Liberty Forgotten

Let me begin by confessing that I am one of those conservatives who take comfort in Plato’s devastating critique of Athenian democracy. I believe that civic liberty is not an end in itself, but is a tool that man finds fit for his nature as a reasoning being, a tool to be judged by the use to which we put it. Voting for voting’s sake means nothing to me. Choice for choice’s sake, I suspect, has rather a snaky logic to it. Unless there are all kinds of bars and nets in place, I admire great big democracies not a whole lot more than I admire great big bureaucracies, or businesses, or cancers. When revenuers arrive from far away — the next town — my hand reaches for my wallet. As I said, I am not a liberal. I am a conservative.
And so I have not been a cheerleader for our intervention in Iraq. That has seemed to me something that the liberals Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman would have approved, and as much as I admire Truman and give grudging respect to Wilson, I am not sure they would have been right. Yet my hesitation gives me a bad conscience. Why should the people of Iraq not be fit for civic liberty? Is it because they are Iraqis, or Muslims? Because they are poorer than we are? If we should pride ourselves in overthrowing George III, who was no tyrant, why should not the Iraqis pride themselves in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, who was? If we should be grateful for the French, and for such heroes as Pulaski and Von Steuben and Kosciuszko, who came to assist us in our fight for freedom, why should we consider it evil to provide the same assistance to Iraqis? Because it is a project bound to fail? But who could have been certain in 1945 that imperial Japan might develop a democratic republic, or even that hotbed of lunacy called Germany?
So I wonder when it was, after all, that liberals in my country ceased to be liberal. When did they lose their quasi-secular faith in civic liberty?
Was it when speech codes spread across the nation’s campuses? Or did it happen a little earlier, when the nation’s nannies decided that it was better to determine what a child might think than what an adult might say, and turned elementary school textbooks towards political advocacy?
Was it when the common people were deprived of any real authority in determining what a decent town might look like? When that just liberty was quashed for the license of pornographers? Or when the “freedom” of men and women to have sexual intercourse without worrying about babies trumped the laws of every state, and any consideration of the common weal? Or when a people’s timeless understanding of what constitutes a family was to be altered by judicial or legislative fiat — reducing marriage to something more porous than a business contract?
Was it when we forgot that government is our creation, our machine, and not our keeper? When we agreed to trade money — at first, other people’s money — for a bundle of material comforts we called “security”? Was it when we agreed that some people ought to work for “us” for more than half of the year, and then found ourselves, alas, similarly enslaved to the government appetite? Was it when we replaced the Constitution with the conveniently vague “spirit” of the Constitution, a specter that we thought would do only what we wanted it to do, but that then devoured the Constitution, so that now we effectively acknowledge no law above the laws our keepers happen to pass?
Was it when we ran a steamroller over the freedom of association, to compass certain social goals? When we sued a small college not for discrimination, but for refusing to sign a document conceding authority to the federal government to determine what should count for discrimination — and then lamely accepted a decision making every college in the nation a ward of the government? When we sued men’s groups for being men’s groups, not because they ignored the public welfare, but because they served it? When we told the people of Virginia, including a majority of women, that they could not fund a men’s military college? When we first attempted to ship the Boy Scouts to Sodom?
Was it when we taped the mouths of pastors — or, at least, the mouths of conservative pastors — by threatening to put them out of business if they spoke their political minds? Was it when we strong-armed the Catholic Church into either betraying its faith by providing contraception or performing abortions in its hospitals or giving babies to homosexual couples for adoption, or staying quiet in its little corner?
Was it when we set up as our sacramentum sacrosanctum the license to slay the baby in the womb, the baby whose very existence, except in the rare case of rape, is owing to our own voluntary action? Was it then, after all, when the word “father” came to mean nothing? Was it when one person’s sexual license was held to trump another’s very life?
When was it that liberals ceased to believe in liberty? I don’t know. I do know that they do not believe in it now. So a conservative Catholic has little choice. I can stay home, or vote for a few remaining people who believe in democracy more than I do, and who, in the case of Senator McCain, was willing to suffer and die for it. Those old liberal patriots — men like Harry Truman, or John Kennedy, or Kennedy’s apologist Bishop Sheen; liberals who could also be conservative, since the terms are not antonyms — would laugh at me for hesitating even a moment.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Todd

    “When was it that liberals ceased to believe in liberty?”

    If indeed this is true, perhaps it happened after conservatives, blinded by anti-communist rhetoric, adopted as blood brothers various anti-liberty allies in an attempt to hem in the Red Dragon.

    In another decade, Iraq may have worked. But Republicans were used to dealing with Chile, Iran, Central America and the lure of Almighty Profit was too much of a temptation for otherwise honorable conservatives.

    I appreciate the attempt to position yourself as a True Conservative; I have the same struggles being a pro-life liberal.

    I think a rephrasing is in order: When was it that people ceased to believe in liberty? For oppressors and peons alike, it was when they got a better offer.

  • Michael
  • Todd

    Hi Michael,

    One person’s obfuscation is another person’s inconvenient truth.

    Sorry to disappoint, but I’ve beat you to the monastery. I could have been more clear: ideology knows no virtue. For that you’ll need to find individuals who aspire to holiness.

    The notion that conservatives, even real ones, are somehow more virtuous, liberty-loving, or kinder-to-their-dogs than liberals is a myth. It’s a myth that deserves vigorous dissent whenever and wherever it pops up.

    Give my regards to the R’s latest foreign dictator-of-the-week.

  • L.B.

    “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” -George Bernard Shaw

    Liberals have allowed themselves to become Satan’s tools. By removing God, the concept of sin, and accountability unrepentant souls are lost to Hell. JP II spent a lifetime fighting Communism for that very reason. Only a fool would think there is a better offer than Salvation.

    Galatians 5:1
    It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
    Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by
    a yoke of slavery.

  • Rob H

    I think a rephrasing is in order: When was it that people ceased to believe in liberty? For oppressors and peons alike, it was when they got a better offer.

    I can’t say that I wholly agree with the rest of your post, but the quote above couldn’t be more true. I recommend reading Andrew Napolitano’s “A Nation of Sheep” for numerous examples of the liberties we’ve lost in this country with very little (if any) public outcry.

  • Rob H

    Just a slight, minor little criticism of your article. You said:

    “If we should pride ourselves in overthrowing George III, who was no tyrant, why should not the Iraqis pride themselves in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, who was?”.

    Who said King George was “no tyrant”? I think that the Declaration of Independence makes a pretty clear case that he was, at least in the eyes of Jefferson and the other signees. The Declaration refers to “depostism”, “tyranny”, and “oppression” in describing their grievances with the king. Also, it refers directly to George III as “A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be ruler of a free People.”

    I know, it doesn’t change anything about the point you were trying to make. Heck, it might even strengthen your comparison between the American Revolution and Iraq (ie, both were tyrants). Just wanted to share my two cents (ok, maybe less than two cents in this case).

  • Rob H

    The Declaration refers to “depostism”, “tyranny”, and “oppression” in describing their grievances with the king.

    Sorry, I meant “despotism” and not “depotism”.

  • Todd

    LB, a few things in reply.

    I agree with you and Shaw on responsibility–it’s more or less my soapbox word of the year in response to a certain indulgence for tooting about our “rights.”

    Alas, you fall into a similar trap as Professor Esolen with this:

    “Liberals have allowed themselves to become Satan’s tools. By removing God, the concept of sin, and accountability …”

    And here you must include only liberals who have become tools, etc., while also including conservatives who have become tools, removing God, sin, accountability, and all. Really, my conservative friends, your insight, accuracy, and outlook would be a whole lot better if you got out of your ivory towers or off your computers.

    Most commonplace God-believing liberals would take you to task on the liberal accomplishments of the past several decades in the face of conservative resistance. I will conclude my presence on this thread by noting that this is a test case for Luke 18:9-14, two millennia later. Apparently the more things change …

  • Anastasia

    I got to this sentence
    “and as much as I admire Truman and give grudging respect to Wilson” and I stopped. Please! Woodrow was absolutely our worst president — worse than that White Supremacist Dishonest Abe of the Morrill Tariff, worse than The Great Satan himself (Franklin Roosevelt who [pardon me all you in wheelchairs] was just Hoover On Wheels). The photo at the head says it all. The hidebound grimly set jaw, the eyes narrowed in Clint Eastwood fashion, just waiting, in Cromwellian manner, to make heretics sweat. The Puritan as President. As ol’ Henry Adams said it, “the principle pleasure of New England was hate”.


    1. The Revolution of 1913 (The Fed and fiat money, both the cause of the recession of 1929 and the Panic of 2008; the direct election of senators; anti-trust run amuck; the destruction of the Jeffersonian Party, turning it into a socialist party; and the loss of sound money)

    2. the intervention into Mexico, done with shear racialist and nationalist motives

    3. Woody’s deep hatred of Black people. He made a point of mocking T. Roosevelt’s visit to Tuskegee

    4. and the worse foreign policy mistake ever: US intervention in World War I, which alone was responsible for the Allied victory. There was no such thing as “Prussian Militarism”, and Germany was really more democratic than Britain and France, with their empires of coolies. There was no reason that the Central Powers were any less worse than France, Britain, and Russia. A German-Austrian Victory would have been jim dandy for the world, with no Lenin, no Russian Revolution, no Communism, no Stalin, no Mussolini, no Nazis, no World War II, no Cold War, no Great Depression, no Great Inflation (1968-1982). In short, the 20th C would have been a age of peace, prosperity, and moral probity.

    4. Woodrow lies about neutrality (we sold lots of ammo to the British and French, and the Lusitania was carrying ordinance), his Anglophilia, his lying his way into the war, a war whose real reason was to save the House of Morgan, and his imbecility at the Versailles Peace Conference, a treaty that paved the way to Adolf.

    Woodrow the Worst! And now Gringos are about to elect another messiah.

  • Kevin J Jones

    People haven’t stopped believing in freedom. They’ve stopped believing in the person, that being born from the communion of others and born for communion with others.

    The weakening, if not severance, of ties to family, of ties to place, of ties to the past, of ties to nature, and of ties to God are all signs of individualism, whose invocations of liberty are unceasing.

    We are all free to loosen these ties and become individuals. The capacity to forge and maintain these ties, the “freedom” to become persons, is what’s under constant attack.

  • Richard F

    Wow! When I read you my hair stands on end, my hands shake and my toes curl. You take my breath away. You really MUST write your views here more often. Your stuff is not Pablum for babies, but red, dripping, warm meat for carnivors. How refreshing! How inspiring! I can imagine you as Saul before he became Paul.

  • Tony Esolen

    Ladies and gentlemen,

    I’ve made a clear claim in the piece above. It is that the word “liberal” no longer really applies to the political left in the United States. The way to engage that claim is to show me a single instance of a freedom upheld by the American left, not in words but in deeds, or in legislation. You may begin with freedom of speech. Oh, but there are the campus speech codes. And that “Fairness Doctrine.” And the dreary unanimity of the mainstream media. Larry Summers, anyone? Well then, how about freedom of association? Ah, but then there are the incessant suits against the Boy Scouts, and not only them, but against other prominent private organizations that do not hew to the leftist line. Do I really have to go down the list of those? Freedom to bear arms — essentially, the freedom not only to protect oneself without undue reliance upon the government, but the freedom to remind the government who is the master and who the servant? Where are the real liberals, anyway?

    I’m not a liberal, I repeat. George W. Bush, by any definition of the word that makes any sense, is a liberal — and this despite the Patriot Act (as Lincoln was a liberal, despite his drastic suspension of the laws of habeas corpus). Sean Hannity, whose portraits of the American Dream are classically liberal, is one, too; often cloyingly liberal. The late pope John Paul II was a liberal; the current pope Benedict is also a liberal; you’d find it hard to drive a shoehorn between him and the classically liberal Jacques Maritain, on the just autonomy of the state (and the limits of that autonomy). I respect that old liberalism, though I cannot claim it for myself. I simply wish to call things by their proper names. If you believe that any government at any level should exercise its bullying force to alter the Boy Scouts’ self-definition, you are deeply illiberal in your instincts. Same thing if you believe that it is good for universities to condemn all discussion of homosexuality, threatening untenured professors who should dare to raise the issue. Same thing if you believe that children are to be educated away from the beliefs of their own parents, for the sake of “tolerance” or whatever else you want to label the prejudices you prefer. All that will mark you as illiberal to the core.

    I want to know, once again, what great freedom the American left will fight and die for, as liberals of old did. I want to know in what regard I can properly call them liberal. All I see about me points to the opposite.

  • Pamela

    Professor, I now have a better understanding of my father, I think. He says he always considered himself a liberal in days past and that it wasn’t a bad word at the time. He has never really explained himself, though, so thank you.

    As to when the left ceased to be liberals, I’d say all the above. I’m afraid I have no answer to your last question. The word great is the problem. There is no ‘great’ freedom the left would fight for that I can think of. The only freedom with which the left seems concerned at all is the freedom of sex. Sex anytime, anywhere, with anyone, with anything, anyway… I’m sure they will eventually try to have an amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing their right to Freedom of Sex. Sadly, many have already died for their right to it.

  • Richard F

    if you think you are not getting across in this article. I think the vast majority of your readers here are so in agreement with you they didn’t feel it was necessary to say anything. You stated your case very clearly and very well. The modern “liberal” thinks the state should do everything for him, including fight all his battles, physical and verbal. Certainly they are not going to die for any cause – that’s what they maintain armies and politicians for.

  • mark

    I forget who wrote the book, aside from it being a 19th
    century Italian priest:”Liberalism is a Sin.” Those people
    who question the validity of the commandments and revealed
    truth have become the modern day liberals. This kind of
    liberal dissents from religious traditions and philosophies
    and may be possible to show that it follows they would
    question other traditions such as the constitution, a document
    written by people who took God into consideration in ruling
    our country. No God, no liberty. Know God, know liberty.