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Book Review : Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Meaningful Definitions

August 28, 1986|LEE DEMBART

Spheres of Liberty: Changing Perceptions of Liberty in American Culture by Michael Kammen (University of Wisconsin: $19.50)

The central theme of American democracy is liberty. It is both the basis and the ideal of our system of government, and the word itself occurs over and over in our national texts:

- The Declaration of Independence speaks of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

- The Preamble to the Constitution says the new system will "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

- President Lincoln began his Gettysburg Address by reminding his listeners that the United States was "conceived in liberty. . . ."

- The Pledge of Allegiance says the country offers "liberty and justice for all."

- And the symbol of the nation, more than any building in Washington, is the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.

Yet, paradoxically, no one can say exactly what liberty is or what it guarantees. The idea has a powerful grip on people's minds and can move them to revolution. But defining it has proved elusive over more than three centuries.

As Michael Kammen demonstrates in the series of lectures collected in this book, liberty has meant different things at different times in American history. What's more, analysis shows that some of the concepts of liberty seem to be self-contradictory. They are in tension with themselves.

Pair of Values

One of Kammen's theses, amply demonstrated in historical texts, is that liberty has always been understood as one half of a pair of values. In the colonial and revolutionary eras, people spoke and thought of liberty and authority. In the 19th Century, liberty meant liberty and order. For the first third of this century, it meant liberty and property. In the modern era, liberty has come to mean liberty and justice and more recently, liberty and equality.

Kammen acknowledges that those notions are not mutally exclusive. Threads and strands of them appear outside of the time frames he identifies. But he convincingly shows that each era contains a dominant theme that controls public discourse and public policy.

Nor should the development of the idea of liberty be thought of as an evolution from lower to higher. Each new idea does not completely replace the earlier ones. The themes do not disappear. The concept is so rich and textured that they can recur as needed. Kammen doesn't say it, but the country may be on the verge of returning to its 19th-Century view of liberty.

To the colonialists and founders of the republic, liberty did not mean natural liberty, which would return mankind to a state of nature and anarchy. Liberty meant civil liberty constrained by authority.

Liberty and Order

In the 19th Century, this idea evolved into the notion of liberty and order. Individual freedom was desirable, but so was social order, without which individual freedom could not be guaranteed. Edmund Burke wrote in 1791: "Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their own disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites."

Kammen writes, "On the occasion of the Constitution's Centennial in 1887, no theme was heard with greater frequency than the imperative that liberty must be modulated by order."

By then, the Supreme Court had begun implementing the Civil War amendments, particularly the 14th, which barred the states from depriving "any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law."

From 1905 until 1937, the court consistently struck down legislative efforts to regulate the economy. Laws that set minimum wages and maximum hours and barred child labor were held to be unconstitutional infringements on property and contractual rights.

Bakers' Hours Limited

For example, New York State passed a law limiting bakers to 60 hours a week. It was struck down on the ground that it infringed both the employer's and the employee's freedom to enter into a contract. If a baker wanted to work 100 hours a week, the court concluded, it was his right to do it.

In 1937, the Supreme Court repudiated that doctrine, and since then, no regulation of the economy in the name of public welfare has been struck down. In place of liberty and property, society and the court have linked liberty with justice. Liberty now means fair treatment by the government.

Kammen explains that when the court upheld its first New Deal legislation in 1937 (under threat of Roosevelt's court-packing scheme), "The concept of liberty had been revolutionized. It had shifted from a negative notion that restricted legislative power to a positive one that called for legislative action to enhance the rights of ordinary citizens."

Since World War II, that notion has been expanded into liberty and equality, which are not complementary ideas. All one has to do is to think of the battles over affirmative action to see the tension between liberty and equality. If government attempts to make all people equal, it must limit the liberty of the advantaged in order to assist the disadvantaged.

Liberty Not Static

The strength of Kammen's book is its proof that the idea of liberty is neither clearly defined nor static. We often forget that, even though we regularly feel liberty tugging in different directions.

In recent years, the Burger court has swung back and forth among the possibilities, sometimes deciding for the state (order) and sometimes deciding for the individual (justice). It never did establish rules for choosing but examined each case on an ad hoc basis.

William H. Rehnquist, the new chief justice, has made clear his preference. Almost without exception, when order clashes with liberty, he chooses order. If President Reagan can make more appointments in the next 2 1/2 years, the country may yet hear a reprise of the last century's "ordered liberty."

Unfortunately, Kammen's scholarly approach will limit the book's readership. Its historical analysis is accurate, and the implications, which Kammen does not address, should be widely discussed.

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