Liberty was central to two sets of political ideas that flourished in the Anglo-American world. One is termed by scholars “republicanism” (although few in eighteenth-century England used the word, which literally meant a government without a king and conjured up memories of the beheading of Charles I). Republicanism celebrated active participation in public life by economically independent citizens as the essence of liberty. Republicans assumed that only property-owning citizens possessed “virtue”—defined in the eighteenth century not simply as a personal moral quality but as the willingness to subordinate self-interest to the pursuit of the public good. “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom,” wrote Benjamin Franklin.
A 1770 engraving from the Boston Gazette by Paul Revere illustrates the association of British patriotism and liberty. Britannia sits with a liberty cap and her national shield, and releases a bird from a cage.
In eighteenth-century Britain, this body of thought about freedom was most closely associated with a group of critics of the established political order known as the “Country Party” because much of their support arose from the landed gentry. They condemned what they considered the corruption of British politics, evidenced by the growing number of government appointees who sat in the House of Commons. They called for the election of men of “independence” who could not be controlled by the ministry, and they criticized the expansion of the national debt and the growing wealth of financial speculators in a commercializing economy. Britain, they claimed, was succumbing to luxury and political manipulation—in a word, a loss of virtue—thereby endangering the careful balance of its system of government and, indeed, liberty itself. In Britain, Country Party publicists like John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, authors of Cato’s Letters, published in the 1720s, had little impact. But their writings were eagerly devoured in the American colonies, whose elites were attracted to Trenchard and Gordon’s emphasis on the political role of the independent landowner and their warnings against the constant tendency of political power to infringe upon liberty.