The Millennial Struggle for Liberty

This article appeared in Human Events on December 31, 1999.

The most important development of the past thousand years has been the growth of liberty, both because liberty is important in its own right and because it is what has made virtually all of the other achievements of humanity possible, as well, from science to art to material well being.

For that reason, I would locate the first of the most significantmomentsof the past thousand years in March of 1075, when Pope Gregory VII issuedtheDictatus Papae, in which he formally announced the independence of thechurch from the state and the power of the church to check the state. AsArticle 27 states, "The Pope may absolve subjects of unjust men from theirfealty." The great historian Lord Acton wrote, "To that conflict of fourhundred years we owe the rise of civil liberty . . . the aim of bothcontending parties was absolute authority. But although liberty was not theend for which they strove, it was the means by which the temporal and thespiritual power called the nations to their aid."

Second on my list would be the growth of European constitutionalism.Thiswas a broadly European movement, but especially notable for theAnglo-American tradition is, of course, the issuance of Magna Carta on June19, 1215. The Magna Carta explicitly limited the royal power, establishedthe principle of the consent of the governed and guaranteed rights of dueprocess, freedom of trade and more. These and other provisions later foundtheir way into the U.S. Constitution.

Third would be the invention of movable type in Europe around 1436or 1437by Johann Gutenberg. This tremendous innovation broke the monopolies of theprivileged few over knowledge. The printed book initiated an informationsea change that is still going on; the worldwide Web is just the latestchapter in the freeing of information made possible by Gutenberg.

Fourth, in my view, is the rebirth of constitutionalism after itseclipseby absolutism and mercantilism. The struggle to place limits on governmentand at the same time to expand greatly the popular enjoyment of liberty tookplace dramatically in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries in the revolt of theDutch against their Spanish overlords, the revolts of the English againstthe Stuart kings and the revolt of the Americans against the British crownand parliament. As the historian John Lothrop Motley wrote, "The rise ofthe Dutch Republic must ever be regarded as one of the leading events ofmodern times. . . . The maintenance of the right by the little provinces ofHolland and Zealand in the 16th, by Holland and England united in the 17th,and by the United States of America in the 18th centuries forms but a singlechapter in the great volume of human fate; for the so-called revolutions ofHolland, England and America, are all links of one chain."

Or as John Figgis, professor of modern history at CambridgeUniversity,noted at the turn of the century, "The sonorous phrases of the DeclarationofIndependence . . . are not an original discovery, they are the heirs of allthe ages, the depository of the emotions and the thoughts of 70 generationsof culture."

The fifth item on my list is the rise and fall of the totalitarianstate.As the classical liberalism that inspired the American revolution began towane, various forms of collectivism -- notably nationalism, racism andsocialism -- rose to challenge liberty. The classical liberal journalist E.L. Godkin wrote in chilling and depressing editorial on August 9, 1900,"Only a remnant, old men for the most part, still uphold the liberaldoctrine, and when they are gone, it will have no champions." He predictedthat the 20th Century would be a century of war and statism: "The oldfallacy of divine right has once more reasserted its power, and before it isagain repudiated, there must be international struggles on a terrificscale."

Those struggles -- against fascism, National Socialism andcommunism -- are now behind us. The struggle for liberty is not over, but,on the eve of the third millennium, the prospects are bright again.