Fettered Freedom: Civil Liberties and the Slavery Controversy, 1830-1860

Fettered Freedom: Civil Liberties and the Slavery Controversy, 1830-1860

Fettered Freedom: Civil Liberties and the Slavery Controversy, 1830-1860

Fettered Freedom: Civil Liberties and the Slavery Controversy, 1830-1860

Excerpt

This study is an attempt to show the reactions of the American people, during one central period and on one specific issue, to the civil liberties tradition. The period 1830-1860, considered both from the point of view of the political philosopher and the political scientist, was concerned with the discussion of the slavery question--with the definition and application of the term freedom, as it applied to Negroes, as it applied to white men, and eventually as it applied to Man. Before the era was terminated by war, the discussion expanded to include nearly all related terms and their legal and social applications. The nation was irrevocably split over what these terms meant and what their practice entailed.

The end of the eighteenth century saw the formulation and general acceptance in America of a political philosophy which laid great stress upon the freedom of the individual. Many influential thinkers believed that man was endowed at birth with certain inalienable rights, "naturally" and therefore divinely bestowed, rights which were reserved to him despite any contractual agreement entered into with a government. The theory itself had, it is true, little real justification in historical fact, but its adoption as a basis for action gave it a certain validity and made it a vital force in the development of society and politics. The natural rights philosophy could not be proved historically; pragmatically it could be proved by working it. The American experiment was one, perhaps the most important, of the practical applications of this theory.

The Founding Fathers spoke, therefore, in eighteenth-century fashion, of "inalienable rights," "the rights of man," and "natural rights," embodying them in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and in the various bills of rights. The labels they used matter little; these rights themselves, sometimes vaguely and sometimes clearly expressed, have become that part of our native tradition known as "civil liberties," those freedoms belonging to the citizen as an individual and as a member of society. The common property and heritage of the American people, they may seem . . .

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