Richard Held Radical Essays

Richard Held Radical Essays-49
As Staughton Lynd has emphasized, such writers as James Burgh, Richard Price, and Joseph Priestley expanded the long-standing demand by Protestant Dissenters for religious liberty, into a call for complete freedom of conscience and a warning of the dangers posed to personal liberty by powerful governments.Therefore, side by side with the classical republican definition of liberty (as that attainable only through self-denial and active citizenship), there also emerged a newer conception of freedom as simply a collection of rights belonging to the people.

As Staughton Lynd has emphasized, such writers as James Burgh, Richard Price, and Joseph Priestley expanded the long-standing demand by Protestant Dissenters for religious liberty, into a call for complete freedom of conscience and a warning of the dangers posed to personal liberty by powerful governments.Therefore, side by side with the classical republican definition of liberty (as that attainable only through self-denial and active citizenship), there also emerged a newer conception of freedom as simply a collection of rights belonging to the people.

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It is here that the analysis of nineteenth-century American radicalism must begin.

During the past decade, a series of significant works have chronicled the ideological causes and consequences of the American Revolution.

The heritage of the "free-born Englishman," that sense of hostility to authoritarianism and an assertion of the right to resist arbitrary power, is not sufficiently emphasized by students of Country Party thought, but as E. Thompson has shown, it played an extremely important role in popular politics in the eighteenth century.

The individualist definition of freedom obviously possessed strong affinities for the view of economic life Adam Smith was proposing at precisely this time.

Too often, studies of the radical tradition are cast in a "heroic" mold, in which radicals are pictured as heroes to be emulated rather than historical figures defined by their own time, even as they struggle to transcend it.

Such an approach is able to provide striking portraits of individual radical figures and movements, but it is usually less successful in examining the social, cultural, and political aspects of American life which have limited the spread of radical movements. Pocock, and Eugene Genovese, to name only a few, are a salutary reaction against a period of "consensus" history during which historians argued that Americans have produced no ideas worthy of serious consideration.In emphasizing the concept of "virtue" as central to republican thought, Pocock implicitly rejects Louis Hartz's assumption that liberalism and competitive individualism dominated American thought from the beginning.But Joyce Appleby has charged Pocock with ignoring the individualist, liberal strand of republican thought.Such movements as communitarianism and socialism have attempted not to perfect the individualist ethos but rather to transcend it, erecting a competing vision of the good society, defined by the collective good.Whatever one's opinions of the Jacobin and Jeffersonian ideological strands, both are intrinsically American, for both can be traced back to the republicanism of the American Revolution.One can begin with the distinction drawn by Yehoshua Arieli in his brilliant analysis of American political culture, between the Jacobin and Jeffersonian traditions: the first collectivist, unitary, and oriented toward the state, the second voluntarist, pluralist, and oriented toward the individual and his "pursuit of happiness." A related, but not identical, distinction can be made in terms of the attitude of radical movements toward the institution of private property.The most prominent strain of American radicalism has derived from what C. Macpherson calls the theory of "possessive individualism," which defines liberty as freedom from dependence upon the will of other persons, and views possession of private property as a necessary guarantee of individual autonomy.Liberty could not exist where men lived in the abject conditions of poverty typical of the Old World.In the work of Pocock, republicanism emerges as a nostalgic quest for the virtues of a simpler time, a negative response to the political and economic developments of the eighteenth century.As Wood and Pocock describe it, American republicanism rested on a number of central concepts: "virtue"—the ability of men to sacrifice individual self-interest to the common good; "independence"—freedom from relationships except those entered into voluntarily; and "equality"—"the soul of a republic," according to Noah Webster.History demonstrated that rulers consistently sought to usurp the rights of the people; liberty could be preserved only by basing government on popular representation and ensuring that virtue, independence, and equality characterized the republican citizenry.

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