Our Cherished Paradoxes

A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom by Jedediah Purdy, Alfred A. Knopf, 294 pages, $23.95

Freedom in America has been the subject of several lines of scholarship. Philosophers attempt to derive freedom's true meaning, intellectual historians examine what eminent minds have argued about it, and social historians study continuities and variations in its meanings and practices, while linguists decipher the ways of framing freedom in the political mind and empirically minded social scientists use surveys and interviews to probe what Americans think about freedom. In recent years, a more synthetic approach has emerged in which theory, intellectual and political history, and findings from political studies inform a critical appraisal of freedom in America. These works run the ideological gamut from James Bovard's Freedom in Chains on the right to the centrist critique of Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg in Downsizing Democracy to thoroughly liberal defenses such as Paul Starr's recent Freedom's Power.

Jedediah Purdy's book sits firmly in this last, broadly synthetic school. It is part history and contemporary exploration of what he calls "the American sensations of freedom." But as he acknowledges, it is also "part political theory, and part an incomplete topography of a field of ideas that we each must find our own way of inhabiting." He pursues these competing objectives in an unusually structured and eloquently crafted text that shifts between description and prescription, analysis and advocacy. The result, as far as it goes, is a lively and astute exposition of America's most cherished secular ideal between the nation's founding and the present. The problem is that it does not go nearly far enough.

Purdy's opening gambit is an examination of freedom at the nation's founding through the clashing views of two great British writers: Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke. It's an interesting strategy that, however, gets out of hand. Devoting the first 20 pages of a relatively short book to what two highly opinionated foreigners thought about the subject is odd. Purdy didn't need either to establish his own overarching point that at the heart of the American idea of freedom are two paradoxes. The first is the strong belief in self-mastery and the power to shape one's own life, accompanied by a sense of powerlessness toward the political and economic forces that constrain and enable such independence. The second is a profound commitment to the idea of freedom as authenticity, self-trust, being true to oneself, which often means "not looking beyond oneself," the most striking recent example of the latter being George W. Bush, "a president reportedly swaddled in an echo chamber of his own instincts and prejudices, the 'gut' in which he places unswerving faith."

A Tolerable Anarchy explores the different ways in which Americans have come to terms with these tensions over the centuries, especially in the face of tragic contradictions such as slavery and severe economic disadvantage. Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave abolitionist, exemplified engagement with the first paradox, in the way he came to see the Constitution as a living document that allowed for the correction of its own tragic compromise with slavery. Ralph Waldo Emerson exemplified the paradox of authenticity and self-trust, propounding a new measure of freedom in his defiant creed: "If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier." Purdy, echoing Burke, claims that each of these perspectives has the potential to "destroy the order it challenges."

Contemporary American critics of freedom have often emphasized the dangers of too much personal autonomy. Those critics include, on the right, moralists such as the Rev. James Dobson, who insists that freedom must mean freedom to do the good and to avoid evils (such as, in his eyes, sodomy and abortion), and, on the left, communitarians such as the political theorist Michael Sandel, who also rejects the attempt to detach rights and liberal principles of justice from moral and religious values.

Purdy switches to a more normative and legal mode of analysis in rising to the "challenge" posed by these critics. He devotes a chapter to the issues as they have emerged in the Supreme Court, focusing on the arguments of Justices Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia--for example, in their disagreements about a woman's right to abortion in Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992) and the right to sexual privacy in Lawrence v. Texas (2003). Here Purdy shows that the issues go back to tensions that date from the early republic; for example, people such as gay-rights activists have come to live a version of individual freedom that insists "others take them as they are." Purdy then inexplicably adds that in doing so "they changed both the meaning of their sexual acts and the meaning of American freedom" (emphasis added). This is mystifying, since Purdy himself had argued earlier that this meaning of freedom was already fully developed in Emerson. And it differs little from the personal utopianism of the 19th century that he also discusses. The final three chapters of the book examine the complex role and meaning of freedom in the nation's economic life. Two competing views of the market emerged from early American history: the "heroic economy," which embodies the idea of freedom as self-mastery, and the market as tyrant. Purdy uncovers the contradictions in both traditions and observes that the market's "moral logic" dictates that "we are supposed to be selfish within the rules but altruistic about the rules, accepting the personal insecurity or loss that comes with the logic of overall benefit." The book ends with a normative account of a freer world "better able to integrate the diverse dimensions of freedom: free choice; the power to act effectively and choose from among many alternatives; and the psychological capacity for free judgment, imagination, and healthy self-regard." And he offers hopeful glimpses of what this implies in a trenchantly argued advocacy of pollution control and economic regulation to ensure both greater wealth and security.

This is an engaging, cogently argued and discerning exploration of America's master ideal. I have few problems with what it argues and proposes. My problem is with what is left out. First, and most disconcertingly, is the virtual absence from these pages of any scent of a woman, whether as agent or victim, or of women's contribution to shaping the history of freedom. The struggle of women to escape from the private chains of Republican motherhood, their role in the abolitionist movement, their audacious feminization of 19th-century culture through moral suasion in religion and education, their fight for the vote and for the (misguided) adoption of Prohibition, their leadership in the radical wing of consumer citizenship during the New Deal, their championing of the many versions of personal liberty since the second wave of feminism, and their greater voter turnout and support for liberal policies since the 1980s--none of these finds any place in Purdy's story of the American tradition of freedom.

Second, while it is not uncommon to begin accounts of American culture with the Revolution, this is a questionable choice in a historical analysis of freedom. The colonial period, as any number of major scholars such as Clinton Rossiter, Edmund Morgan, and David Hackett Fischer have shown, was the incubator of American freedom. We cannot hope to understand what happened in 1776 and afterward without a sound grasp of the three great traditions that flowed into the revolutionary stream: the inner-directed, conscience-driven, ordered liberty of the Puritan North; the honorific, other-directed Herrenvolk notion of freedom as power and privilege of the slave South; and the pietistic egalitarianism of the Quaker colonies of the mid-Atlantic.

Third, although he speaks frequently of democratic values and community, Purdy perplexingly never directly addresses central issues in American democracy: its institutional resilience and suppleness, its capacity for change, its miraculous way of pulling its often reluctant citizens into acts of supreme public virtue and civic ennoblement, the most spectacular case of which happened last November: the election of a black president by a nation that is still highly racially segregated.

The puzzle of Purdy's omission clears up on recognizing a deep irony at the heart of his analysis. He himself is a prime example of one of the central problems that he repeatedly addresses in his book: the "collapsed rhetorical tradition" of freedom as political behavior, the constant portrayal of "political acts and values as inferior to personal ones." What emerges by the end of the work, despite Purdy's recognition of the pattern, is his own intensely personal, apolitical view of freedom. His "freer world" as we have seen, is all about choice, free judgment, and self-regard. There is no mention here of participation, or of political engagement and activism.

Yet in America, as in ancient Greece, freedom was constituted by the power and activism of the demos, participation being an absolute good in itself that at the same time ensured the negative and positive virtues of personal freedom as liberation and self-mastery. Franklin D. Roosevelt saw it clearly: "The only sure bulwark of continuing liberty is a government strong enough to protect the interests of the people, and a people strong enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control over the government." The hostility to the democratic component of freedom--to the reality that "liberty is a species of power," as Starr recently observed--is part of America's heritage, as is the struggle to maintain it as an integral note of any vibrant chord of freedom, and any account that neglects this struggle is seriously incomplete.