Undermining The Foundations of Individual Liberty

Individual Liberty in the Crucible of History, Part 2


Source: The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, 01 June 1962

The ideas which would, in time, act as an acid to eat away the intellectual foundations of American liberty made their appearance and began to gain sway over thinkers in the period 1840-1890. Some of these corrosive ideas were not new, but whether new or old they gained impetus from new currents of thought which swept the intellectual world in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Few men living at the time realized that the idea they were imbibing and sometimes championing would poison the roots of liberty. Few enough realize even today that they have done so.

Yet ideas, once accepted, follow their own internal logic to bend men and events toward their implicit ends, regardless of the intentions of those who hold them. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can be even more destructive – they can eat out the very life-giving marrow of the bone, leaving a hull which will crumble at the slightest blow. All of this occurs beneath the surface of the ordinary plane of our lives, which is why, when the direct attack upon liberty was made in the twentieth century, we were ill prepared to cope with it.

The task here is to reconstruct historically the way in which new ideas entered the American mind in the latter part of the nineteenth century and displaced those which would have supported liberty. It is doubly important that we do this. In the first place, it will help to pin down the point at which Americans began to stray from the path of liberty. And secondly, it will help to sensitize us to those ideas and conceptions that are antithetical to liberty.

There is no need to gloss over the fact that the history of ideas is a difficult subject. The journey through it can be likened to the fording of a stream with deep waters lying all around and whirlpools swirling beneath the placid surface to suck in the unwary. But there are rewards that justify the effort: there is the pleasure of the recognition of familiar noble ideas which were the product of kindred minds and the at-first painful ex-animation of one’s own beliefs and assumptions.Most important, it will help to provide that understanding which is essential to the defense of liberty in this century of ideas and ideologies.

It will be remembered that American liberty was based upon beliefs in the following: natural law, freedom of the mind and will, individual responsibility, and rationalism. These in turn, to borrow from the verbiage of the first article in this series, were given evocative power by the belief that there is a God who imbedded his immutable laws in the visible universe, that the individual has a worth not measurable in human terms, that each individual’s good is inseparable from the general welfare, and that liberty is priceless for the individual and socially beneficial. We will focus our attention, then, upon the ideas which tended to undermine these foundations.


A test sample of the intellectual air which men breathed in the middle of the nineteenth century would likely show that the most active ingredient in it was something that we now call romanticism. This romanticism was anything but opposed to individual liberty. Rather, its outstanding spokesmen were probably the most ardent proponents of freedom the world has ever seen. Henry Thoreau refused to pay taxes to a government that acquiesced in the enslavement of human beings. Margaret Fuller wielded her pen in the cause of the emancipation of women. Disciples could be found for almost any cause that could lay claim to the purpose of freeing either the body, mind, or spirit of man from those things which fettered or bound it, whether it be temperance, improved treatment of the insane, public education, abolition of slavery, prison reform, emancipation of women, communitarianism, or shorter skirts for women,

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thought can be used to exemplify this devotion to freedom that was typical of many romantics. Emerson exhorted men to be free, to be self-reliant, to plant themselves firmly in their own being, and from that vantage point to stand with or against other men as they were right or wrong. Self-reliance was, after all, an essential prerequisite to the general condition of liberty, but Emerson added new measure to its meaning. A man not only ought to rely upon himself for the necessities of life, but he also ought to rely upon himself for the necessities of the spirit as well

Emerson believed that knowledge could come by direct intuition, needing no intermediary for its perception. A man who would only have confidence in the eternal truth of that which came to him in this way might have that measure of its sufficient for his needs. To rely upon other men was to stifle the flow of knowledge and would lead only to pale imitation. Why take secondhand that which could be had in the exhilarating newness of personal discovery? Hark not to the voice of society, for it is “in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”1 Confirm not to ancient usages unless they have personal relevance. Abjure the dictations of even intimate loved ones – father, mother, sister, wife – if they be contrary to the nature of the individual. “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” “What I must do,” he said, “is all that concerns me, not what the people think.”2 It would be difficult to state a more uncompromising on individual freedom.

The immediate impact of the romantic outlook, then, was favorable to individual liberty. Romantics usually venerated creativity and the uniqueness from which it springs, emphasized the importance of choice, opposed force, and stressed voluntarism. If each man was divine, as Walt Whitman said, then he was sacred and his person should be inviolate. No more comprehensive belief could be summoned for the protection of the individual. Further, the romantic outlook rehabilitated faith and revived idealism.

Rejection of Natural Law

But romanticism opened the door to beliefs which undercut the foundations of the belief in reason and natural law. As a movement, romanticism was, in part, a reaction to rationalism, or to its excesses. Romantics were less interested in law than in the spirit behind the law, much more concerned with Nature than with any state of nature, more likely to be subjective than objective. In their quest for the natural they were led backward to the primitive and primeval, to the irrational origins of habits, customs, and institutions. Their researches, studies, and imaginations drove them toward the conclusion that human activities and institutions rest upon desire, instinct, and custom rather than reason. And, since they had come to adore nature, they were precommitted to a preference for these irrational explanations.

European thinkers particularly were turning away from natural law and reason. Philosophers and scientists began to proclaim other grounds for human behavior. Schopenhauer, as one writer puts it, saw the prime mover of man as “Will, the dark and blind urge . . . . the will to live without any definite aim or purpose . . . .”3 Nietzsche believed that the “will to power is the only meaning of life . . . .”4 Freud exposed the power of the sexual urge in human behavior; Marx would explain thought by the material conditions of society; Fazier explored the role of myth in social beliefs, and so on. In a stimulating study of the major European thinkers form 1890 to 1930, H. Stuart Hughes says, “Unquestionably the major intellectual innovators of the 1890’s were profoundly interested in the problem of irrational motivation in human conduct. They were obsessed, almost intoxicated, with a rediscovery of the nonlogical, the uncivilized, the inexplicable.”5

Darwin and Evolution

Into the midst of this disenchantment with reason came the Darwinian concept of evolution, the most stimulating intellectual discovery since the seventeenth century. No thinker of stature could avoid coming to terms with evolution, and many were soon embroiled in working out its implications. If accepted, the theory of evolution entailed a new conception of reality. It supplanted the stable, orderly, rational universe of Newton with an evolving with an evolving, changing, nonrational universe. Change, not order, became the clue to understanding reality. Natural law – that is, a fixed order in the universe – became meaningless to a thoroughgoing Darwinian. Natural rights, if such a concept persevered, could have meaning only as they were related to a particular stage of evolution.

Darwinism offered the possibility, at least, of accounting for things without a creator. It offered a naturalistic account of the origin of life, of the source of change, and of the direction of development. It appeared that material objects could be accounted for in terms of their derivation from earlier material objects. Change took place by a gradual evolution.

Theories proliferated purporting to account for the force which produced change such explanations as natural selection, sexual selection, the quest for available goods, and so forth. At any rate, matter and force were reckoned by many to be the most important constituents of reality. Even man himself was reduced to these constituents.

Jacques Loeb, a German biologist who came to America, said: “Living organism are chemical machines consisting chiefly of colloidal material . . . .”6 Ernst Haecel held, as one historian describes it, that “man’s mind as well as his body, together with all animal and vegetable species, has been evolved from protoplasm which arises from nitrogenous carbon compounds by spontaneous generation.”7 Lord Arthur Balfour declared, “Man, so far as natural science by itself is able to teach, is no longer the final cause of the universe, the Heaven-descended heir of all the ages. His very existence is an accident, his story a brief and transitory episode in the life of one of the meanest of the planets.”8

The Relativity of Knowledge

While some of the above quotations are extreme, they do indicate the tendency of the impact of Darwinism upon thought. Matter, force, change, relation, and primitive desire were replacing the belief in reason, order, permanency, and transcendental ideals. Some thinkers were reduced to a belief in the “persistence of force and the relativity of knowledge . . . .”9 In short, when the Darwinian outlook was accepted and consistently followed, ideas dependent on the older view – natural rights, immutable law, human reason, the worth and dignity of man – had to be rejected.

It is one thing, however, to show that a few “advanced” European thinkers held certain ideas; it is quite another to show the general acceptance of these ideas in America. The logical tendency of an idea can be shown much more easily than can the fact that men made such interpretations. It is proper to doubt that such deep ideas have popular impact.

Yet leading American thinkers did, in time, shift with the current of Darwinian thoughts and accept its major tenets. (and this acceptance did in the course of time have a full impact upon American society, a point which will be more completely established in a later article.) There is now a considerable literature on the subject provided by intellectual historians. Anyone interested in tracing the influence of Darwinism on American thought should read either the whole or appropriate sections of the following: Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought, Stow Persons’ (editor) Evolutionary Thought in America, Stow Persons’ American Minds, Oscar Cargill’s Intellectual America, Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds, and Richard D. Mosier’s The American Temper.

Our purposes can be served by indicating how Darwinism was used by Americans to undermine the beliefs in freedom of the mind and will and of individual responsibility.

Individual Liberty Rests on Premise of Self-Control

Individual liberty and individual responsibility are premised upon the possibility of man originating and controlling his behavior. It is essential to them that man be the most important determinant in human action. Darwinism, however, provided bases for ideas which made of man an automaton, a mere twig, as it were, caught in the current of a stream, driven by forces uncontrolled by him toward impersonally determined ends. In short, evolutionary theories gave birth to or buttressed a host of deterministic theories: economic determinism, biological determinism, environmentalism, naturalism, and social determinism, among others. It did this by bolstering the organic conception of society, the animality of man, the materiality of reality, and the importance of external force.

Economic determinism was not new as a theory to the latter part of the nineteenth century, but it was reformulated and given momentous aid by new currents of thought. Karl Marx gave one of the most dogmatic formulations of it. he maintained that the origin of the structure of a society could be traced to the methods of production carried on in that society, that these determined the social order, and that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”10 Marx declared that Darwin’s discoveries provided him a basis in natural science, and books by Darwin and Marx were sold from the same shelf in socialist book stores.11

Economic determinism had its votaries in America, particularly by the beginning of the twentieth century. E. R. A. Seligman declared that to “economic causes must be traced in the last instance those transformations in the structure of society which themselves condition the relation of the social classes and the various manifestations of social life.”12 It was among historians, however, that the theory flourished. Brooks Adams tinged his account with a pessimistic fatalism, but saw economics as the key to civilization. But it was Charles A. Beard, with his seminal work, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, who drove the sword of economic determinism into the very heart of a major source of American liberty.

Biological determinism need not delay us much. Suffice it to say, this is the view that man’s actions, thought, and development are determined or limited by his heredity. It did spur, among other things, the development of intelligence tests which are founded on the assumption of inherited capacity and limitations for learning. It also led to the investigations of glands which brook large in some explanations of behavior. But it was environmentalism which became the most important explanation of human behavior.


The most extreme statement of environmentalism was made and popularized by an American, John B. Watson, in 1913 and the ensuing years. He called it behaviorism. The foundations for it were in the mechanistic and materialistic philosophies of the nineteenth century, however, and Watson’s theory was bolstered by the results of the experiments in conditioning performed by the Russians, Vladimir M. Bekhterev and Ivan P. Pavlov. In brief, behaviorism is the belief that animal (including man’s) behavior is the product of stimuli from the environment and the responses to them. So adequate was this explanation, Watson thought, that once sufficient human behavior had been observed, the behaviorist could, “given the stimulus . . . predict in advance what the response will be; or, given the response, he will be able to state what situation is calling our the reaction.”13 There is no room in such a theory for free will.

These ideas were brought to a wide audience by way of imaginative literature. This literature produced under the influence of deterministic theories is usually referred to as naturalistic. Naturalists consider man a product of his heredity and environment, and animal caught in the powerful web of circumstances which he is powerless to overcome. As one writer says, “for the naturalists . . . men are ‘human insects’ whose brief lives are completely determined by society or nature.”14 In America, naturalism was the dominant motif for Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, James Branch Cabell, Joseph Hergesheimer, Jack London, and James T. Farrell. Cabell put the importance of life in this way: “Living is a drab transaction, a concatenation of unimportant events; man is impotent and aimless. . . .”15

“Rugged Individualism”

There were many different interpretations of Darwinism, not all of them deterministic. And, it should be added, most Americans did not rush out to acquire and use these theories. Yet they did enter into the stream of American thought, and have practical import. Perhaps this entry can be demonstrated by the phenomenon known as “rugged Individualism,” a conception which originated in the latter part of the nineteenth century so far as I can make out.

Rugged individualism was the bastard offspring of an illicit union between the belief in individual liberty and Darwinian evolution interpreted deterministically. On the surface, it appeared to be a continuation of American individualism. Actually, however, it was flawed to its very core by determinism.

This can be demonstrated by the thought of the leading American academic exponent of rugged individualism, William Graham Sumner. Sumner, who was a disciple of Herbert Spencer, made his initial impact as an exponent of liberty. he opposed attempts at governmental regulation of or interference with the economy, favored free trade and an absolute maximum of individual liberty, castigated reformers as impractical, and venerated individual responsibility.16 Yet Sumner’s views were increasingly vitiated by determinism. As he turned to the study of primitive societies he moved toward a “rigidly deterministic view of societal evolution.”17 Sumner’s own words show that he did not believe in man’s freedom:

The great stream of time and earthly things will sweep on just the same in spite of us. It bears with it now all the errors and follies of the past, the wreckage of all the philosophies, the fragments of all the civilizations, the wisdom of all the abandoned ethical systems, the debris of all the institutions, and the penalties of all the mistakes. It is only in imagination that we stand by and look at and criticize it and plan to change it. Every one of us is a child of his age and cannot get out of it. he is in the stream and is swept along with it.18

Indefensible Positions

There is no purchase on rugged individualism from which to defend individual liberty. Individualism was nothing more than a stage in the process of evolution. When conditions changed – those conditions which at that stage moved individuals to compete and to make progress – then a new organization of society would evolve and have to be accepted.

To the casual observer, American liberty must have appeared to be entrenched and secure in 190o, William McKinley, a man little apt to change the course of things, we re-elected to the Presidency. Social reformers were stymied: populism appeared to be dead; William Jennings Bryan, with some radical ideas, had been repudiated; Eugene Debs, with his tiny socialist following, hardly menaced the Republic. Yet beneath the surface the foundations of liberty were suffering erosions from the bombardment of new ideas. Americans were imbibing beliefs which could not be used in the defense of liberty.

Liberty Without Foundations

Let us examine, imaginatively, attempting to defend liberty with the intellectual equipment that was being surveyed at the time. Suppose the individual when pressed to defend his liberty should claim that it was founded in natural right. But where in the changing universe of Darwinism would one find any basis for natural rights? Man never existed in a state of nature according to the latest anthropological findings, the man would be told. Rights are relative to the conditions of the time and the stage of evolution of the culture.

But surely, a man might argue, reason will support my rights. Already, however, there were men who taught that what appeared to be reason was nothing more than self-serving rationalization. Conscious thought plays too small a role in men’s actual thought, said psychologists, to be granted much of a hearing. What really moves men is passion, desire, hunger, greed, and avarice. Americans were beginning to be taught to look beneath the stated reason for the “real” (i. e. subjective) explanation for what men said. Suppose a man were to give in and claim his liberties on the ground that he desires them, he would be defeated before he began. Where desire is the arbiter, when desires conflict, the appeal must be to force or power. In the United States, of course, the veiled force of the majority was substituted for the brute force of the mob.

In the new outlook, was there nothing to which the individual could appeal by right? No! Not in theory, though he might still be protected by the vestigial remains of liberties which had been institutionalized. Idealism has no place in a material universe; right is a useless concept in a world governed by force; voluntarism is a quaint notion if necessity actually rules in human affairs. There is no need to look for protection for individual liberty in irrationalism, relativism, materialism, determinism, subjectivism, or organicism. It was these very ideas which undermined the foundations of liberty in America.


1 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Greystone Press), p. 17.

2 Ibid., pp. 17-18.

3 Hans Kohn, The Twentieth Century (New York: Macmillan, 1957), p. 47

4 Ibid., p. 48

5 H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958), p. 35.

6 Quoted in Randall, op. cit., p. 581. Making of the Modern Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1940), p. 479

7 Carlton J. H. Hayes, Contemporary Europe Since 1870 (New York: Macmillan, 1958), p. 207

8 Quoted in Randall, op. cit., p. 581

9 Richard D. Mosier, The American Remper (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952), p. 251

10 Quoted in Morris Hillquit, Socialism in Theory and Practice (New York: Macmillan, 1909), p. 63

11 See Richard Hofstader, Social Darwinism in American Thought 1860-1915 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944), p. 95.

12 Quoted in Henry S. Commager, The American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Pres, 1954), pp. 305-306.

13 “Behaviorism,” Encyclopedia Britanica, III, 328.

14 Malcom Cowley, “Naturalism in American Literature,” Evolutionary Thought in America, Stow Persons, Ed. (New York: George Braziller, 1956), p. 331.

15 Quoted in Commager, op. cit., p. 118.

16 See William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (New York: Harper, 1920), passim.

17 Hofstadter, op. cit., pp. 133-134.

18 William G. Sumner, “The Absurd Effort To Make the World Over,” American Thought: Civil War to World War I, Perry Miller, ed. (New York: Rinehart, 1954), p. 104.


Clarence B. Carson (1925-2003) was a frequent contributor to The Freeman: Ideas On Liberty, was Professor of History at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, and the author of 12 books including his noteworthy six-volume work: A Basic History of the United States.

Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education.

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