The Concept of Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution
"Liberty was the most cherished right possessed by English-speaking people in the eighteenth century. It was both an ideal for the guidance of governors and a standard with which to measure the constitutionality of government; both a cause of the American Revolution and a purpose for drafting the United States Constitution; both an inheritance from Great Britain and a reason republican common lawyers continued to study the law of England."
As John Philip Reid goes on to make clear, "liberty" did not mean to the eighteenth-century mind what it means today. In the twentieth century, we take for granted certain rights—such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press—with which the state is forbidden to interfere. To the revolutionary generation, liberty was preserved by curbing its excesses. The concept of liberty taught not what the individual was free to do but what the rule of law permitted. Ultimately, liberty was law—the rule of law and the legalism of custom. The British constitution was the charter of liberty because it provided for the rule of law.
Drawing on an impressive command of the original materials, Reid traces the eighteenth-century notion of liberty to its source in the English common law. He goes on to show how previously problematic arguments involving the related concepts of licentiousness, slavery, arbitrary power, and property can also be fit into the common-law tradition. Throughout, he focuses on what liberty meant to the people who commented on and attempted to influence public affairs on both sides of the Atlantic. He shows the depth of pride in liberty—English liberty—that pervaded the age, and he also shows the extent—unmatched in any other era or among any other people—to which liberty both guided and motivated political and constitutional action.
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