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As the watchword of  the American and French revolutions “Liberty“ became a word imbued with immense political, philosophical and rhetorical force. How did it gain its status and to what extent had literary, theological and political works, treatises or other works contributed to its prominence? It is surprising that Voltaire’s  treatise on “liberte”, written shortly before the French Revolution, had little to say about the word’s political implications but concerned itself with the ethereal issues of free will, its scope and limitations. It was the rakish agitator John Wilkes, one suspected of Devil-worship even,  whose use of the word as a rallying call in election campaigns and manifestos prepared the way for its similar use by American and French revolutionaries.

The politicization of the word had begun even earlier in Thomson’s epic poem “Liberty”, which supplied a notable precedent for the goddess of Liberty immortalized by a famous statue,  and even Addison’s  play Cato, at a performance of which both Whigs and Tories attempted to drown the shouts of the opponents by raucous applause at each repetition of the word “Liberty”. Here we may discover an important clue on the question why the word “liberty” rather than Anglo-Saxon “freedom”  gained pre-eminence in the vocabulary or those advocating profound social and political change in the eighteenth century. Liberty is steeped in associations with the history of ancient Rome, particularly in its early Republican patriotic phase when  it stood in forceful opposition to tyranny and slavery (.in this connection  it  does not seem remarkable that Thomson’s patriotic acclaim of Britannia as ruler of the waves justifies the expansion of the British Empire (a term Milton had used) by a refusal to accept that Britons would ever be slaves)..One might well suppose that  the  word  must have held a particularly strong appeal to advocates of the republican form of government in England after the Glorious Revolution but its overriding patriotic connotations endeared its use among Tories, even  those defending the cause of the Stuarts.

One could of course go back to the works of Milton or even Shakespeare to find antecedents of the political slogan that liberty so clearly became. In Shakespeare’s dramas those whom we might well recognize today as freedom fighters and social revolutionaries, such as Joan of Arc and Jack Cade,  come off very badly. Evil tyrants like Richard the Third and Macbeth are indeed overthrown, but  by the providential outworking of  a divinely appointed moral order rather than by a popular rebellion. In Richard III and Julius Caesar somewhat sheepish crowds are shown to be easily swayed by clever rhetorical devices  or  artful deceptions. 

Milton, though most certainly a stalwart defender of “Liberty”, betrayed his awareness that the word was highly ambivalent by  implying the abuse of liberty within a theological as well as secular set of parameters. In Paradise Lost the Fallen Angels, notably Mammon  in the guise of an early industrial entrepreneur, were vociferous advocates of “liberty”(viz in Mammon's speech. PL, Bk II, 256).. A negative construction on liberty is further apparent in the term “libertinage” in France during the same period.. Though we are dealing with the semantics of the word liberty, the problems of  differentiating between its political and theological senses lie at the heart of the Reformation and its origins , for Luther elevated the idea of the “freedom” of all Christians but was surprised and vehemently indignant when the common people understood  “freedom” to have  a strong social and practical implication.

 The positive association of Liberty had a biblical as well as a Graeco-Roman  basis as the words “Declare Liberty  throughout the land”  on the Liberty Bell attest, for these words are cited from  the Book of Leviticus in connection with the declaration of liberty during the year of Jubilee, when previous obligations relating to land tenure were dissolved. . The bell originally recalled the grant of a royal charter to the colony of Pennsylvania in 1701 and marked  the colony’s jubilee celebrations in 1751 in accordance with the lapse of  50 years set down in the Bible.. That the bell became the symbol of political liberty and the independence of the United States was a historical coincidence, though a very revealing one, for it demonstrates the process in which the liberties and charters granted by monarchs and aristocrats came to be understood as evidence of the restrictive and arbitrary nature of undemocratic rule. Thus the “chartered” Thames in William Blake’s  London”  appears as a symbol of repression.. or as William Cowper put it in The Task:
 Whose freedom is by sufferance, and at will
Of a superior, he is never free.


The bloody course of the French revolution and the rise of Napoleon, if they did not discredit the notion of liberty itself, gave pause to reflect on the abuse of this noble concept and on its ambivalence in terms of its relation to perennial questions concerning moral choices and values. A critique of liberty, as reflected by Schiller’s Die Räuber , William Blake’s The Mental Traveller”  and even Mary Shelley Frankenstein, attended the revolutionary age even from the  beginning  in voicing the fear that freedom might spawn monsters and tyrants of its own.

It was perhaps William Cowper who as clearly as any averred that  that true  liberty  would not be reduced to subservience to some partial interest or commandeered in the service of  an oppressor. Cowper, the victim of deep depression and a dread of being condemned to Hell, a fate to which he, the most humble and temperate of men, was surely the least eligible,  almost prophetically yearned for the fall of the Bastille  five years or so before it took place. He realized that liberty worthy of its name is the indivisible right of all humanity, an insight that is evidently wanting in the minds of many politicians even to this day.  the following lines are found in The Task / Book V “The Winter Morning Walk”:

To France than all her losses and defeats,
Old or of later date, by sea or land,
Her house of bondage, worse than that of old
Which God avenged on Pharaoh—the Bastille.
Ye horrid towers, the abode of broken hearts;
Ye dungeons, and ye cages of despair,
That monarchs have supplied from age to age
With music, such as suits their sovereign ears,
The sighs and groans of miserable men!
There’s not an English heart that would not leap
To hear that ye were fallen at last; to know
That e’en our enemies, so oft employ’d
In forging chains for us, themselves were free.
For he who values Liberty confines
His zeal for her predominance within
No narrow bounds; her cause engages him
Wherever pleaded.  ‘Tis the cause of man.

 

 

 


 

 
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