In this engaging and thorough volume, author Jedediah Purdy explores the origins and aftermath of the American colonies’ cry for freedom from British rule. We who inherited the legacy take for granted that good triumphed over evil in that revolution, that all men are created equal, and that the basic rights of humanity were waiting in the wings, ready to take the stage as soon as those brave and upstanding founding fathers crafted a proper script.
But did we – or they - ever contemplate the meaning of liberty?
Based largely on the assertion that certain freedoms were natural rights of men (women need not apply) to be assured by armed force if necessary, the rebel leaders launched their campaign for freedom in a flurry of high-minded rhetoric. Such radical ideas were understandably viewed by many as the dangerous rebellion of anarchistic lunatics. Others saw the movement as a potentially destructive but poorly considered tantrum thrown by adolescents and hypocrites. Samuel Johnson, among others, felt compelled to expose the undeniable hypocrisy in his Taxation No Tyranny. “Why is it,” he asked, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?”
One hundred years on, the hypocrisy was still firmly in place. Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass wrote, “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.” Indeed, it seems that those drafters of the Constitution and Bill of Rights had an internal understanding that some men are created more equal than others and that this was so obvious it did not need mentioning or explaining. It would seem from their failure to define ‘freedom,’ ‘equal,’ and ‘happiness,’ that they expected all others to have the same understanding. By leaving open to interpretation the document that is intended to guarantee our freedom, those early anarchists have ensured that the controversy over freedom will rage for as long as the Republic exists.
In A Tolerable Anarchy, Purdy pursues the shifting notions of the public from the seemingly triumphant beginning through the decades of court rulings based on interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. A century after the Declaration of Independences was crafted, the freedom of many Americans was still a no-go. Roger Brooke Taney’s opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford, for instance, “declared… that slavery was a settled part of the constitutional order.” The Supreme Court even went so far as to forbid “Congress from outlawing slavery in western territories.”
More than two centuries after all men were given a written guarantee of their rights, it was still necessary to revisit the original intent in relation to yet another group of oppressed people. In 2003, Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of life.” He wrote this in reference to the Court’s ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, that individual states cannot forbid homosexual relations between consenting adults.
Throughout the book, Duke University law professor Purdy follows the changing mores that remind us of our predecessors’ oblivious approach to the rights of all those others not previously considered worthy of human rights While chronicling the unfolding saga of the struggle for freedom, A Tolerable Anarchy invites and encourages us to actively contemplate the meaning of liberty and the extent to which we are willing to allow it. What price will we pay for our personal freedom? And by what means can it be achieved, if at all? The very brave among us may even be drawn to examine our current state of oblivion to discover which groups of people we still enslave and deny. Is liberty for all even possible, and if so, would total anarchy be the inevitable result?