Milestones in the History of the Free Society—and Prospects for Perpetuation

The Annual James Madison Program May Conference

May 20, 2013
May conference 2013 poster

Keynote Address by Harvey C. MansfieldWilliam R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government, Harvard University

Free societies are apt to have milestones in a way that other societies do not.  All societies experience change, and it is always possible to identify especially important moments in their histories.  Nevertheless, the free society unleashes a kind of social dynamism that generates history, and milestones in that history, in a more emphatic sense.  Unfree societies aspire to and tend to foster preservation, especially of the existing hierarchy of authority.  Stability is central, and change peripheral, to such societies.  But the dynamism of the free society generates social development and an expectation of dramatic social change over time, such that it becomes possible to speak of the history of that development and the milestones in that history. Its members use the freedom it provides to demand and win new freedoms.  This change, however, almost always turns out to be controversial within the free society itself.  Some members view its changing conceptions of freedom as progress, others as decay.  Thus the dynamism of the free society can never be viewed unambiguously as a pure sign of its flourishing, but can also be viewed as endangering its perpetuation.  In other words, the milestones in the history of the free society will tend to be controversial even among those most committed to the free society.  

With a view to understanding this tension between progress and perpetuation in the free society, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and the Association for the Study of Free Institutions are pleased to offer a conference entitled “Milestones in the History of the Free Society—And Prospects for Perpetuation.”  The program includes scholars from a variety of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities speaking on issues relating to this theme.  We seek to address a number of questions.  Can the welfare state that has emerged in the free society be maintained as it currently exists, or must it be reformed in order to be preserved?  Is the welfare state an unadulterated achievement of the free society, or does it somehow sap the foundations of freedom?  Is the transformation of morals and manners over the last two centuries an expansion of individual freedom that should be celebrated, or does it mark a decline in ethical discipline and hence a threat to the free society?  Does the free society depend on a certain conception of marriage, or does it express its freedom precisely in permitting a multiplicity of views of what marriage is?  What is the role of political and social authority in the free society?  Have free societies experienced a decline in deference to authority, and if so, is such a decline an improvement in the free society or a threat to its long-term health?  In the United States, is the modern Supreme Court an agent of progress, or has its aggressive use of the judicial power gone beyond what is appropriate to a free and self-governing people?  Is the Constitution of the United States a permanently valuable charter of the free society, or do the structures and procedures it codifies impede further progress in freedom?  Finally, and most generally, by what standards are we to judge what is progress and what is decay, what perfects the free society and what undermines it?

See Schedule for Full Panelist Listing and Session Times.

Video recording is not available for the final panel. We apologize for any inconvenience.


Presentation to Harvey C. Mansfield of 2013 James Q. Wilson Award for Distinguished Scholarship on the Nature of a Free Society

The Welfare State at 80: Perils and Prospects

Manners, Morals, Marriage, and the Free Society (on the Bicentennial of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)

The Cultural Revolution and the Eclipse of Authority (on the 50th Anniversary of the Assassination of John F . Kennedy)

The Supreme Court and Social Progress: Roe v. Wade at 40


Lewis Library 120

Cosponsored by:

  • The Association for the Study of Free Institutions, University of Nebraska at Omaha

Photo Album:

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