The Greeks and America’s Founding Fathers, Part 3: The Two Freedoms

Editor’s note: This article is the conclusion of a three-part essay adapted from a lecture series created for the Politismos Museum of Greek History. Part one was published in the Fall 2016 issue of TOS, part two in the Winter 2017 issue.

The American Revolutionary patriots were growing old toward the end of the 18th century. George Washington died in December 1799. The last signer of the Declaration of Independence died in 1832. And by then, the intellectual world had changed dramatically, both in America and in Greece. The early decades of the 19th century witnessed the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, the Greek war for independence, and the first steps toward the Civil War in the United States. The Age of Enlightenment was fading away, and a new philosophical outlook called Romanticism was on the rise.

Romanticism did not mark a clean break with the Enlightenment. Rather, the Enlightenment blended into, and in some ways gave rise to, the Romantic movement. So it is not possible to draw a precise line between the two. But between 1800 and 1850, the intellectual compass swung away from the values of reason, science, and universal human rights, which were the basis of the Enlightenment, and toward unchecked passions and mysticism, as well as nationalistic, collectivistic, and even racist ideologies.

One important signpost on this journey came in 1819, the same year Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. That year, in Paris, a French intellectual named Benjamin Constant presented a paper titled “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns.”1 Constant contrasted two visions of what it means to be free: First, there was what he called the ancient conception of freedom, which meant the ability of the citizen to take part in public affairs—the right to vote, or to speak one’s mind about political issues—essentially, the right to participate in and contribute to an independent society. This notion of the community’s collective right to govern itself without foreign interference, and to preserve and perpetuate its traditions, was highly valued in the ancient world.

The second, modern conception of freedom, on the other hand, was individualistic. It regarded freedom as a form of individual autonomy. It included individuals’ rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, private property, economic liberty, the right to travel, and the right not to be imprisoned or punished except by a lawful authority. The notion of the private— that is, the value of personal independence—was the modern conception of freedom.

These two conceptions of liberty—the ancient one, centered on the public or collective; and the modern one, centered on the private or individual—have always been in tension, as they are today. . . .

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2. Herodotus 5.78, 400.

3. Herodotus, Histories, 6.112, in The Landmark Herodotus, edited by Robert B. Strassler and translated by Andrea L. Purvis (New York: Pantheon, 2007), 474. See also Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way (New York: Norton, 1993), 135.

4. Acts 22:27–29.

5. John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government §14, rev. ed., edited by Peter LaslettOxford University Press, 1963), 317–18.

6.  Thomas Jefferson, Notes on The State of Virginia, in Jefferson: Writings, edited by Merrill Peterson Library of America, 1984), 245; Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, in Jefferson: Writings, 492–93.

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