Overview of the history of liberty

How human liberty has developed
since ancient times

In the beginning, there was oppression. The earliest recorded civilizations were ruthlessly run by kings and priests. Government plunder, slavery and murder were legal. The Pharoah's word was law.

Then the ancient Jews developed the idea that all people -- including rulers -- were subject to laws from their god, Yahweh. The vision of a law above rulers came to be called a "higher law." The first "higher law" seems to have been the right of rebellion against tyranny. The Bible tells how the priest Moses led Jewish slaves to revolt against their Egyptian oppressors, then escape into Palestine. This epic rebellion, which probably occurred around 1250 BC, was the earliest successful slave rebellion in recorded history. The Bible goes on to tell how, at Mt. Sinai, Yahweh subsequently conveyed the Ten Commandments to Moses who presented them to the Jews.

The idea of a "higher law" was embraced by some Greek dramatists. For instance, Sophocles (c.496-406 B.C.), in Antigone, when the heroine explains why she must defy the king's wishes:

"Your edict, King, was strong.

"But all your strength is weakness itself against

"The immortal unrecorded laws of God.

"They are not merely now: they were, and shall be,

"Operative for ever, beyond man utterly."

The idea of a "higher law" was expanded on by Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers, starting with Chrysippus (281-208 B.C.). The first Stoic, indeed the first ancient philosopher whose life has been well documented, was the Roman lawyer and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC-43 BC).

During the early 16th century, following seemingly endless religious persecution and wars, Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536) emerged as the first modern champion of toleration and peace. He denounced persecution by both Catholics and Protestants. He declared that different religions should flourish peacefully. He urged an end to burning heretics, witches and books. When Martin Luther declared that human beings cannot choose their destiny, Erasmus defended free will. Just two decades after the Spanish established a colony in America, Erasmus came out against colonialism. He pleaded for tolerance.

Enduring sanctuaries for religious toleration were established by Roger Williams (1603-1688) in Rhode Island and William Penn ((1644-1718) in Pennsylvania. They peacefully purchased land from the Indians and welcomed settlers of different religions.

The first comprehensive agenda for liberty was developed by the "Levellers," as their opponents called them. The "Levellers" were courageous activists and pamphleteers during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, and the leading figure, if not the best writer, was John Lilburne (c.1614-1657). He attacked intolerance, taxes, censorship, trade restrictions and military conscription. He championed private property, free trade, freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, a rule of law, a separation of powers, and a written constitution to limit government power.

While a political exile in Holland, the English political philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) developed the "higher law" doctrine into what came to be called the natural rights philosophy. It begins with the idea, touched on by the "Levellers," that you own yourself and the fruits of your labor. Locke made a case that regardless what governments might say, individuals have a natural right to life, liberty and property.

Locke, and his martyred compatriot Algernon Sidney (1622-1683) who wrote about popular sovereignty, had an enormous influence on passionate pamphleteer Thomas Paine (1737-1809), philosopher Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and others who articulated the natural rights ideas behind the American Revolution.

It was long thought that unless government controlled everybody's religion and enforced a single doctrine, there would be chaos. Eventually, after terrible religious wars, it was recognized that if people were set free to worship in their own way, there would be blessed peace. By the 18th century, some important thinkers such as the shy Scotsman Adam Smith (1723-1790) observed that the most important social institutions, like languages and markets, weren't planned by any government. They developed spontaneously, through the action of free people.  

French thinkers called this idea laissez faire, meaning essemtially "let it be."   Jacques Turgot (1727-1781) was the first to put laissez faire principles in action, abolishing taxes, trade restrictions and forced labor in France (at least for a while).

Achieving a free society requires a separation of powers, to avoid the concentration of power that breeds tyranny. The French thinker Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) was the perhaps first to focus on this issue, and the American James Madison (1751-1836) did more than anyone else to achieve a written constitution for maintaining a separation of powers. A separation of powers didn't develop in France, which why, during the 1790s, the Revolution turned into the Reign of Terror and led to the dictatorship of Napoleon.

Some of the greatest struggles of liberty occurred during the 19th century. For more than three decades, American abolitionists, the best-known of whom was William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), renewed the cry for natural rights and campaigned for the emancipation of black slaves. The Englishwoman Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) had made clear why natural rights principles must be extended to women, and this idea was promoted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) who campaigned more than 50 years for equal property rights and woman suffrage. There were revolutions in Europe and struggles for independence in South America. Russia abolished serfdom in 1861. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888.

A number of 19th century thinkers dramatically expanded our understanding of liberty. The English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) presented an eloquent practical case for toleration. Amidst the turmoil of the Napoleonic era the Frenchman Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) identified concentrated political power as the primary danger to liberty, whether it's held in the name of an individual or the people. Another Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), prophetically warned about tyranny of the majority. Historian Lord Acton (1834-1902) warned that political power inevitably corrupts those who hold it.

Utopian socialists failed to sustain voluntary communities, and in the 20th century many socialists urged that socialism be imposed by force. That, of course, led to many of history's most hideous regimes which murdered more than 150 million people during peacetime.

Yet totalitarian horrors spurred some of the most important thinking about liberty. In 1920, just three years after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) explained why socialism must trigger economic chaos. Another Austrian economist, Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek (1899-1992), told why political liberty is impossible without economic liberty. Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan (1919-) made clear how government tends to be the biggest interest group in a society, promoting itself at the expense of everybody else. Nobel laureate George Stigler (1911-1991) showed how government regulations tend to backfire, harming millions. Nobel laureate Milton Friedman (1912-) affirmed that political liberty is impossible without economic liberty.

A free society cannot long survive unless individuals take responsibility for their own lives. This is why the self-help ethic is vitally important. Publisher, inventor and diplomat Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), author Samuel Smiles (1812-1904) and educators  Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and Maria Montessori (1870-1952) inspired millions to make the most of their opportunities.

Some of the most important works about individualism were written during the 19th and 20th centuries.  The honor roll of authors includes Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Lysander Spooner (1808-1887), (Mark Twain (1835-1910), Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945), H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) and Rose Wilder Lane (1887-1968). Russian-born Ayn Rand (1905-1982) renewed the moral case for individualism and capitalism as she developed a philosophy based on natural rights and reason.

Some of the most glorious art, music and literature expressed the spirit of liberty. For example, Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) who wrote poems and plays about liberty; Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) who composed an opera about liberty; Victor Hugo (1802-1885) whose masterwork was about a peaceful individual's struggle with police; William S. Gilbert (1836-1911) who wrote comic operas which made fun of the high and mighty; Robert Heinlein (1907-1988) who wrote science fiction novels about struggles for liberty; and Louis L'Amour (1908-1988) whose Western heroes affirmed the values of individualism.

Throughout history, liberty has inspired acts of great courage. Samuel Adams (1722-1803) risked his life to promote the cause of the American Revolution, while Charles James Fox (1749-1806) courageously defended American Independence in the British Parliament. Lafayette (1757-1834) led soldiers into battle, endured brutal prisons and faced the most powerful rulers in Europe. Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847) championed the cause of Irish liberty for four tumultuous decades. The astonishing Swede Raoul Wallenberg (1912-?) saved almost 100,000 Jews from Nazi death camps. Dr. Martin Luther King (1929-1968), Jr. defied death threats as he campaigned against segregationist laws, renewing the "higher law" doctrine that laws just be judged by moral standards.

Hopefully, libertystory.net will help enrich your understanding of  ideas, personalities and events in the history of liberty.

Additional articles:

Wall Street Journal calls The Triumph of Liberty -
"a literary achievement"

Voices for liberty in the ancient world
The first yearnings to be free were expressed in Greek epics, tragedies and comedies

The man who helped finance the American Revolution
During desperate years, merchant Robert Morris came through with money and munitions so that George Washington could win

Ancient Roman contributions to private property rights
The Romans replaced tribal property with private property and worked out the details about how ownership should be proven and transferred.

How toleration developed in modern Europe and America
Courageous individuals defied the terrors of the Inquisition and denounced religious wars.

The story of Magna Carta
King John's wars and taxes stirred England's barons to protect their interests by rebelling against him, and they set an enormously important precedent for liberty which benefited everyone.

The best of H.L. Mencken, witty American defender of liberty
This prolific newspaperman and literary critic still entertains and enlightens us today.

How private enterprise created modern Japan
The government's railroads, shipping, silk-reeling and other ventures all lost money. Private entrepreneurs achieved wonders.

Runaway slaves!
Far from being contented and docile, American slaves dreamed of liberty, and thousands rebelled or ran away. Inspiring resistance to oppression.

The strange battle for the U.S. Bill of Rights
Those who initially wanted it ended up voting against it, and those who never wanted it made it happen

Why has liberty thrived in the West?
This is where enough people stuck out their necks for liberty.

"Honor is a harder master than the law"
At 58 and in ailing health, Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) was plunged $94,000 in debt by business failures. True to his word, he repaid everybody.

Liberty as a woman
Throughout history, liberty has been depicted as a woman on coins, in engravings, paintings, statues and more. Here are illustrations from ancient Rome, France and America.

Private initiative spurred vital discoveries throughout history
Language, geography, science and other essentials of civilization were diffused around the globe by private initiative.Political liberty impossible without economic liberty
The life and times of F.A. Hayek. The New Yorker called the twentieth century "the Hayek century."

Political liberty impossible without economic liberty
The life and times of F.A. Hayek. The New Yorker called the twentieth century "the Hayek century."

Thomas Jefferson in perspective
How can friends of liberty still defend him after the relentless attacks of historians and biographers during the last quarter century?

How markets nurtured our civilization
Many people seem to imagine that markets and commerce are only about money, yet they made civilization possible. They brought people into contact with new ideas and things. Civilization has flourished where commerce has flourished.

Most dramatic orator in the American antislavery movement
Although Wendell Phillips isn't as well known today as William Lloyd Garrison, the pioneering journalist for abolishing slavery, or Frederick Douglass who provided the most compelling testimony, Phillips was more effective than anyone else stirring crowds against slavery.

Socialism's greatest enemy
How this great Austrian economist recognized the fatal flaws of a government-run economy 7 decades before the collapse of the Soviet Union made it obvious to all that he was right.

They created the first modern agenda for liberty
Dubbed the "Levellers" by their adversaries, these mid-17th century English rebels championed private property, religious toleration, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free trade, a rule of law, a separation of powers, a written constitution, and they opposed military conscription.

William S. Gilbert's wicked wit for liberty
Most quotable lines by the dramatist whose comic operas, created with composer Arthur Sullivan, are still going strong after more than a century (reportedly performed more than the work of any other songwriting team except the Beatles). Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken enjoyed Gilbert's barbs at bureaucrats and politicians.

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