Charting liberty from `authority' to `law and order' to `justice'

Spheres of Liberty: Changing Perceptions of Liberty in American Culture, by Michael Kammen. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 180 pp. ``Liberty'' in America has always been an elusive bird -- as high-flying and difficult to pin down as the American eagle, but also as majestic and distinctive.

Well before colonial patriots formed as the ``Sons of Liberty,'' and through generations of schoolchildren repeating the familiar final lines of the pledge of allegiance (``with liberty and justice for all''), right down to the Statue of Liberty celebration last July 4, ``liberty'' has been the most popular -- if not amorphous -- concept Americans have used to describe their political and civic selves.

In this handsomely published series of distinguished lectures at the University of Wisconsin, historian Michael Kammen attempts to map and chart the concept of liberty as interpreted by politicians, statesmen, and the courts in America from the 18th century to the present. As such, ``Spheres of Liberty'' is a fine piece of readable scholarship -- offering a framework with which to apprehend the ``workings'' of liberty.

In Kammen's analysis, liberty in America can be characterized in two main ways: First, it has been a dynamic, expanding concept -- meaning very different things to different people at different times. Liberty has been defined through political setbacks and triumphs, not theory. Kammen quotes former Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter: ``Great concepts like `liberty' were purposely left to gather meaning from experience.''

Second, liberty is best understood in American history not by itself, says Kammen, but as it relates to some other prevailing concept, such as authority, power, order, justice, privacy. Liberty, as Walter Lippman wrote, is ``contingent on some other ideal.''

In the 18th century, this main ideal was authority. The American Revolution liberated the colonies, but that liberty must be preserved by a federal government of laws, not men.

Liberty in the 19th century was conceived and discussed in terms of law and of order -- both concepts emerging in a nation trying to establish a ``tranquil'' identity in the middle ground between tyranny and anarchy. Liberty was not license but required restraint. There are some good pages here on concepts of liberty in North and South, including treatment of John Calhoun.

By the 20th century, liberty and order had become too static a concept in the face of industrialization, economic monopolies, and urban life, all of which threatened the common man's liberty. Hence, a ``new conception'' of liberty -- liberty and justice -- came to the fore. Further, liberty in 20th century America became distinctive -- and more a subject of preservation -- in light of the rising tide of fascism in Europe, and later with Stalin's atrocities in communist Russia.

The book is rich: Many rare quotes, historical nuggets, and seminal legal cases are included, along with 23 plates of iconography that trace evolving liberty images.

The problem some readers may have is the virtual lack of reference in ``Spheres'' to the Protestant consciousness that so heavily influenced American thought through the 19th century. This is odd in a book claiming to be an examination of ``American culture.'' Few representative diaries and journals, for example, are included. In fact, this is more accurately a legal and political study -- liberty in America being viewed as a product of the Enlightenment. Yet, as Arnold Toynbee and others note, Locke and Hume provided the necessary structure and articulation of the new democracy, but it was the liberation of the individual conscience brought about by Luther and Calvin in the Reformation that cultivated the soil and provided the power to establish democratic liberties in the New World.

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