In 1645, while he was deputy-governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop and his fellow-magistrates had interfered in a local election of a militia officer. When the dispute flared into a war of words, the magistrates bound over some of the dissidents to the next court and summoned others to appear. In this controversy the magistrates were accused of having exceeded their powers, and Winthrop was impeached. After a controversy of almost three months Winthrop was fully acquitted and some of his opponents fined. It was after this test and vindication that Winthrop made his famous “little speech” here quoted.
Few words command such quick and unbridled favor as “liberty.” Nor have many terms been so closely identified with America and Americans. When Patrick Henry demanded “Give me Liberty or Give me Death!” he clearly spoke for a vast number of Americans of his day (many of them self-described “sons of liberty”) who risked their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to vindicate inalienable rights, with liberty at their center. Yet in his Reflections on the Revolution in France(1790), Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, asked, “Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty?”
Suspicion of those who proclaim liberty to be always and everywhere a blessing is not at all equivalent to hostility toward liberty. Indeed, conservatives, as proponents of limited government and self-rule by local political and social associations, are committed to vigorously defending a rational, ordered liberty. But conservatives rarely engage in revolutionary rhetoric like Patrick Henry’s. Nor do they share libertarians’ enthusiasm for absolute liberty in all its forms. In particular, conservatives insist on the necessity of taking into account liberty’s potential for abuse when interpreted, in a simplistic fashion, as the mere absence of constraint. The prominent liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished between two forms of liberty—“negative” and “positive.” “Negative” liberty is freedom from coercion and constraint, whereas “positive” liberty is the freedom to fulfill one’s essential purposes. Berlin made clear his preference for “negative” liberty as promoting self-control, contrasting it with a potentially totalitarian “positive” liberty. For Berlin, liberty must be seen as merely one among many goods (such as equality and fairness) to be pursued.
But it is important to note the rather unsatisfactory understanding of liberty presented by Berlin. Negative liberty, abstractly understood, is simply power. It is a person’s ability to act, without check, as he chooses. And individuals may and often do choose to act in ways that may be harmful and even evil. Taken in this asocial sense, negative liberty clearly is not an unmitigated good. Neither is “positive” liberty, in which an individual person may have his essential purposes defined for him by the government. But then reality, as the conservative knows, rarely fits nicely into rationalistic philosophers’ neat categories.
Early in American history the Puritan leader John Winthrop, in his “Little Speech on Liberty,” also distinguished between two forms of liberty. “Natural” liberty men share with beasts. It is the liberty to do as one pleases, be it good or evil. This “natural” liberty (so named in reference to man’s natural, inherent sinfulness) is inconsistent with authority of any kind, including the rightful authority of free, ordered government. The other liberty, which Winthrop termed “civil,” refers to the freedom of men guided by moral norms. It is the liberty to do “that only which is good, just, and honest.” Civil liberty consists in the freedom of men joined together in political communities to pursue the common good. This civil liberty is not defined by the will of the ruler, empowered to determine the good of each individual he rules. Rather, it is the liberty of social creatures, reared in family, church, and local association, to recognize their duties to their fellows, as well as their right to pursue good ends.
Winthrop’s “natural” liberty, like Berlin’s “negative” liberty, rests on rejection of any authority outside the self; its possessor seeks to follow his own inclinations only. Only in “civil” society does the individual become part of a constitutive group, part of a community seeking the common good and therefore making liberty beneficial to all. Thus, conservatives follow Burke in accepting the goodness of liberty only when and to the extent that it is not, in fact, unbounded, but instead subject to the moral dictates of natural law and the customary and legal restraints of society. This is in keeping with the conservative view of man’s inherently social nature, the necessity of social interaction for the formation of good character, and the imperative that men have good character, or virtue, if they are to be free. As Burke remarked in the Letter to a Member of the French National Assembly (1791), “It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
Conservatives support liberty that is properly—that is socially, politically, and morally—ordered and understood. In other words, ordered liberty is the ability to pursue the good in common with one’s fellows. And the good is not defined by those in power merely, but by the permanent standards of natural law made concrete in the norms of social life. Thus, liberty is inextricably communal. In fact, historically, liberty has been the possession of groups as much as it has individuals. When the American colonies won from the English crown the liberty to govern themselves, they were following in the wake of those medieval cities which had won “liberties” from kings through charters granting them rights of self-government in important areas of public life. Charters’ liberties could be lost through misuse. In similar fashion, an individual person’s right to free speech will not protect him from punishment if he uses it to commit slander.
In sum, the most thoughtful conservatives recognize that a sustainable liberty is ordered by the proper ends of natural law and the customs and common good of the community.