Personal Liberty

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This chapter explores the contested concept of personal liberty in American public life during the long nineteenth century. A set of legal protections inherited from England and enshrined by American revolutionaries in state and federal constitutions, personal liberty over time became a powerful language that stirred and structured Americans’ struggles over the democratic state. Focusing on conflicts over impressment, fugitive slave laws, and prohibitory liquor laws, this essay reveals how politicos, reformers, antireformers, and others trumpeted personal liberty to legitimate the extension and limitation of state power and mobilize public support for their legal and political agendas. In these ways, personal liberty became an essential language fueling American democracy in its most formative period.




Volk, K. G. (2023). Personal Liberty. In Democracies in America: Keywords for the Nineteenth Century and Today (pp. 24–34). Oxford University Press.

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