Orlando Patterson: Our Cherished Paradoxes

Roundup: Talking About History

[Re: 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."

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