He’s no longer our mascot, but he’s still on the payroll.
Victor Mongeau, founder of Legacy Americana, got some face time a short while ago with one of our beloved American icons, Uncle Sam. In this wide-ranging interview, what we hope will be the first of many, Victor learned there is more to the man than the flashy duds, that some deep thinking goes on under that hat. Much of the discussion was devoted to Sam’s perspectives on Liberty, both the goddess and the idea, and a closely related concept, freedom.
VM: First, thanks for standing in for Lady Liberty while the site was under construction.
US: I always serve when called upon.
VM: I hope you know your status with us is in no way diminished. You do, however, respect her seniority, I mean, as an American icon. She dates back to the time of the Revolution, whereas you came along a little later, correct?
US: Yes, she is my senior, as a mother is to the son.
VM: She sure doesn’t look it, though.
US: As every goddess, she is ageless.
VM: A foxy goddess, I’d say.
US: Come again?
VM: A pulchritudinous babe, a hot momma…and the way she holds the flag!
US: (sharp look)
VM: Long may it wave!
US: You seem to confuse Liberty with license.
VM: You’re right (blushing). It’s the Frenchman in me.
US: Another Frenchman, whom I met in my youth, might take exception to that stereotype.
VM: Who was that?
US: Alexis de Tocqueville.
VM: Really? You knew him?
US: Aye, and he came to know me, perhaps better than I know myself.
VM: Please elaborate!
US: Well, he wanted to observe democracy at work in America, so naturally I came under his scrutiny. We spent many hours together, walking the highways and byways of the fledgling republic, in Jackson’s presidency it was. He asked a lot of questions, which I answered as best I could. He made copious notes, and later compiled them into a book when he returned to France. Worth reading, if you haven’t.
VM: Refresh my memory. Tocqueville says, does he not, that democracy became established in America because the people were somehow predisposed to it by virtue of their character?
US: You have it somewhat. He gave three causes for democracy taking root in America: the “peculiar and accidental situation” in which Providence placed us; our laws; and the manners and customs of our people. He said we owe our democracy more to our laws than our situation, and more to our customs than our laws.1
VM: What of these customs?
US: He called them habitudes du coeur, “habits of the heart,” which I take to mean the inborn values or moral outlook of a free people, that which most distinguishes the American character.
VM: A love of liberty?
US: Yes, although Tocqueville had a very sophisticated view of liberty, and he felt that Americans tended to over-simplify it. Of course, French philosophers tend to over-complexify things, but I’ll allow he was onto something, for liberty does have more than one meaning. He may have been trying to cram too much significance into one word.
VM: How is that?
US: Well, the French liberté and our “liberty” come from the Latin libertas, meaning unbounded or released from restraint. It implies a degree of separation, or independence. Liberty, though, can also mean freedom, a word for which there is no French equivalent. What tripped Tocqueville up, and trips us up in reading him, is the subtle difference in meaning of these two closely related words.
VM: Liberty and freedom mean different things?
US: English is the only language that has two words for the same basic concept. The word “free” comes from the same Indo-European root as “friend”; the Germans get their frei from it, the Dutch their vrij, the Flemish their vrig. It meant being joined in kinship to a tribe or community.
VM: I’m not following. Are you saying that liberty means separation, whereas freedom means unification of sorts? That would make them not related but opposing concepts.
US: Ah! But that’s why Tocqueville ran into trouble when he lumped them together, using one word, liberté, to mean both liberty and freedom. We Americans know they ain’t one and the same.
VM: Do we? I mean, I’m not sure I can differentiate between them.
US: What’s that, Frenchman?
VM: No fair! The Mongeaus left France for the New World in the 17th century. We’ve been Americans as long or longer than damn near any Yankee!
US: (hearty laugh) I’ll vouch for that; I’ve known a few of your clan over the years.
VM: Besides, being American is not about how far back you can trace your lineage. You can be descended from a passenger on the Mayflower, or your parents could have arrived on a boat from China—or Kenya—but that won’t count for or against you in America.
US: Well said, young fellow, but it was you who first brought ethnic background into the conversation—we would not be discussing Tocqueville, a Frenchman through and through, had you not. Shall we return to the question before us? Of liberty versus its opposite, freedom?
VM: By all means, enlighten me how it is this can be so.
US: When I said we Americans know how to distinguish between liberty and freedom, I meant that we know in our hearts, and it was this special knowledge that Tocqueville credits with the survival of our democratic republic, more than our laws or fortunate circumstances.
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