English concepts of natural rights popularised the idea of personal liberty and freedom from governmental power in U.S. America.
Individual liberty represents one of the defining precepts of Western civilisation. We primarily associate this principle with a concept the Russian-British philosopher Sir Isiah Berlin (1909-1997) calls negative liberty or freedom from coercion. Accordingly, the individual human being should be as free as possible from constraint, outside interferences or coercive state interventions. Berlin’s notion of positive liberty, on the contrary, amounts to freedom to self-realisation / self-determination (i.e. to be in control of oneself or to rule oneself).
The idea of personal liberty, however, is not equally valued everywhere across the globe today. Various countries or their authorities highly restrict individual freedom in addition to violating basic individual human rights. By contrast, Western countries grant these human rights, even though several governmental agencies and / or organisations there also regulate, for example, economic activities and freedom of speech.
For many people, such regulations pose serious threats to liberty in general. Especially a lot of U.S. Americans regard the concept of (individual) liberty as sacred. This attitude has historical reasons which can be traced back to colonial societies in British America during the 17th and 18th centuries and the U.S.A.’s founding in the latter part of the 18th-century.
In this context, we need to focus on the English / British impact on its (former) North American colonies or, with reference to the title of a book by the historian David Hackett Fisher, on Albion’s seed of liberty in America. We will start with Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769) because it gives an overview of the basic personal rights in English law.
The Englishman’s (Natural) Rights to Life, Liberty and Property
Blackstone (1723-1780) was a seventeenth-century English legal scholar and a practicing lawyer. His Commentaries – which consisted of four books – was among the most well-known works in 18th-century British North America, as one of America’s founding fathers, James Madison (1751-1836), indicated by remarking that the Commentaries was „in every man’s hand“. The first chapter of this work Of the Absolute Rights of Individuals contains notable aspects concerning the rights of Englishmen.
Alongside other features, Blackstone presented basic individual liberties or the rights of the people of England in three major categories. These are the right of personal security, the right of personal liberty as well as the right of private property. While the right of personal security guarantees protection for a person’s life, physical integrity, health and reputation, the right of personal liberty ensures a person’s freedom of movement and an individual’s freedom from unlawful imprisonment. Furthermore, the right of private property, in principle, allows for the free use and disposition of one’s own property.
Blackstone basically defined what summarizing analyses of his Commentaries called – with the help of his own words – „[t]he absolute rights or civil liberties of Englishmen“. Nevertheless, he did not mention anything unfamiliar to British Americans. As early as the 17thcentury, the liberties of Englishmen had been guaranteed in several charters across the American colonies.
„Man being born…with a title to perfect freedom…hath by nature a power…to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men…“
We usually sum up Locke’s natural rights in the often-quoted slogan life, liberty and property.
Appropriately enough, Locke’s Two Treatises provided philosophical inspirations for the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). Although the famous document’s principal author, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), altered the phrase „life, liberty, and property“ to „life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness“, the changed phrase did not exclude the idea of the security of private property since property was synonymous with liberty for many 18th-century Britons and Americans.
A Source of Liberty – The Vital Importance of the Security of Property
Liberty required the security of property to exist, while, at the same time, liberty was a necessity for personal property to be secure. Consequently, the survival and enjoyment of liberty depended on the security of property.
Besides the mutual interdependence of liberty and the security of property, what is noteworthy is that in 18th-century English political thought liberty was interconnected with security in general. Of course, the protection of property was vitally important.
But the concept of security also included the protection of the person. Locke, for instance, in his Two Treatises saw the state’s primary purpose as protecting persons, their property and property rights. Interestingly enough, his use of the term property not only encompasses material possessions, estate and land but also an individual person and his/her labour.
Like today, private property and / or material goods in the 18th-century constituted a means of survival as well as a standard of well-being. However, it was more viewed as a source of liberty, rather than a kind of capital resource for economic development. We can infer from this that the concept of property then carried a certain immaterial value or ideal and was, thus, not only restricted to the physical or material.
For numerous 18th-century Britons and Americans, property as a source of liberty opened the door to independence from arbitrary power. Such a power was not necessarily abuse of authority. Instead, it epitomized power without restraint and could appear in any form of government – whether democratic, parliamentarian, republican, monarchical or oligarchical.
Freedom from Arbitrary Government
With respect to the prevailing idea of liberty in 18th-century Anglo-American thought, liberty epitomized a defense against arbitrary governmental power, which was conceived of as liberty’s antithesis. Because the 18th-century notion of liberty entailed freedom from arbitrary government, from today’s perspective, it tends to correspond to Berlin’s concept of negative liberty. Likewise, from today’s viewpoint, Locke’s rights are, first and foremost, negative.
Ackermann, Ulrike: “Freiheitsliebe – Einleitung.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ibid. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2007.7-25.
Audi, Robert. Ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nded. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (CUP), 1999.
Berlin, Isaiah: “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Four Essays On Liberty. Ed. Ibid. Oxford: Oxford University Press (OUP), 1969.
Blackburn, Simon. Ed. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nded. Oxford: OUP, 2008.
Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England. (1765-1769; see link).
Cannon, John. Ed. Dictionary of British History. Rev. ed. Oxford: OUP, 2009.
Dahrendorf, Ralf: “Freiheit – eine Definition.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ibid. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2007. 26-39.
Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: OUP, 1989.
Hannan, Daniel. How We Invented Freedom& Why It Matters. London: Head of Zeus, 2013.
Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. (Written during the 1670s; see link).
Loughlin, Martin. The British Constitution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP, 2013.
McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum:The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.
McDonald, Forrest: “The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers.” Requiem: Variations on Eighteenth-Century Themes. Eds. Ibid., and Ellen S. McDonald. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988. 1-22.
Reid, John Phillip. The Concept of Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Rüb, Matthias: “Freedom Isn’t Free. Amerikas quicklebendiger Gründungsmythos: Freiheit.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ibid. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2007. 287-302.
Vincent, Nicholas. Magna Carta. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP, 2012.