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A Tolerable Anarchy

A history of what it means to be free in America.

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America represents the promise of freedom – although not always the reality.  That’s the view Jedediah Purdy offers in A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom,  his erudite, topical, thought-provoking exploration of the history of what it means to be free in America.

Purdy, who teaches law at Duke University, opens his book on the eve of the American Revolution, with a skeptical Samuel Johnson predicting from London that America’s so-called lovers of freedom would soon degenerate into anarchy. Speaking of the Virginians at the forefront of the Revolution, a disbelieving Johnson asked, “‘Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?’ ”

How did America’s founders define freedom? And where did their ideas come from? At the time of the American Revolution, “The Americans’ ideal of political freedom, too, meant being immune from arbitrary power and answering to one’s own law,” Purdy writes. “[R]ulers must be closely bound by constitutional limits, and legitimate authority ultimately arose from popular consent, at least that of property-holding men.”

And yet Purdy contends that the American rebels were deeply conservative, harking back to, and demanding, the political rights of Englishmen as echoed in the 17th-century battle between the English monarchy and Parliament.

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