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The American Debate and the Invention of Negative Liberty

38 Pages Posted: 5 Sep 2010  

Yiftah Elazar

Princeton University

Date Written: September 2, 2010


The argument that the idea of liberty is “negative” first appeared in the work of three 18th century utilitarian writers – Jeremy Bentham, John Lind, and Richard Hey – who were all involved in arguing against the American Revolution. Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit have suggested that the utilitarians revived the Hobbesian notion of freedom and utilized it against the neo-classical conception of freedom that was employed in support of the American cause.

While acknowledging the similarity between the Hobbesian definition of liberty and the eighteenth century utilitarian definition of liberty, the paper argues for the uniqueness of the latter. Hobbes was arguing for an absolute monarchy, while the eighteenth century utilitarians shared with most advocates of the American cause a respect for the British mixed constitution. In contrast to Hobbes, the utilitarians had an idea of civil or political liberty that included some form of security against the arbitrary will of the government, and they shared the neo-classical idea that protecting the liberty of individuals in society requires a free constitution of government.

The paper argues that the utilitarian invention of negative liberty should be understood in the context of a debate in which neo-classical assumptions about freedom and government were, to some extent, shared, and the question at the heart of the debate was the question of democratic participation.

Keywords: Bentham, Lind, Hey, Price, liberty, freedom, negative liberty

Suggested Citation

Elazar, Yiftah, The American Debate and the Invention of Negative Liberty (September 2, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Yiftah Elazar (Contact Author)

Princeton University ( email )

22 Chambers Street
Princeton, NJ 08544
United States

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