Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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The Founders on Liberty and Freedom

Today, liberty and freedom are used almost interchangeably.  In fact, a modern American hears the term freedom more frequently because liberty has become somewhat outmoded.  The Founders viewed these two concepts as very different. In their minds, man granted freedom to his fellow man, but liberty came from a higher authority. Every human was endowed with natural rights and the free exercise of those rights was called liberty.   On the other hand, a person released from slavery or indentured servitude became a free person.

The history of the world is not solely about rulers, it’s also about people striving and fighting for liberty.  Our sense of natural rights is deep inside all of us.  Even when rulers rule with an iron fist, liberty is kept alive through stories about heroes who fight against oppression and win.  Stories often remind society of first principles and give hope until a leader comes along that can help them to recover their unalienable rights.

What would the Founders think about liberty?  Here is what they said in their own words:

In Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power. America has set the example … of charters of power granted by liberty. — James Madison

Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free. — Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 8

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty or safety.  —Benjamin Franklin

The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. — James Madison

If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home from us in peace. We seek not your counsel, nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you; and posterity forget that ye were our countrymen. — Samuel Adams

[A] dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants. — Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 1

Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’, because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual. — Thomas Jefferson

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests. — James Madison, Federalist 10

Liberty, once lost, is lost forever. — John Adams

James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Look for his forthcoming book, Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic.

1 comment

1 Steve McCarthy { 12.12.13 at 9:19 pm }

Thomas Jefferson is so tired of turning over in his grave, as are most of the founding fathers, but finally they found some peace in that the very same things they warned about are now the law of the land Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm., 558 U.S. 310 (2010)


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