Guest Post: In Memoriam: Michal Jan Rozbicki

In today’s guest post, Cho-Chien Feng, a PhD candidate at Saint Louis University, remembers his late advisor, Michal Jan Rozbicki, and his last book, Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011). Before Rozbicki began his twenty-seven tenure at Saint Louis University in 1992, he served as Director of the American Studies Center at Warsaw University. His first book on early America, The Complete Colonial Gentleman: Cultural Legitimacy in Plantation America, was published in 1998. He passed away on July 31, 2019.

Professor Michal Jan Rozbicki passed away on July 31, 2019 after retiring from teaching this June. As a student of his, I would like to take this opportunity to revisit his contributions to the early American history and hopefully stimulate some further reflections or conversations. In the summer of 2011, when I went to New York to conduct research for my master’s thesis, I found his book, Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution, in a bookstore. After reading few pages, I was so attracted by his ideas and viewpoints that I knew I wanted to contact this author and see if I could be his student. That was what I did, and that was how I came to Saint Louis.

He was a very kind person who always cared about his students and people around him. I did not get any funding when I was admitted to this program. Even before we met in person, I wrote an email to him and asked if there was any funding opportunity. He was very kind and found an assistantship opportunity for me. His kind effort made it possible for me to pursue doctoral degree. This assistantship also offered me an opportunity to work closely with him for five years at the Center for Intercultural Studies at Saint Louis University. Knowing that I am a poor graduate student with wife and two kids, he has given me Christmas gifts every year and holiday cards in all major holidays. When my youngest son was born last summer, he gave us a box of new cloth for newborn baby.

He was also a humble man who rarely boasted his past accomplishments unless it became necessary to do so. He not only wrote about history, but he was also a participant of history. I did not know that he participated the student movement against the Polish Communist government until we chatted about the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. He expressed his concern on the safety of those students, because he was one of them when he was a young student in Poland and he knew very well how dangerous it could be. He never told me until I heard from his other friends that he wrote speeches for Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. When I asked him, he then told me that he wrote Walesa’s 1989 speech in U.S. Congress. Until then I had no idea that my advisor was such an active player in history.  

We had extensive conversations on my dissertation, on historical research in general, on politics, and on human nature. He always challenged my thoughts and encouraged me to do the same thing to him. His wisdom has been a great inspiration for me. Before his passing, I had an opportunity to co-teach with him a U.S. history survey course in the spring, learn from him as a teacher, and exchange pedagogical ideas with him. I didn’t always agree with him, but I learned so much from him, and he helped me to expand my views and perspectives. Dr. Rozbicki was a great man, a marvelous advisor, and a profound mentor to his students.

His passing signifies that it might be the right time to revisit his groundbreaking book, published by the University of Virginia Press in 2011, and to discuss how this book provides a potential direction to renew our understanding of how liberty, or even other political and ideological terms, functioned during and after the American Revolution.

Rozbicki’s argument in Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution proposed that liberty should not be treated as a timeless concept of rights but should be examined as an array of privileges demonstrating the contemporary social relations. He said that his book is not a history of liberty in the age of the American Revolution, but a book about the history of liberty in the age of the American Revolution. It was more concerned with “extending our knowledge about the various modes of liberty’s existence in the minds and experiences of eighteenth century actors.” His intention was to “recover the contemporary meaning of liberty,” and in the process suggest “revising some of the ways we currently understand the founding of the nation.”(1) He maintained that political theory and philosophical ideas were only some of the many bodies of knowledge that constitute the reality of the contemporary meanings of liberty. (14) Many researchers of political thought failed to think of liberty in its cultural context. He maintained that, to properly study liberty, one should pay attention to two dimensions of liberty. The first is the exercise of power through culture, and through the ownership of liberty and ability to define its public meaning. And the second is the peculiar existence of liberty in this era as an intricate synthesis of political practices and symbolic forms.(2) The former dimension is political and the latter is cultural. This book bridges the gap between these two categories and offers a deep explanation of the transformation and function of liberty in shaping the political rhetoric of the American Revolution and the founding of the new nation.

Rozbicki reminded his readers that, “Early modern liberty was a social relation between unequals, and as such could not have existed in and of itself as an abstract right, nor should it be examined as such.” Therefore, scholars should rest their account of Revolutionary liberty on the relationship between “those who enjoyed the full privileges of freedom and those who held only a few, or none.” (2-3) The concept of liberty in that specific culture was relative in the sense that it reflected the unequal social relations among people, and it was also absolute as it demonstrated the fixed power relations among people unless such relations were challenged. Rozbicki also pointed out that “liberty exists in society at the factual and the symbolic levels simultaneously.” (3) These two levels were not separate or exclusive, but actually interacted with each other. He argued that the invention of ideas preceded the exercise of the idea in that culture, and further claimed that the changes in the meaning of liberty were not to replace the original meaning of liberty with one antithetical to it, but to expend the meaning along with the “slow and protracted transformation of culture.” (237)  In this process, elites claimed the symbolic meaning of liberty while they still believed the ownership of liberty should be based on rank. However, those emerging symbolic meanings later were adopted by other elites and non-elites as well to claim broader definitions and practices of liberty.

Rozbicki asserted that the old meaning of liberty was renounced during the Revolution and replaced by a much more universal and socially progressive understanding. (78) He pointed out that the Founders created a persuasive narrative of the Revolution, which was a great contribution for future generations. The conflict with Britain forced the provincial ruling class to examine the public portrait of freedom “in ways they might otherwise not have done.” Rozbicki claimed that in this imperial conflict, the Founders skillfully transformed the conflict over taxes into a struggle for the universal right of freeborn Britons, thus, the Founders made the conflict become a universal battle between liberty and tyranny. (80) A local and limited issue thus became a universal issue.

Rozbicki also argued that the concept of liberty had been changed during the process of the Revolution. The idea of the ruling class was more conservative in the beginning; however, as they utilized more popular, universal language of liberty, the term gained a more radical symbolic meaning. The right of liberty was enjoyed by elites, and the radicalization of the idea extend the realms of the right of liberty. Rozbicki stated, “What started as an ideological device to discredit the English aristocracy’s unelected rule, ultimately ended up putting a ceiling on the authority of the republican gentry.” He further argued that it “contributed to a gradual breakdown of deference to privileged elites.” “Anti-aristocratism, a countercultural device used to undercut the authority of the British ruling class” eventually “returned to haunt its authors.” (104-5)

The Constitution of the United States began with “we the people,” but who were the “people?” Or more specifically, who were the “people” that authorized the Constitution Convention to frame this constitution? In the fight against Britain, the Patriots allied themselves with this abstract concept “people.” Although it was not the social reality in the Revolutionary era, Rozbicki pointed out that “its contribution to the fashioning of a new cultural and intellectual habitat for liberty cannot be overstated.” In the conclusion of the “Revolution” chapter, Rozbicki maintained that the revolutionary leaders were all aware that equal rights “were more figurative and symbolic than factual.” (126) Furthermore, he asserted that to realize why the dual elitist and democratic thrusts within Revolutionary political discourse could move along in parallel and lead to different outcomes, we have to understand that the vision emanating from the political class could play “not only a conservative but also a dramatically progressive role in shaping the American ethos.” Its success lay in opening the doors to a wide range of claims of rights, such as the abolition of slavery and the feminist movement. The revolutionary ideology provided them a lexicon to articulate their interests and ambitions. (130-1) The symbolic meaning of liberty deriving from the Revolutionary language with time took on a factional meaning as the cultural change necessary for such transformation happened. 

In the American Revolution, Rozbicki claimed that “the emergence of freedom was not just a response to unfreedom; it was an outcome of the practices of the ruling class, because they were already the most free, they held cultural authority, and they were able not only to circumscribe particular liberties but also bestow worth and reputation on them.” (236) Rozbicki called upon scholars to rethink the cultural influence on the development of the concept of liberty. Ultimately, he asserted, “the full beauty and richness of liberty lay not in the discovery of some timeless, cosmic rule of universally equal rights, but in the perennially human tension between the privileged and unprivileged.” He further elucidated that, “the history of early modern American freedom was not a story of attacks on the exclusive club of owners of liberty in order to destroy it or replace it with an entirely new one. Rather, it was a lengthy chronicle of diverse groups pounding at the gates and demanding membership.” (238)  

Such a methodology bridges political, cultural, and intellectual history and could be helpful as we explore the transformation of meanings of other political terms in the age of the American Revolution and beyond. It changes our understanding of how ideas develop and function in culture and society. It explains how and why the same term could generate different meanings, be adapted to diverse political ideologies, and be applied to divergent practices throughout the time and even within a specific period. Therefore, Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution is not only a book for our understanding of liberty in the American Revolution, but also could be a tool, if we understand it correctly, for us to explore the intellectual and cultural history of early America more broadly.

Editor’s Note: Historically Speaking 13, no. 2 (2012) featured a roundtable on Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution with contributions from Peter Onuf, Alan Tully, and Trevor Burnard.


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