I ended my reivew of Edward Cline’s Sparrowhawk novels with the line, Long Live Lady Liberty. This was the rallying cry from the fictious novel, Hyperborea, as well as Jack Frake and Hugh Kenrick, the two men featured in the books. Historic novels can limit their narratives to inserting fictional characters into recorded events, or worse yet be a guise for fictious character to make love and lust among past events (“boddice rippers” as my wife terms them) so that proper people can enjoy a little soft-porn while appearing to be gaining knowledge. Mr. Cline avoids these styles of writing, to seek loftier goals. His aim is to illuminate our understanding of how ideas shaped the lives of men and women, who subsequently shaped our history and present events. Two questions, thus, stayed on my mind while reading these six volumes: How did 18th century people understand the concept of Liberty, compared to our present day understanding? and, How could ideas about Liberty, that propelled our founding fathers to revolution, apply to our current social and political climate?
Revolutions are not merely a matter of armies and muskets and flouting of authority. Lasting revolutions are a matter of minds and ideas.
To use a parallel illustration, I heard a review of the movie Lincoln recently (based on the historic novel, Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.) A major concept of the movie was Equality. This is debated in the House of Representatives (are we talking about equality under the law, or that all people are equal?), by generals on both sides (who saw soldiers of all backgrounds fight and die), and by Lincoln (if A = B, and B = C, then C = A…). The reviewer pondered whether a contemporary movie, which strove to be historically accurate, could convey to modern audiences what society understood by such concepts as Equality 150 years ago. Thus, I ask, what did colonial farmers, merchants, sailors, and burgesses understand about Liberty 250 years ago?
Mr. Cline attempts to illustrate the pervasivenes of Enslavement at the time, whether literally or figuratively, which deprived 18th century people of Liberty. Jack Frake runs away from his mother and her lover when they plot to sell him into enslavement to a merchant. Hugh Kenrick is born into the aristocracy, and could have conformed with his formal education, anticipating a luxurious life, and, as the generations passed, a title and election to the House of Commons, if not Lords. Jack confront literal, economic enslavement, and Hugh enslavement of the mind.
Jack finds freedom with a gang of smugglers. He works hard, learns how to evade the Customs Agents, and when to defend himself. Though eventually the Crown traps the smugglers, kills most of them, and sends Jack to the colonies abord Sparrowhawk to be sold as an indentured servant to pay for his passage with years of service.
Hugh alligns himself with a society of free thinkers, The Pippins. He takes his eduation seriously, learning about relationships, politics, and the corrupting influence of power. When his mentors are arrested, tried on trumpted up charges, and hanged, he is exiled aborad Sparrowhawk to the colonies. His uncle, the Earl, hopes that he can do no harm in Virginia, and more hopefully perish under the harsh life the colonials.
Both Jack and Hugh, through different circumstances, become plantation owners, near Caxton. Rather than being worn down by labor and the demands of managing the household and fields, they flourish in the liberty far from the scrutiny of the Crown. Though Sparrowhawk had brought them to Virginia, they both developed a working relationship with the captain, who thereafter uses Sparrowhawk to ship their goods to British markets and returns with provisions and literature and news from London and the Eastern seaboard. The captains has similiar views of the tight control of Parliment, and thwarts this by engaging in smuggling and forgering customs documents to evade regulations of the Navagation Act and Stamp Act. Liberty must go underground to avoid the noose of official commerce. Other legislation from Parlaiment restricts their Liberty, such as limitations on money being paid for products in the colonies (hence tabbacco became a currency, in kind), requiring the raw goods be shipped to England for manufacturing with the final products sent back for sale in the colonies, prohibition of direct sales from the colonies to other colonies or nations.
While Mr. Cline methodically incorporates these restrictions on Liberty through the narrative, he gives ample opportunity for the reader to consider what Liberty means today. How can we be concerned about the types of freedom in the colonies; where roads were mostly dirt; where miles could separate towns; where news might take days to weeks to arrive; where the Lieutenant-Governor could dissolve the General Assembly, effectively leaving no governing body to make decision, hold court, or voice the position of the people; where one could be arrested and imprisoned and hanged without representation or by mob decisions; where over half the population was brought over as slaves from Africa or indentured servents from Europe?
Today, we have national transporation highways, railroads, and airports, and fuss when we have to take our shoes off to go through security. Today, we can over-night-ship documents and products for a price, can Google just about anything, can purchase goods from around the country and world with a few mouse clicks and a credit card, and fuss when our internet connection stalls, making us wait 10 seconds to see a You-Tube video of cats chasing their tails. Today, we cannot get our elected officials to go home, while we agonize over or ignor the latest gridlock legislation sponsored less to promote efficient governance than to be sound-bite on the news and in campaign speaches. Today, we have due process of law, our own or appointed legal representation, bail, release on one’s own recognizance, and plea-bargains. Today, men and women of any ethinic back ground, religious affilation, regardless of how much property they own, can participate in politics through voting.
However, with all the possiblities of Liberty available to us, I suspect that few are thoughtful about this or exercise their right to be involved in managing our communities. We are busy seeking enternatinment, and expecting someone else to tend to the nation’s infrastructure. We have forgotten individual responsibility, substituting instead narcissism.
The great arguments for liberty, for life, for freedom, rested on one great necessary truth: that one must source onself, for everything else to have meaning.
We certainly have plenty of contemporary politicians, news commentators, and bloggers claiming the word Liberty. However, my assessment is that most are looking at rigging the laws and regulations to their advantage. They use the rhetoric of benefitting the common man, while keeping keeping him on contract or part time hours that do not require health care or retirement option benefits. They scoff at minimum wage levels as onerous to business owners, while making most their wealth (not income) by shuffling stock investments around for better gains, then wanting that income taxed at a lower level than the hourly wage earner. Maybe we no longer have slavery, or count slaves as 3/5’s of a man for the census (I never figured out which fifth’s they discounted… an arm? leg? head?), but we allow our corporations to import and shuffle foriegners around from factories and farms, or to be nannies, while “holding” their documents and pay with the promise to pay it minus the expenses of paying the agencies that recruite these workers from Central and South America, various island nations, and Asia (is this not what indetured servants were?). We should be enraged, but most are either ignorant, apathetic, or feel helpless as to where to direct our rage.
He was more than angry, he admitted to himself; a peculiar kind of rage had welled up in him… He wanted to strike… But, the violence of that action was stayed by a violent revultions for committing it on such a man.
One difference between the 18th century of Sparrowhawk and today is the limited access that we have to those people and institutions that may limit our liberty. Granted, Parliament was across the Atlantic, and even if one were in London, only a few would be directly allowed into the gallery to observe debates. We can see our national leaders on the news seven days per week. But, ironically, we are more distant from direct contact with politicians today because of geography and security concerns. In the 18th century, when the General Assembly were in sessions, the Lieutenant-Governor might ride down the street in his carriage. Burgesses might walk from their lodging and taverns to the Capitol building. Sheriffs and Customs Agents presented themselves in person to enforce laws, possibly with a regiment of marines. When Jack Frake leads the Virginia militia to defend Caxton, his opposition is visible and similarly armed.
Today, if we have a sense that our Liberty is being restricted, our opposition has overwhelming weapon’s superiority (our standing army with tanks, aircraft carriers, and predator drones), is a nameless wall of bureaucracy (IRS, CIA, FIB, EPA, DOE, CMS…), or is an institution that we voluntarily accept, if not expect (Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment Insurance…). Even outside of government agencies, we yield our liberty daily by providing information about ourselves through credit cards, phone calls, internet searches, discount coupon redemptions, sales promotions, customer loyalty cards, and blog topics.
Furthermore, the 19th century brought mass warfare (our Civil War, the Anglo-Boer Wars, Crimean Wars) and deaths. The 20th century lost millions to wars, genocide, and dictators. While the two bombings of the World Trade Center awoke us to the fanaticism of people who would destroy our culture, for the most part we are nation that keeps our wars off-shore. We do not harbor revolutionaries, but lone-wolf vigilanties who blow up buildings with fertilizer and go on rampages with assault rifles in public places. Their computers and internet spaces are filled with manifestos with a sense of personal persecution and abandonment seeking retribution. Few have any systematic view of social structures, or plan for how their violent actions might change their perceived neglect.
The violence that Hugh Kenrick had an impulse to act on was very personal and direct at that point of the story. His belief in a rational, negotiated solution contained that impulse. Yet, when he did act on a similar impulse to destroy what and whom he had identified as the enemy of Liberty, he viewed his action as just as rational. Today, skewed logic, emotional appeals, and self-justification influence violent acts, more than social justice and protection of Liberty.
Mr. Cline is direct in asserting his admiration for the Englightmentment Era, the men and women who applied rational thought to their actions, and the influence that reason had in forming our country. In pondering how Liberty applies today, I think a factor is that we are no longer influenced by Englightment concepts. Liberty stands somewhere between our self-absorbed, hedonistic impulse gratification, and rigid, dogmatic theology, both of which are vying for social control. We do not apply logic and reason to our decisions. We act on impulses, many of which are influenced subtly by marketting campaigns. Or, we apply belief systems which ignor data that does not fit the accepted premises. Jack and Hugh eventually come to the same reasoned conclusion of which direction is North. Just in different time frames.
If you have gotten this far into this dissertation, you might imagine that I view such discussions too complex for many people in today’s society. Live Free, or Die, might seem to be a distant motto, or a romantic idea with little substance. What does Liberty mean to us?
Solitary men are solitary only because they have not met their companions in character.