What did American colonists mean when they spoke of “liberty” and “independence”?
There are many dimensions of those words. In the context of today’s hyper, indulgent claims about the thoughts and opinions of the so-called “Founding Fathers,” I think it’s important to note that our current understanding of those two words is remarkably different from the way typical late 18th century colonists understood them.
“In the pre-revolutionary world of Washington and Lafayette, the notion of equality was almost literally unthinkable. Lafayette’s early opposition to slavery was as prescient as it was commendable, but neither he nor Washington considered slaves or Native Americans (or most other people) as even remotely their equals, whatever their stated principles. Distinctions of rank were implicit in the unspoken language of everyday life, imbedded too deep to be much remarked on even when they were pointedly felt, as they often were. Freedom, too, was a strange concept. In both the colonies and in France, the word ‘liberty’ usually referred to a traditional or newly granted privilege, such as an exemption from tax. Among the French aristocracy’s greatest complaints against Louis was the loss of such special considerations, or ‘liberties.’ The model of ‘independence’ that Washington held before him was that of the Virginia gentleman, whose property and wealth liberated him from the need to be dependent on anyone, even powerful friends. To declare one’s independence was to declare oneself an aristocrat.”
Neither “liberty” nor “independence” carried what we think of as familiar connotations within the modern liberal-conservative political spectrum. Indeed, in several respects, neither of those words was associated in colonial times with the ideologies, functions or practices of government.
The quote is from For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette and Their Revolutions, by James R. Gaines (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 12-13).
Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015