The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

May 27, 2018

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The Fragile Balance: John Adams on Liberty and Equality
J. W. Cooke - 12/30/10

From Cooke's essay:

Liberty and its synonym freedom are two of the most ambiguous and connotative words in the English language. The English philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, for instance, has noted that more than two hundred different meanings of these two key terms can be found. . . .

Even the most superficial student of John Adams’ thought must be aware of the second president’s preoccupation with the many meanings of liberty for Americans. It was not until late in his life,however, that he attempted a formal definition of this protean term. Liberty, he wrote John Taylor of Caroline,

. . . is an intellectual quality; an attribute that belongs not to fate nor chance. . . . The definition of it is a self-determining power in an intellectual agent. It implies thought and choice and power; it can elect between objects, indifferent in point of morality, neither morally good nor morally evil. If the substance in which this quality, attribute, adjective, call it what you will, exists, has a moral sense, a conscience, a moral faculty; if it can distinguish between moral good and evil, and has power to choose the former and refuse the latter, it can, if it will, choose the evil and reject the good. . . .

To read the entire essay, click here.

To learn more about liberty in the American tradition, visit the ISI short course on the American Experience .

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