Sunday, November 26, 2023

Captain Preston's Popular Lockeanism

David Armitage repeatedly identifies the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence as a statement of "abstractions" that had nothing to do with the practical reality of declaring independence and fighting a revolutionary war.  But if Locke was right about the emergence of natural liberty in the state of nature as the environment of evolutionary adaptation in which human nature was shaped, then that liberty is not a philosophical abstraction but a practical expression of a natural human instinct and popular human folkways.

Consider this story that has often been told by historian David Hackett Fischer (Liberty and Freedom [2005], 1-2):

In the year 1843, a bright young scholar named Mellen Chamberlain [21 years old] was collecting evidence on the origins of the American Revolution.  He interviewed Captain Levi Preston, ninety-one years old, a cantankerous Yankee who had fought on the day of Lexington and Concord.

"Captain Preston," the historian began, "what made you go to the Concord fight?"  The old soldier bristled at the idea that anyone had made him fight.

"What did I go for?" he replied.  The scholar missed his meaning and tried again.

"Were you oppressed by the Stamp Act?"

"I never saw any stamps," Captain Preston answered, "and I always understood that none were ever sold."

"Well, what about the tea tax?"

"Tea tax?  I never drank a drop of the stuff.  The boys threw it all overboard."

"But I suppose you had been reading Harrington, Sidney, and Locke about the eternal principle of liberty?"

"I never heard of these men," Captain Preston said.  "The only books we had were the Bible, the Catechism, Watts' Psalms, and hymns and the almanacs."

"Well, then, what was the matter?"

"Young man," Captain Preston replied, "what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this:  we always had been free, and we meant to be free always.  They didn't mean we should."

Captain Preston did not need to read Locke to want Lockean freedom.  Wanting to be "free always" was rooted in his ordinary experience of life.  As historian T. H. Breen has observed, even without ever reading Locke, Captain Preston and the other American insurgents were "popular Lockeans"--people whose desire to be free was part of their nature and their way of life.

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