It is among the ironies of American history that both the opponents and the defenders of hierarchy cast their views, and their struggles, in terms of freedom and liberty.
Would-be settlers coveting Native lands spoke of their “inalienable rights” to claim Indigenous territories; Southern secessionists declared that theirs was a fight to “secure the blessings of peace and liberty”; and in the 20th century, apologists for segregation framed federal action against it as an attack on the freedom of Americans to do as they please.
“Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South,” Gov. George Wallace of Alabama declared in 1963 in his now infamous Inaugural Address. “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny.”
It is tempting, and easy, to condemn these people as disingenuous and hypocritical; to dismiss their cries for freedom as the hollow rhetoric of self-interested elites. And there are, no doubt, good reasons to take that view. But in a recent book, the historian Tyler Stovall — an award-winning historian of France who died last week at the age of 67 — asks us to consider the idea that to its defenders hierarchy is a matter of freedom and liberty, and to think about what this means for the concepts themselves.
Specifically, it means that we should think of freedom in at least two ways: a freedom from domination and a freedom to dominate. In “White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea,” Stovall shows how both are tied up in the history of race and racial thinking. In societies like those of the United States and republican France, he writes, “belief in freedom, specifically one’s entitlement to freedom, was a key component of white supremacy.” The more white one was, he continues, “the more free one was.”
This “white freedom” is not named as such because it is somehow intrinsic to people of European descent, but because it took its shape under conditions of explicit racial hierarchy, where colonialism and chattel slavery made clear who was free and who was not. For the men who dominated, this informed their view of what freedom was. Or, as the historian Edmund Morgan famously observed nearly 50 years ago in “American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia,” “The presence of men and women who were, in law at least, almost totally subject to the will of other men gave to those in control of them an immediate experience of what it could mean to be at the mercy of a tyrant.”
As an ideology, Stovall writes, white freedom meant both “control of one’s destiny” and the freedom to dominate and exclude. And the two moved hand in hand through the modern era, he argues, both here and abroad. In the United States during the early 19th century, for example, the right to vote became even more entangled with race than it had been. “Not only was suffrage extended to virtually all white men by the eve of the Civil War, thus breaking down traditional restrictions based on property and class, it was also and at the same time increasingly denied to those who were not white men,” Stovall writes. “The early years of America as a free and independent nation were thus a period when voting was more and more defined in racial terms.”
After the Civil War, as liberalism began its march through the global order, racial distinctions within polities became more, and not less, salient. That was especially true after the forced end of Reconstruction. “The rise of white manhood suffrage along with Black disenfranchisement in the United States exemplified this theme, as did the coterminous expansion of liberal democracy and authoritarian colonial rule in Britain and France,” Stovall contends. “As freedom became increasingly central to white masculine identity in Europe and America, as it increasingly belonged not to elites but to the masses of white people, it seemingly had to be denied to those who were not white.”
Of course, there have always been competing visions of freedom: freedom separate from race hierarchy and freedoms that do not rest on domination. In the 20th century, especially, anticolonial movements within European empires and the struggle for civil rights in America posed what Stovall calls a “frontal challenge to the racialization of liberty.”
If, as Stovall argues, “liberty and whiteness have been mutually reinforcing” throughout Western history and if “racial distinctions have played a key role in modern ideas of freedom,” then the task of all those who seek a more inclusive and egalitarian freedom has been to challenge the hierarchies that have shaped and structured “freedom” as we understand it — along with the material realities that undergird and reinforce them.
What makes Stovall’s work so valuable at this moment, and what makes his death such a heavy loss, is that his study of “white freedom” helps illuminate the stakes of the present and the ongoing struggle over the meaning of American democracy. It is a fight, for some, to be free (or at least, more free) of domination and hierarchy and a fight, for others, to be free to dominate on the basis of those hierarchies.
In April 1864, as the Senate moved to approve the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery, Abraham Lincoln spoke to a crowd in Baltimore about this question of freedom, liberty and democracy. “We all declare for liberty,” he said, “but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.” With some, he continued, “the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor, while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.”
The circumstances of today are vastly different from those of the Civil War, but if Lincoln’s words continue to resonate, it is because the basic shape of the conflict remains much the same. Here is Lincoln again, in the same speech, with a parable that cuts to the heart of the matter. “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty,” he said. “Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, and all professing to love liberty.”
We all want freedom. The question is what we each want to do, for ourselves or to others, with it.
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