The Concept of Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution

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University of Chicago Press, 1988 - Political Science - 224 pages
"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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Contents

Introduction
1
A Word We Know
11
The Importance of Liberty
18
The Bane of Liberty
32
The Opposite of Liberty
38
The Concept of Slavery
47
The Antithesis of Liberty
55
The Lawfulness of Liberty
60
The Security of Liberty
68
The Constitutionality of Liberty
74
u Liberty and the Revolution
84
Slavery and the Revolution
91
The Rhetoric of Liberty
98
The Definition of Liberty
108
Copyright

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About the author (1988)

John Phillip Reid is professor of law at New York University. He is the author of twelve books on political and legal thought.

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