Featured Essay
Featured Link

Full Collections
Essays (425)
Quotations (6095)
Links (715)
Books (232)

Other Pages
About Us
Bookseller Affiliations
Contact Us
Editorial Board
Excellent Essays
Excellent Sites
Liberal Magic
Mush Quotations
Our New Look
Privacy Policy
Sign Up!
Amazon.com online bookstore


Freedom to Do That Which Is Right


A look at the early American synthesis of liberty and virtue, which had its foundation deeply set in religious observance. Mr. Beck's essay was the First Place choice in 1997 in the annual essay contest sponsored by the Acton Institute. The contest theme was "Freedom and Order" and the winning essays explored the role of religion in promoting the concepts of order and personal morality which are essential to freedom.

Originally published by the Acton Institute. Republished with the permission of the Institute.


Albert Beck

 Author Notes

Doctoral fellow at the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, graduate of Trinity International University with an M.A. in church history and the history of Christian thought.

 Essay - 12/1/1997

The endorsement at the top of the newspaper ad proclaimed "The Best Movie of the Year!" [1] The People vs. Larry Flynt was recently shown on movie screens across America, another paean to modern society's vision of the impious self. Larry Flynt, the purveyor of porn, has become the cinematic champion of freedom. Today, it is largely an unquestioned dogma that the ability to do and say whatever one desires requires one to say and do what was once abhorred. The prize of liberty has become a life without limits. But it has not always been so. As the staunchest ally of liberty in the nineteenth century noted, "Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought." Lord Acton rightly saw that liberty unrestrained by virtue from a good conscience was no true liberty at all.

Such was the understanding of the founders of the American Republic. Modern welfare liberalism [2] has elevated individual rights over any concept of the common good (i.e., ultimate ends or virtues). Communitarianism, seeking order in our time of trouble, places the good over notions of individual liberty. Eighteenth-century Americans rejected both these models, insisting that personal liberty and personal virtue were coequal. Virtue was both the source of liberty and its proper object, and the only sure source of virtue was found in voluntary religion and the gracious bestowment of God. Additionally, early American patriots were convinced that the state could not establish a virtuous citizenry. Since religion was the ground of virtue, it was to be encouraged, not through state endorsement or coercion but by limiting the activity of government in the moral realm.

Modern welfare liberalism denies the essential link between virtue and freedom. Individual rights take precedence over any concept of the good. "Because free and equal persons hold different and sometimes conflicting philosophical, moral, and religious convictions about the full human good, an effort to implant a comprehensive vision of the good society through law or state power is excluded." [3] In attempting to maintain civil peace, modern liberalism abandons any concept of what might ultimately be worthwhile and true for society. Virtue as a normative standard is discarded. "Anything goes" becomes the rule in matters of speech, entertainment, and personal activity, and we are left with no means whereby the pressing moral issues of the day can be resolved. Stanley Fish has summed up the modern liberal dilemma: "All preferences are principled, and all principles are preferences ... In short, one person's principles are another person's illegitimate ('mere') preferences." [4]

In reaction to welfare liberalism, a number of thinkers have found a refreshing alternative in the classical idea of a good society structured around participation in communal republicanism. Here, the common good takes precedence over the rights of individuals. Individualism needs to be reined in through the conscious development of the political community. Society is not an aggregation of individuals; rather, the community molds and "partly defines the identity of the participants." [5] While the "communitarian" critique of welfare liberalism is compelling, it risks establishing an omnicompetent state crushing all dissent. Ultimately, the communitarian promise of restored civil order necessitates accepting a singular concept of the good society, defined by the political community, and sanctioned by the state.

In contrast to these two political systems, the authors of our Republic conceived a boldly different program. Both welfare liberalism and communitarianism establish a false hierarchy. For the welfare liberal, right (liberty) takes precedence over the good (virtue). For the communitarian, the good takes precedence over the right. In contrast, the founders embraced a delicate synthesis of the two. The right and the good go hand-in-hand; liberty and virtue exist as essential prerequisites for each other. As Edmund Burke queried in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, "what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils, for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint." [6] On this side of the Atlantic, John Dickinson, a Pennsylvania lawyer and farmer, wrote a widely published series of letters capturing the generally held belief that when a state loses its liberty, "this calamity is generally owing to the decay of virtue." [7] Likewise, Congregational minister Samuel McClintock preached that even such private sins as swearing, blasphemy, and idleness were, "diseases of the political body, which prey upon its very vitals, and by certain, tho' insensible degrees, brings on its dissolution." [8]

Liberty in pre-Revolutionary America was never perceived as merely the power to do what one liked. Such unrestrained freedom was declared to be licentiousness, the antithesis of liberty. An anonymous American in 1778 professed that those who followed "their own wills and pleasures" and refused to "give the reins to their lusts" are "far from ... being free"; rather, "they are very slaves." [9] John Zubly, a Presbyterian minister and member of the Continental Congress, preached that "a more unhappy situation could not easily be devised unto mankind, than that every man should have it in his power to do what is right in his own eyes." [10] Isaac Backus, the Baptist champion of religious liberty and independence wrote: "Freedom is not acting at random, but by reason and rule. Those who walk after their own lusts, are clouds without water, carried about of wind." [11] Even the proto-Unitarian minister Jonathan Mayhew declared that he had been "educated to the love of liberty, tho' not of licentiousness." [12]

Early American ideas on liberty were rooted in the Christian tradition, especially as mediated through Calvinism. Nearly three-quarters of all colonists at the time of the Revolution identified with the Reformed, Puritan wing of Protestantism. [13] Ministers of churches occupied a position of importance in most communities, especially in New England. They were also important conduits that brought revolutionary ideology to the masses.

The biblicist nature of Calvinism necessitated that any discussion of freedom had to revolve around the scriptural definition of liberty. Galatians 5:13 rimmed the perimeter hedging in the concept of liberty: "For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another." Liberty was not simply freedom from external obligation or coercion, but a positive entitlement requiring one to do good. Strictly speaking, Galatians 5 does not provide a universal concept or definition of liberty but discusses a unique spiritual liberty granted to those who embrace Christ's gospel. In practice, however, this understanding of spiritual liberty provided a template for understanding all other sorts of freedom in America. [14] When Jonathan Mayhew sought to expound upon civil liberty during the Stamp Act crisis, he chose Galatians 5 for his text. [15] Jonas Clark, the Congregational pastor and friend of Samuel Adams and John Hancock, declared that "the gospel of Jesus Christ is the source of liberty, the soul of government and the life of a people." [16] And an election sermon preached before the Vermont legislature in 1778 echoed Galatians 5:13 when it asserted, "Liberty consists in a freedom to do that which is right." [17]

But who or what determines what is right? If, as Lord Acton stated, "liberty is the right of being able to do what we ought," what exactly ought we to do? For eighteenth-century Americans, the answer was evident. Virtue, or that which one ought to do, could be known by reasonable people through the law of nature. John Witherspoon, president of the college at Princeton and mentor to a future generation of political leaders, taught that humanity possessed a "moral sense" and "conscience" that made "obligation to virtue" a duty beholden upon all. Furthermore, this "law of nature" was "binding over all the globe," [18] indicating its universal accessibility. It was assumed that the multitude of sects and churches would agree on the essential qualities of virtue since these qualities were universally discernable. What is more, for those too dense or unwilling to see, the law of nature was clarified in the moral law of God found in Scripture and encapsulated in the Ten Commandments. Calvin's Institutes states: "The law of God which we call the moral law, is nothing else than a testimony of natural law and of the conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men." [19] Similarly, the influential legal scholar William Blackstone wrote that Scripture "revealed more effectively to fallen man the original law ... that God had placed and revealed in the created order." [20]

But in good Calvinist tradition, the American founders did not assume that moral knowledge equaled moral ability. While the standards of virtue were laid out in the heavens and upon the tablets of the Decalogue, people in their natural states were incapable of obeying the law of nature. President Davies of Princeton told his graduating seniors that, "so deep and universal is the present innate Depravity of human Nature, that the sacred Structure of a truly great and good Man, can never be built upon a natural human foundation." [21] John Adams mimicked these words in his Defense of the Constitutions. [22] To revolutionary-era Americans, the ability to do right -- that is, to be virtuous -- came only to a life transformed by the gospel of Christ. The Augustinian doctrine of depravity remained the bedrock of Calvinist anthropology. Until the unregenerate individual had been transformed through an encounter with the divine, he was incapable of obeying the directives of the moral law. However, after experiencing God's grace, an individual was transformed (2 Cor. 5:17), and could now do that which was previously impossible. [23] "Till the grace of God brings salvation, when [a man] would do good, evil is present with him." [24] Warham Mather, heir to a long line of Puritan divines, noted that, "it is certain that onely [sic] those that are in an estate of Grace do any actions that are good." [25]

Since virtue was developed through religious experience, religion was to be encouraged. Not only did religion explicate the moral law, it alone could animate people to obedience. Religion, as the author of virtue, was the restraint on license, and the guarantor of republican life. John Adams confided that, "Public virtue can not exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics." [26] "Statesmen may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is religion and morality alone that can establish ... freedom." [27] Another early American put it this way: "By neglecting to embrace the gospel, we convert civil liberty, which is in itself, a delicious kind of food, into a slow poison which will render our death vastly more terrible than otherwise it would have been." [28]

To the American founders, the restraining hand of virtue was never set against liberty but flowed from the same spirit. "Liberty has never been externally imposed, but always sprang from a spirit that prompted men to act for the public good rather than for their own." [29] While conformity to rules could be demanded by an external authority or government, such submission did not create virtue. Virtue was an internal development, and it could not be mandated by the state. As one minister noted, laws could punish crime, but only religion could "tear up the roots from which they grow." [30]

By grounding virtue in personal religious experience, early Americans answered the difficult question of how to establish a normative concept of the good without coercive state control. Religious societies were to be the progenitors and guardians of virtue, not the state. The development of virtue was an item beyond the sphere of government. While early American Puritans tended toward theocracy, the idea of keeping the state out of religious matters and protecting individual freedom was not foreign to them. Cotton Mather wrote in 1692 that, "when a man sins in his Political Capacity, let the Political Societies animadvert upon him; but when he sins only in a Religious Capacity, Societies more purely Religious, are the fittest to deal with him." [31] The English Puritan John Milton wrote, "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely, according to conscience, above all liberties." [32] Ultimately, the Puritans' God desired "willing and voluntary subjection, ... not forcedly." [33]

When the American founders spoke of religion, they meant Protestantism. Their ideas on liberty, however, were preceded by Augustine and Paul, and their sentiments can be found in other Christian traditions. The pastoral letter issued by the Catholic bishops of the United States on 18 November 1951 stated: "God's will ... is the measure of a man. It is the standard by which all human actions must meet the test of rightness or wrongness." A few pages later the bishops declared: "Religious and moral truths of the natural order can be known by human reason, but God, in His goodness, through Divine Revelation has helped man to know better." "Morality has its source in God.... It cannot be adequately taught without the motivation of religious truth." [34] Pope John Paul II quoted in Redemptor Hominis (1979) Christ's words that, "You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free." He added, "These words contain both a fundamental requirement and a warning: the requirement of an honest relationship with regard to truth as a condition of authentic freedom, and the warning to avoid every kind of illusory freedom, every superficial unilateral freedom, every freedom that fails to enter into the whole truth about man and the world." [35] "The Pope's philosophy of freedom," comments Avery Dulles, "runs counter to the value-free concept so prevalent in contemporary culture." [36] Freedom is acting in light of the larger requirements of virtue.

Could the synthesis of virtue and liberty proposed by the American founders operate today? Not only could it work, but it must work if liberty is to be preserved. The spiraling problems of modern liberalism invite an illiberal backlash. In Eastern Europe, a wave of authoritarianism has swept back into power because the fruits of liberty were lost among the thorns of disorder, isolation, and fear. As Thomas Pangle has recently noted, Western society is threatened "between the Scylla of rootless, spiritually empty, cosmopolitan individualism and the Charybdis represented by the fascist fate of Nietzsche's political message." [37] A return to balance is what our society desperately needs, and such is the opportunity facing Americans today. We would do well to reembrace the vision put forth by America's founding members, and heed the following words of William Smith, spoken on 23 June 1775:

But let not this discourage you. Yea rather let it animate you with a holy fervor -- a divine enthusiasm -- ever persuade yourselves that the cause of virtue and Freedom is the CAUSE of GOD upon earth; and that the whole theater of human nature does not exhibit a more august spectacle than a number of Freemen, in dependence upon Heaven, mutually binding themselves to encounter every difficulty and danger. [38]


1. Waco Tribune Herald, 13 January 1997.

2. The term welfare liberalism is used to describe the political-philosophical theory that now dominates American thought and practice, in contrast to the classical liberalism of Locke, Burke, and the Utilitarian philosophers. The modern variety has also been designated "political liberalism" or "neo-Kantian liberalism," and its chief advocates include such noted philosophers as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Bruce Ackerman, Amy Gutmann, and William Galston. By emphasizing social morality, procedural equality, sensitivity to pluralism, and a priority for those less fortunate, welfare liberalism has become the basis of most Western democracies with their concomitant interest in state social intervention.

3. Ronald F. Thiemann, Religion in Public Life (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996), 75.

4. Quoted in Roger Lundin, "The Ultimately Liberal Condition," First Things 52 (April 1995): 23.

5. Michael Sandel, "Freedom of Conscience or Freedom of Choice?" in Articles of Faith, Article of Peace, ed. James Davidson Hunter and Os Guinness (1990), 76; quoted in Thiemann, 101.

6. Quoted in Rod L. Evans and Irwin M. Berent, eds., The Quotable Conservative (Holbrook, Mass.: Adams Publishing, 1995), 38.

7. Quoted in Benjamin Hart, Faith and Freedom (Dallas: Lewis and Stanley, 1988), 251.

8. Samuel McClintock, A Sermon Preached Before the Honorable the Council (1784), 34-35; quoted in Nathan O. Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 111.

9. S. M., "Letter to the Printer," (6 April 1778); quoted in Barry Alan Shain, The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), 161.

10. John Zubly, Law of Liberty, (1775), 26; quoted in Shain, 161.

11. Quoted in Shain, 219.

12. Jonathan Mayhew, Sermons: Seven Sermons The Snare Broken (New York: Arno Press, 1969), 35.

13. Mark A. Noll, Christians in the American Revolution (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Christian University Press, 1994), 30.

14. Shain, 201.

15. Noll, 50.

16. Jonas Clark, Massachusetts Election Sermon (1781), 37; quoted in Shain, 199.

17. Peter Powers, Jesus Christ the True King (1778), 40; quoted in Shain, 222.

18. Quoted in Carl F. H. Henry, "Natural Law and a Nihilistic Culture," First Things 49 (January 1995): 56.

19. John Calvin, Institutes, IV. xx. 16.

20. Quoted in Henry, 56.

21. Samuel Davies, Religion and Public Spirit (1761), 13; quoted in Shain, 200.

22. John Adams, A Defense of the Constitutions of the Government of the United States of America 3 vols. (1787-88), III, 289; quoted in John P. Diggins, The Lost Soul of American Politics (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 84-85.

23. St. Augustine wrote the following in his Confessions: "Whenever God converts a sinner, and translates him into a state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and by His grace alone inables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good." See Shain, 199.

24. Zubly, 27; quoted in Shain, 230.

25. Warham Mather, A Short Discourse (1716), 6; quoted in Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 158.

26. Quoted in Jurgen Gebhardt, Americanism: Revolutionary Order and Societal Self-Interpretation in the American Republic, trans. Ruth Hein (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993), 108.

27. Zabdiel Adams, A Sermon Preached before His Excellency John Hancock (1782); quoted in Hatch, 97.

28. Nathaniel Niles, "Second Discourse" (1774), 56-57; quoted in Shain, 211-12.

29. Warren, An Oration, Delivered March 5, 1772 (1772); quoted in Hatch, 66.

30. David Tappan, A Sermon Preached Before His Excellency John Hancock (1780), 11; quoted in Hatch, 110.

31. Cotton Mather, Optanda (1692); quoted in Stout, 121.

32. John E. Adair, Founding Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1986), 213.

33. Peter Bulkley, The Gospel-Covenant, 219-20; quoted in Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1956), 90.

34. "God's Law," in Pastoral Letters of the United States Catholic Bishops, ed. Hugh T. Nolan (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1984), 139-43.

35. Avery Dulles, "John Paul II and the Truth About Freedom," First Things 55 (August/September 1995): 36.

36. Ibid, 36.

37. Thomas L. Pangle, The Ennobling of Democracy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 85.

38. William Smith, "A Sermon on the Present Situation of American Affairs, Preached in Christ Church, June 23, 1775," in Religion and the Coming of the American Revolution, ed. Peter N. Carroll (Waltham, Mass.: Ginn-Blaisdell, 1970), 118.

This article is the property of its author and/or copyright holder. Any use other than personal reading of the article may infringe legal rights.
Opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author, and are not necessarily shared by conservativeforum.org or the members of its Editorial Board.