Individual Liberty in the Crucible of History: Circumstances Hostile to Liberty

Clarence B. Carson
Clarence B. Carson


Originally published July 01, 1962 in the Freeman

Men bent upon tyranny will ever find means at hand for achieving it and justifications for imposing it. The unimaginative, the uncrea­tive, the lazy, and the irresponsi­ble can ever find formidable cir­cumstances to excuse their fail­ures. Whether any given set of circumstances is more favorable to liberty than another is debata­ble. It is not debatable, however, that conditions change, or that changed circumstances require different approaches to the same goal. Deterministic explanations of human behavior cannot be dis­posed of by simply denying any importance to circumstances. We front at any given time an impos­ing array of circumstances in terms of which we must modify our behavior or have it modified for us, react or respond, adjust to or overcome them. Effective ac­tion must proceed from an aware­ness both of enduring and of changing circumstances.

One of the inherent weaknesses of conservatism is its tendency to rely upon whatever is established and instituted, oblivious to the manifold changes that are occur­ring. At his best, the conserva­tive labors to preserve enduring values; at his worst, he battles to maintain all established practices. Frequently, he stands for the ephemeral and enduring indis­criminately, thus laying himself open to the charge that he fears change and loves the comfort of the familiar. Quite likely, too, con­servatives at any time will have among their number those who have established themselves in some favored position, and who wish to see it maintained as a spe­cial privilege.

Those whose dominant public concern is with liberty can make common cause with conservatives at one point—their desire to main­tain instituted protections of liberty because it is an enduring value. But the task is not now one of simply maintaining liberty; it is in great measure one of restor­ing it. The posture of the indis­criminate conservative can be a positive hindrance in the latter undertaking. Liberty is a very practical matter. To ignore or gloss over changed circumstances will not help to maintain liberty, but it will play into the hands of those whose programs have re­sulted in a gradual circumscrip­tion of liberty. Twentieth century “liberals” have had the advantage too long of taking potshots at the conservative who would, they say, return to the days of McKinley. The argument from circum­stances (and the “necessity” of coming to terms with them) is the most powerful one in the arsenal of the “liberal.” The argument cannot be countered either by ig­noring or denouncing it. It can only be met effectively by recog­nizing the changed conditions of the twentieth century, acknowl­edging that changed circum­stances require different ap­proaches to liberty, and boldly confronting these circumstances with new ideas and programs. An historical purpose can be served also by calling attention to the changed physical conditions in America, for it was in terms of them that reformers advanced their programs and infused America with their ideas.

It is not necessary to embrace a deterministic environmentalism in order to recognize that changed circumstances can alter the con­ditions of individual liberty. When conditions are simple, the alterna­tives for choice are more apparent. The fewer people involved in a de­cision the easier it is for all of them to participate effectively in the decision-making process. Eco­nomic independence promotes in­dividual liberty; dependence is a deterrent. As the situation be­comes more complex, as men’s lives become more interrelated, as institutions grow in size and com­plexity, as organizations extend their reach, liberty becomes ever more difficult to maintain. Con­versely, it is much easier for tyranny to be subtly extended.

The foundations of American liberty were conceived and laid in an overwhelmingly rural, agrar­ian, sparsely populated, and in­formal America. These founda­tions rested upon premises in­herited from the Old World and practices congenial to the New World conditions. There is, of course, no conclusive proof that the belief in individual liberty was simply a product of the American environment, and I doubt that it was. New soil can become the ground for new tyrannies if men are willing. My assumption is that the devotion to liberty grows out of faith, hope, belief, and de­termination before which condi­tions may be nothing more than an adjunct.

At any rate, New World condi­tions offered opportunities con­genial to the development of liberty if men’s minds were bent in that direction. This new land offered to the settlers unbounded opportunity to conquer, to build, to change, to create a country, as it were, to their own liking. Early settlers were largely free from the binding fetters of custom, from the necessity to conform to estab­lished ways, from many of the prescriptions of class and caste, from most, if not all, of the limi­tations of an established order.

Responsible Individuals

But the New World not only offered much; it also required much of the settlers. It required strength, courage, ingenuity; it placed great responsibility upon the individual: he must establish order, and he must provide for himself and his own or perish.

So, for intellectual, spiritual, and circumstantial reasons, Amer­icans developed an order in which there was much individual liberty and a corresponding individual re­sponsibility. Social customs arose to abate the loneliness and amelio­rate the severity of individual re­sponsibility. They tended to be voluntary in character, and to de­pend upon cooperation rather than coercion for their working. I have in mind such folkways and cus­toms as house-raisings, house­warmings, hog-killings, quilting bees, cornhuskings, and sitting up with the sick and the dead. In case of severe need occasioned by crop failure, hail, being burned out, the loss of an indispensable cow or horse, neighbors frequently made up an offering to help out. It was customary in the nineteenth cen­tury for orphans, the aged, the infirm, the crippled, and the maimed to be cared for by the closest kin among the relatives. When death occurred, the neigh­bors not only sat up during the period of mourning but also laid out the body, built the coffin as likely as not, dug the grave, and sang at the funeral. Recreation originated in and was participated in by the community: singings, all-day to-do’s, cakewalks, square dances, turkey shoots, fox hunts, debates, fish fries, and picnics.

Rural Americans, that is most Americans before the Civil War, produced most of the necessities of life on the farm and in the home. They grew most of their food, hunted and fished for a por­tion of their meat, spun their yarn, wove and fashioned home­spun clothes, churned their butter, made their soap and the lye that went into it. A family often “got by” with only an occasional trip to the store to purchase spices, salt, powder and shot, and delicacies or trinkets. The farmer was by ne­cessity a jack-of-all-trades, adept at everything from carpentry to wood splitting. The farm wife was expected to be accomplished in everything from fancy needlework to gardening.

I describe neither utopia nor pastoral bliss. There was much hard and lonely work, much suf­fering; the rains fell on the just and the unjust alike. My point is that here were people who had a way of life built upon inde­pendence, who had a significant liberty to dispose of their time and resources, and were pro­foundly aware of their responsi­bilities for their own well-being. Self-respect and community re­spect depended upon maintaining independence. There was some­thing even shameful in having to ask aid of anyone else. Help from others should be volunteered, not asked for.

Civil War—A Dividing Line

The Civil War can be and often has been taken as the dividing line between the old and the new America—as that point at which such diverse and multitudinous changes began to spread across America that we can profitably speak of a qualitative change in the conditions of American life. As one historian states it, “Our nation of 1865 was a nation of farmers, city artisans, and indus­trious independent business men, and small scale manufacturers…. In this period before the Civil War comparatively small single owners, or frequently copartner­ships, controlled practically every industrial field.”1 After the Civil War there emerged an increas­ingly industrialized, urbanized, and mechanized America.

It is neither practical nor neces­sary to trace out in detail the multitudinous changes that have occurred affecting the condition of Americans since the Civil War. It will be useful, however, to con­sider some of them in detail and to suggest the impact of others. I shall focus upon those develop­ments which have been attended by increasing dependency, ramify­ing interdependency, growing complexity, and a circumscription of the area of choice of the indi­vidual. My purpose will be three­fold: to show that the conditions within which liberty could possi­bly be maintained have changed, to indicate the bearing of changes upon the individual’s view of his chances for free choice, and to lay bare the circumstantial back­ground which made “liberal” pro­grams appear necessary and de­sirable.

While the Civil War and de­velopments attendant upon it did not start the train of events and developments which were to cir­cumscribe the individual, it did accentuate and accelerate some of them. The outcome of the war practically determined that the union was indissoluble, that states having once joined it were sub­ject to national decisions. The con­stitutional amendments adopted in consequence of the war greatly extended the scope of the central government. The Fourteenth Amendment made citizenship na­tional, forbade states to violate the privileges of any citizen (thus laid the foundation for federal courts to provide rights). The Fifteenth Amendment extended the role of the national government into the determination of who should vote. The war and reconstruction made force a part of the character of the United States; no one could now correctly maintain that the union was voluntary. The exten­sion of the powers of the national government created a greater force at a further remove from the individual, made government more impersonal, and made it less likely that an individual could alter its course.

Unprepared for Freedom

The difficulties of the freed Negro may demonstrate to some extent the difficulties of achieving liberty in that postwar United States. On the face of it, the free­ing of the Negro was a gain for liberty in the United States. But most Negroes were unprepared for this giant step into freedom, and the hard truth is that they frequently traded slavery for peonage. Much of their new-found freedom was lost in the share-crop and supply system which emerged in the South to replace the slave-plantation system. By the end of the nineteenth century the Negro, more often than not, was politi­cally disfranchised, socially segre­gated, and economically encum­bered. He became one of the sev­eral elements of the population receptive to the appeal of govern­ment provided “independence.”

If the Negro made some gains relative to his former condition, the white people in the South lost in independence during and after Reconstruction. Both as a result of governmental attempts to make over the South and because of the fall in prices of farm products, many white men were reduced to tenant farming. The trend toward white tenancy mounted through the years. “In 1900 about 36 per cent of all white farmers in Dixie belonged to these classes. In 1930 the proportion had gone up… to about 45 per cent.”2 Negroes and whites became competitors at the same level for the available land.

The Southern white man alle­viated, to some extent, the threat of submergence by the Negro by developing industries which were usually closed to the Negro. But in so doing the Southerner fre­quently traded the dependence of the tenant for that of the factory and mineworker. If anything, the factory worker was more depend­ent upon the mill operator than the tenant had been upon the land­lord. Frequently he lived in a company house, bought necessities at the company store, was “pro­tected” by the company police, sent his children to the company school, and attended a church sub­sidized by the company.

Tenant Farming

The national agricultural situa­tion followed a similar, though less dramatic, pattern. The farm­er’s independence was being drained away by declining prices, heavy shipping and machinery costs, and increasing indebtedness. In the 1890′s, 27 per cent of Amer­ican farms were mortgaged, and by 1910 the proportion had in­creased to 33 per cent. Farm ten­antry was rising nationally: in 1880, 25 per cent of American farms were cultivated by tenants; by 1910 the figure had risen to 37 per cent.3

The period from 1865 to 1890 had been one of unprecedented agricultural and westward expan­sion (a major reason for the sur­plus in farm products which drove prices downward), of the occupa­tion of new lands, of gold and silver rushes, of the building of cattle empires and the massacre of buffalo for their hides, of the expropriation of resources and the filling out of the West. Oppor­tunity did not end abruptly in 1890, but the surface resources that had drawn men westward were owned and being utilized. The fertile land had been claimed; the range land was being fenced; the buffalo had been killed. Some Americans became aware that our resources were not limitless, and Congress passed the first conser­vation laws. This change in con­ditions set the stage for the be­lief that the ownership and con­trol of property—and its use and abuse—by some men was a threat to others.

Private Fortunes Accumulated

Momentous economic changes occurred between 1865 and 1900. It was a period of rampant rugged individualism, of the accumulation of great fortunes in steel, meat, oil, silver, and rails, of the con­centration of wealth in the hands of powerful individuals, of the spanning of the continent by rail­road and telegraph, of wild stock market coups, of prosperity and depression. According to one re­port, the wealthiest man in New York was worth $6 million in1855. When Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877, he left a fortune of $104 million. Andrew Carnegie sold his steel interests in the early twentieth century for stocks and bonds valued at $492 million.4

Many rugged individualists used their wealth and manipula­tive skill to form monopolies and trusts. When Standard Oil Com­pany, the first great trust, was formed in 1870 there were twenty-five independent refineries in Cleveland. In two years Standard absorbed all but five of these. “By 1874 the greatest refineries in New York and Philadelphia had likewise merged their identity with his [Rockefeller’s] own. When Rockefeller began his acquisition, there were thirty independent re­fineries operating in Pittsburgh, all of which, in four or five years, passed one by one under his con­trol. The largest refineries of Bal­timore surrendered in 1875.”5 Thus did smaller enterprises suc­cumb to absorption by the giants.

It is doubtful that individuals acting alone would have been able to gain virtual control of whole industries. Rockefeller combined his wealth and acumen with that of other men to form his preda­tory trust. Many of the great rail­roads were built with funds sub­scribed by numerous individuals, groups, towns, and states. Fur­thermore, while governments rarely interfered with business operations in the late nineteenth century, they did actively aid and assist them in a variety of ways. There were tariffs, patents, fran­chises, and injunctions available to the fortunate, and some rail­roads received large grants of land and huge government loans. Combinations of capital could op­erate throughout the United States under the frequently un­inhibitory charters of a single state. The courts, instead of act­ing to limit the activities of com­binations, extended their protec­tion over them: the Supreme Court ruled (Santa Clara Co. v. Southern Pacific R. R. Co.) that a corporation was a person in the sense implied in the Fourteenth Amendment. It was these condi­tions—government aid and pro­tection with a minimum of re­striction—which made possible the great concentrations of wealth and power.°

Following upon and accompanying industrialization and the na­tionalization of business was a tremendous increase in nonagri­cultural and industrial workers. In 1860 there were 4,325,116 non­agricultural workers in the United States; in 1900 there were 18,161,235, a more than fourfold increase. Whatever else may be said for the “blue collar” and “white collar” workers, who made up an increasing proportion of these nonagricultural laborers, they were usually dependent and exposed when depressions and layoffs came. More often than not, they had neither land, property, nor insurance to fall back upon in adversity. Moreover, employ­ment was uncertain: it fluctuated drastically in depressions such as those of the 1870′s and 1890′s (not to mention the 1930′s), and in recessions in 1884, 1893, and 1907. Financial panics and de­pressions were not new to this time, but their impact was much more widespread and devastating than they had been in an earlier America when men were apt to be less dependent upon one an­other.

Urbanization a Factor

Accompanying and related to industrialization and the increase of industrial workers was the rise of the city in the late nineteenth century. Though rural still outnumbered urban inhabitants, one historian says: “In America in the eighties urbanization for the first time became a controlling factor in national life. Just as the plantation was the typical product of the antebellum South­ern system and the small farm of the Northern agricultural order, so the city was the supreme achievement of the new indus­trialism.”?

So many problems which con­cern only the individual or the family in rural areas are a com­mon and collective concern in the city. If a farmer in a rural area has a pigpen near the house, only he and his family are likely to suffer, but for a man to keep pigs in the city may offend the nos­trils of all those within a city block. City life provided the cir­cumstantial background for much of the regulatory legislation of the twentieth century, which in­creasingly circumscribed the lib­erty of the individual.

Urban living has affected lib­erty, too, by obscuring the reality within which American liberty was conceived. The farmer is in daily contact with a reality of conditions which he did not create and some of which he is impotent to alter. The rains fall or the drought deepens; the frost comes early or the hail destroys the crops. The city dweller lives in contact with no such obvious con­straining reality. The conditions of his existence are mostly man­made, hence apparently alterable at will. He is easy prey to the idea that he alone creates wealth, or that whatever is wrong can be corrected by governmental action. He seeks scapegoats in adversity and worships heroes in prosperity. If the farmer too is susceptible to these attitudes, it may be in­dicative of the fact that he de­rives more and more of his opin­ions from the city via the mass media of communication.

Other Complications

The few developments I have discussed in some detail are only a beginning and a sampling of that totality of circumstances that surround the individual in the twentieth century. The huge im­migration that poured into Amer­ica in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century swelled the population of Eastern cities with near destitute inhabitants, many of them illiterate even in their own tongues, having come from lands without traditions of representative government, used to paternalistic arrangements, and whose conception of democracy was frequently vitiated with socialism and anarchism. Enterpris­ing individuals in the early twen­tieth century sometimes found the sources of capital closed to them by a virtual “money trust.”8 An international order which had generally kept the peace in the nineteenth century swiftly de­teriorated in the twentieth, and we have been confronted with total war and its attendant cir­cumscription of the liberty of the individual. The development of the mass media of communication has provided means for subtle and vulgar manipulation of the individual—both by governments and by private concerns—unpre­cedented in the history of man. Standardization, rationalization, and mechanization are abstrac­tions standing for practices used by ever larger organizations in the twentieth century to alter the context within which human lib­erty could be realized.

It is to simplify, but there is much validity to the view that the individual has been dwarfed by nationalized, consolidated, and centralized businesses; swallowed up in giant corporations, vast bu­reaucracies, and huge armies, bat­tered by total war, economic de­pressions, governmental and busi­ness propaganda; made apparently insignificant by his life in imper­sonal cities; replaced by the ma­chine, or required to adjust to its demands; baffled by the com­plexity of the operations in the world in which he lives; manipu­lated by salesmen, advertisers, politicians, announcers, and as­sorted confidence men.

The Growth of Organizations

How has he reacted or re­sponded to these pressures and conditions? In the broadest terms, the response can be suggested figuratively. To begin, man acts in a strange and sometimes irra­tional but an almost always con­sistent manner when confronted by forces that are, or appear to be, beyond his control. He seeks company in his fear and impo­tence, to lose himself within some group or in the mass of humanity, to submerge himself in something larger than himself. What man, confronted by some natural phe­nomenon posing a threat to him­self—say an oncoming storm—has not wished for the warmth and companionship of the family circle? It is the gathering of friends which assuages the pangs of grief when some member of the family is claimed by death.

The developments we have been considering do not appear upon analysis to be natural phenomena. But they took on something of the same sort of inevitable colora­tion. It was the relative incom­prehensibility of the develop­ments which made them so formi­dable to the individual. What man does not comprehend, he cannot control. Furthermore, that which is beyond the individual’s com­prehension appears to be a force beyond the control of man. Giant corporations, complex mechanical operations, big government which could be heard and felt but not seen, made it appear that these behemoths acted with a will of their own, resisting the interfer­ence of a mere man. Probably these conditions came nearer to convincing men that things were determined outside of and beyond their control than any subtle theory could have done.

Men reacted, then, by joining together in groups: labor unions, business associations, secret so­cieties, patriotic organizations, pressure groups, farm organiza­tions, and cooperatives. These, in turn, became a menace to individ­ual liberty. Witness, for example, the plight of the unorganized worker as an individual pitted against the combined force of or­ganized men in a union. This con­dition added more fuel to the fire of demands for government media­tion and regulation.

This account is only in part valid. The story of man differs from that of the story of lower animals. Man does not simply re­act to circumstances; he formu­lates theories and explanations and acts upon them. He is guided and directed by his interpreta­tions, beliefs, and assumptions. It is not my contention that the course that American history took was inevitable nor that it was simply a reaction to circum­stances. On the contrary, circum­stances provided the favorable soil for the seeds of ideas planted by reformers of the time we have been considering. Conditions lent an air of plausibility to interpre­tations that were made of them. My point here is that there were new circumstances that posed problems for traditional concepts of American liberty, that these conditions provided a backdrop for reform efforts, and that fail­ure to take them fully into account by defenders of liberty has led us into the present morass.


1 Burton J. Hendrick, The Age of Big Business (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919), pp. 2-3, 6-7.

2 Wilbur J. Cash, The Mind of the South (Garden City: Doubleday, 1954), p. 283.

3 T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Cur­rent and Frank Friedel, A History of the United States (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959), II, 172-79.

4 Hendrick, op. cit., pp. 10, 19, 84.

5 Ibid p. 36.

6 I refrain from entering into the de­bate as to whether these developments produced more “good” or “evil.” Such questions are usually answered within a framework of assumptions—pragmatic, materialistic, and the belief that man has sufficient knowledge to make such judg­ments—which I do not share. My interest in these developments here is restricted to them as they became circumstances of liberty.

7 Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Rise of the City (New York: Macmillan, 1933), p. 79.

8 The “money trust” was a term used in the early twentieth century to describe the dominant position of the Rockefellers and Morgan of major American financial institutions. The Pujo Committee re­ported in 1913: “If by a ‘money trust’ is meant an established and well-defined identity and community of interest be­tween a few leaders of finance… your committee… has no hesitation in assert­ing… that the condition thus described exists in this country to-day.” [Quoted in Harold U. Faulkner, The Quest for So­cial Justice (New York: Macmillan, 1931), pp. 46-47.]

Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared in the July 01, 1962  issue of THE FREEMAN. Copyright © 2013 Foundation for Economic Education. All rights reserved. Used with the permission

Clarence B. Carson was a frequent contributor to THE FREEMAN, and was Professor of History at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.


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