On the Origins of Freedom

History center credits English lawmakers with solidifying concept

WHERE did freedom come from?

This may seem an ineffable question, like wondering where air originated. But the idea of freedom was not a product of nature that lay waiting for humans to pick up. People invented it, and in this era of freedom triumphant around the world an examination of its roots might help ensure its continued vitality.

The study of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, free choice of leaders, and other notions of liberty does puncture some illusions, though. Do you think they first occurred to a bunch of idealists sitting around a fire, who foresaw benefits to mankind for centuries to come? Think again.

"To a large extent we owe our freedom to a rapacious and in some ways persecuting minority who saw in these kind of general principles the solution to their own particular problems," says Richard Davis, director of the Center for the History of Freedom at Washington University in St. Louis.

This unsavory crowd was composed largely of English parliamentarians of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. That's when and where modern notions of freedom really got their start, according to Mr. Davis and the first published volumes of his center's ambitious freedom history series.

That's hundreds of years after the Magna Carta was signed, and thousands after Greeks were practicing democracy. But England in the 1600s knew little and cared less about the ideas of the ancient world. Greek and Roman ideas did have some influence on modern freedom, but largely not until the 18th century, points out Davis. Then they were taken up with enthusiasm by men looking back at what they felt was the purity of classical civilization. (Think of all those statues of George Washington in a toga.)

Practically speaking, the Dutch had more liberty in the 1600s than the English did. As a trading nation, the Dutch needed to be tolerant of different religions, for instance, to make sure they got along with their customers.

But it was the peculiar English genius to consciously institutionalize freedom, says Davis. Parliament needed protection against an often-feisty Crown. To quote the famous Commons' Apology of 1604: "The prerogatives of princes may easily and do daily grow; the privileges of the subject are for the most part at an everlasting stand."

In 1604, James I tried to meddle in a disputed House of Commons election for the county of Buckingham. The Commons successfully resisted and, ever since, no officer of the Crown has been able to have sway over Parliamentary balloting - laying the foundation for today's freedom of elections.

Later Parliaments resisted when the Stuart kings pressed for forced loans to fund armies and other instruments of their foreign policy. The members of Parliament, almost all rich men, just didn't want to give up their own cash, be imprisoned unjustly, or be forced to host often-disorderly soldiers in their homes.

"But in getting these rights for themselves of course they got them for other Englishmen," says Davis. "It's not unusual for the interests of one generation to become the principles of the next."

That these ideas arose in Western culture were probably inevitable, says the head of the freedom study center. But that they triumphed at the point in time they did was not inevitable. If King Charles II or King James II had been more adept rulers, they could perhaps have gained a stranglehold on British institutions, with who-knows-what consequences for our own political institutions and heritage today.

The triumph of freedom can be seen as a near-run thing - and that may perhaps be a valuable lesson for Russian President Boris Yeltsin and all the other leaders struggling now to bring freedom to long-autocratic societies.

Asked what other advice the history of liberty might hold for Yeltsin, Davis says: "Don't panic." Trust the intelligence of your people, argue your case, don't feel you have to rush to solve every problem right away. Also, putting food on the shelves won't be enough. People really don't live by bread alone, especially once they've had a taste of freedom.

In the West, by contrast, the very familiarity of freedoms has now led to their being undervalued, complains the first volume of the center's "Making of Modern Freedom" series.

One example of this, Davis says, is that in America "Nobody really has great respect for the American people and their ideals."

He cites a recent fierce debate on the Washington University campus about whether the student newspaper should print an ad purporting to prove there was no Holocaust.

Davis found frightening the idea that the students couldn't handle this statement and needed to be protected from it, that in fact they couldn't weigh the evidence for themselves.

Freedom of speech, he says, means freedom to say disgusting things. "We have become terribly concerned with the purity of our language," he says, "and much less concerned with the reality that lies underneath. We're in danger of purifying our language and polluting ourselves."

QR Code to On the Origins of Freedom
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today