Albion’s Seed of Liberty in America – The Basic Personal Rights of Englishmen and Freedom from Arbitrary Power

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.   

Similar ideas had also been stated by the famous English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) in his Two Treatises of Government (1689):

„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.

Sources:

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.” RequiemVariations 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 CartaA Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP, 2012. 

 

 

 

 

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Quite Franklin – Stereotypical Views and Benjamin Franklin’s Vicious Comments about Germans

During the 18th century, one of the U.S.A.’s most famous Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, expressed his contempt for immigrants from German states to colonial America. In general, there have been stereotypical views about Germans in the U.S.A.  

Mass immigration has always represented a contested issue in North America as in almost every country of the Western world. On the one hand, a huge number of people nowadays demand stricter immigration laws. On the other hand, many people support a liberal immigration policy.

The U.S.A. is commonly referred to as ‚a nation of immigrants‘, though colonial North America was predominantly settled by migrants from England or Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries. After the U.S.A. was founded, the Congress of the new American republic passed several federal legislation including the Naturalization Acts in 1790, 1795, 1798 and 1802. These acts only addressed immigration indirectly. Instead, as the name makes clear, they focused on the process of naturalization.

During this period (i.e. between the 18th and 19th centuries) these naturalization laws were comparatively generous. Broadly speaking, they allowed foreign residents in America to gain relatively easy access to citizenship as long as these persons fulfilled specific criteria.

Besides an oath of loyalty and the completion of the period of legal residence, the criteria included the renouncement of former and / or other allegiances and of all foreign titles. Moreover, the candidates for naturalization had to convince a court to have a „good moral character“ and to believe in „the principles of the Constitution of the United States.“ However, only „free-born white persons“ could be naturalized.

Correspondingly, notwithstanding that free blacks were given citizenship in some states of the U.S.A., these Naturalization Acts particularly excluded slaves, a lot of free blacks, American Indians and indentured servants until the naturalization laws were changed in the 19th century. Today, the exclusion of certain ethnic or foreign groups is usually conceived of as ‚racism‘ or ‚xenophobia‘.

But the white people of colonial British America and the early American republic also viewed other groups of British migrants (as well as their descendants) and non-British immigrants with suspicion or contempt. At this point, we can, for example, point to the aversion to 18th-century immigrants from German states. One of the people who expressed dislike for them was Benjamin Franklin.

This illustrious figure among the U.S.A.’s Founding Fathers worried about large German communities in Pennsylvania. Before turning to Franklin’s vicious comments about Germans, we should elaborate on how Americans in the past perceived people from Germany.

Beer, Sauerkraut and ‚the Adipose Society‘ – American (Stereotypical) Views and Images of Germans

From the late 17th century to the mid-19th century, masses of people came to North America from the German states, which formed a German nation state in 1871. Germans were generally associated with beer and such an association is still common. Not by chance. Well-known American beer brands have a German origin. In this context, it is worth mentioning the founder of the Miller Brewing Company, Frederick Miller (1824-1888), and Adolphus Busch (1839-1913), the co-founder of the brewing company Anheuser-Busch.

Scan
Germans and Their Beer – A 19th-century lithograph that is taken from page 49 of the anthology From Melting Pot to Multiculturalism: E pluribus unum ? (Ed. Peter Freese, 2005).

Apart from this, Germans have been regarded as embodiments of gluttony, overindulgence or obesity. Appropriately enough, a 19th-century American lithograph depicts stereotypical Germans. We see, for example, an obese couple, transporting beer barrels. The girl sits on one barrel, while the boy appears to drink beer.

As far as the overindulgence or obesity issue is concerned, it is remarkable that in 1963 the American TIME Magazine published an article about (West) Germany with the title „West Germany: The Adipose Society.“ A few passages of this article read as follows:

„Following the early ’50s, when the postwar boom set off what Germans call the Edelfresswelle, the gorgeous gobbling wave, buttocks and bosoms have expanded even more rapidly than the economy, and doctors have recognized two universal ailments: Doppelkinnepidemie, double-chin epidemic, and Hängebauch, or bellyhang.“

Parts of the article are certainly based on some stereotypical views.

Needless to say, more threatening images or views of Germans emerged in the U.S.A., when the two World Wars broke out. Then, the German word Sauerkraut was also replaced by the English term ‚liberty cabbage‘. Long before the 20th century, Germans had made themselves unpopular among Americans with a British background by, for instance, going to the park on Sundays to play loud brass music and do exercise, which the Germans called ‚Turnen‘.

During the colonial period many of the people from German states moved to Pennsylvania. Eventually, in the mid-18th century the colony of Pennsylvania was one-third German. Because of this fact, Benjamin Franklin reacted sharply.

‚These Palatine Boors‘ – Franklin’s Malicious Comments about Germans in Pennsylvania

Franklin expressed his contempt for the immigrants from German states. He stated the following in one letter to Peter Collinson (1694-1768), a Fellow of the Royal Society in Britain, on 9 May 1753:

„I am perfectly of your mind, that measures of great Temper are necessary with the Germans: and am not without Apprehensions, that thro’ their indiscretion or Ours, or both, great disorders and inconveniences may one day arise among us; Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation, and as Ignorance is often attended with Credulity when Knavery would mislead it, and with Suspicion when Honesty would set it right; and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain. Their own Clergy have very little influence over the people; who seem to take an uncommon pleasure in abusing and discharging the Minister on every trivial occasion. Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it;…“

His writings contain more malicious comments about Germans, as a part of his essay „Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind“ (1751) demonstrates:

„And since Detachments of English from Britain sent to America, will have their Places at Home so soon supply’d and increase so largely here; why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.“

He clearly feared the dominance of the German language in Pennsylvania.

His main concern was that the Germans would not adopt the English language and English customs. On 12 August 1753, Collinson suggested some remedies in a letter to him:

„Hints Humbly proposed to Incorporate the Germans more with the English and Check the Increase of their Power

1st To Establish More English Schools amongst the Germans.

2dly To Encourge them to Learn English Lett an Act of Parliament pass in Great Britain to disquallifie every German from accepting any Place of Trust or Profit Civil or Military Unless both He and His Children can speake English inteligibly.

3d To prohibit any Deeds, Bonds, or writeings &c. to be Made in the German Language.

4 To Suppress all German Printing Houses that print only German. Half German half English in a Page of Books or publick News papers To be Tolerated.

5th To prohibit all Importation of German books.

6 To Encourage the Marriages of Germans with English and Contra by some Priviledge or Donation from the Publick.

7ly To Discourage the sending More Germans to the Province of Pensilvania When Inhabitans are so much Wanted in Georgia, North Carolina and Nova Scotia &c.“

Franklin later responded in another letter in 1753, giving answers regarding the proposals.

At the beginning of the letter, he advised careful measures: „With regard to the Germans, I think Methods of great tenderness should be used, and nothing that looks like a hardship be imposed.“ What is especially noteworthy is his answer to the sixth proposal:

„The sixth Proposal of Encouraging Intermarriages between the English and Germans, by Donations, &c. I think would either cost too much, or have no Effect. The German Women are generally so disagreable to an English Eye, that it wou’d require great Portions to induce Englishmen to marry them. Nor would the German Ideas of Beauty generally agree with our Women; dick und starcke, that is, thick and strong, always enters into their Description of a pretty Girl: for the value of a Wife with them consists much in the Work she is able to do. So that it would require a round Sum with an English Wife to make up to a Dutch Man the difference in Labour and Frugality. This Matter therefore I think had better be left to itself.“

To put it mildly, from today’s point of view, his statements were extremely politically incorrect.

Sources:

Freese, Peter (Ed.). From Melting Pot to Multiculturalism: E pluribus unum ?. Berlin et al.: Langenscheidt, 2005.

Gerber, David A. American Immigration: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.