The Enlightenment spawned a new concept of the individual. In this new view, a person could and should be free to think and choose their own way and to be their own moral agent.
There is perhaps a common perception that the Magna Carta, at least among those that have even heard of the Magna Carta, established liberty for all in England. While the document is a cornerstone for the rights of Englishmen, it hardly established universal liberty. The document focused on the rights of the nobility and the relationship between them and the king. It put certain constraints on absolute Royal power. and established a set of checks on absolutism. The translation of Magna Carta version of 1297 shown below when you click on the link==> |Show|
While the Magna Carta was clearly important, in some respects it really forced King John under the oak at Runnymede to abide by existing Anglo-Saxon tradition Nevertheless,it is a critical foundational document that is at least a powerful symbol of English law, especially clause 29:
No freeman is to be taken or imprisoned or disseised of his free tenement or of his liberties or free customs, or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go against such a man or send against him save by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. To no-one will we sell or deny of delay right or justice.
When the colonists asserted their "rights as Englishmen" they were delving into a deep tradition that drew upon even pre-English roots.
The Enlightenment drew upon this tradition and took it to a more codified philosophy of individual liberty. Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and others provided a valuable source for the colonists. Liberty, both from religious and government oppression, was a critical component of the Enlightenment and almost certainly facilitated the tremendous leaps in scientific understanding that came when minds were unshackled. Liberty and scientific advancement and the development of the scientific method were almost certainly related.
The key factor of the Enlightenment, as opposed to previous English tradition, was individual liberty and the freeing of the mind to think and to quest. Arguably, without this movement towards individual liberty and freedom, the Republic would not have been founded as it was--if it was founded at all.
So what, then, is liberty? Simply put, liberty is the ability to pursue one's own ideas and aspirations and to apply one's own talents to achieve happiness and prosperity with little or no hindrance from the government or other people.
Note, the concept of limited interference from the government. In any society, some form of government applies some rules to ensure security and tranquility, just as stated in the preamble to the Constitution. There is a balancing act in which citizens allow the government to collect taxes so that it can provide essential collective services and enforce commonly accepted standards of behavior. Therefore citizens cede some of their liberty as long as there are deliberate checks placed on the government and the government's use of power and the amount of liberty it can take from the citizens. This is essentially the balancing act described in the Declaration of Independence and enacted in the Constitution.
Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, wrote:
"...desire of an equal commonwealth, administered by justice and equality; and of a kingdom wherein should be regarded nothing more that the good welfare of the subjects." (Book 1, p 14 of Meric Casaubon's translation.) George Long translates Aurelius' Greek slightly differently, but the concept is the same, "the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed; (Book 1, source MIT Classics Library, http://classics.mit.edu//Antoninus/meditations.html)"
The common core that connects Aurelius and the Magna Carta, as well as the Declaration of Independence and other key documents is justice and fair application of laws that govern and potentially constrain government actions and keep government for exerting powers beyond its mandate. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Aurelius take this even further and discuss equality and government's role ensuring the general welfare of the people.
Liberty is a key enabler of happiness and prosperity. Liberty allows people to grow their talents, employ them as they see fit and to enjoy the fruits of their efforts. Given the recent seeming economic success in China, some may wonder whether liberty is that important to prosperity. However, while China has developed considerable wealth, one may wonder how prosperous the society truly is and whether the people enjoy the fruits of their labor and are happy. Some of the recent signs from China, such as strikes and ethnic unrest may indicate that while the state is wealthy, the people are not and the people serve the state rather than the state serving the people.
This does, however, bring up an interesting question. Does liberty require a democratic form of government? Given the course of the US and European history over the last three hundred years, the answer seems to be yes. However, the two do not necessarily need to be linked together. A benevolent dictator or perhaps better yet a philosopher king as envisioned on Plato'sThe Republic could conceivable govern and society with liberty and individual freedom. The danger of course is two-fold. First a benevolent dictator or philosopher king could change and become corrupted. As Lord Acton once said, "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." (letter dated 1887 to Mandell Creighton). Second, even if one or a few benevolent dictators resisted the siren call of absolute power, sooner or later one and then other will fall victim to it. How would they then be replaced to protect liberty?
On the other hand, we have the potential of the "tyranny of the majority". Lord Acton weighs in on this theme as well: "The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections." (The History of Freedom in Antiquity, 1877). Even before Acton, however, ancient writers warned of ochlocracy and John Adams coined the phrase in 1788 after James Madison in Federalist X wrote of concerns that a majority could impose its will on the minority. Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in Americadedicated chapter XV to the subject and helped to popularize the subject.Pre-saging and possibly influencing Lord Acton, he wrote:
Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power. But no power upon earth is so worthy of honor for itself, or of reverential obedience to the rights which it represents, that I would consent to admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on a people or upon a king, upon an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I recognize the germ of tyranny, and I journey onward to a land of more hopeful institutions.
In my opinion the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their overpowering strength; and I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the very inadequate securities which exist against tyranny.
When an individual or a party is wronged in the United States, to whom can he apply for redress? If to public opinion, public opinion constitutes the majority; if to the legislature, it represents the majority, and implicitly obeys its injunctions; if to the executive power, it is appointed by the majority, and remains a passive tool in its hands; the public troops consist of the majority under arms; the jury is the majority invested with the right of hearing judicial cases; and in certain States even the judges are elected by the majority. However iniquitous or absurd the evil of which you complain may be, you must submit to it as well as you can.
What happens when a group of people who pay little or no taxes become a majority and insist on high taxes to pay for increasingly high social benefits? What happens when one ethnic group achieves a majority and imposes its will on an existing group? Quite honestly, we saw the latter case before the 1960's in the United States with institutional prejudice against Black Americans. We are potentially seeing the first case arise now.
A government that truly wants to secure liberty and maintain common prosperity and domestic tranquility must tread a cautious path and ensure that its institutions seek to preserve liberty and justice for all. The philosophy in the Declaration of Independence and the text of the original Constitution tried to thread this needle, albeit with the fatal flaw of slavery still preserved.