An American Obsession with Freedom

A Commentary By Tony Blankley
Rasmussen Reports

The publishing of the Declaration of Independence 233 years ago by our Founders was responded to in London by two of the 18th century’s greatest minds: Dr. Samuel Johnson (after whom a literary age was named) and Edmund Burke (the intellectual father of modern Anglo-American conservatism).

Dr. Johnson made the harsh assertion that our Declaration was “the delirious dream of republican fanaticism” that, if sincere, would “put the axe to the roots of all government.” Moreover, he went on, it was the rankest hypocrisy for owners of slaves to shout for freedom, or, as Johnson put it: “Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?”

But it was Edmund Burke who had the more profound insight. He recognized that it wasn’t despite being slaveholders that American Colonists felt so powerfully about liberty. Rather, being in the midst of the obvious evils of slavery, those men who were free more fully appreciated their freedom. “Those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of rank and privilege,” Burke argued. Or, as Jedediah Purdy (from whose historically rich and ingenious book “A Tolerable Anarchy” I have abstracted these observations) put it: “Slavery made masters uniquely sensitive to any invasion of their independence.”

These sensitivities — sensibilities — that Burke so shrewdly observed in 1775 continue to manifest themselves in American politics today as we fight over socializing health care, nationalizing industries, indebting our grandchildren, regulating and taxing energy creation and the other intrusions into what Americans have long considered not to be the government’s business.

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