The Nature of Civil Liberty
by Albert Taylor Bledsoe
Few subjects, if any, more forcibly demand our attention, by their intrinsic grandeur and importance, than the great doctrine of human liberty. Correct views concerning this are, indeed, so intimately connected with the most profound interests, as well as with the most exalted aspirations, of the human race, that any material departure therefrom must be fraught with evil to the living, as well as to millions yet unborn. They are so inseparably interwoven with all that is great and good and glorious in the destiny of man, that whosoever aims to form or to propagate such views should proceed with the utmost care, and, laying aside all prejudice and passion, be guided by the voice of reason alone.
Hence it is to be regretted — deeply regretted — that the doctrine of liberty has so often been discussed with so little apparent care, with so little moral earnestness, with so little read energetic searching and longing after truth. Though its transcendent importance demands the best exertion of all our powers, yet has it been, for the most part, a theme for passionate declamation, rather than of severe analysis or of protracted and patient investigation. In the warm praises of the philosopher, no less than in the glowing inspirations of the poet, it often stands before us as a vague and ill-defined something which all men are required to worship, but which no man is
bound to understand. It would seem, indeed, as if it were a mighty something not to be clearly
seen, but only to be deeply felt. And felt it has been, too, by the ignorant as well as by the learned,
by the simple as well as by the wise: felt as a fire in the blood, as a fever in the brain, and as a
phantom in the imagination, rather than as a form of light and beauty in the intelligence. How
often have the powers of darkness surrounded its throne, and desolation marked its path! How
often from the altars of this unknown idol has the blood of human victims streamed! Even here, in
this glorious land of ours, how often do the too-religious Americans seem to become deaf to the
most appalling lessons of the past, while engaged in the frantic worship of this their tutelary deity!
At this very moment, the highly-favored land in which we live is convulsed from its centre to its
circumference by the agitations of these pious devotees of freedom; and how long ere scenes like
those which called forth the celebrated exclamation of Madame Roland — "O Liberty, what crimes
are perpetuated in thy name!" — may be enacted among us, it is not possible for human sagacity or
foresight to determine.
If no one would talk about liberty except those who had taken the pains to understand it, then would a perfect calm be restored, and peace once more bless a happy people. But there are so
many who imagine they understand liberty as Falstaff knew the true prince, namely, by instinct,
that all hope of such a consummation must be deferred until it may be shown that their instinct is a
blind guide, and its oracles are false. Hence the necessity of a close study and of a clear analysis of
the nature and conditions of civil liberty, in order to a distinct delineation of the great idol, which
all men are so ready to worship, but which so few are willing to take the pains to understand. In
the prosecution of such an inquiry, we intend to consult neither the pecuniary interests of the
South nor the prejudices of the North; but calmly and immovably proceed to discuss, upon purely
scientific principles, this great problem of our social existence and national prosperity, upon the
solution of which the hopes and destinies of mankind in no inconsiderable measure depend. We
intend no appeal to passion or to sordid interest, but only to the reason of the wise and good. And
if justice, or mercy, or truth, be found at war with the institution of slavery, then, in the name of
God, let slavery perish. But however guilty, still let it be tried, condemned, and executed
according to law, and not extinguished by a despotic and lawless power more terrific than itself.
"Civil liberty," says Blackstone, "is no other than natural liberty so far restrained as is necessary
and expedient for the general advantage." This definition seems to have been borrowed from
Locke, who says that, when a man enters into civil society, "he is to part with so much of his
natural liberty, in providing for himself, as the good, prosperity, and safety of the society shall
require." So, likewise, say Paley, Berlamaqui, Rutherforth, and a host of others. Indeed, among
jurists and philosophers, such seems to be the commonly-received definition of civil liberty. It
seems to have become a political maxim that civil liberty is no other than a certain portion of our
natural liberty, which has been carved therefrom, and secured to us by the protection of the laws.
But is this a sound maxim? Has it been deduced from the nature of things, or is it merely a
plausible show of words? Is it truth — solid and imperishable truth — or merely one of those fair
semblences of truth, which, through the too hasty sanction of great names, have obtained a
currency among men? The question is not what Blackstone, or Locke, or Paley may have thought,
but what is truth? Let us examine this point, then, in order that our decision may be founded, not
upon the authority of man, but, if possible, in the wisdom of God.
Before we can determine whether such be the origin of civil liberty, we must first ascertain the
character of that natural liberty out of which it is supposed to be reserved. What, then, is natural
liberty? What is the nature of the material out of which our civil liberty is supposed to be
fashioned by the art of the political sculptor? It is thus defined by Locke:
To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider what state all men are naturally in; and that is a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.
In perfect accordance with this definition, Blackstone says:
This natural liberty consists in a power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control,
unless by the laws of nature, being a right inherent in us by birth, and one of the gifts of God to
man at his creation, when he endowed him with the faculty of free-will.
Such, according to Locke and Blackstone, is that natural liberty, which is limited and abridged, as they suppose, when we enter into the bonds of civil society.
Now mark its features: it is the gift of God to man at his creation; that by which he is
distinguished from the lower animals and raised to the rank of moral and accountable beings. Shall
we sacrifice this divine gift, then, in order to secure the blessings of civil society? Shall we abridge
or mutilate the image of God, stamped upon the soul at its creation, by which we are capable of
knowing and obeying his law, in order to secure the aid and protection of man? Shall we barter
away any portion of this our glorious birthright for any poor boon of man's devising? Yes, we are
told — and why? Because, says Blackstone, "Legal obedience and conformity is infinitely more
valuable than the wild and savage liberty which is sacrificed to obtain it."
But how is this? Now this natural liberty is a thing of light, and now it is a power of darkness.
Now it is the gift of God, that moves within a sphere of light, and breathes an atmosphere of love;
and anon, it is a wild and savage thing that carries terror in its train. It would be an angel of light,
if it were not a power of darkness; and it would be a power of darkness, if it were not an angel of
light. But as it is, it is both by turns, and neither long, but runs through its Protean changes,
according to the exigencies of the flowing discourse of the learned author. Surely such
inconsistency, so glaring and so portentous, and all exhibited on one and the same page, is no
evidence that the genius of the great commentator was as steady and profound as it was elegant
The source of this vacillation is obvious. With Locke, he defines natural liberty to be a power of
acting as one thinks fit, within the limits prescribed by the law of nature; but he soon loses sight
of this all-important limitation, from which natural liberty derives its form and beauty. Hence it
becomes in his mind a power to act as one pleases, without the restraint or control of any law
whatever, either human or divine. The sovereign will and pleasure of the individual becomes the
only rule of conduct, and lawless anarchy the condition which it legitimates. Thus, having loosed
the bonds and marred the beauty of natural liberty, he was prepared to see it, now become so
"wild and savage," offered up as a sacrifice on the altar of civil liberty.
This, too, was the great fundamental error of Hobbes. What Blackstone thus did through
inadvertency, was knowingly and designedly done by the philosopher of Malmesbury. In a state of
nature, says he, all men have a right to do as they please. Each individual may set up a right to all
things, and consequently to the same things. In other words, in such a state there is no law, except
that of force. The strong arm of power is the supreme arbiter of all things. Robbery and outrage
and murder are as lawful as their opposites. That is to say, there is no such thing as a law of
nature; and consequently all things are, in a state of nature, equally allowable. Thus it was that
Hobbes delighted to legitimate the horrors of a state of nature, as it is called, in order that
mankind might, without a feeling of indignation or regret, see the wild and ferocious liberty of
such a state sacrificed to despotic power. Thus it was that he endeavoured to recommend the
"Leviathan," by contrasting it with the huger monster called Natural Liberty.
This view of the state of nature, by which all law and the great Fountain of all law are shut out of
the world, was perfectly agreeable to the atheistical philosophy of Hobbes. From one who had
extinguished the light of nature, and given dominion to the powers of darkness, no better could
have been expected; but is it not deplorable that a Christian jurist should, even for a moment, have
forgotten the great central light of his own system, and drawn his arguments from such an abyss
Blackstone has thus lost sight of truth, not only in regard to his general propositions, but also in
regard to particular instances. "The law," says he, "which restrains a man from doing mischief to
his fellow-citizens diminishes the natural liberty of mankind." Now, is this true? The doing of
mischief is contrary to the law of nature, and hence, according to the definition of Blackstone
himself, the perpetration of it is not an exercise of any natural right. As no man possesses a natural
right to do mischief, so the law which forbids it does not diminish the natural liberty of mankind.
The law which forbids mischief is a restraint not upon the natural liberty, but upon the natural
tyranny, of man.
Blackstone is by no means alone in the error to which we have alluded. By one of the clearest
thinkers and most beautiful writers of the present age, it is argued, "that as government implies
restraint, it is evident we give up a certain portion of our liberty by entering into it." This
argument would be valid, no doubt, if there was nothing in the world beside liberty to be
restrained; but the evil passions of men, from which proceed so many frightful tyrannies and
wrongs, are not to be identified with their rights or liberties. As government implies restraint, it is
evident that something is restrained when we enter into it; but it does not follow that this
something must be our natural liberty. The argument in question proceeds on the notion that
government can restrain nothing, unless it restrain the natural liberty of mankind; whereas, we
have seen, the law which forbids the perpetration of mischief, or any other wrong, is a restriction,
not upon the liberty, but upon the tyranny, of the human will. It sets a bound a limit, not to any
right conferred on us by the Author of nature, but upon the evil thoughts and deeds of which we
are the sole and exclusive originators. Such a law, indeed, so far from restraining the natural
liberty of man, recognises his natural rights, and secures his freedom, by protecting the weak
against the injustice and oppression of the strong.
The way in which these authors show that natural liberty is, and of right ought to be, abridged by
the laws of society, is, by identifying this natural freedom, not with a power to act as God wills,
but with a power in conformity with our own sovereign will and pleasure. The same thing is
expressly done by Paley. "To do what we will," says he, "is natural liberty." Starting from this
definition, it is no wonder that he should have supposed that natural liberty is restrained by civil
government. In like manner, Burke first says, "That the effect of liberty to individuals is, that they
may do what they please;" and then concludes, that in order to "secure some liberty," we make "a
surrender in trust of the whole of it." Thus the natural rights of mankind are first caricatured,
and then sacrificed.
If there be no God, if there be no difference between right and wrong, if there be no moral law in
the universe, then indeed would men possess a natural right to do mischief or to act as they
please. Then indeed should we be fettered by no law in a state of nature, and liberty therein would
be coextensive with power. Right would give place to might, and the least restraint, even from the
best laws, would impair our natural freedom. But we subscribe to no such philosophy. That
learned authors, that distinguished jurists, that celebrated philosophers, that pious divines, should
thus deliberately include the enjoyment of our natural rights and the indulgence of our evil
passions in one and the same definition of liberty, is, it seems to us, matter of the most profound
astonishment and regret. It is to confound the source of all tyranny with the fountain of all
freedom. It is to put darkness for light, and light for darkness. And it is to inflame the minds of
men with the idea that they are struggling and contending for liberty, when, in reality, they may be
only struggling and contending for the gratification of their malignant passions. Such an offence
against all clear thinking, such an outrage against all sound political ethics, becomes the more
amazing when we reflect on the greatness of the authors by whom it is committed, and the
stupendous magnitude of the interests involved in their discussions.
Should we, then, exhibit the fundamental law of society, and the natural liberty of mankind, as
antagonistic principles? Is not this the way to prepare the human mind, at all times so
passionately, not to say so madly, fond of freedom, for a repetition of those tremendous conflicts
and struggles beneath which the foundations of society have so often trembled, and some of its
best institutions been laid in the dust? In one word, is it not high time to raise the inquiry, Whether
there be, in reality, any such opposition as is usually supposed to exist between the law of the land
and the natural rights of mankind? Whether such opposition be real or imaginary? Whether it
exists in the nature of things, or only in the imagination of political theorists?
By the two great leaders of opposite schools, Locke and Burke, it is contended that when we
enter into society the natural right of self-defence is surrendered to the government. If any natural
right, then, be limited or abridged by the laws of society, we may suppose the right of self-defence
to be so; for this is the instance which is always selected to illustrate and confirm the reality of
such a surrender of our natural liberty. It has, indeed, become a sort of maxim, that when we put
on the bonds of civil society, we give up the natural right of self-defence.
But what does this maxim mean? Does it mean that we transfer the right to repel force by force?
If so, the proposition is not true; for this right is as fully possessed by every individual after he has
entered into society as it could have been in a state of nature. If he is assailed, or threatened with
immediate personal danger, the law of the land does not require him to wait upon the strong but
slow arm of government for protection. On the contrary, it permits him to protect himself, to
repel force by force, in so far as this may be necessary to guard against injury to himself; and the
law of nature allows no more. Indeed, if there be any difference, the law of the land allows a man
to go farther in the defence of self than he is permitted to go by the law of God. Hence, in this
sense, the maxim under consideration is not true; and no man's natural liberty is abridged by the State.
Does this maxim mean, then, that in a state of nature every man has a right to redress his own wrongs by the subsequent punishment of the offender, which right the citizen has transferred to
the government? It is clear that this must be the meaning, if it have any correct meaning at all. But
neither in this sense is the maxim or proposition true. The right to punish an offender must rest
upon the one or the other of two grounds: either upon the ground that the offender deserves
punishment, or that his punishment is necessary to prevent similar offences. Now, upon neither of
these grounds has any man, even in a state of nature, the right to punish an offence committed
First, he has no right to punish such an offence on the ground that it deserves punishment. No
man has, or ever had, the right to wield the awful attribute of retributive justice; that is, to inflict
so much pain for so much guilt or moral turpitude. This is the prerogative of God alone. To his
eye, all secrets are known, and all degrees of guilt perfectly apparent; and to him alone belongs
the vengeance which is due for moral ill-desert. His law extends over the state of nature as well as
over the state of civil society, and calls all men to account for their evil deeds. It is evident that, in
so far as the intrinsic demerit of actions is concerned, it makes no difference whether they be
punished here or hereafter. And besides, if the individual has possessed such a right in a state of
nature, he has not transferred it to society; for society neither has nor claims any such right.
Blackstone but utters the voice of the law when he says, "The end or final cause of human punishment is not by way of atonement or expiation, for that must be left to the just determination of the supreme Being, but as a precaution against future offences of the same kind."
The exercise of retributive justice belongs exclusively to the infallible Ruler of the world, and not
to frail, erring man, who himself so greatly stands in need of mercy. Hence, the right to punish a
transgressor on the ground that such punishment is deserved, has not been transferred from the
individual to civil society: first, because he had no such natural right to transfer; and, secondly,
because society possesses no such right.
In the second place, if we consider the other ground of punishment, it will likewise appear that the
right to punish never belonged to the individual, and consequently could not have been transferred
by him to society. For, by the law of nature, the individual has no right to punish an offence
against himself in order to prevent future offences of the same kind. If the object of human
punishment be, as indeed it is, to prevent the commission of crime, by holding up examples of
terror to evil-doers, then it is evidently no more the natural right of the party injured to redress the
wrong, than it is the right of others. All men are interested in the prevention of wrongs, and hence
all men should united to redress them. All men are endowed by their Creator with a sense of
justice, in order to impel them to secure its claims, and throw the shield of its protection around
the weak and oppressed.
The prevention of wrong, then, is clearly the natural duty, and consequently the natural right, of
This duty should be discharged by others, rather than by the party aggrieved. For it is contrary to
the law of nature itself, as both Locke and Burke agree, that any man should be "judge in his own
case;" that any man should, by an ex post facto decision, determine the amount of punishment due
to his enemy, and proceed to inflict it upon him. Such a course, indeed, so far from preventing
offences, would inevitably promote them; instead of redressing injuries, would only add wrong to
wrong; and instead of introducing order, would only make confusion worse confounded, and turn
the moral world upside down.
On no ground, then, upon which the right to punish may be conceived to rest, does it appear that
it was ever possessed, or could ever have been possessed, by the individual. And if the individual
never possessed such a right, it is clear that he has never transferred it to society. Hence, this view
of the origin of government, however plausible at first sight, or however generally received, has
no real foundation in the nature of things. It is purely a creature of the imagination of theorists;
one of the phantoms of that manifold, monstrous, phantom deity called Liberty, which has been so
often invoked by the pseudo philanthropists and reckless reformers of the present day to subvert
not only the law of capital punishment, but also other institutions and laws which have received
the sanction of both God and man.
The simple truth is, that we are all bound by the law of nature and the law of God to love our
neighbor as ourselves. Hence it is the duty of every man, in a state of nature, to do all in his power
to protect the rights and promote the interests of his fellow-men. It is the duty of all men to
consult together, and concert measures for the general good. Right here it is, then, that the law of
man, the constitution of civil society, comes into contact with the law of God and rests upon it.
Thus, civil society arises, not from a surrender of individual rights, but from a right originally
possessed by all; nay, from a solemn duty originally imposed upon all by God himself — a duty
which must be performed, whether the individual gives his consent or not. The very law of nature
itself requires, as we have seen, not only the punishment of the offender, but also that he be
punished according to the pre-established law, and by the decision of an impartial tribunal. And in
the enactment of such law, as well as in the administration, the collective wisdom of society, or its
agents, moves in obedience to the law of God, and not in pursuance of rights derived from the
>In the foregoing discussion we have, in conformity to the custom of others, used the terms rights
and liberty as words of precisely the same import. But, instead of being convertible terms, there
seems to be a very clear difference in their significance. If a man be taken, for example, and
without cause thrown into prison, this deprives him of his liberty, but not of his right, to go where
he pleases. The right still exists; and his not being allowed to enjoy this right, is precisely what
constitutes the oppression in the case supposed. If there were no right still subsisting, then there
would be no oppression. Hence, as the right exists, while the liberty is extinguished, it is evident
they are distinct from each other. The liberty of a man in such a case, as in all others, would
consist in an opportunity to enjoy his right, or in a state in which it might be enjoyed if he so
This distinction between rights and liberty is all-important to a clear and satisfactory discussion of the doctrine of human freedom. The great champions of that freedom, from a Locke down to a
Hall, firmly and passionately grasping the natural rights of man, and confounding these with his
liberty, have looked upon society as the restrainer, and not as the author, of that liberty. On the
other hand, the great advocates of despotic power, from a Hobbes down to a Whewell, seeing
that there can be no genuine liberty — that is, no secure enjoyment of one's rights — in a state of
nature, have ascribed, not only our liberty, but all our existing rights also, to the State.
But the error of Locke is a noble and generous sentiment when compared with the odious dogma
of Hobbes and Whewell. These learned authors contend that we derive all our existing rights from
society. Do we, then, live and move and breathe and think and worship God only by rights derived
from the State? No, certainly. We have these rights from a higher source. God gave them, and all
the powers of earth combined cannot take them away. But as for our liberty, this we freely own
is, for the most part, due to the sacred bonds of civil society. Let us render unto Caesar the things
that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's.
Herein, then, consists the true relation between the natural and the social states. Civil society
does not abridge our natural rights, but secures and protects them. She does not assume our right
of self-defence — she simply discharges the duty imposed by God to defend us. The original right
is in those who compose the body politic, and not in any individual. Hence, civil society does not
impair our natural liberty, as actually existing in a state of nature, or as it might therein exist; for,
in such a state, there would be no real liberty, no real enjoyment of natural rights.
Mr. Locke, as we have seen, defines the state of nature to be one of "perfect freedom." Why then
should we leave it? Says he:
If man, in the state of nature, be so free, why will he part with his freedom? To which it is obvious
to answer, that though, in the state of nature, he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very
uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others; for all being kings as much as he,
every man his equal, and the greater part not strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment
of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very insecure. This makes him willing to quit a
condition which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers; and it is not without reason
that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with, others who are already united, or have a
mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the
general name property.
What! Can that be a state of perfect freedom which is subject to fears and perpetual dangers? In
one word, can a reign of terror be the reign of liberty? It is evident, we think, that Locke has been
betrayed into no little inaccuracy and confusion of thought from not having distinguished between
rights and liberty.
The truth seems to be that, in a state of nature, we would possess rights, but we could not enjoy
them. That is to say, notwithstanding all our rights, we should be destitute of freedom or liberty.
Society interposes the strong arm of the law to protect our rights, to secure us in the enjoyment of
them. She delivers us from the alarms, the dangers, and the violence of the natural state. Hence,
under God, she is the mother of our peace and joy, by whose sovereign rule anarchy is abolished
and liberty established. Liberty and social law can never be dissevered. Liberty, robed in law, and
radiant with love, is one of the best gifts of God to man. But liberty, despoiled of law, is a wild,
dark, fierce spirit of licentiousness, which tends "to uproar the universal peace."
Hence it is a frightful error to regard the civil state or government as antagonistic to the natural
liberty of mankind; for this is, indeed, the author of the very liberty we enjoy. Good government it
is that restrains the elements of tyranny and oppression, and introduces liberty into the world.
Good government it is that shuts out the reign of anarchy, and secures the dominion of equity and
goodness. He who would spurn the restraints of law, then, by which pride, and envy, and hatred,
and malice, ambition, and revenge, are kept within the sacred bounds of eternal justice — he, we
say, is not the friend of human liberty. He would open the flood-gates of tyranny and oppression;
he would mar the harmony and extinguish the light of the world. Let no such man be trusted.
If the foregoing remarks be just, it would follow that the state of nature, as it is called, would be
one of the most unnatural states in the world. We may conceive it to exist, for the sake of
illustration or argument; but if it should actually exist, it would be at war with the law of nature
itself. For this requires, as we have seen, that men should unite together, and frame such laws as
the general good demands.
Not only the law, but the very necessities of nature, enjoin the institution of civil government.
God himself has thus laid the foundations of civil society deep in the nature of man. It is an
ordinance of heaven, which no human decree can reverse or annul. It is not a thing of compacts,
bound together by promises and paper, but is itself a law of nature as irreversible as any other.
Compacts may give it one form or another, but in one form or another it must exist. It is no
accidental or artificial thing, which may be made or unmade, which may be set up or pulled down,
at the mere will and pleasure of man. It is a decree of God; the spontaneous and irresistible
working of that nature, which, in all climates, through all ages, and under all circumstances,
manifests itself in social organizations.
Much has been said about inherent and inalienable rights, which is either unintelligible or rests
upon no solid foundation. "The inalienable rights of men" is a phrase often brandished by certain
reformers, who aim to bring about "the immediate abolition of slavery." Yet, in the light of the
foregoing discussion, it may be clearly shown that the doctrine of inalienable rights, if properly
handled, will not touch the institution of slavery.
An inalienable right is either one which the possessor of it himself cannot alienate or transfer, or it
is one which society has not the power to take from him. According to the import of the terms,
the first would seem to be what is meant by an inalienable right; but in this sense it is not
pretended that the right to either life or liberty has been transferred to society or alienated to the
individual. And if, as we have endeavored to show, the right, or power, or authority of society is
not derived from a transfer of individual rights, then it is clear that neither the right to life nor
liberty is transferred to society. That is, if no rights are transferred, than these particular rights are
still untransferred, and, if you please, untransferable. Be it conceded, then, that the individual has never transferred his right to life or liberty to society.
But it is not in the above sense that the abolitionist uses the expression, inalienable rights.
According to his view, an inalienable right is one of which society itself cannot, without doing
wrong, deprive the individual, or deny the enjoyment of it to him. This is evidently his meaning;
for he complains of the injustice of society, or civil government, in depriving a certain portion of
its subjects of civil freedom, and consigning them to a state of servitude. "Such an act," says he,
"is wrong, because it is a violation of the inalienable rights of all men." But let us see if his
complaint be just or well founded.
It is pretended by no one that society has the right to deprive any subject of either life or liberty,
without good and sufficient cause or reason. On the contrary, it is on all hands agreed that it is
only for good and sufficient reasons that society can deprive any portion of its subjects of either
life or liberty. Nor can it be denied, on the other side, that a man may be deprived of either, or
both, by a preordained law, in case there be a good and sufficient reason for the enactment of
such law. For the crime of murder, the law of the land deprives the criminal of life: a fortiori,
might it deprive him of liberty. In the infliction of such a penalty, the law seeks, as we have seen,
not to deal out so much pain for so much guilt, nor even to deal out pain for guilt at all, but
simply to protect the members of society, and secure the general good. The general good is the
sole and sufficient consideration which justifies the state in taking either the life or the liberty of its
Hence, if we would determine in any case whether society is justified in depriving any of its
members of civil freedom by law, we must first ascertain whether the general good demands the
enactment of such a law. If it does, then such a law is just and good — as perfectly just and good
as any other law which, for the same reason or on the same ground, takes away the life or liberty
of its subjects. All this talk about the inalienable rights of men may have a very admirable
meaning, if one will only be at the pains to search it out; but is it not evident that, when searched
to the bottom, it has just nothing at all to do with the great question of slavery?
This great problem, as we have seen, is to be decided, not by an appeal to the inalienable rights of
men, but simply and solely by a reference to the general good. It is to be decided, not by the aid of
abstractions alone; a little good sense and practical sagacity should be allowed to assist in its
determination. There are inalienable rights, we admit — inalienable both because the individual
cannot transfer them, and because society can never rightfully deprive any man of their enjoyment.
But life and liberty are not "among these." There are inalienable rights, we admit, but then such
abstractions are the edge-tools of political science, with which it is dangerous for either men or
children to play. They may inflict deep wounds on the cause of humanity; they can throw no light
on the great problem of slavery.
One thing seems to be clear and fixed; and that is, that the rights of the individual are subordinate
to those of the community. An inalienable right is a right coupled with a duty; a duty with which
no other obligation can interfere. But, as we have seen, it is the duty, and consequently, the right,
of society to make such laws as the general good demands. This inalienable right is conferred, and
its exercise enjoined, by the Creator and Governor of the universe. All individual rights are
subordinate to this inherent, universal, and inalienable right. It should be observed, however, that
in the exercise of this paramount right, this supreme authority, no society possesses the power to
contravene the principles of justice. In other words, it should be observed that no unjust law can
ever promote the public good. Every law, then, which is not unjust, and which the public good
demands, should be enacted by society.
But we have already seen that the law which ordains slavery is not
unjust in itself, or, in other words, that it interferes with none of the inalienable rights of man.
Hence, if it be shown that the public good, and especially the good of the slave, demands such a
law, then the question of slavery will be settled.
In conclusion, we shall merely add that if the foregoing remarks be just, it follows that the great
problem of political philosophy is not precisely such as it is often taken to be by statesmen and
historians. This problem, according to Mackintosh and Macaulay, consists in finding such an
adjustment of the antagonistic principles of public order and private liberty, that neither shall
overthrow or subvert the other, but each be confined within its own appropriate limits. Whereas,
if we are not mistaken, these are not antagonistic, but co-ordinate, principles. The very law which
institutes public order is that which introduces private liberty, since no secure enjoyment of one's
rights can exist where public order is not maintained. And, on the other hand, unless private
liberty be introduced, public order cannot be maintained, or at least such public order as should be
established; for, if there be not private liberty, if there be no secure enjoyment of one's rights, then
the highest and purest elements of our nature would have to be extinguished, or else exist in
perpetual conflict with the surrounding despotism. As license is not liberty, so despotism is not
order, nor even friendly to that enlightened, wholesome order, by which the good of the public
and the individual are at the same time introduced and secured. In other words, what is taken
from the one of these principles is not given to the other; on the contrary, every additional
element of strength and beauty which is imparted to the one is an accession of strength and beauty
to the other. Private liberty, indeed, lives and moves and has its very being in the bosom of public
order. On the other hand, that public order alone which cherishes the true liberty of the individual
is strong in the approbation of God and in the moral sentiments of mankind. All else is weakness, and death, and decay.
The true problem, then, is, not how the conflicting claims of these two principles may be adjusted,
(for there is no conflict between them,) but how a real public order, whose claims are identical
with those of private liberty, may be introduced and maintained. The practical solution of this
problem, for the heterogeneous population of the South imperatively demands the institution of
slavery; and that without such an institution it would be impossible to maintain either a sound
public order or a decent private liberty. The very laws or institution which is supposed by fanatical
declaimers to shut out liberty from the Negro race among us, really shuts out the most frightful
license and disorder from society. In one word, we shall endeavor to show that in preaching up
liberty to and for the slaves of the South, the abolitionist is "casting pearls before swine," that can
neither comprehend the nature, nor enjoy the blessings, of the freedom which is so officiously
thrust upon them. And if the Negro race should be moved by their fiery appeals, it would only be to rend and tear in pieces the fair fabric of American liberty, which, with all its shortcomings and defects, is by far the most beautiful ever yet conceived or constructed by the genius of man.
This article was extracted from Albert Taylor Bledsoe, Liberty and Slavery (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: J.B. Lippincott and Company, 1856). Click HERE to order this book.