Individual Liberty

Monday, March 19, 2012

Individual liberty was treasured more than life by the Founding Fathers. Benjamin Franklin warned that “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” The founders knew that liberty could not be secured without law; they also amply realized the dangers of government oppression. That is why they established the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It is essential that we diligently preserve this inheritance of liberty for which the Founders pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.

The Constitution institutes trial by jury and habeas corpus, and forbids the passage of bills of attainder or ex-post-facto laws. Some of the founders, including Alexander Hamilton, objected to the addition of a bill of rights, claiming the addition unnecessary since no power was given by which restrictions could be imposed. Thomas Jefferson disagreed, “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular; and what no just government should refuse or rest on inference…I hope, therefore, a bill of rights will be formed, to guard the people against the federal government.” The Bill of Rights was added, protecting freedom of religion, speech, the press, peaceable assembly, and the right to keep and bear arms and to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Founders were certain that “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground” (Jefferson), so they etched the provisions of liberty in stone and warned their children to “guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches this jewel” (Patrick Henry).

Accountability to no one but God in matters of conscience (freedom of religion), willingness to take risks and bear responsibility for the results, self-reliance (using the right to keep and bear arms for hunting and self-defense), readiness to back ones own convictions against a majority (utilizing freedom of speech and the press), and willingness to cooperate with ones neighbors in peaceable assemblage are the workings which exercise a person’s moral sense of responsibility. Should our minds wax dull through lack of exercising our freedoms, we could not be expected to choose our leaders responsibly.

Jefferson gave three provisions for the preservation of liberty. First, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them…[The people] are the only sure reliance for the preservation of liberty.” Today, I must educate myself in the tradition of liberty by studying the works of Founding Fathers and books such as Democracy in America (Tocqueville) and The Law (Frederic Bastiat). I can share my love for liberty in essays, letters to editors, Facebook posts, emails, internet forums, and conversations in the living room, at youth rallies, or town hall meetings. Second, Jefferson said, “[The people] are our dependence for continued freedom. And to preserve their independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt…” I will set a good example by keeping my own budget balanced. As a new voter this election, I will support candidates who will substantially reduce the national debt, that “fore-horse of misery and oppression” (as Jefferson called it). Third, "Can the liberties of a nation be sure when we remove their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that these liberties are a gift from God?” Jefferson asked. This conviction that liberty is an unalienable right--a gift from God--prompted Patrick Henry to cry “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Only a moral people has the strength to sacrifice everything for liberty. I will trust in God. Finally, I will protest even the smallest infringement of liberty, for a small infringement is always the harbinger of a larger one. I will not support any legislation relieving individuals from personal responsibility; such legislation is anti-moral in effect and leads to an authoritarian government. Individuals tolerate difficulties if they have no one to blame but themselves. But if the government is responsible for providing healthcare and fails to provide efficiently; if the government is responsible for providing education and test scores drop; if the government is responsible for regulating business, instituting a minimum wage, and guaranteeing jobs and the people face chronic unemployment; if the government is responsible for stabilizing the economy and the economy is in the gutter, the people have no one to blame but the government. If the government fails, there will be discontent, protests, and perhaps revolution. The government will then be forced to marginalize individual liberties and will be rendered incapable of performing its basic duty, preserving justice.

"Posterity,” wrote John Adams, “you will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in heaven that ever I took half the pains to preserve it." Individual responsibility may sometimes be painful, but freedom is not available without it. In the words of Tocqueville: “What good does it do me, after all, if an ever-watchful authority keeps an eye out to ensure that my pleasures will be tranquil and races ahead of me to ward off all danger, sparing me the need even to think about such things, if that authority, even as it removes the smallest thorns from my path, is also absolute master of my liberty and my life; if it monopolizes vitality and existence to such a degree that when it languishes, everything must also sleep; and when it dies, everything must also perish.” We have no other choice, it’s liberty or death. Young people, Americans, let’s make good use of liberty. Let’s preserve liberty. Let’s make the Founding Fathers proud.

Many thanks to the Bill of Rights Institute for the great topic this year, and for permission to post my essay for the Being an American Essay Contest here!