Backcountry Freedom Ways: The Border Idea of Natural Liberty
said Woodrow Wilson: "In these mountains is the original stuff of which America was made"

The backsettlers, no less than other colonists in every part of British America, brought with them a special way of thinking about power and freedom, and a strong attachment to their liberties. As early as the middle decades of the eighteenth century their political documents contained many references to liberty as their British birthright. In 1768, the people of Mecklenberg County, North Carolina, declared, "We shall ever be more ready to support the government under which we find the most liberty."163

No matter whether they came from the England or Scotland or Ireland, their libertarian ideas were very much alike and profoundly different from notions of liberty that had been carried to Massachusetts, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The traveler Johann Schoepf was much interested in ideas of law and liberty which he found in the backcountry. "They shun everything which appears to demand of them law and order, and anything that preaches constraint," Schoepf wrote of the backsettlers. "They hate the name of a justice, and yet they are not transgressors. Their object is merely wild. Altogether, natural freedom . . . is what pleases them."164

This idea of "natural freedom" was widespread throughout the southern back settlements. But it was not a reflexive response to the "frontier" environment, nor was it "merely wild," as Schoepf believed. The backcountry idea of natural liberty was created by a complex interaction between the American environment and a European folk culture. It derived in large part from the British border country, where anarchic violence had long been a condition of life. The natural liberty of the borderers was an idea at once more radically libertarian, more strenuously hostile to ordering institutions than were the other cultures of British America.

In 1692, for example, a British borderer named Thomas Brockbank, who had been born and raised in the county of Westmorland, sent a letter to his parents on the subject of natural liberty. "Honored parents, " he wrote, "liberty is a thing which every animate creature does naturally desire, yea and even vegetables themselves also seem to have a great tendency towards it. But man, the perfection of the vast creation, who is endowed with a rational soul, does more eagerly pursue freedom, because he has knowledge and can give a just estimate of the true value thereof."165

In North Britain this idea of natural liberty as something which "every animate creature does naturally desire, yea and even vegetables themselves," was rapidly in process of decay during the eighteenth century. But in the hour of its extinction, it was carried to the American back settlements, where conditions conspired to give it new life. The remoteness of the population from centers of government and the absence of any material necessity for large-scale organization created an environment in which natural liberty flourished...

When backcountrymen moved west in search of that condition of natural freedom which Daniel Boone called "elbow room," they were repeating the thought of George Harrison, a North, Briton who declared in the borderlands during the seventeenth century that "every man at nature's table has a right to elbow room." The southern frontier provided space for the realization of this ideal, but it did not create it."166

This libertarian idea of natural freedom as "elbow room" was very far from the ordered freedom of New England towns, the hegemonic freedom of Virginia's county oligarchs, and the reciprocal freedom of Pennsylvania Quakers. Here was yet another freedom way which came to be rooted in the culture of an American region, where it flourished for many years to come.

Don't worry! I haven't left you alone in the Wilderness...