Wednesday, February 23, 2011


When British emigrants came to the New World they brought more than thier religious beliefs and folkways. Each group; Puritans and dissenters, Quakers and Pietists, exiled Cavaliers, British borderers and Irish economic refugees brought their own conception of liberty.

The colonists of New Englanders had some conceptions of liberty that were unique to their settlements. David Fischer argues in Albion’s Seed that the word liberty was used in four different ways that would probably strike modern Americans as unusual.

One use of liberty described liberty or liberties that belonged to the community or communities rather than the individual. Writers, from the founding of the colony for the next two centuries spoke of the liberty of New England, the liberty of Boston, or the liberty of the town. There is evidence that Sam Adams wrote more often about the
”liberty of America” than the liberty of individual Americans.

This concept of collective liberty was consistent, to New Englanders at least, with restrictions on individual liberty that modern Americans would find very restrictive to say the least. In early years of the Massachusetts colony, potential colonists couldn’t settle there without permission from the general court. Persons who were judged to have dangerous opinions, in the eyes of the authorities, could be and occasionally were shipped back to England. Not every Tom, Dick, or Harry was allowed to move into the colony without permission.

Those colonial New Englanders accepted restraints, but did insist that the restrictions be consistent with the written laws of the Commonwealth. And they insisted that they had the right to order their communities in their own way. Not the way it was done in Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or in some cases even England.

Liberty or liberties had a second meaning in New England. One that had roots in the counties of East Anglia where many of colonists and most of their pastors left when they emigrated. Individuals could be granted the liberty to do something that they normally couldn’t do. For example, certain individuals could be granted the liberty to fish or hunt in certain areas while that liberty was denied to others. In some cases the liberty granted depended on someone’s social rank. For example a gentleman could not be punished with a whipping unless the crime was extremely serious and “his course of life was vicious and profligate.” (the author didn’t provide any examples) Those of lesser rank, had a lesser liberty: they were limited to forty stripes or less if they were sentenced to a flogging.

And codified in the fundamental liberties of the colony was the right of any man, inhabitant or foreigner to come before the courts or town meetings and have his voice heard. And if he couldn’t plead his own cause he had the right to ask someone else to speak for him.

And there was a third kind of liberty in New England. It was referred to as Soul Liberty, Christian Liberty or Freedom of Conscience. This did not mean freedom of conscience in the way we understand it. This was freedom to practice the true faith as defined by the fundamental law of the colony. This liberty did not apply to Quakers, Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, or even Presbyterians who did not agree to a very restrictive definition of reformed theology. And the definitions could, and often did, depend on the whim of the local minister. Basically, it meant they were free to persecute everyone else in their own way. I know, I’m getting a headache just trying to wrap my brain around the idea that the freedom to serve God in your own way in your own community could be defined as the right to hang Quakers for preaching in the town.

And, at times, liberty was used in a fourth way. It described an obligation of the “body politicke” to protect individual members from what the author calls the “tyranny of circumstance.” The Massachusetts poor laws may have been limited but the General Court recognized a right for individuals to be free from want in a basic sense. It wasn’t a question of collective welfare or even social equality.

In Fischer’s opinion these four ways of looking at liberty; collective liberty, individual liberties, soul freedom and freedom from tyranny of circumstance were all part of what the New Englanders sometimes called ordered liberty. The New Englanders had their ways of defining liberty; other colonies and their settlers didn’t always agree.

I'm hoping to do an entry for each region.

Cross posted in Walking With Hope.


Lisa :-] said...

So many folks hollering about what kinds of freedoms the framers of the Constititution had in mind... I wonder what they would think if they read THIS?

I'm thinking it's a good thing the Constitution is a living document, able to be interpreted in accordance with the times. I don't like some of these "liberties" you describe here.

JACKIE said...

I suspect some of the Puritans didn't care for some of them either. I think the important part is that the "liberties" were voted on and imposed by themselves.

I'm working on the other three. And they don't overlap very much. Not very much indeed.