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A Tolerable Anarchy

A history of what it means to be free in America.

By Chuck Leddy / March 19, 2009



America represents the promise of freedom – although not always the reality.  That’s the view Jedediah Purdy offers in A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom,  his erudite, topical, thought-provoking exploration of the history of what it means to be free in America.

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Purdy, who teaches law at Duke University, opens his book on the eve of the American Revolution, with a skeptical Samuel Johnson predicting from London that America’s so-called lovers of freedom would soon degenerate into anarchy. Speaking of the Virginians at the forefront of the Revolution, a disbelieving Johnson asked, “‘Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?’ ”

How did America’s founders define freedom? And where did their ideas come from? At the time of the American Revolution, “The Americans’ ideal of political freedom, too, meant being immune from arbitrary power and answering to one’s own law,” Purdy writes. “[R]ulers must be closely bound by constitutional limits, and legitimate authority ultimately arose from popular consent, at least that of property-holding men.”

And yet Purdy contends that the American rebels were deeply conservative, harking back to, and demanding, the political rights of Englishmen as echoed in the 17th-century battle between the English monarchy and Parliament.

From the Revolution on, Purdy continues to traces evolving American insights into the nature of freedom. He explores former slave Frederick Douglass’s expansive view of freedom as a necessary struggle against oppression, a fight to turn the lofty abstractions of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution into a living reality.

He also plumbs the philosophical depths of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who placed freedom of conscience above all: “The only sin that Emerson acknowledged,” writes Purdy, “was the failure to listen to the heart.” Emerson’s conception of freedom, Purdy notes, resonates widely in 21st-century opinion.

Freedom in a limited world
Purdy brilliantly asks the fundamental questions posed by the challenges of freedom and restraint. We demand to be free, free to define ourselves by the dictates of our consciences, but we live in a world that limits us. As Purdy knows, we “find ourselves thwarted by the impersonal forces of economics, limited education or opportunity, or whatever else stands in the way of self-authorship.”

We are hemmed in by the legitimate values of community and responsibility, and more, Purdy notes. The demand for order sometimes trumps the ideals of Emersonian self-autonomy – and vice versa.

But what makes freedom real is struggle, and that evolving struggle is “the engine of our history, not the enemy of order but the beginning of each new form of order.” As such, “dignity, peace, and justice, are not natural gifts,” writes Purdy, “but achievements won ... in a history of struggle.”

Individualism vs. order
Purdy is a marvelous intellectual historian, and his narrative elegantly explores shifting trends in American thought, from the “rugged individualism” of Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan to the communitarian values expressed by the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson. Throughout, Purdy wields examples from history and philosophy to vividly illuminate his arguments.

Roaming freely and discursively, he considers present-day America as well,  pondering digital technology and its power to democratize and diffuse US culture.

Purdy also explores the complex relationship between religion and freedom, as well as the way that economics can limit freedom. A guaranteed minimal income would free people to choose the work they want, Purdy notes humorously, but would also “produce a world with more bad poetry, boring independent films, and hours spent watching reality television.”

What Purdy makes translucently clear is that American freedom is a moving target that will always be elusive. His analysis is bracing. Purdy makes clear that freedom is largely what we make of it through struggling to translate its promise into reality.

With Purdy’s passionate engagement with ideas and American tradition, as well as his elegantly crafted prose, “A Tolerable Anarchy” makes an important contribution to American intellectual history. It also provides pleasure to anyone seeking serious thought about the meaning of American freedom.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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