Across Europe, high-minded debates about terrorism, assimilation, and the social effects of Islam have been devolving into disputes over the clothes the government will let people wear, as countries from Switzerland to the U.K. ponder bans on burqas and head scarves. Curiously, legislators and pundits on both sides of the Atlantic have tried to justify such dress codes with the language of liberty. A Spanish politician, for example, denounced the veil as a “degrading prison.”
He was not referring merely to families that force women to cover themselves. In that case, the legislation would target the compulsion, not the clothes. The garments supposedly serve as prisons whether or not the wearer wants to don them. Removing them by force, it’s implied, would be an act of liberation.
This paradoxical claim—that the exercise of liberty can be an impediment to freedom—has a long history in the U.S. as well as Europe, emerging in arguments over rights ranging from the freedom to drink to the freedom to follow the faith of your choice. The belief has many roots, but in the American context the most important source might be the antebellum reform era. From the early 19th century to the Civil War, reformers battled liquor, prostitution, Catholicism, and Sabbath breaking; they built prisons, asylums, and utopian communities; they both denounced and defended slavery. Some of their efforts extended the sphere of American freedom. Others merely presented restrictions on liberty as a revolt against servitude.
In the aftermath of the New Deal, historians typically treated the period as just another step in the progression of liberal reform. A typical example is Arthur Schlesinger Sr.’s The American As Reformer, published in 1951, with its closing declaration that Americans “have never regarded democracy as a finished product but something to keep on building.” This sunny view would have come as a surprise to Catholic immigrants, the chief target of the Know-Nothings’ illiberal crusade for “War to the hilt, on political Romanism.” That sure looked like a reform movement: It was an effort to refashion society, advanced with the rhetoric of republican values, and its supporters often embraced more conventionally progressive movements of the reform period as well, such as the fight against slavery. Yet for Schlesinger the Know-Nothings were simply one of the “bigoted enemies” of change. He thus avoided the issue that another historian, Clifford Griffin, would later raise in The Ferment of Reform (1967): “if anti-Catholicism was a reform movement, it might be necessary to define reform in a different way from that accepted by the majority of historians.”
Problems like that one led to a much darker interpretation of antebellum reform. The key text here is Griffin’s 1960 book Their Brothers’ Keepers. Guided by the gloomy aftermath of the McCarthy era, Griffin painted the reformers as intolerant Grundies “possessed by the assumption that everyone who differed from them was wrong.” Aiming “to make other men sober, righteous, and godly —to make others like themselves,” they deployed both voluntary suasion and governmental force, seeking “the rule of the righteous and the jurisdiction of the just.”
It was a powerful and influential interpretation, and it was grounded in far more evidence than Schlesinger’s sweeping little book. But it too had limits. Griffin was writing at the tail end of a period when historians tended to treat the abolitionists with condescension, painting them as maladjusted fanatics whose aversion to compromise made peaceful emancipation less likely. That made it easy for him to treat the anti-slavery movement as just another band of busybodies, even though they aimed to extend rather than constrict human liberty. By the end of the ’60s, young historians were more likely to see the abolitionists as heroes and to bristle at their older image.
It didn’t help that the reform community included slavery’s apologists as well as its opponents. In his 1987 book Proslavery, the maverick historian Larry Tise pointed out that the institution’s defenders included not just Southerners but a host of old New England Federalists; when proslavery arguments were revived after the American Revolution, Northeastern clergymen were in the vanguard. Tise’s tale of Northern elites spouting “a reactionary critique of anything that smacked of being French or Jeffersonian” fits snugly with Griffin’s description of Northern elites alarmed by social transformation and bent on maintaining social control. Indeed, some of the same names appear in both books. But Tise’s enforcers supported servitude while Griffin’s endorsed abolition.
The deepest problem, though, was that Griffin tried to cover too much ground. At different times and places, reform could be conservative or disruptive. Any explanation that tried to paint the reformers as either one or the other was bound to be incomplete. If you’re trying to understand the antebellum period as a whole, you need to find themes that emerged in both forms of reform.
Two of those themes stand out. One is the rise of perfectionism: the idea that individuals and societies, through single-minded effort, could free themselves from sin. In 1978 Eric Foner pointed out that while perfectionism could manifest itself as a “tendency toward social control,” at other moments it led its exponents “into an intense anti-institutionalism and, occasionally, all the way to anarchy.” At such times, the reformer’s evangelical passion “came to challenge all existing institutions as illegitimate exercises of authority over the free will of the individual, and as interferences with his direct relationship with God.”
The first form of perfectionism produced the prison, the asylum, and the almshouse, authoritarian institutions that exploded in the reform era. The second perfectionism spawned the anarchism of Adin Ballou, Henry Clarke Wright, and the young William Lloyd Garrison, the former Federalist who did the most to popularize what became known as the “no government” position. “Unquestionably,” Garrison wrote, “every existing government on earth is to be overthrown by the growth of mind and moral regeneration of the masses. Absolutism, limited monarchy, democracy—all are sustained by the sword; all are based upon the doctrine, that ‘Might makes right;’ all are intrinsically inhuman, selfish, clannish, and opposed to a recognition of the brotherhood of man.” The Garrisonites rejected politics entirely, stressing nonviolent action instead.
There was a big gulf between the two sorts of reformers. But to the extent that they shared the perfectionist impulse, it was possible to flip from one side of the divide to the other. When the Civil War broke out, for example, Garrison abandoned his pacifist anarchism and became a pro-war nationalist. Another anti-state abolitionist, Gerrit Smith, endorsed not just war but conscription; at one point he complained that Abraham Lincoln was too respectful of constitutional liberties.
Smith is an especially interesting case, because he proved it possible to espouse both brands of perfectionism at the same time. Before the Civil War, he usually sounded like a radical libertarian. Arguing that “Government owes nothing to its subjects but protection,” he opposed slavery, tariffs, subsidies for internal improvements, public debt, public schools, and the idea that the state should protect “the morals of its subjects.” Yet he also favored a ban on alcohol. This combination of views is hard to fathom today, but it felt natural at a time when the rhetoric of the temperance movement drew heavily on the rhetoric of the abolitionists, with prohibitionists promising to liberate drunkards from the “slavery of drink.”
That’s the second theme: the way the concept of slavery was extended to cover noncoercive activities. In Inventing the Addict (2008), the cultural historian Susan Marjorie Zieger quotes an anti-slavery minister who declared the plantation preferable to the bottle. The drinker, he explained, is reduced to “buying, and when his money is gone begging for the privilege of being a slave.” The rhetoric of slavery and the rhetoric of addiction are still closely linked today. You don’t often encounter people calling for a ban on beer in the name of freedom, but you do hear alleged anti-authoritarians denouncing, say, television in the same terms.
Temperance wasn’t the only movement that aimed to restrain people’s liberties under the banner of resisting slavery. Nativists saw Catholics as the agents of an alien hierarchy, so they conducted their crusade in the name of preserving American freedoms; many Know-Nothings believed their cause was closely linked to the struggle against the Slave Power. (As one nativist orator put it, America faced “two co-operating foes, the Papacy and Slavery.”) Anti-Mormon propagandists saw the Latter-Day Saints in similar terms, and the first Republican platform denounced “those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery.” The metaphor didn’t die with emancipation: After the Civil War was over, the anti-prostitution movement routinely referred to sex work as “white slavery,” whether or not actual compulsion was involved. Such rhetoric has reappeared repeatedly in subsequent decades. Whenever a new religion emerges, you’re more likely to hear it described as a “cult” that menaces its members’ psychological freedom than as a set of voluntary beliefs and rituals.
The arguments once used against Catholics and Mormons come out in force today when the topic is Islam. And I’m not just referring to burqa bans. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born feminist and former member of the Dutch parliament, is in most respects a classical liberal. But when reason interviewed her in 2007, she called for the abolition of Muslim schools. The United States “is based on civil liberties,” she said, “and we shouldn’t allow any serious threat to them. So Muslim schools in the West, some of which are institutions of fascism that teach innocent kids that Jews are pigs and monkeys—I would say in order to preserve civil liberties, don’t allow such schools.”
I disagree strongly with Hirsi Ali’s idea, but at least she speaks with direct experience of the ugly side of Islam. You can’t say that about Leonard Peikoff, the officially designated “intellectual heir” of the novelist Ayn Rand. (I think that means Peikoff inherited Rand’s intellect after it died.) In theory, Peikoff believes in strictly limited government and strong protection of individual rights. But in June he joined the chorus of complaints that the authorities should block a Muslim community center from being erected near the site of the 9/11 attack on Manhattan, on the grounds that Islam—not just jihadism, but Islam itself—is a threat to a free America.
In words that echoed the Know-Nothings’ fear of the Vatican, Peikoff warned that we may soon face an “Islamic takeover of a paralyzed United States.” Allowing the community center to be built would be an “objective sign of our weakness,” he argued, and therefore it would be “immoral and catastrophic for Americans to permit it.” Thus, “permission should be refused, and if they go ahead and build it, the government should bomb it out of existence, evacuating it first, with no compensation to any of the property owners involved in this monstrosity.”
Peikoff believes his conclusion is consistent with individualism, and in a sense I suppose it is. It’s the individualism that saw slavery in the free exercise of religion, the individualism that saw liberation in the prohibition of alcohol and consensual sex. It’s an individualism with deep roots in both American and European history. It just isn’t a sort of individualism that accepts individual liberty.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).