Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Anti-Catholic Roots of Liberal and Republican Conceptions of Freedom in English Political Thought

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Anti-Catholic Roots of Liberal and Republican Conceptions of Freedom in English Political Thought

Article excerpt

No star shines as brightly as freedom in either the liberal or the republican constellation of values. Although liberalism and republicanism seemed to occupy separate regions of the ideological universe when the first republican revisionist works appeared,1 more recent scholarship has revealed that the distance between liberal and republican principles, goals, and modes of analysis has been overestimated. Not only do various theories of consent, popular sovereignty, and the rule of law figure prominently in both traditions, but it is now clear that many early liberals greatly appreciated the role of civic virtue in achieving the common good2 and that many modern republicans vigorously advocated natural rights and religious toleration.3 Nevertheless, liberalism and republicanism seem to be as divided as ever over the concept of freedom. In Benjamin Constant's famous formulation, republican liberty hearkens back to "the liberty of the ancients" in privileging the collective exercise of sovereignty by active citizens, whereas the liberal conception epitomizes "the liberty of the moderns" in seeking to protect private individuals from external interference in their personal affairs.4 One stresses the public dimension of freedom by placing a premium on the selfless pursuit of the common good by virtuous citizens, while the other condones a private conception of freedom that emphasizes those rights essential to the pursuit of an individual's own interests. However, a survey of English political thought from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries reveals that liberal and republican conceptions of liberty alike exhibited both individualistic and collective features shaped by an ideological confrontation and conceptual contrast with the evils represented by Roman Catholicism.

Catholicism, or "popery" as it was disparagingly called, played a constitutive role in the development of ideas about personal and collective autonomy that featured significantly in both liberal and republican theories of liberty. It was by no means the only, or even necessarily the primary, influence in the development of English notions of liberty, but it was a pervasive influence that broadened and deepened the understanding of liberty. When the leading figures of these two camps confronted Catholicism on the ideological field of battle, they devised many of the same rhetorical strategies and employed many of the same conceptual weapons to vanquish their common foe. In the heat of battle for the literal survival of Protestantism and a free way of life, the theoretical tension between individualistic conceptions of freedom that centered around the protection of personal rights and collective ideas of freedom that revolved around civic ideals of self-government did not seem to matter to English thinkers as much as confronting the popish menace did. Since Catholicism threatened both types of freedom, liberals and republicans defended both.

A pervasive feature of English politics and political thought following the Henrician Reformation, anti-popery has been the subject of an expanding body of historical scholarship.5 Jonathan Scott has suggested that "it is the problem of popery which gives the seventeenth-century English experience as a whole (1603-88) its essential unity."6 In noting the crucial role of popery in popular panics, constitutional battles over royal prerogative and succession, and campaigns for toleration in early modern England, numerous scholars have drawn attention to the general importance of historical and political context in understanding the conceptual development of political ideas. Several recent studies have discussed the negative role that popery played as a "unifying other" in xenophobic constructions of Protestant and British national identity.7 Several historically minded political theorists have explored the role of anti-popery in the development of liberal attitudes toward royal prerogative, religious toleration, and violent resistance, especially in the writings of John Locke. …

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