The Meaning of Liberty During the American Founding

This is an audio file of a lecture by Professor Brad Birzer of Hillsdale College. It was delivered to students attending a History and Liberty summer seminar in Atlanta, Georgia in 2010.

This page is a work in progress. I will (eventually) spend some time cleaning up the notes I have compiled from multiple listenings over the last few years, and will add more going forward. What follows is just raw commentary at this point…

I believe the information provided in this lecture is so fundamental to understanding the Founding generation that I chose to make this a permanent Page to the site, and not simply a blog post. I will post this separately to the blog as well so that comments may be made.

Note that the audio player defaults to FULL volume. You probably want to turn it down before clicking Play.

The Meaning of Liberty During the American Founding
(Right-click the link above to save the audio file (MP3) to your phone or computer)

Random Notes…

Regarding “democracy” de Tocqueville asks, do we want an equality of excellence, or an equality of mediocrity? (this from another lecture by Brad Birzer, Jacksonian America, which is posted separately below…)

The Founders never referred to this nation as a Democracy, but as a Republic.

The 3 P’s – “Pubs, pulpits, and pamphlets” on how the ideas of the founding generation were transmitted… Brad Birzer; “there are more printing presses in America, per capita, than any other place in the world.” (at that time)…

Note that pubs were often the meeting places of the time.

shorthand… the single most common definition of liberty at the time of the founding, which is everywhere, it’s in George Washington’s writings… from the Old Testament… Micah 4:4
Sometimes they would even just say, “Micah 4:4” and everyone knew what it meant; it was just the standard definition… it’s one of the best definitions of liberty ever-

“But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken it.”

Protestantism was a critical ingredient in the thinking of the founding generation…
“…the Roman Catholic Church represented in the minds of the English: oppression, and superstition, and darkness, whereas Protestantism was seen as an unleashing of the human spirit because it would accept fully the grace of God without intermediaries. We cannot separate religious liberty from economic liberty. The two things went together, very nicely.”- Brad Birzer (from audio: Liberty, Rights and the American Founding – about 55:33)
“…it was through religious debate that the colonists refined their understanding of natural rights, which served them so well politically… and sharpened the defense of self-interest properly defined, a concept that would underpin their own economic liberalism. They go together, you cannot separate one from the other.” (generally close verbiage)…
remember, this was a war of ideas… the ideas of liberty, of manhood, and virtue
liberty is about what a man is willing to die for (more about that earlier in the lecture)

“Though the name of liberty delights the ear, and tickles the fond pride of man, it is a jewel much oftener the play-thing of his imagination than a possession of real stability; it may be acquired to-day in all the triumph of independent feelings, but perhaps to-morrow the world may be convinced, that mankind knows not how to make a proper use of this prize, generally bartered away in a short time as nothing but a useless bauble (trinket) to the first officious master who will take the burden from the mind, by laying another on the shoulders of ten-fold weight.”
— Mercy Otis Warren, 1805; from “History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution”

Blog post- Though the name of liberty delights the ear

so we trade our freedom very quickly when we feel that there is insecurity… we trade it…

Gordon Wood, one of the great historians of the American Revolution, wrote in 1992 in his The Radicalism of the American Revolution… he concludes his book by stating a very sobering thing, that every single one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence died believing that the government and society that they had won for us in the war for independence had been lost. That the Americans no longer had the ability to understand liberty in its proper form. There is not an exception to the signers of the Declaration. (this is from the lecture above – The Meaning of Liberty During the American Founding, starting around 10:10… or 11:05 or so for Gordon Wood quote)

and at about 51:10… John Adams, when asked in 1774, “what are these principles to be an American?” He said, “these are what are called revolution principles, they are the principles of Aristotle, and Plato, of Livy, and Cicero, of Sidney, of Harrington, and of Locke. They are the principles of nature, and of eternal reason.” … spelled out in the Declaration…

Need to find my written notes regarding the details and qualifications for entering college at the time. Fascinating, and shows the incredible difference between then and today.

Add Birzer to our links page (in progress)…
Brad Birzer | Stormfields


Am adding the links to two other audio files as well which I recently found archived with other stuff. Will follow up with notes as time allows.

Note that the audio player defaults to FULL volume. You probably want to turn it down before clicking Play.

Jacksonian America and the Rise of the Democratic Man

Note that the audio player defaults to FULL volume. You probably want to turn it down before clicking Play.

Liberty, Rights, and the American Founding