Liberty

My friend Shawn Wilbur, an intellectual historian and a mainstay of the libertarian left, has been putting volumes of the 19th century progressive paper Liberty online in PDF form. Here’s the archive so far and here’s Shawn’s post on the state and future of the project.

This is fascinating material and the pages are full of sharp, thoughtful, combative, often witty writing, e.g. (from the first issue), “Formerly the price of Liberty was eternal vigilance, but now it can be had for fifty cents a year.”

It’s not as if the paper is an oracle to show us the way out of our current cultural and political impasse: it’s dogged by many rather regressive 19th C. ideas. For instance, the issue for 10/14/1881 devoted some front page space to deriding the idea of women’s suffrage (here’s a PDF link to that issue), an idea whose time was overdue even then.

But the archive is already a rich resource for an often-neglected stream of American intellectual history and promises to become richer still as Shawn adds more content, text versions (more readable than PDFs and searchable) etc.

I like the quiet moxie with which they state their purpose in the first issue (PDF link).

LIBERTY enters the field of journalism to speak for herself because she finds no one willing to speak for her. She hears no voice that always champions her; she knows no pen that always writes in her defence; she sees no hand that is always lifted to avenge her wrongs or vindicate her rights. Many claim to speak in her name, but few really understand her. Still fewer have the courage and opportunity to fight for her. Her battle, then, is her own to wage and win. She accepts it fearlessly, and with a determined spirit.

Her foe, Authority, takes many shapes, but, broadly speaking, her enemies divide themselves into three classes: first, those who abhor her both as a means and as an end of progress, opposing her openly, avowedly, sincerely, consistently, universally; second, those who profess to believe in her as a means of progress, but who accept her only so far as they think she will serve their own selfish interests, denying her and her blessings to the rest of the world; third, those who distrust her as a means of progress, believing in her only as an end to be obtained by first trampling upon, violating and outraging her. These three phases of opposition to Liberty are met in almost every sphere of thought and human activity.

Fortunately, these words were written long ago and have no relevance to our modern world today with its hybrid cars and adjustable-interest loans and stuff.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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10 Responses to Liberty

  1. fpb says:

    I am sorry, I regard the oppositiong between liberty and authority as completely false and fraudulent. It is the same thing as to say that the laws of a free country have no authority. There is a difference between liberty and anarchy.

    • JE says:

      “Fraudulent” seems a little off the mark, here. People can disagree, they can even be wrong, without being dishonest. I’d dispute your re-phrasing of the writer’s point, too. It seems to me that he’s using “Authority” as a tag for forces that oppose political liberty. That doesn’t necessarily mean that authority is bad in every context.

      On the other hand, authority is opposed to liberty in every context. The restraint of some individuals (e.g. serial killers) will result in a net gain of freedom for other people, but the people under restraint have still lost their liberty. And the question of who has their liberty taken away from them for the good of others (and how this is to be done, and under what circumstances) can only be adequately discussed in the context of liberty, never authority. But it is the nature of authority to intrude into these discussions and try to obviate them.

      If this seems like an abstract or old-fashioned sort of issue, I can only assure you that it is not.

  2. le_trombone says:

    Nice. I was hoping that this was a general turn-of-the-century magazine project, but it looks like your friend is interested in political magazines, yes?

    If I recall correctly, Rex Stout had some articles in the magazine. (Stout, for those of you who don’t know, not only created Nero Wolf, but also was the front man for a group that opposed Lindbergh’s fascist-friendly position and uncovered a link between BASF’s American branch and Nazi Germany).

    • JE says:

      That might have been the “slick” Liberty. I remember we cleared a bunch of them out of my parents’ basement when I was a kid and just threw them away. I wonder now what was in them.

      I’ve been vaguely aware of Stout’s antifascist work, but I’d be interested to know more. I see there’s a biography of him by John McAleer. Is it any good on this, do you think?

      • le_trombone says:

        I see there’s a biography of him by John McAleer. Is it any good on this, do you think?

        That is in fact my primary source. Be warned, it is heavy on details, which is normally praiseworthy, but some sections are more interesting than others.

  3. shawnpwilbur says:

    some replies

    Thanks for the mention, James.

    When it comes to the simple opposition of liberty and authority, well, yes, this is not the only way to conceive the terms or their relations. It is almost certainly also true that Benjamin R. Tucker, who wrote the passage in question, used authority in other ways in other places. Even such radical libertarians as the anarchist Bakunin ultimately acknowledged personal authority of various sorts. But the opening salvos of Liberty’s campaign are hardly the place to judge its mature purposes. As the archiving process is completed, it will be easier to track the development from these rather simple first statements. I’m currently talking with potential collaborators about a wiki-based archive and discussion site that would let interested folks tackle the interpretation of the whole oeuvre together.

    Yes, it’s true that my own interests are largely political, although the radical political periodicals of the 19th century were instrumental in publishing European literature that was a little too outside the envelope for mainstream journals. If Stout wrote for “Liberty,” it was probably the 20th century journal of the same name. I don’t recall specifically if that was the case, but it seems likely.

    • fpb says:

      Re: some replies

      Two free human beings reach an agreement. They discuss each point carefully, then set it down on paper. They put their names to it. From that moment on they are bound by their agreement, for the word of a free man is his bond. If you regard this as a diminution of liberty, let alone an assault on liberty by, and I quote, “her enemy, Authority,” then your idea of liberty has nothing to do with mine. If you do not, as I hope you do not, you must realize that Liberty and Authority are the two edges of the same sword. There is no Authority unless it is inwardly recognized by a free man as just; otherwise it is not authority but tyranny – even benevolent tyranny. There is no liberty unless it recognizes the authority of justly reached agreements; for otherwise there is no liberty but looseness, and finally tyranny (since in a situation of permanently unrecognized authority it is inevitably the stronger who defeats the weaker). Tyranny is power without authority. Authority is liberty welding power.

      • JE says:

        Re: some replies

        “the word of a free man is his bond.”

        Some free men are reputable, some are not. Someone who pledges his word and keeps it is voluntarily surrendering his freedom of action with regards to the agreement. If one man is less than reputable, or there is some legitimate dispute about the nature of the agreement, the dispute may end up in front of an authority who resolves the question by constraining the freedom of action of one or more of the parties.

        “Tyranny is power without authority. Authority is liberty welding power.”

        You are at liberty to define the words that way if it suits you, but I don’t think you have the authority to set those definitions for others, particularly for a text which is more than a century and a quarter old by a writer long dead.

        Tyranny in a free society typically develops from a legitimately constituted authority (e.g. the proconsulate in the Roman Republic).

    • JE says:

      Re: some replies

      No problem about the mention.

      It’s the simple statements I’m most likely to wrap my head around, I’m afraid, but I’ll be interested to plow through some more of this stuff.

      On the literature side: I note their big interest in Leaves of Grass. And at one point I seem to remember they were giving away copies of Dickens’ Christmas stories to long-term subscribers which seems somehow… so heartwarmingly PBS, if you know what I mean.

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