Black Liberty Matters

During our first online Summer Seminar series on the classical liberal tradition, Dr. Jacob T. Levy, the Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory at McGill University, spoke on the topic “Black Liberty Matters.”

In his lecture, Dr. Levy focuses on the distinctions between free persons and slaves that have existed throughout history. His lecture outlines the complicated history between liberty and slavery, and how the idea of liberty was distorted to exert control over black people.

He begins with the ancient Roman conception of freedom that influenced the legal tradition of the West. Slavery was a part of the Roman self-conception, along with “libertas.” Slave owners valued freedom for their own class, including the freedom to own slaves. For the Romans, freedom existed in contrast to slavery; to be free was to not be a slave.

In the 1700s, Adam Smith observed that slavery would last longer in relatively free societies. His reasoning is that it is harder to abolish slavery when people do not want to give up power over others. As a result, in democratic societies, the love of domineering kept slavery alive.

Whereas a king or a king in a house of lords might abolish slavery, a democratic assembly made up of, or elected by, slave owners would almost certainly not.

– Dr. Jacob T. Levy
Dr. Jacob T. Levy

Without a gradation of power in kingdoms with kings, nobles, gentry, middle class, tenant farmers, and laborers, social status plateaued. That leveling of social status came at a price.

In Jacksonian America, Dr. Levy points out, even the poorest white man was the social equal of the richest white man as long as they both wielded power over enslaved blacks. Americans hypocritically relied on slave labor on the one hand and touted freedom on the other.

To be a free person was to be a person who was so incomparably higher in social status than those they enslaved that they could continue to hold them in slavery themselves.

– Dr. Jacob T. Levy

Dr. Levy says that there was nothing in the Roman or early American conception of liberty that demanded liberty be accessible to all universally. “America could tell itself the story that it was the freest society in the world just because, and precisely to the degree that, black liberty did not matter,” Levy says. The liberty that mattered to Americans was the liberty of the slave-owning race.

The South used the language of liberty as a defense for what they considered to be their right to own slaves. Property rights have always been associated with liberty, and in the antebellum era leading up to the Civil War, slave-owners claimed that those property rights included slave ownership. Dr. Levy points out that even the freedom of association became a rationale for segregation under Jim Crow laws.

Language of liberty throughout these decades was appropriated for the defense of domineering in a way that was distorting… It took no account of the value of freedom being equal.

– Dr. Jacob T. Levy

In light of the Cold War, this struggle was recast as a conflict between liberty and equality. This shift distorted the self-understanding of America as a distinctively free society, Dr. Levy says.

The defenders of Jim Crow and apartheid maintained that they were defending liberty against an excess of equality, echoing the American struggle against communism and the Soviet Union in the cold war. It is, however, false. And when we don’t understand that it’s false, we not only misunderstand American politics, we misunderstand liberty.

– Dr. Jacob T. Levy

Freedom of association and property ownership are genuine liberal values that have been twisted to limit liberty. The classical liberal emphasis on limited government gets perverted when it works against enforcing the equal protection of the law.

Dr. Levy maintains that the rise of the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and militarization of police is deeply connected to America’s long history of devaluing black liberty. People say that the United States is the freest nation in the world, and yet it imprisons more human beings than any other country.

The ability of whites…to use the willingness of the state to abrogate black liberty has been a constant feature in American history.

– Dr. Jacob T. Levy

The American story of freedom is still being written.

You can watch the full video and other IHS Summer Seminar lectures on our YouTube channel. For more information on Summer Seminars, graduate and faculty programs, and funding opportunities, visit

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