The Untold History of Freedom

Liberty’s Discontents

The contested history of freedom.


One of the more contentious issues to emerge during America’s Covid-19 crisis concerns the wearing of face masks. Heralded by public health experts as a vital way to halt the spread of the disease, masks have also been attacked by conservatives as unwarranted restrictions on personal freedom. Donald Trump, who was briefly hospitalized with Covid in the final months of his presidency, defiantly refused to wear a mask in public, and he wasn’t alone: Thousands of similarly barefaced supporters attended his rallies, public health consequences be damned. Many Americans have challenged the call to wear masks, and the public health research behind it, as an attack on their rights as citizens of a free country. Last June, protesters stormed a hearing in Palm Beach, Fla., at which public officials were considering whether to require the wearing of masks in public buildings. During the fiery session, one woman claimed, “You’re removing our freedoms and stomping on our constitutional rights by these communist dictatorship orders or laws you want to mandate.” As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch noted after the meeting:

It was another great day for liberty—and yet a horrible one for tens of thousands of Americans who now may die needlessly because so many cling to a warped idea of freedom that apparently means not caring whether others in your community get sick. The reality is that those devil-worshipping elected officials and their mad scientists are trying to mandate masks in public for the same reasons they don’t let 12-year-olds drive and they close bars at 2 a.m.: They actually want to keep their constituents alive.

Give me liberty or give me death, indeed.

Ah, freedom! Few ideals in human history have been so cherished—or so controversial. The United States, in particular, has built its identity around the idea of freedom, from the Bill of Rights, enshrining various freedoms in the law of the land, to the giant statue of Lady Liberty in New York Harbor. And yet—interestingly, for such a foundational ideal—freedom has throughout history represented both the means to an end and the end itself. We wish to be free to pursue our most cherished goals in life, to make money as we will, to share our lives with whom we will, to live where we choose. Freedom empowers our individual desires, but at the same time it structures how we live with other individuals in large, complex societies. As the saying goes, my freedom to swing my fist ends just where someone else’s nose begins; in the words of Isaiah Berlin, “Total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs.” The tension between individual and collective notions of freedom highlights but by no means exhausts the many different approaches to the idea, helping to explain how it has motivated so many struggles throughout human history.

In her ambitious and impressive new book, Freedom: An Unruly History, the political historian Annelien de Dijn approaches this massive subject from the standpoint of two conflicting interpretations of freedom and their interactions over 2,500 years of Western history. She starts her study by noting that most people think of freedom as a matter of individual liberties and, in particular, of protection from the intrusions of big government and the state. This is the vision of liberty outlined in the opening paragraph of this essay, one that drives conservative ideologues throughout the West. De Dijn argues, however, that this is not the only conception of freedom and that it is a relatively recent one. For much of human history, people thought of freedom not as protecting individual rights but as ensuring self-rule and the just treatment of all. In short, they equated freedom with democracy. “For centuries Western thinkers and political actors identified freedom not with being left alone by the state but with exercising control over the way one is governed,” she writes. Liberty in its classic formulation was thus not individual but collective. Freedom did not entail escaping from government rule but rather making it democratic.

By opening up freedom to its multiple meanings, de Dijn explores an alternate history of the concept from the ancient world to the Age of Revolution to the Cold War, charting those moments when new notions of freedom—such as freedom from government supervision or repression—deviated from its more classical and longstanding definition as self-government. De Dijn thus shows how the rise of modernity brought about the triumph of a new idea of liberty. At the same time, her book invites us to consider the relationship between these two notions of freedom. For de Dijn, this relationship functions as a fundamental opposition, but one can also find in her history enough points in common between them to realize that individual liberty also requires collective freedom. For many, one cannot be truly free if one’s community or nation isn’t; freedom must belong to one and to all.

De Dijn divides Freedom into three roughly equal parts. In the first, she tracks the rise of the idea of freedom in the ancient world, with a focus on the Greek city-states and the Roman Republic; in the second, she examines the revival of this idea in the Renaissance and the Age of Revolution; and in the third, she considers libertarian challenges to the classical notion of freedom and the rise of a new conception focused primarily on individual rights.

For most of this long history, de Dijn is quick to note, the classical idea of freedom as democratic empowerment held sway. The turning point, she contends, came with the reaction against the revolutionary movements of the late 18th century in North America, France, and elsewhere. Conservative intellectuals like Edmund Burke in Britain and liberals like Benjamin Constant in France not only rejected the era’s revolutionary ideology; they also developed a new conception of freedom that viewed the state as its enemy rather than as a tool for its triumph. Eventually, in the modern era, this counterrevolutionary conception of freedom became dominant.

The heart of Freedom thus consists of an in-depth exploration of how the demands of democracy gave birth to the original idea of freedom and how, in the face of the democratic revolutions of the late 18th century, the concept was once again remade. In tackling this rather unwieldy subject, de Dijn uses the approach of intellectual history to tell her story, centering her analysis around a series of foundational texts by famous and obscure writers and thinkers alike, ranging from classical scholars like Plato and Cicero through Petrarch and Niccolò Machiavelli to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Burke, John Stuart Mill, and Berlin. She skillfully interweaves this textual analysis with the flow of historical events, vividly illustrating the relationship between the theory and practice of freedom and reminding us that no concept is immune to change over time.

For de Dijn, the story of freedom begins with the Greek city-state, which marked not only the birthplace of democracy but also the origin of the democratic conception of liberty—the ideal of the self-ruling city-state. She notes that a major part of the originality of Greek thinkers was not just to contrast their freedom with slavery (specifically the slavery of the Persian Empire) but also to reconceptualize freedom as liberation from political rather than personal bondage. By 500 bce, several Greek city-states, most notably Athens, had begun to develop democratic systems of self-rule in which all male citizens took part in decision-making through general assemblies. De Dijn argues that ancient Greek ideas of freedom developed in this context, emphasizing that freedom came with the ability of people to rule themselves as free men. I use the words “free men” deliberately because women and, of course, enslaved persons had no right to participate in democratic self-government. That inconsistency in fact reinforces de Dijn’s general point: that participation in democracy was the essence of freedom in the ancient world.

In her discussion of freedom in classical Greece and Rome, de Dijn does not fail to note the many objections to this idea of liberty, some from leading philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. For example, in a passage that, by raising the key issue of property rights, seems all too modern, Aristotle noted, “If justice is what the numerical majority decide, they will commit injustice by confiscating the property of the wealthy few.” Gradually, many in Greece turned to another conception of freedom, one that emphasized personal inner strength and self-control over democratic rights. Yet the idea of democratic freedom did not die, even as these notions of personal rights took shape—and this was especially true with the formation of the Roman Republic.

Similar to the city-states of Greece, the Roman Republic thrived for a while as the embodiment of freedom for its male citizens, grounding liberty in the practice of civic democracy. Overthrown by Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, the republic gave way to the Roman Empire, yet historians and philosophers like Livy, Plutarch, and Lucan continued to praise the virtues of the republican freedom fighters. In contrast, the empire—and even more so its successor (at least in terms of the moral imagination), Christianity—divorced freedom from democracy and instead conceived it as personal autonomy and the choice to accept authority. Out of the collapse of the classical city-states and republics came a new ideal of liberty, one no longer centered on collective life and political activity but instead on individual spirituality and a submission to power.

The defeat of democratic freedom by imperial absolutism would play a key role in shaping the revival of the ideal in the city-states of Renaissance Italy, underscoring the link between artistic liberty and self-government. The second part of Freedom considers this revival in Europe from the Renaissance to the Age of Revolution. De Dijn notes, for example, that Renaissance thinkers embraced the ancient ideal of democratic liberty as a reaction against the aristocratic royalism of the Middle Ages; the rebirth of knowledge was equally a rebirth of freedom.

Like the Renaissance in general, this renewed idea of democratic freedom arose first in 14th-century Italy, where cities like Venice and especially Florence bore a certain resemblance to the city-states of ancient Greece. Humanists like Petrarch and Michelangelo embraced the idea; even Machiavelli, best known to posterity for advising would-be rulers in The Prince, argued in The Discourses for a return to the ancient model of freedom. In Northern Europe, writers and thinkers adopted the idea of democratic freedom in opposition to monarchical rule, frequently characterizing the latter as freedom’s opposite, slavery. This was especially true in England, where the Puritan insurgents who executed King Charles I in 1649, at the height of the English Revolution, referred to ancient models of liberty to justify their unprecedented action.

In de Dijn’s analysis, the revival of democratic freedom laid the ground for the Atlantic Revolutions of the late 18th century, which she refers to as the “crowning achievement” of the movement. Her analysis focuses primarily on the American and French revolutions, especially the former. Although she does mention the Haitian Revolution, it would be interesting to see how a fuller consideration of that event, and of the issue of slave revolt in general, might have shaped her analysis.

De Dijn’s consideration of the American and French revolutions continues her emphasis on two themes: the indebtedness of theoreticians and freedom fighters to the classical tradition, and the link between freedom and democracy. John Adams, for example, compared the American revolutionaries with the Greek armies that stood against Persia. A 1790 Paris revival of Voltaire’s play Brutus, about the most prominent of Caesar’s assassins, won acclaim from the Jacobin public. De Dijn notes how revolutionaries in both countries viewed submission to monarchy as slavery and insisted not just on its abolition but also on the creation of systems of government answerable to the people. She extensively discusses the importance of ideas of natural rights during this era, focusing on key documents like the US Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and she disputes the idea that these constituted individualistic rejections of government interference, arguing instead that they reflect the conviction that civil liberties can exist only in a democratic polity.

Yet if the Atlantic Revolutions marked the apogee of the Renaissance’s call for democratic freedom, they also constituted its grand finale, its swan song. In the final section of Freedom, de Dijn explores the historical reaction against democratic freedom that produced the currently dominant idea of liberty as freedom from state interference. This new interpretation arose out of the struggle against the American and French revolutions; as she notes in her introduction, “Ideas about freedom commonplace today…were invented not by the revolutionaries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but rather by their critics.”

This is the heart of de Dijn’s argument in this section of Freedom, and she bases it on several themes. One is the idea, promoted by the German philosopher Johann August Eberhard, that political and civil liberty oppose rather than reinforce each other, that one could enjoy more individual rights and freedoms in an enlightened monarchy than in a democracy. The violence of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution gave this abstract argument concrete weight, enabling democracy to be portrayed as the bloody rule of the mob and turning many intellectuals against it. Burke was perhaps the best known of these conservative critics, but he was certainly not the only one. Others challenged the idea of majority rule, seeing in it not freedom but a tyranny of the many over the few that was inimical to individual rights. Constant rejected the revolutionaries’ attempts to return to the democratic freedom of the ancient world, arguing instead that, in the modern age, protecting individuals from government was the essence of liberty.

This conflict over the legacy of the Atlantic Revolutions gave rise, de Dijn argues, to modern liberalism, which during much of the 19th century championed liberty and rejected mass democracy as the source of violent revolution and tyranny. Throughout Europe, liberals supported governments based on suffrage limited to men of property; as the French minister François Guizot famously proclaimed, if people wanted the vote, they should become rich. The upheavals of 1848 reaffirmed the dangers of revolutionary democracy for liberal intellectuals. Ultimately, liberalism merged with movements for popular representation to create that strangest of political hybrids, liberal democracy. As suggested by one of its foundational texts, Mill’s great 1859 essay “On Liberty,” a system of limited democracy would allow the masses some stake in government while at the same time protecting individual freedoms and property rights.

The 19th century brought new challenges to the individualist idea of freedom, however. In Europe, liberals viewed the rise of socialism as a threat to personal freedom, above all because it threatened the right to own property. In the United States, the Civil War challenged liberal ideas of democracy and property rights by freeing and enfranchising enslaved Black people. Indeed, we might say that the Civil War was framed around contested notions of freedom: In the South, much more than in the North, the war was initially portrayed as a struggle for freedom—not just the freedom to own slaves but more generally the ability of free men to determine their own fate. Likewise, in the North, “free men, free labor, free soil” become a central mantra of the Republican Party, and the war was also understood eventually as a struggle for emancipation.

As de Dijn argues, these challenges would only continue and increase during the early 20th century, leading to the decline of liberalism in the face of new collectivist ideologies like communism and fascism. The era of the two world wars seemed to many the death knell of individual liberty, perhaps even of the individual himself. Even the attempts to preserve freedom, such as the New Deal in the United States, seemed more inspired by the traditions of democratic freedom than by its liberal individualist renderings. It is therefore all the more remarkable that the victory of these forces in World War II would bring about a powerful revival of individualist liberalism.

In the decade after the collapse of Nazi Germany, intellectuals like Berlin and Friedrich Hayek would reemphasize the importance of individual freedom—what Berlin termed “negative liberty”—and their ideas would land on fertile soil in Europe and America. Much of this perspective arose out of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union representing the same kind of threat to conservative ideas of liberty that the Jacobin Republic had 150 years earlier. Cold War liberals reemphasized the principle of liberal democracy as, in effect, limited democracy with protections for individual rights against the passions of the mob.

De Dijn largely concludes her analysis of freedom’s history with the aftermath of World War II, but it is worth extending her story to explore the success of this vision of liberty since the 1950s. In the United States, in particular, the rise of the welfare state that began with the New Deal and culminated with the Great Society prompted a sharp counterreaction, one that framed its politics around the idea of individual liberty and resistance to big government. Traditional conservatives in the Republican Party as well as a growing number of neoconservatives linked their Cold War politics to their opposition to the welfare state, insisting that the Soviet Union’s and the United States’ experiments in social democracy had eroded freedom in both countries, and they were joined by those resisting the achievements of the civil rights movement, reinforcing the relationship between whiteness and freedom. Triumphing with the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, this anti-egalitarian notion of freedom has dominated the Republican Party and much of American political life ever since. The House Freedom Caucus, to take one current example, owes its existence to thinkers like Burke and Berlin.

Freedom is a challenging and compelling analysis of one of the greatest intellectual and popular movements in the history of humankind. De Dijn writes well, making a powerful argument that is both unusual and hard to resist. She shows how the very nature of freedom can be interpreted in different ways by different people at different times. More specifically, she challenges conservatives who wrap their ideology in the glorious banner of freedom, revealing the long history of a very different vision of human liberation, one that emphasizes collective self-government over individual privilege. In doing so, she shows how philosophers, kings, and ordinary folk have used (and sometimes misused) the past to build the present and imagine the future.

This is a very rich and complex tale, one that raises interesting questions and suggests further exploration of some of its key themes. Following the lead of one of the great scholars of freedom, Orlando Patterson, de Dijn notes how many in the ancient world and at other periods in history conceived freedom as the opposite of slavery and yet also built ostensibly free societies that depended on the work of slaves. The denial of voting rights and thus freedom to women during most of history also speaks to this paradox. De Dijn underscores the importance of this contradiction, but it would be useful to know more about how people at the time addressed it. Slavery has existed throughout much of human history, of course, but it is interesting to note that the new antidemocratic vision of freedom emerged most powerfully during a time characterized not only by the height of the slave trade but also by the thorough racialization of slavery. Could it be that it was easier to divorce freedom and democracy when slavery was no longer an issue for white men and when the vision of rebelling against slavery was upheld not only by ancient Greek fighters but also by Black insurgents in the Haitian Revolution?

In her analysis, de Dijn stresses the triumph of the individualist narrative of freedom in the years after World War II, but it bears remembering that those years also witnessed the unprecedented success of social democratic states, which offered an alternate vision of freedom centered on social rights, redistribution, and working-class power. The success of these states came directly out of the wartime experience; millions who took part in the struggle against fascism fought not just against the Axis but for a more just and democratic world.

Moreover, the postwar era witnessed two of the greatest freedom campaigns in history: the struggles for the decolonization of European empires and the American civil rights movement. Both overwhelmingly cast themselves as crusades for a democratic vision of freedom. Julius K. Nyerere, the founding father of an independent Tanzania, wrote no fewer than six books with the word “freedom” in the title. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, arguably the greatest oration in 20th-century America, ended with the ringing words “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” One should note that resistance to racial equality played a central role in the formation of contemporary conservative ideology, so that to an important extent, the movement for individual freedom was a movement for white freedom.

Finally, one should consider the possibility that, at times, de Dijn’s two ideas of freedom may have points in common. In 2009, at the dawn of the Tea Party movement, a right-wing protester reportedly shouted, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” This statement, grounded in ignorance of the fact that Medicare is a government program, prompted much derision. But we should take a second look at what this suggests about the relationship between these two contrasting ideas of freedom. The civil rights movement, to take one example, was a struggle for individual rights not based on skin color and, at the same time, for the protection of those rights by a more democratic government. To take another example, in June 2015, the movement for LGBTQ rights achieved one of its greatest victories in the United States with the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage. But did this represent the triumph of a democratic movement for freedom or the destruction of government restrictions on the rights of individuals to marry? In other words, isn’t protecting individual freedom precisely a key point of modern democracy?

It is to de Dijn’s credit that Freedom: An Unruly History forces us to think about such important questions. At a time when the very survival of both freedom and democracy seems uncertain, books like this are more important than ever, as our societies contemplate both the heritage of the past and the prospects for the future.

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