Friday, June 17, 2005

American Politics and Regional Folkways Part 2: The Freedom Ways

There was a discussion at Red State a few months ago, where a Southern Republican woman and a Massachusetts Democrat man were discussing whether GW Bush's 'Mission Accomplished' photo-op was rightly seen as an appropriate gesture for a President. How can it be that two intelligent, articulate people, given the same information and images, can disagree so profoundly as to whether the President is a strong leader supporting the troops or a puerile buffoon?

The heritage of the four Migrations brings different options for the language and symbolism of freedom, order, and government. The dialogue amongst these traditions has enriched our national political life. Let's look at each tradition, realizing that at this point in history many people lay claim to more than just one--either through diverse geneology (most Americans have a majority non-British heritage), having lived in multiple regions, or by exposure to concepts outside one's original folkways. Again I rely on Fischer's work, both Albion's Seed and Liberty and Freedom.

Yankee Ordered Freedom
Early New Englanders had a concept of 'ordered liberty' which had a few different facets. In general, liberty referred to the community's right to act, not an individual's. When referring to an individual though, they maintained the medieval English idea that a liberty is a relief from a prior condition of restraint (in contrast to the modern idea of restraint as something imposed on a natural condition of liberty). Similarly, they felt people ought to be free to act in a Godly fashion, but there is no right to err; this view justified their persecution of other faiths. Finally, New Englanders believed in a liberty from becoming a victim of circumstance; that the community ought to help the unlucky--when FDR, a Puritan descendant, spoke of 'freedom from fear' he was echoing a phrase used by 1st generation Massachusetts settlers.
The symbol of freedom New Englanders used was a 'freedom tree,' usually an old growth elm or oak in a town center. The symbol alluded to the ancient use of green and leaves as symbols of rebellion in East Anglia (eg Robin Hood wearing green in the forest), and by placing it in town commons they emphasized the idea of freedom as a condition of the community, rather than that of individuals.

Tidewater Hegemonic Liberty
The cavalliers of the Chesapeake Tidewater had a very different idea of liberty. As nobles, they thought of liberty as the right to rule over others, but especially the responsibility to rule over oneself. Their rhetoric often contrasted liberty with its opposite, slavery, a condition which an Englishman could acquire by ceasing to rule. Freedom was not simply a condition, but a rank. By this view, the state should be kept to the minimum power and influence necessary to preserve the hierarchy. An important symbol for the Tidewater folkway is found in first flag of South Carolina: a right crescent, which in English heraldry was incorporated into the coat of arms of a younger son, a common founder of Tidewater families in America. This symbol tied together many of the Tidewater elite families both under a banner they shared, and the crescent's allusion to ancient martial valor was appealing.
This initial form of hegemonic liberty seems quite contradictory to modern ears, and it went through many transformations over time. In the 19th and 20th centuries, this tradition became more egalitarian, admitting all persons potentially to the 'ruling class' without a requirement of controlling others, befitting a democracy. However, it also expected the responsibilities that came with the rank of free persons, retaining a premium on loyalty, and on having command of oneself. The Tidewater folkway is a source of the strong individualism of American culture.

Quaker Reciprocal Liberty
William Penn wrote over 60 books on the topic of soul freedom. Quakers went beyond the traditional Protestant idea of liberty as the freedom to do what's right, and quite explicitly took the Golden Rule to apply to those they disagreed with, to give them the right to practice religion according to their consciences. Quakers were optimistic, and believed that the truth would come to light if left free to overcome error. Penn's own life taught him the lesson that coersion of conscience was not just wrong, but never really worked. His colony didn't just restrain itself from persecuting other religions, but systematically enacted provisions to protect them, including then-radical ideas of trial by a jury of peers and protection for the jury from punishment for its verdict. Penn felt property rights were an important facet of individual civil rights, and wrote in Pennsylvania's charter a protection against arbitrary seizure of property. He also required that any taxes being imposed have the consent of the governed, by establishing a legislature with the power structure taxes. But Quakers were pragmatic; Penn wrote "liberty without obedience is confusion, and obedience without liberty is slavery."
Quakers comprised the main body of the antislavery movement in the 18th century. One of the first acts of the newly independent Pennsylvania was to ban slave importation. The primary symbol of liberty in the Quaker tradition was the Liberty Bell. Initially bought to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the colony, it became a cherished symbol as a signal for freedom that all can hear equally. It was taken up as the abolitionists' symbol in the mid 19th century, and continues to be rung on great occasions in the life of the country, including the deaths of Lafayette and Washington, and D-Day.

Backcountry Natural Liberty
In the war-torn British bordercountry, there was every reason to be hostile to the ordering institutions of nascent nation-states. After centuries of political and economic oppression, English, Scottish, and Irish peasants believed that the natural state of man was to seek escape from control. Their concept of order was the right to retaliate--their descendents in America continue to own guns at a higher rate than any other major folk group. But at the moment in history when the conditions that bore the borderland freedom way were changing forever, it was brought by immigrants to the American backcountry. Perhaps the most famous revolutionary war era backcountryman was Patrick Henry, who strenuously advanced the ideals of minimal government, light taxes, and the right of armed resistance to authority. Tellingly, when Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts, as a member of the Continental Congress he stated that "government is dissolved... we are in a state of nature." This type of rhetoric was deeply disturbing to the children of other waves of migration, but to the sons of the borderlands it made perfect sense to argue that when the support of the people is lost, the government ceases to be. Border dwellers had never recognized rule by birth in local government, and resented rule by 'divine right' from afar. Indeed, Patrick Henry's mother described the American Revolution as merely another set of 'lowland troubles'.
Natural Liberty was an absolute, and so did not require reciprocity; deviation from the norm could be violently suppressed. But it did require 'elbow room,' literally space to distance oneself from infringing on others' rights and having the government infringe on one's own rights. The favored backcountry symbol of freedom was the American rattlesnake, saying 'don't tread on me'--it was said that the snake is solitary, but rallies together for defense; it never strikes first but is an implacable opponent once aroused. 'Don't tread on me' was flown from privateers during Revolution itself, and after 9/11 it now again flies on US Navy ships.


Fischer concludes that each of these freedom ways has enriched the political debate of the country through its history, producing a more complete freedom than any one folkway could have engendered alone. I would add that every American has access to parts of each folkway's freedom way because the Constitution was able to hold them together and force them to talk. Joseph Ellis points out that the Constitution provided a mechanism to space out important debates such as that of slavery. It is in this sense that I say that America is great because Americans just don't get along.

Returning to our original question, whether Bush is a strong leader or a buffoon is still beyond the scope of this article. But the type of liberty one wants the government to protect will define the type of leader best suited to defend it.

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