Chapter 7: Freedom, Law, and Responsibility

From the earliest examples of recorded history, humankind has wrestled with negotiating the dialectical tension created by the opposing principles of freedom and law. Indeed, much of the contents of political and economic world history can be directly related to this dynamic relationship. On one hand, the lofty ideals of personal and collective freedom anchor the humanist virtues of the value of human life and of unalienable rights. On the other hand, the security and order that law can provide to submissive participants unlock enormous growth and collective strength. Often we easily fall into a myopic trap by advocating one of these principles over the other, resulting in short-sighted and potentially dangerous consequences. Think, for example, of what might result from excessive freedom, where one might feel no need to adhere to any external principles or standards as a guide (even God follows laws, right?).  

Like all dialectical tensions, the compromise an individual or a society makes between these opposing principles is highly subjective; what works for a specific culture at a specific point in history may not work for another culture or the same culture at a different moment in history. In fact, many tragic and destructive moments have come as a result of the unsuccessful negotiation of a culture's, society's, or nation's ambivalent relationship to the principles of freedom and law. 

Two interesting examples offer an engaging illustration of this negotiation. Conveniently they both occurred during the end of the 18th century, a period that embraced Enlightenment ideals and self-consciously sought to separate from earlier forms of feudalism. In both examples, a nation faced the need to negotiate its relationship with freedom and law. In both, the nation endured a revolution characterized by a pursuit for freedom. In both, the revolutionary spirit ultimately recognized the need to ironically preserve its freedom through law. 

The American War of Independence

In certain ways, the American Revolution came as a result of negotiating too closely to the side of the law in this dialectical tension. The English colonies in North America loudly protested their subordinate place in English politics, identifying the inconsistency in the English laws to which they were subjected and their influence in the legal process. In the words of the most well-known political movement of the time, "no taxation without representation." The English monarchy generally ignored this relatively new and lofty Enlightenment sentiment; only a relatively few would claim any moral right to representation only a few decades earlier in history. From the King's point of view, the colonists were subjects, required to submit to his legal authority even if unpopular or unfavorable. Thus, the tension grew, and the colonists publicly declared their separation from England in the Declaration of Independence, through which they claimed their individual rights to be independent of the legal authority of England. 

The result was the American War of Independence (or the Revolutionary War). Throughout this conflict, the colonists—now citizens of the United States of America—wrote extensively about their views and thoughts concerning freedom and law. Their first solution to this tension, the Articles of Confederation, favored freedom over federal law, establishing only weak legal authority across the new states and retaining the States' individual sovereignty. This solution quickly proved inadequate, and a second attempt was made. Recognizing the controversial nature of the problem, the delegation debated this tension in some secrecy, finally producing the Constitution of the United States. The document outlined a framework through which the country could negotiate the dynamic relationship its citizens had and would have with their needs for freedom and law. Though this dialectical tension continues to be challenging to manage, this framework has continued to successfully provide adequate flexibility and stability through wildly changing interests. 

The French Revolution

In contrast to the American War of Independence, which was an effort to separate from the legal control of a government, the French Revolution sought to replace an extant government with a new one. At the end of the 18th century, legal control of the government was hotly contested. France had a long monarchical history, a history that, in some ways, apexes in the early 18th century with figures like Louis XIV who claimed absolute control over every aspect of law and culture in the country. By the end of the century, the Enlightenment ideals of human equality had eroded the King's position somewhat in the eyes of the commoner. At this time, the French government consisted of the King and the three Estates, unequal governing bodies representing the clergy, the nobility, and the commoner. Due to intense economic and social strife, these disparate groups advocated for opposing needs that were extraordinarily difficult to reconcile. Like the early English colonists in North America, the commoners bemoaned their lack of effective influence over legal and social decisions. On the other hand, the nobility highlighted the growing need for submission to the laws they both established and executed. As a result of these growing tensions, a revolution erupted. 

Initially, the revolution appeared as almost a healthy part of Enlightenment thinking. As ideas of human value, self-government, and individual responsibility gained favor throughout Europe, the conflict seemed merely a question of philosophy. Indeed, many of the prominent participants in the creation of the Constitution of the United States also participated in the forging of similar foundational documents in France, such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Unfortunately, tensions were not so easily diffused. Despite the powerful philosophical principles promoted in these documents, the governing body (which changed shape and definition several times) struggled to find a comfortable compromise between freedom and law. The Declaration was amended several times, adding rights and guarantees never before granted by a governing body that were difficult to maintain in the long run. The conflict proved to be a bloody, traumatic, and terrorizing affair that ultimately resulted in a self-proclaimed absolute emperor in the figure of Napoleon Bonaparte. In addition, it dealt a significant blow to the collective acceptance of Enlightened principles throughout Europe, from which it still has not recovered.  

Want to explore more? 


Visual Art


  • A Mystery of Heroism by Stephen Crane
  • The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan, 1405
  • Les Miserables, Victor Hugo, 1862
  • Women and Economics, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1898
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792
  • 1984, George Orwell, 1949
  • A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf, 1929
  • Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf, 1938
  • Suite Française, Irène Némirovsky, 2004 (Written in 1940-1942)
  • The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson, 2012

    Reflection Questions

    1. What factors does one need to consider to negotiate freedom and law? 
    2. What role does responsibility have in this negotiation? 
    3. How were these principles negotiated throughout the American War of Independence and the French Revolution? 
    4. What guiding principles can you extract from these two examples about how to successful negotiate this tension? 

    Declaration of IndependenceDeclaration of the Rights of ManOf the State of Nature by John LockeThe American Crisis by Thomas PaineThe Star-Spangled Banner by Francis Scott KeyThe Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord TennysonThe New Colossus by Emma Lazarus"Nuns Fret Not at their Convent's Narrow Room" by William WordsworthHigh Waving Heather by Emily Jane BrontëFour Freedoms by Norman RockwellNapoleon on His Imperial Throne by Jean-Auguste-Dominique IngresSymphony No. 3, Op. 55 by Ludwig von Beethoven "Eroica"

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