In this delightful article (hat tip: Jon Rowe below) Philip Hamburger explores liberality as a sentiment at the time of our founding. The article is quite lengthy but it raises interesting questions, some of which Tom deals with below.
The liberal sentiment is put forth as another factor in contrast to individual rights and republican civil virtue. There is some notion that these factors conflict even as the author mentions in his concluding section (p1284) “ ... few Americans yet had reason to question the essential compatibility between liberality and virtue ... “ So we have in addition to the supposed conflict between individual property rights and civil republicanism the pull of liberal sentiment.
Liberal sentiment is described as “generosity” as opposed to “selfishness”, open and broadminded instead of “prejudiced”, seeing the greater interest over the “narrow interest” or “parochial interests”, etc. Liberality in religion is more ecumenical, not merely tolerant. Appeals to Christian charity encourage going “beyond the ‘vulgar Attachments of Family and Friends’ to embrace ‘the whole human Species.’” (p1230).
It is not too surprising that appeals to liberal sentiment abound during the ratification of the constitution. The “more perfect union” requires a less parochial, less narrow focus. The narrow interests on the state level led to tariff and trade wars. I’d argue that this is proof of the failure of liberal sentiment and the need for the protection of objective law. Also, where was this sentiment in the period leading up to the revolution? Wasn’t it Britain that saw Americans as parochial ingrates unwilling to shoulder their share of the Empire’s burden after England protected the Colonies by fighting the French and Indian War?
Liberality seems more in the eye of the beholder. Hamilton played to such sentiments when he saw the greater good of the union overcoming narrow parochial interests. However once in power he rediscovered parochial self-interest when he opposed calls for America to repay the French by joining them in their revolutionary struggle. Liberality, it seems, can go to far.
Hamburger notes that during “the 1787 Constitutional Convention ... Roger Sherman opposed a motion to prohibit religious tests. Hesitating to object on the merits, this Connecticut politician ... argued that the prohibition was ‘unnecessary, the prevailing liberality being a sufficient security against such tests.’ ... In voting for the motion prohibiting religious tests, most framers probably understood that religious dissenters might not always be amble to count upon the liberality of others ...”
One might also see Madison’s initial rejection of the Bill of Rights as an appeal to the liberality of the people. Such a “Parchment Barrier” would be worthless if the people failed to embody the virtues and values therein. In the end Americans favor law over sentiment. Indeed, we have a written constitution unlike Britain. The fashionable schools of moral sentiment had a clear effect in the colonies but I still see the dedication to explicit law, rights, and principles as dominant. Besides, leaders of the Scottish school of moral sentiment, like David Hume, were Tories who opposed our Independence. Sentiment is fine but there's nothing like solid law.
Aristotle, like Cicero, discussed the virtue of liberality. For Aristotle one can fall short of the mark or exceed the mark. Hamburger’s following passage brings this to mind (P1261):
“the moral dangers of an undefined liberality could be a metaphor for the associated political risks. When, in the Constitutional Convention, Gouverneur Morris proposed that fourteen years of citizenship should be one of the qualifications for senators, james Madison objected because ‘it will give a tincture of illiberality to the Constitution’ ... Morris expostulated: ‘Liberal & illiberal--The terms are indefinite ... The Indians are the most liberal, because when a Stranger comes among them they offer him their wife and Daughters for his carnal amusement.” Morris defended his fourteen-year qualification ... “We should cherish the love of our country--This is a wholesome prejudice and is in favor of our Country--Foreigners will not learn our laws & Constitution under 14 years.”