Ask a Scholar: Compare Views of Liberty in Late Colonial America

Martin Burke

Dear Ask a Scholar: I'm reading Samuel Adams’s The Rights of the Colonists, James Otis’s The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, John Adams’s Thoughts on Government, James Wilson’s Lectures on Law and Thomas Paine's Common Sense. I'm struggling to understand how their opinions on liberty and its place in society differ.

Answered by Martin Burke, Professor of American Intellectual and Cultural History at Lehman College, City University of New York. Professor Burke holds a doctorate in history from the University of Michigan:

Definitions, and defenses of, ‘liberty’ and ‘liberties’ were central to the conceptual and political changes that took place in British North America and the new United States in the last four decades of the eighteenth century. Some of the texts referred to in this query are indicative of those changes; others, perhaps surprisingly, are not. John Adams’s Thoughts on Government (1776), except for a quote from John Milton, does not include a sustained discussion of liberty. Nor are ‘liberty’ or ‘liberties’ prominent in Paine’s Common Sense. Paine did refer to the state of “natural liberty” (a political and philosophical commonplace by 1776), and to the new world as an “asylum” for the “lovers of civil and religious liberty.” He denounced King George as an “inveterate enemy of liberty,” and expressed sympathy for his victims: “All they now possess is liberty, what they have enjoyed is sacrificed to its service….” In light of Adams’s opinions on the necessity of government, and Paine’s suspicions about it, one could draw them into dialogue about this subject. But these would not be the best texts upon which to base such a debate. John Quincy Adams’s “Publicola” letters, written in response to Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) might be a more fruitful source.

James Wilson, in the Introductory Lecture to a Course of Law Lectures (1791), praised the “American character” for its “love of Liberty and the Love of the Law.” Both should become the object of his students’, and his fellow citizens’, knowledge, for: “Without Liberty, Law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression. Without Law, Liberty also loses its nature and its name, and becomes Licentiousness.” But he proceeded no further on this topic.   Wilson had said more about “our congenial ardor for liberty” in the Considerations on the Nature and the Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, a pamphlet published in 1774, but first composed in 1768. There he quoted from Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui’s Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1747) when explaining that “…civil liberty is nothing else than natural liberty, divested of that part which constituted the independence of individuals by the authority which it confers on sovereigns,  attended with a right of insisting upon their making good use of their authority….” While British subjects, in Great Britain, had conferred such authority as sovereigns on the King and Parliament, the colonists had not. The latter were subjects of the King, alone, Wilson maintained, since they had no representatives in Parliament. Thus that body’s efforts to deprive the colonists of their properties were violations of their liberty.

James Otis, too, cited well known political theorists, equated “liberty” and “property,” and objected to Parliament’s activities in The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764). He expressed some skepticism about “original compact” explanations of origins of government, including those of John Locke. Yet he recognized the Glorious Revolution’s “Declaration of the Rights and Liberties of the Subject” as the basis for the enjoyment of “life, liberty and property” by Britons on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the imposition of taxes by Parliament was “irreconcilable with the rights of the Colonists, as British subjects, and as men. I say men, for in a state of nature, no man can take my property from me, without my consent: If he does, he deprives me of my liberty, and makes me a slave.” Neither Britain nor the colonies were in a state of nature, of course. Nor was Otis advocating “independency.” He recommended that the American Revenues Act, or Sugar Act, be repealed, and that the colonies, now “subordinate dominions,” be represented in Parliament. Otis also argued that the “natural right to be free” extended to all men, “white or black,” and so condemned both slavery and the slave trade in the “southern” (that is to say Caribbean) colonies. “Those who every day barter away men’s liberty, will soon care little for their own.” 

Otis’s chief collaborator in the Massachusetts campaign against the Sugar Act was Samuel Adams. In 1772, London decided to end the right of that colony to pay the salaries of the governor and lieutenant-governor, and to fund the judges of the Superior Court from enhanced customs revenues. To coordinate protests, Adams helped organize Committees of Correspondence, which reported to a town meeting in Boston in November of that year. The Rights of the Colonists was among the outcomes of that gathering. In that text, he invoked John Locke, in particular the Letter Concerning Toleration, and employed standard state-of-nature and social compact terminology: “The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not be under the will of any legislative authority of man, but only to have the law of nature as his rule.” As had Otis, and many others in the intervening period, Adams recognized that “the natural liberty of men, by entering into society, is abridged and restrained, so far only as is necessary for the great end of society, the best good of the whole.” Since Parliament was taking away the colonists’ property without their consent, he asked “what liberty can there be?” But unlike Otis in 1764 and Wilson in 1768, Adams was not convinced that returning members to Parliament would resolve an ever-worsening imperial crisis.  

Save for James Otis’s reservations about the search for original compacts, his position on the natural liberty of men and its (partial) abridgement in society is quite similar to that of Samuel Adams.  So, too, is James Wilson’s 1768/1774 position. Their goal in all three of these sources was not to parse philosophical or theoretical differences between/among Locke, Burlamaqui, Harrington, Vattel and Montesquieu. Rather, it was to make political arguments and recommend changes in imperial policies regarding the North American colonies.  Issues of liberty and its place in society were less important in these texts than was the protection of property from the impositions of Parliament.      

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