Freedom is a contextual concept: freedom of whom from what? Or, for that matter, freedom to what?

That “what” can vary.

That “whom” can vary.

Liberty is a synonym for freedom, derived from a different language group. But it is also often used as a term of art to distinguish one variety of freedom from another. Indeed, I use liberty as the best term for “the freedom that all can possess.” But my usage is not at all widely accepted.

In the American context, the distinctions of meaning can be bracing. Take Langston Hughes’s epigram on the subject:

There are words like Freedom 
Sweet and wonderful to say. 
On my heartstrings freedom sings 
All day everyday. 
There are words like Liberty 
That almost make me cry. 
If you had known what I know 
You would know why.

What is going on here?

Perhaps we can clarify this mystery, at least by a little, by consulting David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed (1989). In that mammoth volume, Fischer considered four sources of American culture in the folkways brought over to North America from four distinct regions of Britain. And among the folkways he considers are the power and liberty traditions. Here is the relevant passage on the Puritans’ concept of liberty:

So this “publick liberty” notion is the freedom of the community from foreign control to govern itself. It was definitely not about the freedom of the individual from control of others to govern him- or herself.

This is Yankee liberty, which is often quite oppressive of dissent, not friendly to renegades within the community. To this day, I catch a whiff of this sort of freedom from modern-day Democrats. When I was young, I thought I sniffed out its redolence in Republicans and conservatives.

If I am not mistaken, this is also intimately tied to the ancient notions of liberty discussed by Benjamin Constant.

To the south, though, another variety of liberty dominated culture:

Here we see the freedom of the superior individual from control by others, but to allow control over “inferiors,” however that may be defined. Langston Hughes probably knew who the inferiors were thought to be, all too well.

Much more congenial to my way of looking at liberty is the Quaker notion:

Here is a more familiar libertarian conception of freedom: of all from each others’ tyrannies and interferences to obey one’s conscience.

Finally, this freedom-from-restraint notion, for individuals, is even more thoroughgoing in the fourth folkway set that Fischer identified:

Here, the reciprocal liberty of the Quakers has the piety shaken free of it, for individuals’ freedom from interference and control is also a freedom to tell your neighbor to buzz off, if necessary, and without the nicety of “conscience.” It is a more muscular freedom, and not so much a spiritual matter as a defiant vulgarity.

The Puritan liberty is the freedom of all corporally, as determined by hierarchies as well as participatory governance; the gentlemen’s liberty, on the other hand, is their freedom, individually as gentlemen and within their class, but definitely not the freedom of all (not for the vulgar and inferior); and in the other two systems, freedom is reciprocal and universal, but with pious duty as a corollary in one system, and “mind your own business” in the other.

As I see it, all four strains are part of our everyday American culture, but the communal tyranny strains and gentlemen’s prerogative strains too dominant. Within the modern American libertarian movement the Quakers are represented by SJW-leaning beltway libs, and the backwoods boys represented by the more vulgar-tongued “right-wing” quasi-paleos.

I see some merit in both camps.

Liberty, as I see it, should be the freedom of all from interference and exploitation and control — from all others, to the preservation of their lives and the pursuit of happiness. How much freedom can actually be achieved? Partisans of the two major political parties think “not very much,” with the Democrats, especially, pushing Yankee busybodyism, but the Republicans still clinging to elements. And the Republicans see the world as far more dangerous than do Democrats, at least from foreign power plays, but under Trump the Dems have embraced an anti-Russian paranoia.

But note that even Benjamin Constant (1819) did not totally reject the political element of individual freedom:

Individual liberty, I repeat, is the true modern liberty. Political liberty is its guarantee; consequently political liberty is indispensable. But to ask the peoples of our day to sacrifice, like those of the past, the whole of their individual liberty to political liberty is the surest means of detaching them from the former and, once this result has been achieved, it would be only too easy to deprive them of the latter.

This lesson is something that libertarians will probably never be able to cease pressing to others. It is a lesson too easy to forget.

Meanwhile, of course, the dominant culture has forgotten everything important. Pierre Lemieux, in his foreword to the Constant edition, above, shows the danger of the ancient/Puritan power conception of liberty, and its continued emphasis in our post-modern times:

I fail to see much at all inspiring in any conception of liberty that is not, itself, understood in large part as incorporating individual freedom and personal responsibility.

In reading Benjamin Constant and David Hackett Fischer, I am moved to no small sadness for our culture, which has so far lost its way from the modern liberal progress, having reverted, instead — in our post-modern manner — to a vile, neo-ancient closed society illiberalism.