Regional Rhetoric: Liberty and the American Civil War
The following essay is another piece that I wrote for graduate school and have been tinkering with lately. The basic idea is that I would like for more than just two people to ever read this. Of course most of my essays deserve a long and painful life of complete obscurity (the fate that even this essay is likely to endure), but…here’s hoping.
One way to get a sense of emerging regional identities in the years leading up to the American Civil War is to examine the ways in which the concepts of liberty and the nation are represented in both Northern and Southern literature. Authors from both regions wrote about liberty, freedom, and the role of government, but they did so in fundamentally different ways. Northern writers like Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau present liberty as a god given right, whereas John Calhoun and George Fitzhugh represent liberty as a privilege. These two opposing conceptions of liberty inspire two opposing conceptions of government. The ideal role of government changes depending on how the right to liberty is defined.
What I am calling a Northern conception of liberty is clearly stated in the Declaration of Independence, in which Jefferson writes: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Liberty, according to Jefferson is a right given by god. More importantly, liberty is unalienable, meaning that it is a right that cannot be taken away. The Declaration of Independence makes no reference to a hierarchy among men. It says, simply, “All men are created equal.” Liberty, in this sense, is a god-given right to the ownership of one’s life. Liberty is the right to protection from slavery.
The Declaration goes on to say, “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” It is precisely the role of government to ensure the life, liberty, and happiness of its citizens. In Jefferson’s model of government, the nation derives its authority from the consent of men, and is obligated to “secure” the unalienable right of liberty. It is the duty of government to protect its citizens from infringements upon their liberty. In short, the Declaration of Independence states that a government must protect against the enslavement of its people.
But we encounter a far different conception of liberty in the writings of South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun, who served as Vice President under Andrew Jackson and would later passionately support the fugitive slave law of 1850. In Calhoun’s “Disquisition on Government” (1847) liberty is heralded as “among the greatest of blessings,” and is vital to “progress, improvement and civilization.” Calhoun defined liberty as leaving “each free to pursue the course he may deem best to promote his interest and happiness, as far as it may be compatible with the primary end for which government is ordained.” This may sound fairly egalitarian, but Calhoun departs from Jefferson’s notion of liberty by coupling it with the idea of protection.