The Bedrock of the American Republic
“Our American polity is a regime of ordered liberty, designed to give justice and order and freedom all their due recognition and part.”
—Russell Kirk, The American Cause
“Give me liberty, or give me death.” Patrick Henry’s famous exhortation still rings powerfully in the ears of most Americans, especially these days with Big Government on the rise. But what kind of liberty was Henry talking about? Was it the freedom to do whatever one pleases? Or were their obvious limits to individual liberty recognized by the Founding generation, and if so, where should those limits come from—the government, the church, or some other institutions of civil society? Distinguishing liberty from license is a crucial task in a free society, which is why the principle of Ordered Liberty is one of ISI’s fundamental tenets, and why we are highlighting it as the first installment of our new monthly feature for our valued members.
In this month’s installment, you will find a rich mix of video, audio, and print items, all touching on the vital tension between order and liberty. Here you will find two offerings by the founder of traditionalist conservatism, the late Russell Kirk—a fascinating lecture Kirk delivered at one of ISI’s patented summer schools, as well as a short excerpt from his invaluable book The American Cause. You will also be introduced to one of Kirk’s most treasured political thinkers—Edmund Burke, who famously warned in his Reflections on the Revolution in France that liberty without virtue “is the greatest of all evils.” Both John Attarian’s article from the Intercollegiate Review, ISI’s flagship journal, and Ian Crowe’s videotaped remarks depict Burke as a champion of ordered liberty and a model for present and future statesmen. We trust that this collection of writings and lectures will provide you with the proper introduction to this vital founding principle, and will encourage you to dig deeper into ISI’s resources for further guidance.
In 1645 John Winthrop, the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, found himself in a political controversy that caused him to reflect upon the true meaning of liberty and order in his burgeoning young colony. In perhaps the earliest (and still maybe the best) formulations of true liberty ever made by an American statesman, Winthrop in his Little Speech laid out the major differences he saw between two rival versions of liberty contending in New England society. The first, natural liberty, “is a liberty to evil as well as to good” and is “incompatible and inconsistent with authority.” The other, civil or federal liberty, “may also be termed moral” and “is a liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest.” As you can see, the challenge of ordered liberty has been with America from the very beginning, and it is up to each rising generation to reckon a proper balance between the two. Given the tenuous nature of liberty today, there may be no more important task than this.