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Book Review: The Ark of the Liberties

September 6, 2009

imagesLiberty is everywhere in American life. Loving liberty is like wearing blue jeans or drinking Coke: it is a habit most of us share. Whatever our political views, we as Americans prefer to dress them up in liberty’s robes: by praising a “woman’s right to choose” or denouncing terrorists as the “enemies of freedom”; by signing an anti-health care reform petition at or defending the freedom of gay people to marry whomever they please.

Of course, the idea of liberty did not just appear one day, fully formed like Athena out of Zeus’ head. As Ted Widmer explains in his recent book “The Ark of the Liberties,” the idea has a lengthy and complex history, a history with origins tracing back to Columbus. Early modern Europeans did not imagine the New World as a mere plot of land to be explored. Men like More, Bacon, Milton, and Shakespeare projected their fantasies onto the New World: it would become a “commonwealth where humans lived in relative freedom,” a separate sphere in which European laws no longer applied, an “ultramodern and futuristic” place. The Puritans likewise imagined America to be radically unlike the Old World, which they deemed hopelessly corrupt and soon to be destroyed by God. A few generations later, the founding fathers would retain the conviction that God had “ordained a special Providence for the new nation” despite their skepticism about other traditional religious beliefs.

America wasn’t, of course, always the exceptional place it supposed itself to be. If Jefferson hoped that the Louisiana Purchase would inaugurate an “Empire of Liberty,” modern historians have pointed out that no one benefited more from the added land than slaveholding plantation owners. Then there was the Mexican-American war in which the US invaded a republic that had recently achieved independence from a colonial power and, additionally, ended the practice of slavery. Worse still, proponents of American aggression and slavery used “liberty” to justify their actions. By the time of the civil war, Widmer tells us, “Americans simply could not agree over what liberty was, who should claim it, and how far around the world that claim should extend.” More recently, many Republicans would go so far as to oppose FDR by arguing that higher taxes posed a greater threat to liberty than the rise of Hitler, while others railed against desegregation and the United Nations.

To his credit, Widmer tries to avoid what he calls the “Scylla and Charybdis of excessive adulation and criticism of the United States.” The United States may have often contradicted itself by denying others the liberty it cherishes for itself, but Widmer argues that the American Revolution “did advance liberty, by almost any index of measure.” For one thing, it proved that democracy was possible and helped inspire similar revolutions in France and Haiti. If southerners justified slavery through an appeal to liberty, many northerners did just the opposite by arguing that genuine liberty would extend to African-Americans. Similarly, FDR joined forces with Churchill in creating an Atlantic Charter that would not limit freedom to the United States, but sought to guarantee New Deal rights — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear – worldwide.

“The Ark of the Liberties” is as much an evaluation of history, as it is a retelling. Even as he describes the way in which competing notions of liberty play out in US race relations and foreign policy, Widmer deems some conceptions of liberty genuine, and others mere abuses of the word. In Widmer’s view, genuine liberty embraces the democratic principles of the American revolution; it seeks to make democracy ever more inclusive at home and abroad; under FDR, it comes to include economic rights such as health care and education. As it continues to evolve, liberty might even come to include the right to “live on a planet that is not overheated” and for children to receive medicine that will “protect them against easily curable diseases.”

The obvious objection to Widmer’s definition is that he seemingly reduces liberty to liberalism, and then maps it onto the past. Widmer is well aware of continuities between past and present, and exploits them to his advantage, so that modern liberals favoring health care reform, affirmative action, and the United Nations seem to have a history running all the way back to the Declaration of Independence on their side. In the grand narrative that is “The Ark of the Liberties,” much of American history seems to cry out in favor of liberalism. While Widmer laudably recognizes the “foreignness” of the founding fathers, who he says “lived in a different country than the one we inhabit,” he does not hesitate to evaluate them, arguing that “their claim on liberty was compromised by an incomplete understanding at home, and a complete inability to export it anywhere else.” Fair enough, but as the book moves forward in time, Widmer’s evaluation of the country’s leaders becomes noticeably partisan (he devotes most of the Epilogue to lambasting George W. Bush). Is liberty synonymous with the Democratic Party platform?

To be clear, the objection is not that Widmer is partisan where he ought to be neutral. Rather, as Widmer himself acknowledges in one place, liberty starts to seem “so ubiquitous in American history as to be nearly without meaning.” To argue that liberty must of necessity include a commitment to democracy, the New Deal, and the United Nations is to hollow out the word so as to fill it in with one’s own views – which is exactly what Widmer says right-wing extremists do. To take a current example of this hollowing out, in the debate over health care reform Widmer would presumably argue that liberty has evolved to contain the idea of rights, among them the right to decent health insurance. Yet opponents would define liberty in this instance as the ability to choose one’s insurance provider, or make medical decisions without interference by government bureaucrats (a b.s. argument, I’m well aware). Liberty begins to look like nothing more than a club with which competing interests beat each other; or a mere word.

Of all the tensions Widmer describes between differing conceptions of liberty, the greatest in the book is that of his own making. Either liberty really means something timeless or it refers only to specific interests and agendas. Widmer wants the former, but seems haunted by the latter possibility. The result is sentences like this one: “At its essence [the ark of the liberties] is a voyage in search of freedom, defined in a thousand different ways, to be sure, but still understood to be a destination we are searching for so that we can make its coordinates known to the rest of mankind.” In other words, none of us really knows what liberty is, but, whatever it is, we know that we want it, and we want you to have it too.

Whatever its shortcomings, “The Ark of the Liberties” has the virtue of asking the big questions, rare for a historian. Most of us take liberty for granted: hopefully, no longer. With boldness and humor, Widmer grapples with an idea central to our nation’s history, while providing a number of fresh insights into US foreign policy and presidencies along the way. While the philosophical problem of universals is probably irresolvable, Widmer asks the right question at each stage of his history: What, exactly, do we mean by liberty?


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