Liberty: Its True Meaning In Tidewater

Here’s an equally important excerpt from David Hackett Fischer’s Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas:

“In the summer of 1776, when Thomas Jefferson was toiling over the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, three of his friends in Virginia were hard at work on another assignment. The Virginia Convention on July 1, 1776, ordered Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, and George Wythe to “devise a proper seal for this Commonwealth.”

These men represented a small elite of Virginia gentlemen who had ruled their “Ancient Dominion,” as they liked to call it, for more than a century. Their ancestors had been younger sons of English gentry and aristocracy, who emigrated to Virginia in the mid-seventeenth century. Their families were Anglican in religion, Royalist in politics during the English Civil War, and shared a pride in rank and ancestry, with coats of arms on file at the College of Heralds in London. In Virginia they became landowners, slavekeepers, and officeholders, and members of a close-linked cousinage who shared common interests and values. Even as much of their wealth rested on slavery, they had a highly developed sense of their own liberty and freedom.

On July 5, 1776, these gentlemen of Virginia recommended a design for a state seal, which represented their special vision of liberty and freedom. On the front (or obverse) they put two allegorical figures: “Virtus, the genius of the Commonwealth, dressed like an Amazon, resting on a spear with one hand, and holding a sword in the other, and treading on TYRANNY, represented by a man prostrate, a crown fallen from his head, a broken chain in his left hand, and a scourge in his right.” Underneath they added the motto Sic semper tyrannus, thus always for tyrants.

On the back (or reverse) of the seal was the figure of “LIBERTAS, with her wand and pileus.” A familiar image of the Roman goddess was copied from a leading work of ancient iconography in their well-stocked libraries, Joseph Spence’s Polymetis. She was given a Virginia meaning by the figures that surrounded her. On one side was the Roman harvest goddess, “CERES, with the cornucopia in one hand and an ear of wheat in the other.” The stalk of wheat represented the cash crop that was rapidly replacing tobacco as the leading source of income on large Virginia plantations. The cornucopia was a symbol of abundance in the largest and richest American colony. In 1776, Virginia was nearly as large and populous as the next two colonies combined.

One the other side of Libertas was “AETERNITAS, with the globe and phoenix.” The dynastic dreams of Virginia’s gentleman-planters, and their hopes for their own estates, were expressed in this allegorical figure of eternity, with the earth in one hand and an emblem of eternal rebirth in the other.

The most remarkable part of the seal, and a key to its special meaning, was the motto that Mason, Wythe, and Lee chose for the “exergon,” or outer rim of the design. In a great arc around the central figures of Libertas, Ceres, and Aeternitas, they ordered that “In the exergon, these words appear: DEUS NOBIS HAEC OTIA FECIT,” or “God has granted us leisure.”

The operative word was otium, which had a complex meaning in classical Latin. It could be translated both as “leisure” and “independence.” Liberty, in the minds of these Virginia gentlemen, was closely identified with those ideas. It meant a release from the tyranny of toil and liberty from dependence on another’s will. It signified not so much the reality of a Chesapeake planter’s life but rather its driving ideal. These men aspired to the condition of an independent gentleman who was the lord of his plantation, patriarch of his “people,” ruler of his country, and master of his time. In this coupling of libertas and otium, liberty and leisure and independence all became one.

In the Chesapeake colonies, libertas and otium were granted to people in different degrees, according to their station. Independent gentlemen were given many liberties and much leisure. Small farmers and tenants had less of both. Indentured servants possessed few liberties, and slaves had none. Liberty and leisure and independence were only for those who were allowed “to enter a state of society,” as George Mason carefully put it in his draft of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. The soaring phrases in that document were meant to apply to some Virginians but not others. Here was a very powerful idea of liberty that coexisted comfortably with slavery.”

For us the idea of liberty and freedom is a contradiction in terms, because we no longer share the assumptions of hierarchy on which it rests …”

There it is.

“Libertas,” the meaning of the “liberty” that Virginia’s gentlemen were fighting for in the American Revolution has been hiding in plain sight this entire time. Once again, this IS NOT the liberty of classical liberalism, modern liberalism, conservatism or libertarianism.

It is a Roman understanding of “liberty” in classical republicanism.

Note: From the Wikipedia entry on Virtus:

“Virtus was a specific virtue in Ancient Rome. It carries connotations of valor, manliness, excellence, courage, character, and worth, perceived as masculine strengths (from Latin vir, “man”). It was thus a frequently stated virtue of Roman emperors, and was personified as a deity—Virtus. …”

The deity Virtus:

“In Roman mythology, Virtus was the deity of bravery and military strength, the personification of the Roman virtue of virtus. The Greek equivalent deity was Arete.[1] He/she was identified with the Roman god Honos (personification of honour) and was often honoured together with him, such as in the Temple of Virtus and Honos at the Porta Capena in Rome itself. …”

Virginia’s state flag is the personification of not being be a cuck!

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  1. Sir, as you carefully concluded what ‘liberty’ was NOT to Virginia’s founders, but, did not cogently define what it was, I am left to posit my understanding of how The Tarheel KKK has traditionally thought of it, though the semanticks are mine –

    ‘Liberty’ is defined as the community of the Southern State being able to strive for it’s own definitions free of taint from alien ideas, and, even more importantly, free of being coercet to pursue something to the contrary of our ideas by those aliens, and their related alien commercial and political bodies,

    If it is not that, please correct me.

    Thank you for the continued education I ought to have received in the 1960s and 70s.

    • Or more succintly put : the sovereign Southron right to be free of those persons, ideas, and organizations alien to our community.

  2. The average Virginians notion of Liberty in 1776 and Thomas Jeffersons notion of Liberty were two different things. Jefferson’s yeoman utopia with public education and no government interference was an impossibility. This was one of the reasons I believe Jefferson designated townships in the Survey system in the Northwest Ordinance, he wanted everything to be local. The problem with Jefferson’s ideas was that everything simply isn’t local. If a man cant sell his wares, he runs out of money. If townships and counties cant tax, whose going to pay the schoolmaster? So on and so forth

    Jeffersons ideas were opposed to Washington and Hamilton’s ideas of a developed modern nation with highways and canals, Washington was BIG on internal improvements being a surveyor he saw that farmers needed roads and canals to survive in fact Washington was one of the big men behind building the Patowmack Canal, his idea was to build a gigantic Canal all the way to the Ohio River. Feasible with our technology today but not then. Washington wanted big spending on internal improvements, because he had been in the west. Jefferson living near the Rivanna River, which his family maintained to float tobacco down to the James didn’t appreciate what hell it was to live in WEST VIRGINIA (TransAllegheny VA) and try to transport goods to market.

    Obviously looking back it is obvious that Jefferson was wrong on almost everything.

      • Hunter I find it amazing how for years we were taught to respect Jefferson but the more I read about him, I come away with two ideas. Either he like most intellectuals was completely Naive or he was evil. I tend toward naive

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