Negative and Positive Freedom


I’m reading James McPherson’s book The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Mattersand it presents interesting context that connects to our explorations of The Federalist Papers.

McPherson notes in the first chapter that the word “liberty” has assumed multiple meanings throughout American history, and that the Civil War marked a paradigm shift from one dominant meaning to another. “The tragic irony of the Civil War is that both sides professed to fight for the heritage of liberty bequeathed to them by the Founding Fathers.”

To help us understand this divide in the American definition of liberty, McPherson turns to “famous twentieth British philosopher Isiah Berlin in an essay titled ‘Two Concepts of Liberty.'” In this essay, Berlin delineates the concepts of positive liberty and negative liberty.

Negative liberty is freedom from. As defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints.” McPherson states that “Traditionally in American ideology . . . power was the enemy of liberty. . . ‘There is a tendency in all Governments to an augmentation of power at the expense of liberty,’ wrote James Madison. . . . Madison also drafted the first ten amendments to the Constitution as a Bill of Rights that limited the powers of the national government in the name of liberty. Nearly all of these amendments apply some form of the phrase ‘shall not’ to the federal government.”

This concept of liberty remains alive, even resurgent, today. As McPherson notes, “In recent years, with the rise of small-government or antigovernment movements in our politics, there has been a revival of negative liberty.”

But the Civil War marked a transition from a primarily negative conception of liberty to that of a positive one.

Positive liberty is freedom to. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that “positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.”

McPherson notes that “The change from all those ‘shall nots’ in the first ten amendments to the Constitution to the phrase ‘Congress shall have the power to enforce’ this provision in most post-Civil War amendments is indicative of this shift—especially the Thirteenth Amendment, which liberated four million slaves, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth, which guaranteed them equal civil and political rights.”

McPherson also notes another interesting shift in language and ideology during the Civil War—the transition from a description of the United States as a union to that of a nation. “In the process of preserving the Union of 1776 while purging it of slavery, the Civil War also transformed it. Before 1861 ‘United States’ was a plural noun . . . Since 1865 ‘United States’ is a singular noun. . . This transformation can be traced in Lincoln’s most important wartime addresses.”

Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War was critical to forging the conception of a unitary nation. If the primary goal of the Civil War was to preserve the union, the secondary one became the abolition of slavery, and those two goals symbiotically evolved during the war to become one and the same. McPherson articulates, later in Chapter 8, Lincoln’s critical role in defining this new nation in terms of a positive freedom. He uses James Oakes’s study The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, to compare Lincoln with Frederick Douglass in terms of their impact on our nation’s definition of liberty and freedom.

The difference between the two men was one of position and tactics, not conviction. Douglass was a radical reformer whose mission was to proclaim principles and to demand that the people and their leaders live up to those principles. Lincoln was a politician, a practitioner of the art of the possible, a pragmatist who subscribed to the same principles but recognized that they could only be achieved in gradual step-by-step fashion through compromise and negotiation, in pace with progressive changes in public opinion and political realities.

In other words, Lincoln and Douglass both served a critical and complementary purpose in carrying our democracy forward.

Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War, through McPherson’s retelling, stands up well to the critical eye of history. Though Lincoln was necessarily a man of his time, he also seemed to possess a foresight that enabled him to understand the ultimate purpose of the Civil War, and to strategically steer a divided union through the devastatingly disruptive shifts that it took to forge one nation (did you know that 750,000 soldiers died during this war?!). Lincoln was playing the long game. He told Congress in the winter of 1861 that “this struggle to preserve the Union ‘is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also.'”

The tension between a positive and negative conception of liberty continues as a source of faction in our nation today. I think we would do well to remember the Civil War, and heed the lessons learned from the great sacrifice that was made to create a more sophisticated nation in which liberty meant equality for all, rather than the mere autonomy from tyranny that first created our nation.

The Civil War taught us that establishing a meaningful definition of national liberty means sacrificing some individuality for the betterment of a collective good. This is a sacrifice that many of us today seem unwilling to make. And it makes one wonder—what will be the next divisive battle that we will need to fight to transform our democratic republic into a nation that will be worthy of our grandchildren?

Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

2 thoughts on “Negative and Positive Freedom”

  1. This is a good exposition on the need for government to maintain both positive and negative liberty, and justifies the need for a central power to ensure liberty to oppressed minorities. However, it must be considered in conjunction with the question of negative rights and positive rights as outlined in Dershowitz’s book “Rights From Wrongs.” He points out that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution was designed to protect citizens from the government–thus they were all phrased in the “shall nots” for the governments to observe–the government shall not infringe on free speech, etc.

    He mentions “positive rights” as an entirely different matter–being the positive rights of the citizens. Positive rights imply that a nation can’t just avoid hurting its citizens, but must provide “positive” help to them. Positive rights are now claimed by many as a right to a job, a right to shelter, a right to not ever feel uncomfortable about another’s words or deeds, a right to a minimum wage, a right to security, a right to medical care, etc.

    None of the immigrants that settled America during its first 300 years expected any positive rights, but simply wanted freedom and a minimum of government oversight. Even as late as the 1930’s, growing up, we never felt entitled to any comfort or support from the government. That huge change in attitude and expectations has occurred in the last 60 years with most people expecting too much from the government. And many appear to be willing to concede some of the important negative rights in return for the luxury of positive rights. Unfortunately, you can’t have your cake and eat it too! The pendulum may keep swinging so that we end by having too many positive rights and very few negative rights.

    But there should be no conflict between positive liberty and positive rights. Positive liberty can be praised if it accords every one equal opportunity and a level playing field. However, if it slides over into giving everyone a free ride, it becomes the curse that comes from excessive positive rights. Then, individual responsibility and self-reliance are virtues that become lost in the demands of a populist nation. We must recognize the need for a powerful central government to ensure civil rights but be wary of allowing such power to expand into controlling our lives and protecting us from ourselves.

  2. Hi, Bill! It makes me happy to know you’re still reading and commenting.

    I agree with you that there isn’t necessarily a conflict between positive and negative freedom. What I found interesting about McPherson’s exposition is the idea that our transformation from a “union” to a “nation” required a shift from the predominant focus on freedoms from to freedoms to — a shift that I think reflects a process of maturation.

    I also agree that we should be wary of a government that gains too much power over the lives of its citizens. I believe that we most require a strong centralized government for the administration of justice, public health, regulation of resources, and education, but that we should seek to remove the layers of bureaucracy that prevent citizens from efficient and meaningful civic engagement.

    However, I perceive our federal government as in a steady process of retreat, most especially in its duties to ensure positive freedoms in regards to equity of access and opportunity, while I think our citizenry is most threatened by the close walled systems that businesses have set up to harvest money off of a contained pool of consumers.

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