provided a vital check to the technocratic (“ordered liberty”) impulses of the public-health establishment.
This mixed American legacy of freedom has consequences for the enterprise of statecraft. Rather than being the maximalization of some ideology, a statecraft of liberty might mean the balancing of impulses and modes. Previous generations of Americans have reimagined the balance between those liberties in order to confront the problems of their respective times. That might be part of the present challenge, too: to find another way of striking the balance between the impulses of recognizing equality, asserting authority, appealing to ethical order, and defending a sphere of self-determination.
The story of the United States is partly that of different people coming together in the enterprise of a more perfect union. Achieving such a union might also involve incorporating different traditions of liberty.
Photo by Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images