Liberty is not a recent invention; on the contrary, the idea of it forms part of our oldest intellectual heritage.
When we say that no man may be imprisoned or dispossessed unless in virtue of the law of the land and the judgment of his peers, we are getting back to the language of the Magna Carta. Or if we seek with Chatham to affirm the inviolability of the private dwelling-house, we are unconsciously bringing back to life the imprecation contained in the ancient law of Norway:
"If the king violates a free man's dwelling, all will seek out the king to kill him."
Liberty is found among the most ancient groupings of the Indo-European people, known to us. It is a subjective right which belongs to those, and to those only, who are capable of defending it: to the members, that is to say, of certain virile families which have, with a view to forming a society, entered into a sort of federation. Whoever belongs to one of these families is free, because he has "brothers" to defend him or avenge him. These can, if he has suffered injury or death, beleaguer in arms the dwelling-place of the murderer; they can also, when he is the accused, range themselves at his side.
In this powerful family solidarity, all the most ancient forms of procedure find their explanation. As, for example, the manner of serving a writ, the record of which is preserved for us in the laws of Alfred: acceptance of service was obtained by a mimic assault on the defendant's house— a clear indication of the fact that a suit was at first a recourse to arbitration held with a view to obviating a physical combat. It was these powerful families, jealous of their independence, but assiduous in matters of common import, that gave their tone to libertarian institutions.
To us it is hardly credible that a society can remain alive in which each man is the judge and master of his own actions, and our first reaction is that the most hideous disorder must reign wherever there is no Power to dictate to men their behavior. Patrician Rome is evidence to the contrary. Why is it that the autonomy of individual wills did not produce what seem to us its natural results? The answer lies in three words: responsibility, ritual, folkways.
The Roman was, it is true, free to do anything. But, let him have answered imprudently the question "Spondesne?" ["Do you promise?"] and he was bound; that he misunderstood, that he was deceived or even coerced, helped him nothing: there was no coercing a man; etiamsi coactus, attamen voluit [Even though compelled, yet he decided.].
He was free, but, through carelessness, imprudence, or stupidity, he promised to pay a certain sum, and cannot: behold him now the slave of his creditor. A world in which the consequences of mistakes were liable to be so heavy both required and formed virile natures. Men meditated long their actions, and, as though to induce reflection, their every action wore a ceremonial aspect [my note: origin of Olympian virtue ethics].
At the height of Republican Rome, this ritual was strict in the extreme; and brought it home to men that their decisions and acts were grave and solemn things. It gave to their steps a measured and majestic gait. Unquestionably, nothing did more to give to the Senate its air of an assemblage of kings.
The early imprinting on the mind by a feared and venerated father of the cult of the ancestors, a severe and uniform education, the formation in common of adolescent training centers, the early spectacle of behavior commanding respect, this and all else conditioned freemen to certain modes of behavior.
The climate of opinion when Republican Rome stood at its summit was that of a small, privileged society, freed from all menial work and sordid preoccupation and nurtured on tales of heroic exploit; a betrayal of this standard, and its doors closed forever against the offender.
It was because the political thinkers of the eighteenth century conceived of opinion after these classical models that they sought to entrust it with so large a part. They failed to notice that the object of their admiration was neither general nor natural, that it was the opinion of a class and a product of meticulous training.
The system of liberty rested entirely in those days on the assumption that men would use their liberty in a certain way. Reliance was placed on the observable fact that men —men, that is to say, of a certain class— in virtue of acquired characteristics which could be maintained in vigor, behaved for all practical purposes in this particular way. With them, and for them, the system of liberty was workable. It was a system based on class.
The word "freeman" does not sound to our ear as it did to those of the men of old. The emphasis is, for us, entirely on the "man." In it is the substance, and the adjective is a mere redundancy which only develops an idea already contained in the noun; whereas for the Romans the emphasis was on the "free," so much so that they telescoped the noun and the adjective into a single noun: ingenuus.
It is to this nature that the privileges of liberty are linked. The moment a man belies it, they are lost to him; as, for instance, to the Roman who let himself be taken prisoner in war, or became a notorious evildoer, or, for the sake of security, placed himself in another man's power.
Freemen are, taken as a body, capable both of ruling others and of agreeing among themselves, and rest their pride simultaneously in the majesty of their own persons and in that of the city. Men of their breed, whether Spartiates or Romans, will never submit to slavery whether from within or from without. They put up a superb resistance to the aggressions of Power seeking expansion, while bringing to the discipline and defense of society a proud and assiduous succor.
They are the soul of the Republic, or rather they are the entire Republic. But, what about the rest? The system of liberty in the ancient world rested on a social differentiation which the modern spirit finds profoundly shocking. Full civil and political rights were at first the portion only of the eupatrids or the patricians, members at one and the same time both of the founding families or clans and of the warrior bands in whose assemblage the strength of society consisted; the phratries and curias kept alive the memory of these bands.
Naturally, the mass of plebeians brought social pressure to bear on the privileged aristocracy, and this pressure had the effect of diffusing the system of liberty, though it also altered its characteristics. To us, who are not satisfied with a liberty that is undiffused, this pressure, and its diverse forms and consequences —which are not, as we shall see, what were intended— are full of valuable lessons.
Out of an extremely complex process, it is only possible here to disengage the three main forms of emancipation, to which we shall give the names of (1) incorporation, (2) differential assimilation, and (3) counter-organization.
In the earliest days of Roman history whole families were taken into the patriciate. The authorities tell us of several occasions on which this happened, as, for instance, at the annexation of Alba, when the great Alban clans were taken in on a footing of equality. Enlargements of the patriciate effected after this manner did no harm to the system, any more than did the frequent admissions of individuals by way of adoption. The effect was merely that people who had the habit of liberty received an accretion of like-minded people, or, in the case of individual admissions, of people who were considered to display in the highest degree the characteristics proper to a state of liberty. The admissions of individuals went on almost uninterruptedly and greatly reinvigorated the patriciate. The admission of whole families soon came to an end.
The result was that, instead of virile plebeian families coming in to enlarge and fortify the patriciate, they remained part of the plebs, gave it its leaders, and conducted a long-drawn-out political warfare, in the course of which the right of plebeians to hold the various public offices was progressively recognized.
In the course of its struggles with the patriciate the condition of the plebs changed, for it won for itself civil and political rights. These were not, properly speaking, the patrician rights, and this is why the expression "differential assimilation" has been used. For instance, the form of patrician marriage, the confarreatio, was bound up with rites which were purely patrician; other forms of marriage had, therefore, to be found. Again, the manner of making a will by means of a solemn declaration of testamentary intentions made before the comitia curiata was unsuited to the plebeian; so there was invented the disposition by way of a fictitious sale of the estate.
The spirit of the law underwent a change. So long as Roman society was powerfully organized in private groupings, each of them presided over by a man of strong will, whose will had been disciplined by beliefs and folkways, all the law that was necessary was to keep some sort of watch on the various crossroads at which collisions were possible. But, behavior became less calculable when it was a case of a crowd of men whose wills had received less conditioning. Weaker characters, of men who had not previously enjoyed complete autonomy as regards law, could not be made subject to the cruel consequences of mistakes, which would be more frequent. It became necessary to temper and humanize the law. Public authority, in the form of the praetor, was brought in to protect individuals. Regulations multiplied under it.
The men of the people came thereby to set less store by their legal status of freemen than by their participation in the public authority [my note: birth of liberty as democratic machination, no longer liberty as personal honor and aristocratic virtue]. In this way, there was introduced into Roman society the essentially erroneous notion that it is the business of legislative authority to prescribe or forbid anything whatever. Anyone who put forward a proposition of a nature seemingly advantageous for the immediate future was blindly applauded, even though his proposition subverted the entire permanent edifice of order.
It was the tribunate [a political body first created to protect the plebs from arbitrary tyranny] which habituated the people to the idea of a saviour redressing at a stroke the social balance. Marius and Caesar were to be its heirs, and the emperors would find it an easy task to establish themselves on the ruins of the Republic and liberty. And who were the men who would try to stay this process? Freemen of the old school. Brutus' dagger, so dear to the Jacobin heart, was wielded by an aristocratic hand.
The death or the Roman Republic may be ascribed with equal truth either to the fault of the masses or to the failure of the great. The system of civil and political liberty could be made to work so long as it was not extended beyond men whose folkways accorded with it. But, it ceased to be workable when once it had come to include strata of men for whom liberty was as nothing beside political authority, who expected nothing from the one and hoped everything of the other.
In the first period of growth, economic independence and personal autonomy in matters of everyday life had gone on broadening down at the same pace as the right to political liberty, or even at a faster pace, a second phase arrived in which this independence and this autonomy started contracting, while the right to liberty continued to be extended to those members of society who were as yet without it (instance the admission to citizenship by Marius of the capite censi).
The result was that, instead of the physical independence of society's members becoming generalized, the bulk of them became the dependents of the public authority. To carry out its new duties, that authority had necessarily to build up a separate administrative corps.
I find a remarkable counterpart to the story of the two Gracchi [two brothers who tried to salvage Rome by two very different methods: fortifying of the middle class vs. their final excision in a two-class state] in that of the two Roosevelts.
Theodore Roosevelt, considering that the physical independence of the majority of citizens was the essential condition of their attachment to libertarian institutions, applied himself to fighting a plutocracy which was transforming citizens into salaried dependents. He came to grief on the same blind egoism of the men of great place as caused the downfall of Tiberius Gracchus.
Franklin Roosevelt accepted the accomplished fact, took up the defense of the unemployed and the economically weak, and constructed, by means of their votes and to their immediate advantage, such a structure of Power as recalled in striking fashion the work of the first Roman emperors.
The phenomenon, when once its essence has been grasped, throws a flood of light on the political history of Europe. We may pass over the evolution of the Italian republics, which, in their progress from the patriciate to the tyranny, exactly reproduce the course of events at Rome; for it is not by these, but rather by the monarchies, that the modern states have been created.
As we have seen, the chances of preserving libertarian institutions are bound up with the proportion of the politically effective members of the society in question who desire benefit from them. We ought not, therefore, to feel surprise at the wide measure of support accorded to kings in their attempts to substitute their own authority for liberties which benefited only the few and were an oppression to the many. Those historians who are impelled by an inner need to take sides are much embarrassed by this struggle between monarchy and aristocracy.
Will historians, in their passion for libertarian and anti-absolutist institutions, admire the resistance of aristocracy to the formation of absolutism? Sismondi, for instance, states that in the Middle Ages;
"All the real advances made in independence of character, in the safeguarding of rights, and in the limitations forced by discussion on the caprices and vices of absolute Power, were due to the hereditary aristocracy."
Only the English political scene does not impale the historian on this dilemma, and that by reason of certain historical peculiarities which have been well set forth by de Lolme. There, in effect, the authority of the crown was from the first sufficiently great and security sufficiently assured to save the large class of freemen from shriveling into a narrow caste.
Instead of the ambitions which had been thwarted and the activities which had been exploited by the oppressive measure of liberty enjoyed by the notables finding, as in France, a rallying-point beneath the royal banner, the political strength of what may already be termed "the English middle class" was mustered in the wake of the squires (regarded as large-scale freemen) under the banner of liberty. The phenomenon is one of decisive importance: for it has had the effect of forming, for and throughout whole centuries, an English political outlook very different from that prevailing on the continent of Europe.
J. S. Mill, in a famous passage, threw into contrast the different political tempers of the peoples of France and England:
There are two states of the inclinations, intrinsically very different, but which have something in common, by virtue of which they often combine in the direction they give to the efforts of individuals and nations; one is the desire to exercise power over others; the other is disinclination to have power exercised over themselves. The difference between different portions of mankind in the relative strength of these two dispositions is one of the most important elements in their history.
Barely troubling himself to camouflage the cap, Mill then fits it on the French, who sacrifice their liberty, he explains, to the most exiguous and illusory participation in Power:
There are nations in whom the passion for governing others is so much stronger than the desire of personal independence, that for the mere shadow of the one they are found ready to sacrifice the whole of the other. Each one of their number is willing, like the private soldier in an army, to abdicate his personal freedom of action into the hands of his general, provided the army is triumphant and victorious, and he is able to flatter himself that he is one of a conquering host, though the notion that he has himself any share in the domination exercised over the conquered is an illusion.
A government strictly limited in its powers and attributions, required to hold its hands from over-meddling, and to let most things go on without its assuming the part of guardian or director, is not to the taste of such a people; in their eyes the possessors of authority can hardly take too much upon themselves, provided the authority itself is open to general competition. An average individual among them prefers the chance, however distant or improbable, of wielding some share of power over his fellow citizens, above the certainty, to himself and others, of having no unnecessary power exercised over them.
These are the elements of a people of place-hunters; in whom the course of politics is mainly determined by place-hunting; where equality alone is cared for, but not Liberty; where the contests of political parties are but struggles to decide whether the power of meddling in everything shall belong to one class or another, perhaps merely to one kind of public men or another; where the idea entertained of democracy is merely that of opening offices to the competition of all instead of a few; where, the more popular the institutions, the more innumerable are the places created, and the more monstrous the over-government exercised by all over each, and by the executive over all.
The English people, according to Mill;
"Are very jealous of any attempt to exercise power over them, not sanctioned by long usage and by their own opinion of right, but they in general care very little for the exercise of power over others."
The English have little sympathy with the passion for government, but "no people are so fond of resisting authority when it oversteps certain prescribed limits."
In their capacity as leaders of the middle classes, the English aristocrats, ever since Magna Carta, associated them in their own resistance to the encroachments of Power. From that ensued a general attachment to safeguards for the individual and to affirmation of a law which was independent of Power and, at need, opposable to it.
In France it was around the monarchy that the middle classes rallied in their struggle against privileges. The victories of state legislation over custom were popular victories. So it came about that the two countries entered on the democratic era with very diverse dispositions.
In one of them, the system of liberty, from being a right of persons of aristocratic origin, was to be progressively extended to all. Liberty would become a generalized privilege. For this reason it is misleading to speak of the democratization of England. It would be truer to say that the rights of the aristocracy have been extended to the plebs. The British citizen is as untouchable as a medieval noble.
In France, on the other hand, the system of authority, the absolutist machine constructed by the Bourbon monarchy, was to fall into the hands of the people, taken in mass. In England, democracy would take the form of the extension to all of an individual liberty which was provided with centuries-old safeguards; in France, that of the attribution to all of a sovereignty which was armed with a centuries-old omnipotence and saw in individuals nothing but subjects.
When the people appears in the political arena in the leading part, it enters on what has been for centuries the battle-ground of monarchy and aristocracy. The former has forged the offensive weapons of authority, the latter has strengthened the defensive positions of liberty.
According as the people has, during its long minority, rested its hope in the monarchy or in the aristocracy and collaborated in the extension or in the limitation of Power, according as its admiration has traditionally gone out to kings who hang barons or to barons who turn back kings, it will have formed potent habits of mind and inveterate sentiments which will lead it on to continue either the absolutist work of the monarchy or the libertarian work of the aristocracy.
Thus, the English Revolution of 1689 invoked the name of Magna Carta, whereas in the French of 1789 praises of Richelieu rang loud; he was canonized as "man of the mountain and Jacobin." But even in countries where popular authority is orientated by potent memories towards the safeguarding of individual rights, it will inevitably tack about to Power's side, and its breath will come, sooner or later, to puff the sails of sovereignty. This tacking about takes place at the bidding of the same causes as we have already seen at work at Rome.
So long as the people, consisting of freemen participating in the work of government, comprises none without some individual interests to defend, so that all feel an attachment to subjective rights, liberty seems to them precious and Power dangerous. But so soon as this "people with voting power" comprises a majority of persons who have, or think they have, nothing to defend, but are offended by great material inequalities, then it starts to set no value on anything but the power which its sovereignty gives it of overthrowing a defective social structure: it delivers itself over to the messianic promises of Power.
Louis Napoleon, Bismarck, and Disraeli perfectly understood this —great authoritarians all of them, who realized that, by enlarging the franchise at a time when property was becoming a closer preserve, they were, by calling in the people, paving the way for the distension of Power. It was the politics of Caesarism.
Only three things matter to Caesarism. First, that those who are oldest in liberty within the society should lose their moral credit [note: in America, the moral delegitimation of Anglo-Nords, who built the modern West and only for whom a modern republic has been possible] and become incapable of imparting to those who enter on the heritage of this liberty a pride of personal status embarrassing to Power. Tocqueville has remarked on the part played in this respect in France by the complete extirpation of the ancient nobility. The second factor necessary to Caesarism is that a new class of capitalists should arise, without moral authority and possessed of an extreme of wealth which sets them apart from their fellow-citizens. Lastly, there is the third element, which is the union of political strength with social weakness in a large dependent class.
Though they heap treasure on treasure and think themselves thereby more powerful, the "aristocrats" of the capitalistic creation,by awakening the resentment of society, disqualify themselves for ever from being its leaders against the inroads of Power. Whereas the infirmities of the multitude find a natural haven in the omnipotent state.
In this way is removed the only obstacle that Caesarism has to fear— a movement of libertarian resistance, emanating from a people with subjective rights to defend and under the natural leadership of eminent men whom their credit qualifies and whom the insolence of wealth does not disqualify.