The degree of liberty and security a people enjoy will profoundly influence their progress. While degradation has been the rule in despotisms, the strongest and most progressive States have been those in which the sphere of individual liberty was large.
The Introduction to George L. Scherger’s The Evolution of Modern Liberty, from which this quote is taken, provides a lucid and welcome review of individual liberty across the ages and up until the beginning of the twentieth century. The author’s engagement with his subject– “It is a fascinating as well as an important undertaking to trace the gradual evolution of modern liberty,” he writes– is evident throughout, and his enthusiasm adds to his readers’ pleasure.
Dr. Scherger follows his Introduction with four parts, dealing with the history and development of natural law, the history of the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people, the American Bill of Rights, and the French declaration of the Rights of Man and of the citizen.
The Greeks “were familiar with the idea of liberty, but they confounded liberty with popular sovereignty,” says Scherger. The Romans distinguished between public rights– those that served the Roman state– and private rights. But in both the Greek and Roman worlds the state was sovereign, regulating what individuals could say, how they could dress, and what religion they could practice. During the Middle Ages, feudalism gave sovereignty to those who owned land, thus obliterating the notion of the state per se. The American and French revolutions brought the difference between public and private rights to the fore. Scherger writes:
In moder times the distinction between private and public rights has again been emphasized. The results of this separation have been beneficial to both. While public rights and duties have become more majestic and authoritative on the one hand, private rights and duties on the other have become more sharply defined, and have ben more widely extended and more effectively secured.
C.E. Merriam, reviewing Scherers The Evolution of Modern Liberty in the New York Times, states that the digest of the French discussions is the most important part of the book.” Here Scherger conveys, through quotes from the writings of the count of Ségur, the abbés Mably and Raynal, the statesman and economist Turgot, and others, the intensity of excitement in France as events unfolded in America. Mirabeau, for example, writes that “American can, and is going to, determine with certainty whether the human race is destined by nature to liberty or slavery. No republican government has ever found in any part of the globe such favorable circumstances.”
George L. Scherger was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and studied at the universities of Indiana, Leipzig, and Berlin and Cornell. The influence of the great German historians and philosophers is evident in his writing. For some thirty years, he taught history and political science at the Armour Institute of Technology. In 1929 he became pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Chicago’s oldest and largest German church, a post he held until his death. He would no doubt have found the spread of liberty in our own day cause for rejoicing.
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