The Greeks and America’s Founding Fathers, Part 3: The Two Freedoms - The Objective Standard

Editor’s note: This article is the conclusion of a three-part essay adapted from a lecture series created for the Politismos Museum of Greek History. Part one was published in the Fall 2016 issue of TOS, part two in the Winter 2017 issue.

The American Revolutionary patriots were growing old toward the end of the 18th century. George Washington died in December 1799. The last signer of the Declaration of Independence died in 1832. And by then, the intellectual world had changed dramatically, both in America and in Greece. The early decades of the 19th century witnessed the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, the Greek war for independence, and the first steps toward the Civil War in the United States. The Age of Enlightenment was fading away, and a new philosophical outlook called Romanticism was on the rise.

Romanticism did not mark a clean break with the Enlightenment. Rather, the Enlightenment blended into, and in some ways gave rise to, the Romantic movement. So it is not possible to draw a precise line between the two. But between 1800 and 1850, the intellectual compass swung away from the values of reason, science, and universal human rights, which were the basis of the Enlightenment, and toward unchecked passions and mysticism, as well as nationalistic, collectivistic, and even racist ideologies.

One important signpost on this journey came in 1819, the same year Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. That year, in Paris, a French intellectual named Benjamin Constant presented a paper titled “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns.”1 Constant contrasted two visions of what it means to be free: First, there was what he called the ancient conception of freedom, which meant the ability of the citizen to take part in public affairs—the right to vote, or to speak one’s mind about political issues—essentially, the right to participate in and contribute to an independent society. This notion of the community’s collective right to govern itself without foreign interference, and to preserve and perpetuate its traditions, was highly valued in the ancient world.

The second, modern conception of freedom, on the other hand, was individualistic. It regarded freedom as a form of individual autonomy. It included individuals’ rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, private property, economic liberty, the right to travel, and the right not to be imprisoned or punished except by a lawful authority. The notion of the private— that is, the value of personal independence—was the modern conception of freedom.

These two conceptions of liberty—the ancient one, centered on the public or collective; and the modern one, centered on the private or individual—have always been in tension, as they are today. . . .



2. Herodotus 5.78, 400.

3. Herodotus, Histories, 6.112, in The Landmark Herodotus, edited by Robert B. Strassler and translated by Andrea L. Purvis (New York: Pantheon, 2007), 474. See also Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way (New York: Norton, 1993), 135.

4. Acts 22:27–29.

5. John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government §14, rev. ed., edited by Peter LaslettOxford University Press, 1963), 317–18.

6.  Thomas Jefferson, Notes on The State of Virginia, in Jefferson: Writings, edited by Merrill Peterson Library of America, 1984), 245; Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, in Jefferson: Writings, 492–93.[groups_can capability="access_html"]

7. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books, 1971), 342–43.

8. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 342–43.

9. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 352.

10. For a sample of Aristotle’s thoughts on the value of language, see Politics 1253a, in Richard McKeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1941), 1129. For example, “Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure or pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.”

11. See Arthur Herman, The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization (New York: Random House, 2014), ch. 22.

12. Johann Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation, translated by R. F. Jones and G. H. Turnbull (Chicago: Open Court, 1922), 232 (emphasis added).

13. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, in White Nights and Other Stories by Fyodor Doystoevsky, translated by Constance Garnett (New York: MacMillan, 1918), 75.

14. Edmund Burke, Reflections on The Revolution in France, edited by Connor Cruise O’Brien (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), 170.

15. Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, 170.

16. Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, 171.

17. Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, 90.

18. Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, 118.

19. Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, 120. Burke once claimed to despise Rousseau, but the two are intellectual brothers in their rejection of rational philosophical inquiry and their emphasis on sentiment and tradition. See William F. Byrne, “Burke’s Higher Romanticism: Politics and the Sublime,” Humanitas, vol. 19, nos. 1 and 2, 14–34.

20. Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, in Paine: Collected Writings, edited by Eric Foner Library of America, 1995), 448.

21. As one historian concludes, “[French Revolutionary] influences permeated [Rigas’s] work, [but] it was the political needs of the Greeks and the idealized Ancient Greek civilization that echoed a nationalist ideology for the new state.” Stratos Myrogiannis, The Emergence of A Greek Identity (New Castle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012), 119. (Needless to say, I differ with Myrogiannis’s conclusion that Rigas’s “nationalist ideology . . . was based on the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment and . . . had nothing to do with Romantic nationalist doctrines.”)

22. The Works of Lord Byron (Boston: Crosby, Nichols & Lee, 1861), 539.

23. Douglas Dakin, The Greek Struggle for Independence, 1821–1833 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 30.

24. Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto II, stanzas 73–76.

25. George C. Chryssis, “American Philhellenes and the Greek War for Independence,” Krētē: Monthly Publication of the Pancretan Association of America, March 2007: 13.

26. Thomas Jefferson to Adamantios Korais (Coray), October 31, 1823, Library of Congress, See also Peter S. Onuf, “Ancients, Moderns and the Progress of Mankind: Thomas Jefferson’s Classical World,” in Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America, edited by Peter S. Onuf and Nicholas P. Cole (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011).

27. William Henry Seward, Life and Public Services of John Quincy Adams (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1856), 128.

28. Seward, Life and Public Services of John Quincy Adams, 131.

29. Chryssis, “American Philhellenes and the Greek War for Independence,” 13–14.

30. Peter P. Hinks, ed., David Walker’s Appeal (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 9.

31. Hinks, David Walker’s Appeal, 42.

32. “Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave” (1850), in Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Poems, edited by Marjorie Stone and Beverly Taylor (Buffalo: Broadview, 2009), 188.

33. “The Christian Slave,” in The Complete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1984), 359.

34. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 42–43.

35. Mark Twain, Life on The Mississippi (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1901), 327–28.

36. Hamilton James Eckenrode, “Sir Walter Scott and the South,” The North American Review, vol. 206, no. 743 (October 1917): 595–603, 601. Another small indicator of Scott’s immense influence on pre-Civil War American society is that “Hail to the Chief,” the anthem of the office of the presidency, is adapted from a musical version of a Scott poem. Abigail Tucker, “Why Do We Play ‘Hail to the Chief’ for the President?”Smithsonian, January 2017,

37. George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South; or, The Failure of Free Society (Richmond: A. Morris, 1854), 7.

38. Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, 226.

39. Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, 229.

40. Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, 11.

41. Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, 182.

42. Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, 29–30.

43. Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, 25.

44. Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, 26.

45. Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, 27–28.

46. Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, 37.

47. Rollin G. Otserweis, Romanticism and Nationalism in the Old South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949), 213. Another example: writing in 1832, the Virginian Thomas Dew argued that Southerners were proud of their freedom—and he quoted Burke to support his point—because “‘freedom is to them not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege.’” Moreover, there was a “perfect spirit of equality . . . among the whites of all the slave holding states,” because slaves performed all the “menial and low offices,” leaving whites with no need for “distinction and separation.” Thomas Dew, Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832 (Richmond: T. W. White, 1832), 112. “Look to the slave holding population of our country,” Dew said, rising to the heights of Romanticism, “and you every where find them characterized by noble and elevated sentiment, by humane and virtuous feelings. We do not find among them, that cold, calculating selfishness, which withers and repels every thing around it, and lessens and destroys all the multiplied enjoyments of social intercourse. . . . [S]lavery . . . seems to awaken the laudible propensities of our nature, such as ‘frankness, sociability, benevolence, and generosity.’” Dew, Review of the Debate, 109.

48. John C. Calhoun, Speech on the Reception of Abolition Petitions, February 1837, in Speeches of John C. Calhoun (New York: Harper & Bros., 1843), 225.

49. John C. Calhoun, A Disquisition on Government, in John C. Calhoun: Selected Writings and Speeches, edited by H. Lee Cheek (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2003), 5.

50. John C. Calhoun, Speech on the Oregon Bill, June 27, 1848, in John C. Calhoun: Selected Writings, 681.

51. Calhoun, A Disquisition on Government, 31.

52. Abraham Lincoln, Address at Baltimore Sanitary Fair, April 18, 1864, in The Writings of Abraham Lincoln (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 421.

53. William McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: Norton, 1978), 78.

54. David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), ch. 3.

55. Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin’s, 1998), 313, 445.

56. Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” (July 5, 1852), in Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, edited by Philip Foner and Yuval Taylor (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999), 204.

57. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto II, stanza 77.

58. See, for example, Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, in Douglass: Autobiographies, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. Library of America, 1994), 592; Speech on West India Emancipation, August 3, 1857, in Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, 366; “Men of Color, To Arms!” March 21, 1863, Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, 526.

59. Speech on West India Emancipation, 366.

60. Speech on West India Emancipation, 367.

61. Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War (New York: Holt, 2011), 76–77, 115.

62. Quoted in Horwitz, Midnight Rising, 693.

63. Frederick Douglass diary, Library of Congress,

64. John Potter, Antiquities of Greece, edited by James Boyd (London: Thomas Gegg & Son, 1837), 109.

65. Acts 17:22–26.[/groups_can]

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