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. The modern conception requires the overthrow of long-standing community traditions that violate individual rights; the ancient conception resists such change. This collision between the idea that the individual has inalienable rights and the idea that the community has supreme authority to govern itself as the collective wills would play a critical role in the transformation from the Enlightenment to Romanticism.
The clearest example of the ancient conception of freedom is the Athenian democracy, which the historian Herodotus celebrated when he wrote about the Greek victory over the Persian empire. Freedom, Herodotus wrote, had proven itself “beneficial . . . in every way,” because when Athenians were subject to the Persian dictator, they “were no better . . . than any of the peoples living around them,” but when they became free, “they became by far the best of all.”2 Athenian soldiers, he observed, ran toward battle while the Persian soldiers marched reluctantly, whipped from behind by their generals.3 But Herodotus was not praising democracy, let alone individual liberty. The Spartans considered themselves free, but they lived under a government that today we would call fascist. Instead, Herodotus was referring to the ancient version of freedom: the city’s ability to make collective decisions without foreign interference. As Benjamin Constant put it, “the ancients had no notion of individual rights. Men were, so to speak, nothing but machines whose gears and cog-wheels were regulated by the law.” People only enjoyed personal freedoms that the society chose to give them.
Citizenship was a source of pride in the ancient world, something to be earned or even purchased. The Bible tells us that when Paul was arrested and whipped, he objected that he had a right to a trial because he was a Roman citizen.
The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”
“Yes, I am,” he answered.
Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.”
“But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.
Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.4
To be born a citizen meant to have special privileges that noncitizens did not enjoy and few could afford to buy.
On the other hand, the modern conception of freedom, born during the Enlightenment, pertained to rights that individuals have prior to citizenship. Thinkers such as John Locke argued that there are standards of justice that apply even before we enter a political context: that is, universal human rights that do not depend on our membership in a community or society. “The promises and bargains . . . between . . . two men in [a] desert island,” he wrote, “are binding . . . though they are perfectly in a state of nature,” because “truth and keeping of faith belongs to men, as men, and not as members of society.”5 And because all people “are created equal, with certain inalienable rights,” governments are obliged to respect and secure those rights. On this view, people are born free and then create government to protect them from force. Government is their servant, not their master. This was the opposite of the ancient conception of freedom, according to which people were members of a political society first and only had rights as a consequence of that.
Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke and, later, the American Founders, believed there was a way to reconcile the ancient and modern conceptions of freedom. As long as a community respects people’s basic natural rights, that community deserves respect, and the people may decide collectively how to govern themselves. But individual freedom must take priority over democratic decisions. In Constant’s terminology, modern liberty must take precedence over ancient liberty. That is why the Declaration of Independence says that if government becomes destructive of our rights, we have the right to alter or abolish it. On this conception of freedom, the fact that the majority of people vote for something does not make it right. “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “[T]hough the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable. . . . [T]he minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate [them] would be oppression.”6
But whereas Enlightenment thinkers saw the rights of the individual as paramount, the new era of Romanticism would challenge that idea and once again elevate the liberty of the collective over that of the individual.
How could this regression happen? How could post-Enlightenment thinkers with access to the individualistic idea of modern liberty revert back into the fundamentally anti-individualistic notion of ancient liberty? It was a circuitous development.
The Enlightenment had placed a high value on reason and discovery. It was natural, then, for people to celebrate inventors, creators, individual geniuses. Benjamin Franklin, for example, was a quintessential Enlightenment figure—a man of reason, science, hard work, creativity. And in France he became a celebrity. Paintings and drawings of him were sold in the stores. He became so popular that the king of France, in a sort of jealous joke, even had his picture painted on the bottom of a bedpan. This celebration of the individual genius gradually morphed into a cult of celebrity—a celebration of the isolated, unsung hero or misunderstood misfit—and, eventually, even the insane (see postmodernist philosophy).
Individual geniuses often went unrecognized in their own time, ignored or spurned, only later to be recognized for their greatness. In light of this, people began to idolize the suffering artist, the penniless poet, the bohemian, the outcast. Whereas Enlightenment heroes struggled against the oppression of kings and tyrants, the new outcast heroes of Romanticism struggled against the limits of nature itself. For the Romantics, the important fight was against the bonds of civilization and even of reason. The perfect symbol of this is what we now call the Byronic hero—the man of greatness who proves his self-determination even at the price of self-destruction, and who demonstrates his individuality through suicide.
A major step in this direction came in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Born in Switzerland in 1712, Rousseau was almost entirely self-taught. He came to admire Plato and to reject the ideas that formed the heart of the Enlightenment: reason, individualism, and private property. He argued that these things alienated man from nature and separated humanity from the proper order of the universe. Human consciousness itself, he claimed, had been so deeply warped by these modern ideas that few people realized how oppressed they truly were. They imagined themselves free; they thought they were pursuing their own individual goals; but, in fact, they were just blind tools of artificial forces that were stifling their potential.
Rousseau argued that prehistoric man had lived at peace and harmony with nature. Humanity was then perfectly happy, in a state of thoughtless bliss. No “savage . . . [ever] complain[ed] of life,” because each was “a free being, whose heart is at ease and whose body is in health.”7 But in today’s world, there is “hardly a creature . . . who does not lament his existence: we even see many deprive themselves of as much of it as they can, and laws human and divine together can hardly put a stop to the disorder.”8
What caused man to fall from this Garden of Eden? Rousseau’s hostility to private property is so well known that one might think the answer is “property,” but Rousseau’s critique of modern life goes deeper. To him, the true origin of human evil—the apple in this new Adam and Eve story he was creating—was language. Yet by language, what Rousseau really meant was the capacity for conceptual thinking—the use of reason. It was the advent of language, Rousseau argued, that enabled humans “to take the difference between objects into account, and to make comparisons.” This led to jealousy, competition, and inequality. It was from this that private property arose, and the noble savages who previously had “lived free, healthy, honest and happy lives” now struggled to improve their lot. They built homes, established cities, learned agriculture, and established civilization—all of which, according to Rousseau, made them miserable. “Vast forests became . . . fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops.”9 Philosophers such as Aristotle had once seen language as representing the one quality that made man special—reason.10 In their view, civilization is the great human invention that protects us from nature. But to Rousseau, man’s ability to think was a great curse, and civilization alienates us from nature.
But, Rousseau argued, there was hope. Although it would be impossible to eliminate language, proper education and training could establish a new world, one without competition, inequality, or selfishness—a world that would come as close as possible to our original, natural state of bliss.
Among other things, this required the abolition of individualism. Like Plato, Rousseau argued that human beings could grasp genuine happiness, not as single individuals, isolated from their fellows, but only by being fused into one collective entity. Each person would aim toward what Rousseau called “The General Will.” This would be the true collective will, cleansed of selfishness; the Will of the People, the Volkgeist, into which everyone would be subsumed, and made into a better and freer and fuller person—whether he liked it or not. Rousseau essentially offered up Plato’s totalitarian Republic as a model for the new age.11 And this emphasis on the will of the people naturally brought with it the ideas of national and ethnic identity.
Enlightenment thinkers, with their emphasis on individualism, had little regard for such notions. But Romantics believed that nations themselves had souls, which arose from the linguistic and cultural bonds of the people. In 1806, the German Romantic philosopher Johann Fichte wrote in his Address to the German People:
Only when each [nation], left to itself, develops and forms itself in accordance with its own peculiar quality, and only when in every people each individual develops himself in accordance with that common quality, as well as in accordance with his own peculiar quality—then, and then only, does the manifestation of divinity appear in its true mirror as it ought to be. . . . [T]hat law . . . is the highest law in the spiritual world!12
Put simply, the Romantic era came to focus on the strength of the will rather than reason: to cherish the bold, striving hero—or the heroic nation—that struggles even against the limits of nature to prove its collective freedom. This was a wholesale abandonment of the Enlightenment conceptions of individualism and modern liberty.
Whereas Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke had tried to build social systems on the basis of reason, private property, and the needs of the individual, Romantics such as Rousseau and Fichte regarded the Enlightenment as a manifestation of petty, bourgeois values. They spurned cold, calculating reason as being deaf to the passionate impulses of the heart and the need for social cohesion and stability. To achieve true freedom, said the Romantics, we must break through the limits of reason.
Decades later, Fyodor Dostoyevsky brilliantly parodied this view through a character who says that the idea two plus two equals four is just “a piece of insolence” that merely “bar[s] your path.” “If we are to give everything its due,” he declares, “twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.”13 This was the Romanticist attitude: The rules of reason and logic that Enlightenment thinkers sought to uphold—including those of natural law, science, and economics—were pieces of insolence barring the path to the new world of spirituality, passion, and unreason.
After Rousseau, the second great Romantic intellectual was Edmund Burke, a member of the British Parliament, who in 1790 published a pamphlet called Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke denounced the French Revolution for its “rationality” and instead advocated a political philosophy rooted in feeling, tradition, and hierarchy. Like Rousseau, he was reactionary and nostalgic. But whereas Rousseau longed to return to a primitive Garden of Eden, Burke yearned for the medieval age of chivalry, during which people believed in “loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.”14 He bemoaned that the golden age of “submission,” “obedience,” and “servitude” had given way to a modern era of “sophisters, economists and calculators.”15 As a result, “the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal” in the Middle Ages had been replaced by a “mechanic philosophy” of “light and reason,” which regarded kings and queens merely as men and women, political institutions only as ways to serve the people, and laws as justified solely by the “concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations.”16
Burke’s disgust for “economists and calculators” is telling. The very idea of “political economy,” or what we today call economics, was a new thing at the time, and the idea of cost-benefit analysis scandalized Burke. Government, he thought, was a mystical entity that needed an air of superstition and glamour. If people instead used reason to weigh matters for themselves, they would soon overthrow time-honored traditions, and chaos would ensue.
Now, recall Benjamin Constant’s distinction between ancient and modern liberty. Rousseau and Burke were rejecting the modern, individualistic conception of liberty, and were exalting the ancient form—that is, the freedom of the community to act in accordance with the collective will. Burke rejected the very idea of thinking in principles—what he called “metaphysical abstraction[s]”17—and embraced instead “positive, recorded, hereditary” rules, the “patrimony derived from [our] forefathers,”18 which formed “the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.”19
Nationalism and ethnic identity were a crucial part of Burkean mysticism. A people’s traditions, culture, religion, and so forth were precisely what Burke most valued. He therefore supported the American Revolution, not because he believed in the principles of inalienable human rights, but because he believed in the independence of a mature and well-ordered ethnic nation. He supported the ancient liberty of community self-government, not the modern liberty of personal freedom. He had little interest in or concern for the sufferings of common people. His great adversary Thomas Paine noted that he could find in Burke’s writing “not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection” for “those who lingered out the most wretched of lives” under monarchy. Burke, he said, wrote eloquently about the beautiful feathers while ignoring the dying bird.20
He was right. Burke viewed such considerations as petty and vulgar. The Enlightenment ideas of modern liberty that Paine cherished were cheap in Burke’s eyes. They robbed government of its transcendent spiritual grandeur. Burke portrayed himself as a voice of calm reason. But Reflections on the Revolution in France is a prototypical romantic poem, albeit in prose; one that denounces reason and exalts an imaginary golden age of chivalry, with noble knights and their ladies fair.
Through Rousseau and Burke, Romanticism was reviving the ancient conception of liberty to overthrow the modern, Enlightenment conception.
This revival of ancient liberty appealed to many people at a time when countless nations were dominated by massive foreign empires. The Russian, French, Austrian, and British Empires had tried to stamp out the languages and subcultures of many of their subject peoples. Now, the success of the American and French Revolutions inspired Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, and others to rebel against their imperial rulers and to seek national self-determination. Foremost among these were the Greeks.
Greece had been dominated by the Ottoman Empire for three and a half centuries. The Turks had ruled Athens since 1458; they transformed the Parthenon into a mosque, forbade non-Muslims to ride horses, and imposed burdensome taxes on the Greeks, including the jizya (i.e., the tribute that non-Muslims are traditionally forced to pay to Muslim rulers) and the even more hated paidomazoma (“tribute of children”) whereby Greek villages were forced to hand over one out of every five children to be raised as a Muslim and employed in the Turkish military. The Turks brutally punished Greeks who resisted. Still, over the centuries, the Greeks rebelled periodically, and the rise of the new Romantic movement helped to spur further revolts.
It was natural that the Romantics would embrace the cause of Greece. Greek history, its poetry and drama, its philosophy, are the foundations of Western civilization, and the magnificent intellectual and artistic achievements of the Greeks thrilled the poets, architects, sculptors, and painters of the Romantic era. Take a look, for instance, at the paintings of Jacques Louis David, the greatest French painter of the era. David, a thoroughgoing supporter of the French Revolution and an admirer of Napoleon, painted the iconic portrait of the conqueror. His art glorified nationalism and patriotic self-sacrifice. His 1787 painting The Death of Socrates captures the moment when the heroic spokesman for truth willingly takes the cup of poison, becoming a martyr to his race. David portrays Socrates as a Romantic hero, a misunderstood, unappreciated genius, persecuted by his own people, who gives up his life rather than compromise his integrity, but who is ultimately a benefactor to the world.
A dozen years later, the Greek poet Rigas Feraios would play that role all too literally. Rigas was from Thessaly, and, inspired by the French Revolution, he began to question why Greece should be ruled by the Turks. He embraced the cause of Greek revolution and appealed to the legacy of ancient Greece and to the ideas of ancient liberty, according to which each citizen is expected to discharge his duty of defending the city.21 Brave and adventurous men, Rigas argued, could prove themselves worthy of Hellenic citizenship by fighting the oppressive Turks. The intensity of his romantic nationalism is expressed in his poetry, particularly “Greek War Song,” which was translated into English by Lord Byron:
Sons of the Greeks, arise!
The glorious hour’s gone forth,
And, worthy of such ties,
Display who gave us birth . . .
Let your country see you rising,
And all her chains are broke.
Brave shades of chiefs and sages,
Behold the coming strife!
Hellénes of past ages,
Oh, start again to life!22
In 1797, Rigas went on a mission to Paris to enlist Napoleon’s support for an effort to liberate Greece. But when he stopped in Trieste, Rigas’s revolutionary pamphlets were discovered by agents of the Austrian emperor. He was arrested, and the Austrians handed him over to the Turks. On June 24, 1798, his jailers strangled him to death and threw his body into the Sava River. “This is how brave men die,” Rigas said shortly before his execution. “I have sown; soon will come the hour when my nation will gather the ripe fruit.”23
Rigas’s admirer and translator, Byron, would play a crucial role in realizing that prophecy. He visited Greece in 1809 at the age of twenty-one and was swept away by the people and their plight. When he returned to England, he began writing a long narrative poem, titled Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which was published to wild acclaim in several parts between 1812 and 1818. It told of the travels of a young aristocratic hero, modeled on Byron himself, and it is liberally annotated with footnotes that make the poem something of a travel documentary. This was the first appearance of the Byronic hero: the handsome loner, the brooding idealist, the brash rebel, the James Dean figure of the 19th century.
In the section on Greece, Byron called for Greek liberation.
Fair Greece! sad relic of departed worth!
Immortal, though no more; though fallen, great!
Who now shall lead thy scattered children forth,
And long accustomed bondage uncreate . . . ?
He exhorted the Greeks not to expect help from overseas:
For foreign arms and aid they fondly sigh,
Nor solely dare encounter hostile rage,
Or tear their name defiled from Slavery’s mournful page.
Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?
By their right arms the conquest must be wrought?
Will Gaul or Muscovite redress ye? No!
Only when the Greeks themselves resolved to be free and overthrew their oppressors could their nation hope for freedom. “Lurk there no hearts that throb with secret pain[?]” Byron asked. “This must he feel, the true-born son of Greece.” Only “When Grecian mothers shall give birth to men, / Then mayst thou be restored; but not till then.”24
It turned out that Greek mothers were already giving birth to men. Admirers of the martyred Rigas founded a secret society called the Filiki Eteria, devoted to encouraging rebellion against the Turks. In 1821, its leader, Alexander Ypsilantis, led a group of soldiers into Moldova to spark the uprising. His forces were defeated, but the rebellion spread in a disorganized but determined way. The war for Greek independence had begun.
Ironically, although he had warned the Greeks not to expect foreign aid, Lord Byron himself would quickly rally to their side. He sailed to Kefalonia in 1823, where he spent £4,000 to help build ships for the Greek military. He planned to lead an attack on Turkish forces at the Bay of Corinth but fell ill and died in Missolonghi the following April. He remains a national hero to the Greeks to this day. It is said (perhaps apocryphally) that when his body was returned to England for burial, friends removed his heart and buried it in Greece.
Americans applauded the Greek Revolution, but from a distance. About the same time that Byron was traveling to Greece, one prominent expatriate, Adamantios Korais, wrote to the elderly Thomas Jefferson, asking for support for the uprising. “Help us, fortunate Americans,” he pleaded.25 Jefferson politely turned him down. Although “no people sympathize more feelingly than ours with the sufferings of your countrymen,” the “fundamental principle of our government” was “never to entangle us with the broils of Europe.”26 Still, he applauded the Hellenes. “Possessing ourselves the combined blessings of liberty and order, we wish the same to other countries and to none more than yours, which [is an] . . . example of what men should be.”
About the same time, Greek envoy Andreas Luriottis wrote to Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. He received a similar answer. “Greece, old Greece, the seat of early civilization and freedom, stretches out her hands imploringly,” Luriottis pleaded.27 But Adams answered that although Americans sympathized with “the cause of freedom and independence wherever its standard is unfurled,” and particularly admired “the display of Grecian energy in defence of Grecian liberties, and the association of heroic exertions, at the present time, with the proudest glories of former ages,” the United States could not become engaged in a foreign war.28
American support for Greek independence was sincere. Senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay spoke movingly of their approval. President James Monroe announced his support. Newspaper readers devoured accounts of the battles, and Greek rebels became celebrities in the United States. Michigan even named a city, Ypsilanti, for one of them. Committees raised money to send to Greece, and many Americans volunteered to fight, including Jonathan Miller, who distinguished himself in battle and whose adopted son, Loukas, became the first Greek American elected to Congress; and Samuel Gridley Howe, who served for six years as a surgeon in the Greek army.29 Howe’s wife, Julia, later wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
But there was one glaring problem for Americans who supported the Greek uprising: slavery. The hypocrisy of free Americans supporting Greek rebellion while keeping millions of Africans and their children enslaved was obvious. So, too, was the parallel between the Greek revolt against tyranny and slave rebellions in the United States.
Between 1800 and 1850, there were at least ten major slave uprisings in America, not to mention the revolution in Haiti that overthrew slavery and established the first black republic only seven hundred miles from Florida. In 1829, a black man named David Walker published a pamphlet advocating slave rebellion. White Americans, he said, thought “the Greeks . . . the Irish . . . the Jews,” and “all the inhabitants of the earth, (except however, the sons of Africa) are . . . men, and of course . . . ought to be free. But we, (coloured people) and our children are brutes!! and of course are, and ought to be Slaves . . . forever!!”30 “Do you think that our blood is hidden from the Lord,” he demanded of whites, “by your charitable deeds to the Greeks?”31
The correspondence between the Turks’ oppression of Greeks and the Americans’ enslavement of blacks was on many people’s minds. Probably the most eloquent statement came in 1844, when the sculptor Hiram Powers displayed the first American nude female sculpture, titled The Greek Slave. It is a masterpiece, a life-size marble depiction of a beautiful woman in chains. Powers toured the United States with it, and although audiences were somewhat scandalized by its nudity, they were even more shocked when abolitionists adopted it as a symbol of the antislavery cause. Poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning32 and John Greenleaf Whitter composed poems about it. “Oh, shame! the Moslem thrall,” wrote Whittier,
Who, with his master, to the Prophet kneels,
While turning to the sacred Kebla feels
His fetters break and fall . . .
But our poor slave in vain
Turns to the Christian shrine his aching eyes;
Its rites will only swell his market price,
And rivet on his chain. 33
Some southern whites agreed that it was impossible to cheer on the Greek revolution while keeping black Americans enslaved. In 1826, when a southern woman spoke in support of the Greeks in the presence of Virginia Congressman John Randolph, he pointed to two nearby slaves and cried, “Madam, the Greeks are at your door!”34
But other southern leaders found no inconsistency in supporting Greek freedom while denying freedom to black Americans. They regarded the argument for abolishing slavery as essentially an Enlightenment idea, based on individualism and the natural freedom of each person—in other words, modern liberty. But they viewed the Greek cause as a matter of ancient liberty, of ethnicity and cultural identity. They thought it perfectly consistent to believe that the Greek nation deserved to be free, but that individuals have no fundamental right to freedom. Edmund Burke had denounced the ideas of “economists and calculators” who argued for modern liberty—and simultaneously had written movingly in support of ancient liberty: applauding the hierarchical, traditional society, with its “proud submission,” “dignified obedience,” and “subordination of the heart.” Southerners could easily embrace the idea that the United States—or the southern states, anyway—made up a white nation that deserved independence but owed no respect to black people.
One of the most important figures in the rise of southern Romanticism was the novelist Sir Walter Scott, whose novel Ivanhoe was published in 1820. It glorified the age of chivalry and became one of the great masterpieces of Romantic literature. Scott exalted spiritual values and time-honored traditions over modern innovation and vulgar materialism. The novel was furiously successful, especially in the South. For slave owners on plantations, the medieval romance held a particular charm. They pictured themselves as lordly aristocrats, masters of their small fiefdoms, benignly condescending to their human property, who played the role of serfs.
In fact, Mark Twain later blamed the Civil War on Walter Scott. Modern progress, he wrote, had been making headway against tyranny and superstition, overthrowing monarchy and the dogma, until Walter Scott came along, “and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society.” Scott’s novels, Twain argued, “created rank and caste” in the South, by encouraging Southerners to throw off the modern liberty of the Enlightenment and embrace the ancient liberty of Romanticism.35 This may seem an exaggeration on Twain’s part, but he was not alone in seeing it this way. Scott’s effect on the pre-Civil War South was so profound that Virginia’s official state historian said a half century after the war that “the South of 1860 might not be inaptly nicknamed Sir Walter Scottland.”36
An even clearer example of how the Romantic South elevated ancient liberty over modern liberty can be seen in the works of Virginia writer George Fitzhugh. With a frankness that is disgusting today, his 1854 book, Sociology for the South: or, The Failure of Free Society, argued in favor of slavery by a direct assault on Enlightenment thought. He chose his title carefully, explicitly contrasting sociology with economics. The latter, as he put it, was “the science of a free society”37 and was concerned with the “system of universal liberty and equality of rights”38—which in Fitzhugh’s mind boiled down to “‘every man for himself, and Devil take the hindmost.’”39 The new sociology of slavery, by contrast, was rooted in the ancient altruistic doctrine of self-sacrifice for the sake of society.
Modern liberty, Fitzhugh wrote, was based on the pursuit of one’s “own selfish welfare unfettered and unrestricted by legal regulations, or governmental prohibitions.”40 In enunciating the doctrines of modern liberty and the right to rebel against oppressive government, the Declaration of Independence had revealed an “unphilosophical,” “presumptuous,” and “infidel philosophy.”41 But “as civilization advances, liberty recedes: and it is fortunate for man that he loses his love of liberty just as fast as he becomes more moral and intellectual.”42 The benevolent institution of slavery was superior, in this view, because it was based on the idea that man is not an independent being but is “born a member of society . . . as in the cases of bees and ants.”43 Society is “the being,” and the individual is “one of the members of that being,” who has “no rights whatever, as opposed to the interests of society. . . . Whatever rights he has are subordinate to the good of the whole; and he has never ceded rights to it, for he was born its slave, and had no rights to cede.”44
This is a good thing, Fitzhugh continued, because slaves are essentially like children, who “cannot be governed by mere law; first, because they do not understand it, and secondly, because they are so much under the influence of impulse, passion and appetite, that they want sufficient self-control.” Slavery “relieves our slaves” of the awful burden of having to “support [a] family . . . find a home . . . procur[e] employment, and attend to all domestic wants and concerns.”45 In other words, slavery represented ancient liberty. It inculcated a “consciousness of security” on the slave’s part, along with “a full comprehension of his position, and a confidence in that position, and the absence of all corroding cares and anxieties,” which make the slave “easy and self-assured in his address, cheerful, happy and contented, free from jealousy, malignity, and envy, and at peace with all around him.”46
This stuff is so repulsive that today it sounds like a parody, but Fitzhugh was in earnest. As the historian Rollin Osterweis put it, American slavery was a tripod: one leg was the cotton and plantation system, the second leg was slavery, and the third leg was the “cult” of southern chivalry, a manifestation of Romanticism, which emphasized honor, militarism, and social hierarchy.47 This is made clearest in the writings of the most ingenious and diabolical of slavery’s supporters: John C. Calhoun.
Calhoun was a South Carolinian who served as vice president and secretary of war before entering the Senate. He was bold, even iconoclastic, in denouncing modern liberty. In 1837, he declared that slavery “is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.”48 He rejected the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke and Jefferson, who thought human beings are born free and create government to protect their rights. On the contrary, Calhoun argued, government “is not even a matter of choice. . . . Like breathing, it is not permitted to depend on our volition.”49 There was, he said, “not a word of truth” in the Declaration of Independence. It “asserts that ‘all men are created equal.’ [This is] erroneous. All men are not created. According to the Bible, only two, a man and a woman, ever were, and of these one was pronounced subordinate to the other. All others have come into the world by being born, and in no sense . . . either free or equal.”50 Freedom, Calhoun believed, is given to people by the government. “It is a great and dangerous error to suppose that all people are equally entitled to liberty,” he wrote. Freedom “is a reward to be earned, not a blessing to be gratuitously lavished on all alike;—a reward reserved for the intelligent, the patriotic, the virtuous and deserving;—and not a boon to be bestowed on a people too ignorant, degraded and vicious, to be capable either of appreciating or of enjoying it.”51 Bestowed by whom? By society. Calhoun was a staunch advocate of ancient, as opposed to modern liberty. In his view, society came first, and the individual second.
Southern intellectuals such as Calhoun and Fitzhugh were formulating an ideology of slavery that rejected the Enlightenment principle of rational, modern liberty in favor of the Romantic ideals of traditional, authoritarian society rooted in status and hierarchy. Burke had lamented in 1790 that the age of chivalry was gone, but these intellectuals were bent on reviving it. They would form a new nation and declare themselves independent of the United States. When, in 1861, Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, the South was proclaiming itself “free”—while denying freedom to its people.
The Civil War that followed was a direct clash between the ancient and the modern conceptions of liberty. On the southern side stood the ideology of Romanticism, with its celebration of slavery’s historical pedigree and its conception of “states rights,” under which state governments are fundamentally sovereign, and individual freedom derives from that sovereignty. On the other side stood modern liberty: the idea that every person has a basic right to freedom, and that in vindicating that right, we should overthrow institutions that violate it—even those as old as slavery. This conflict between the values of the Enlightenment and the values of Romanticism was made clearest by Abraham Lincoln. “We all declare for liberty,” he said in a speech during the war, “but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name. . . . Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty.”52
The rise of Romanticism and its displacement of Enlightenment ideas made possible what Benjamin Constant regarded as impossible: revival of the ancient conception of liberty, with its emphasis on the collective instead of the individual. In resurrecting this idea, Romanticism lent credence to and supported the continuation of the vile practice of slavery, and did so at a time when Enlightenment ideas could have swiftly eradicated it. Southern political leaders embraced this ticket to collectivism and elevated the will of the Southern people—whites, anyway—over the individual rights of enslaved Americans.
Fortunately, the modern conception of liberty was not lost entirely.
In 1818—the year Byron published the final volume of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage—only a few months before Constant gave his speech on the two kinds of liberty, and just three years before the Greek revolution began—a baby boy was born to an enslaved mother in Talbot County, Maryland. She named him Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but she never got to know him well. Nor was he ever sure who his father was. He was raised mostly by his aunt and grandmother.
In 1826, Frederick was carted to Baltimore, where, although enslaved, he secretly learned to read. Literacy opened a new world for him as he learned to give voice to the injustice of slavery. Eventually he escaped on the Underground Railroad, ending up in Massachusetts in 1838. Now a free man, he changed his name to Frederick Douglass (after a hero in one of Walter Scott’s poems)53 and, in time, became a famous abolitionist orator.
Many know Douglass as a leading intellectual in the abolitionist movement. But few know that the story of his life is a striking representation of the various ideas and accomplishments of those who struggled toward the realization and implementation of the modern conception of freedom that we understand and substantially enjoy today.
As indicated above, it is impossible to denounce the immorality of slavery from the premises of ancient liberty. Slavery is among the oldest of human institutions. It was pervasive in the ancient world, and, tragically, it still exists today. To see why it is wrong, one must grasp the modern conception of liberty—the individual’s moral right to freedom.
Though the ancient Greeks originated many of the crucial ideas of philosophy and politics, opposition to slavery was virtually unknown to them.54 Plato and Aristotle condoned slavery; and Epicurus, who allowed slaves to join his school, nevertheless owned one. The ancients could understand freedom for a citizenry or a city-state, or a people, but not for individuals as such. Nothing in ancient Greek literature is akin to the pronouncement in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. Ancient Greek poetry and drama have no great liberation story like that of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. The idea of universal human equality and natural law was born in Rome and only came to the forefront through the Enlightenment, whose thinkers gave us modern liberty.
But the modern idea of liberty is so radical that some antislavery activists thought it incompatible with government as such. A number of radical abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison and Lysander Spooner, were therefore drawn to anarchism, arguing that politics itself is morally corrupting. They had no patience for legislative processes or gradual emancipation. Garrison even burned copies of the U.S. Constitution at Fourth of July speeches, denouncing it as a “pact with hell.”55
Frederick Douglass rejected that view. Like America’s founding fathers, he upheld the values of both freedom and government, independence and citizenship. He saw the U.S. Constitution as fundamentally opposed to slavery and called it a “glorious liberty document” that protected the rights of life, liberty, and property—rights that slavery violated.56 He pointed out that radical abolitionists such as Garrison were agreeing with advocates of slavery when they said the Constitution was a pro-slavery document that could offer nothing to black Americans. Instead, Douglass argued for a new vision of national citizenship, based on the protection of freedom and political equality for all Americans, of whatever race.
Properly understood and applied, Douglass argued, the Constitution protected the rights of black Americans as well as white—and blacks were just as entitled as whites to the title of “American.” They had been here as long as white Europeans had. They had built much of the country’s wealth and infrastructure. They were part of the “We the People” referenced in the Constitution. And they were more loyal to the principles of America than were the white traitors who led the Confederacy. If President Lincoln would arm them, Douglass argued, they would prove themselves on the battlefield; and if the nation would enfranchise them, they would prove themselves as citizens, too.
In other words, Douglass found in the Constitution a way to combine the ancient and modern conceptions of liberty—by recognizing the more fundamental nature of the modern conception. Black Americans had inalienable rights, as do all men. Consequently they, like all Americans, deserved political freedom as U.S. citizens.
But Douglass also knew that freedom is achieved, not given. Those who want it must fight to gain and keep it. His antipathy to racism and slavery, along with his instance that men must stand and fight for their right to liberty, were best expressed in a phrase that became Douglass’s personal motto. It was a couplet from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which was originally addressed to the Greeks:
Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not
Who would be free must themselves strike the blow?57
Douglass quoted these lines often,58 emphasizing the connection between individual rights and national self-determination. For every nation and every individual, he held, freedom is both a right and a responsibility. “A man shall provide for his own house,” he declared. “This covers the whole ground of nations as well as individuals.”59
Douglass encouraged slaves to run away, to rise against their masters, and to join the Union army. “Men may not get all they pay for in this world,” he said, “but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free . . . we must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”60 In 1857, he and Samuel Gridley Howe (the veteran of the Greek independence war) helped finance John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry.61 The failure of that effort underscored Douglass’s message: Freedom for black Americans must not be thought of as a gift from whites. Slaves must work to free themselves.
After the war, Douglass carried on his work, agitating for black citizenship and the right to vote—for women as well as former slaves. His career as a reformer climaxed when he was appointed ambassador to Haiti in 1891. This man, born a slave, who never knew his parents or even his own birth date, taught himself to read, escaped his bondage, rose to the rank of a national diplomat, and became an author and orator of unmatched eloquence: one of the great thinkers in American history.
And his story is richer than most know. In 1884, he shocked the world by crossing the color line and marrying a white woman, Helen Pitts. Although her family were abolitionists, they were horrified. Her parents refused to visit her. Her uncle disowned her. But Helen was steadfast. “Love came to me,” she said, “and I was not afraid to marry the man I loved because of his color.”62
In 1887, the Douglasses took a vacation, traveling to Europe, then Egypt, and finally to Greece. They were enraptured by the view from the Acropolis. “The plains of Attica . . . spread out at our feet,” wrote Frederick in his diary, “was a scene never to be forgotten.”63 A few days later, they visited the Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill, traditionally the site where great orators would speak to the people of Athens. Typically, trials also were held there, and it may be the place where Socrates himself was condemned.64 It was there that Saint Paul delivered his famous sermon to the Athenians, preserved in the Bible’s book of Acts. Frederick and Helen asked a friend to read Paul’s sermon to them as they stood there.
It was a most profound moment in time.
March 24, 1887: America’s greatest orator stands on the site where the greatest orators of the ancient world once stood. The Constitution of the United States is exactly one hundred years old. The American Civil War has been over for two decades, and slavery has been abolished in America. After its own long and bloody war, Greece has been independent for more than fifty years. Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave nearing seventy, is now both a free man and a voting citizen—enjoying both modern and ancient conceptions of liberty. He is a high dignitary, a celebrated author, a friend to presidents, and a bold advocate for political equality of all races and both sexes. There he stands with his white wife on Mars Hill, at the confluence of traditions rooted in Greek antiquity and brought together in America—a tradition combining Epicurus and the Enlightenment, Plato and the Romantics, Socrates and the Constitution, ancient and modern liberty, national and personal independence, the great ideas of Greece and America—ideas as old as humanity and as new as yesterday, ideas that reach across thousands of years of history and touch us still.
As Frederick and Helen look out at this ancient terrain, a voice reads the words of Saint Paul: “Ye men of Athens, God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.”65