PUBLISHED:August 21, 2009

Jedediah Purdy reflects on the evolution of freedom in America

Professor Jedediah Purdy begins his latest book, A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom, with a recreation of the 1775 debate in London between Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke over the demands from the colonies for less royal interference and more self-government—demands that were already couched in the language that would become the Declaration of Independence, “the language of consent and rebellion, and unalienable rights,” says Purdy. From Burke and Johnson’s dash over the colonists’ prospects to the present day, Prudy traces how successive generations of Americans have redefined the promises articulated in the Declaration to continually create new forms of political community.

Purdy spoke with Duke Law Magazine about his book.

Duke Law Magazine: Frame this debate between Johnson and Burke.
Purdy: The crux of the debate was whether it would be possible to develop a political community on ideas as radical as the Americans were pronouncing. Johnson said, “No, these ideas are hopelessly abstract and amount to a ‘charter of anarchy,’ because everyone will have his own idea of what it means to be free, and everyone will just withdraw his consent from government at the time when it offends his conscience, and you’ll have no more legitimate order.”

Burke agreed that legitimate order was the only meaningful form of freedom — [he and Johnson agreed] that freedom was always a social achievement within a set of partly inherited institutions and familiar practices.

But Burke thought it was not entirely out of the question that the Americans could build a new kind of political tradition out of these extreme ideas and this ungovernable language. And he said that if they could, that would prove that anarchy might prove to be tolerable after all. And he said that if there was one set of terms on which the Americans could succeed, it would be that they could produce a political tradition out of anti-traditional elements of repudiation and insurrection and build a political community out of anti-communitarian impulses, antinomian conscience, and radical individuality. The book is the story of that tradition.

DLM: How did the Declaration serve as an anchor for that kind of tradition of repudiation and rebellion?
Purdy: The Declaration, in some ways, must have seemed to Johnson like the perfect proof for his case against the Americans.

On the one hand, it used the most nakedly abstract claims of natural liberty — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and unalienable rights — implying that if any of them is interfered with, a right to rebel against an established government ensues.

It is, actually, a kind of wild-eyed political theory, and at the same time is grossly hypocritical. One of the abuses the colonists were complaining about was interference with their liberty to control and keep their own slaves. So Johnson would have said that they were either crazy or criminally hypocritical — either way there is nothing to admire.

And a part of my argument is that exactly because the Declaration of Independence was so riven with inconsistency and a kind of excess, brimming with ideas that no one was prepared to make good at the time, it became available to later generations of Americans demanding a deepening and expansion of the country’s social practice of freedom to include more people and more dimensions of people, to include the dignity of previously excluded groups. Frederick Douglass is my favorite example.

The thing that many of the Founders would have been clearest on, as an example of what they didn’t mean by freedom, was slave rebellion. Douglass, I argue, did something like turn slave revolt into a mode of constitutional interpretation. He insisted that the Constitution could be read as an anti-slavery document, despite that fact that it was pulsating with compromises about slavery, because it should be approached as an attempt to make good on the unfulfilled promise of the Declaration. Douglass once said that “there is no man who doubts that slavery is wrong for himself.”

To insist on that and to have faith that that demand will be not just the end of the social order that you live in now, but the beginning of a new and more open and more generous and more inclusive and more decent social order — that’s the kind of innovation within a tradition and rupture within the continuity of a tradition that people went on to use the Declaration for, to say, in a sense, we are “refounding” the project of defining a political community according to the liberty of each of its members.

And if the founders had succeeded in writing a more consistent piece of political philosophy, the product might have lacked the emancipatory potential that later people found precisely in the Declaration’s overreach and its inconsistency, which gave them things to grab hold of and open up and rework.

DLM: Largely through their inaugural addresses, you trace how American presidents have framed public discussions about freedom and American society.
Purdy: There are two questions that get addressed by the way that we talk to one another in public about the country and about citizenship.

The first question concerns the dignity of being a citizen and the responsibility of being a citizen. This is the question of civic identity. The second question concerns the role of government.

I argue that for much of the 19th century, when presidents talked about what it meant to be an American and how government figured in that picture, they talked about a world of open, really laissez faire economic opportunity, which they identified with the principle of free labor. Every person can be a person of substance was the idea, as long as [government] enforces an equal playing field of free contract among people who own their own time and talent, and who own their own bodies. Freedom in the antebellum period is equal democratic dignity for white men and, after the Civil War, it’s equal democratic dignity for all men — at least that’s the idea particularly among northern Republicans.

But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries this idea was driven increasingly hard by the rise of industrial capitalism and a continental economy. You could work for generations in this new economy as hard and as honestly as you like, and you’re still not going to be the one who owns the factory.

It comes to seem, increasingly, that it is the structure of the economy, rather than people’s own character and efforts that is determining the shape of their lives, and this is a whole new problem. And the answer to the problem that progressive reformers give is that the state should present a power concentrated and large enough to reshape the system in a way that will give citizens more opportunity and protect them from the violent vicissitudes of modern life.

Woodrow Wilson opens his first inaugural address, in 1913, with a totally different picture of the country than anyone has ever given before. He talks about women and children for the first time. He talks about workers with vulnerable bodies who can get sick and be broken by factory labor. He says we have to remake our common institutions to make good on the old principles of equal opportunity. And this sets in motion the problem that presidents through Lyndon Johnson wrestle with — they say, explicitly, especially FDR, LBJ, and Wilson, that the world has grown too vast and complex for people individually to understand let alone control with their private choices.

So in 1981, when Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution, it’s the problem,” he rejected, explicitly, the whole progressive picture of what the role of government was and of the social circumstances — complexity and scale — that gave it that role. He said, “If you feel constraint in your life, it’s either because you are not trusting yourself — and self-trust is both the American right and the American responsibility — or because the government is intruding too much into your life.” In a sense, Reagan said the whole 20th century political project was a mistake. And in the decades after that it was, in fact, very difficult to talk about the role of the state in shaping the economy, and difficult to talk about citizenship as a matter of interdependence and creating the institutions that we all have to live in together.

Which was why it was it was so surprising to hear Barack Obama, in his 2004 Democratic National Convention address, say simple things like, “If there’s a grandmother who has to choose between a prescription and the rent, that diminishes my life, even if it’s not my grandmother.”

To hear him talking about solidarity and fairness and have those things sound American, and genuine, and contemporary, made me wonder why that was so hard to do. In some ways, actually, it was asking that question in 2005 that led me to go back and read the history of presidential language.

One of the purposes I’ve come to think of the book as having is giving a broader sense of political tradition in which the events [surrounding Obama’s election] make sense. I think it’s about a democratic community that has a tradition of reinterpreting its past in terms of a better possible future. That really is the tradition — the change is the old thing that we’ve recurrently done.