Liberty Defined

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By Brian DeLuca, Roland Park Branch

On this Independence Day, the political arena reverberates with attempts to elucidate the intentions of our Founding Fathers when they first established this country. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Washington’s Crossing, historian David Hackett Fischer demonstrates that, even in the midst of war, the Revolutionary Generation could not agree on the meaning of Liberty, one of our nation’s guiding principles.

Washington's Crossing

According to Fischer, the Virginian planters held a stratified, hierarchical idea of liberty, where only the man of independent means could be truly free. The large plantation holders deserved the greatest share, the lesser landholders a smaller share, and so on down the line until you reach the slaves who were granted no freedom. In contrast, there were the inhabitants of the backwoods country of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the other colonies with their “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and a highly individualized concept of liberty. Theirs was the liberty of a single man and his family unhindered by any form of government control.

In the towns and villages of New England, liberty was defined as everyone having a say in the decision-making process for the entire community. Even in battle, New England troops would often discuss and vote on orders before acting on them. The New England regiments, which enlisted freed African-Americans, often clashed with the units from the slave-owning South. Hackett notes how this led to great exasperation for General George Washington since two-thirds of his earliest regiments were from New England. From the Quakers of Pennsylvania came the idea of “liberty as reciprocal rights that belonged to all the people”. At first, Washington viewed this Quaker concept and its basic rejection of hierarchy and monarchy as dangerously radical; however, this is the concept of liberty that most represents our modern definition of the word.

Despite these widely divergent concepts of liberty, George Washington was able to forge a professional army out of these diverse regional contingents based on his ability to compromise and a willingness to accept the ideals and principles of others in pursuit of a common cause. Moreover, Washington was changed by the experience; by 1778, he was convinced of the hypocrisy of slavery in the new American Experiment.

Washington’s Crossing is, at its core, a book about the early years of the American Revolution, Washington’s small-but-important victory over the Hessians at Trenton, and the months that followed. It is also about how the distinct peoples and communities of the American Colonies helped to define the concept of Liberty, the very reason for which this war was waged. Our country was founded upon the ability to take widely differing ideas, things that should be points of contention, and turning those into a strength and vigor to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. As President Woodrow Wilson said in an address at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1914: “Liberty does not consist, my fellow-citizens, in mere general declarations of the rights of man. It consists in the translation of those declarations into definite action”.1

Happy Independence Day!

Woodrow Wilson a few hours after nomination, July 2, 1912 (LOC)
President Woodrow Wilson, 1912. From the Library of Congress.

1Woodrow Wilson: "Address at Independence Hall: "The Meaning of Liberty," July 4, 1914. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. [accessed July 2, 2012]

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