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The American founding fathers being members of the liberally educated, wealthy, land-owning gentry, their conception of Liberty was founded in the classical notions of Liberty as embodied in the Roman republic as well as the concept of liberty expounded upon by later European philosophers.

They founded a system of government modelled upon the consular system of the Roman Republic. In ancient Rome, the concept of Liberty was personified as the goddess ‘Libertas’ and statues of the goddess were made the object of worship (Wirszubski).

In ‘The Roman Revolution’, the historian Ronald Syme says:

“Libertas in Roman thought and usage had never quite meant unrestricted liberty; and the ideal which the word now embodied was the respect for constitutional forms” (Syme).

‘Respect for constitutional forms’ essentially means that the free citizens of Rome were not subject to arbitrary orders of an individual and any government regulation of the lives of the citizens had to go through the proper channels to be in effect.

Another aspect of the concept of liberty was the idea of liberty as ‘collective freedom’. According to this concept, the liberty of individual citizens depends upon not being subjected to any laws that they did not, collectively, approve of.

This was central to the argument against the imposition of taxes on the colonist by the British parliament. Since the people of the American colonies did not have any representatives in the British parliament, they argued that the parliament had no right to impose any taxes on them.

This concept too, had its roots in classical notions of liberty. In his ‘Speech on the Liberty of the Ancients and the Moderns’, Benjamin Constant says:

“[The liberty of the ancients] consisted in exercising collectively, but directly, several parts of the complete sovereignty; in deliberating, in the public square, over war and peace; in forming alliances with foreign governments; in voting laws, in pronouncing judgements; in examining the accounts, the acts, the stewardship of the magistrates; in calling them to appear in front of the assembled people, in accusing, condemning or absolving them.” (Constant)

The Roman concept of Liberty was not inconsistent with the presence of an underclass of people without any rights. Ancient Rome was a slave owning society; hence it is not surprising that most early American intellectuals did not find the institution of slavery to be incompatible with their rhetoric of liberty for all and equality of all men.

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