The Essence of Liberty
By Douglas V. Gibbs
The convergence of political philosophies in our modern world has blurred the lines between them. Language has been altered to confuse the terms, and conceal the true nature of authoritarian concepts. The unique inherent complexion of the different philosophies have been lost, and it is in studying, and understanding, these various political principles that the path to an informed opinion regarding the various political philosophies emerges.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the distinction between communism, and our free society, was clear. The West enjoyed freedom, based on a representative system largely influenced by the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. The English-speaking world enjoyed prosperity, and the nations that were not under tyrannical rule found themselves emulating the American system of governance as best as they could. However, within the Free World, there were not only many versions of free societies, but dangerous deviations within those systems that mirrored more the authoritarian governments of Europe at the time of the forging of America, than of the system of limiting principles articulated by the Founding Fathers of the United States.
A lack of understanding was the primary culprit. Freedom is not just a coined term, or something that you achieve if you wish for it real hard. With freedom comes responsibility, in both the creation of a system that protects it, and the maintenance of such a system once it comes into being. Liberty requires diligent care applied by an informed populace.
Strong government has been the unfortunate norm in history. Once government begins to grow, it expands continuously, only halting if forced to do so. As a government increases in size, and expands its intrusion into the lives of the citizens, individual freedom decreases, and eventually liberty becomes nothing more than a distant desire that seems too far off in the distance to ever be reached. Tyranny provides a stark reminder that in order for a society to be free, the government must be limited in its scope, and powers.
James Madison, often referred to as the Father of the United States Constitution, recognized the dangers of government. A central government always eventually becomes a tyranny, but without government, there is no freedom, either. In an anarchy, as the chaos reaches a crescendo, the people cry out for order, and a powerful few are always happy to grab the reins. Those powerful few always end up ruling in a totalitarian manner, reminding us that no government provides no freedom, and is nothing more than a transition to tyranny.
Regarding the dangers, and the necessity, of having a government, James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
The rule of law, as revealed with the writing of the Magna Carta over five hundred years before, works best when in a written form. A contract was needed. If the law is merely passed by word of mouth, it changes, and can be manipulated. Unwritten law evolves, living and breathing with the whims of society, until the law itself becomes a motto point, and a tyranny takes control, and rules with their own version of the law. Altering the law by those seeking tyrannical power is less likely if the law is in a written constitution. This does not mean that tyranny will not try to change the rule of law into the rule of man, but the likelihood of success by these tyrants would remain small. The law being in writing, however, is not enough. To protect the system the people also need to be informed, and vigilant.
The essence of freedom is the reality of a limited government. As long as the citizens understand this, the danger of an ever-expanding government can be kept in check.
When those seeking power are able to convince the people that the electorate can vote gifts to themselves from the treasury, and when the politicians offer gifts from the treasury to gain the vote of the people, the limitations on government are no longer an obstacle, and the constitutional vision of the founders is in jeopardy.
As freedom erodes, the community becomes more important than the individual. The rulers proclaim that their executive actions are for the common good, to protect the community from the greed and excesses of selfish individuals, and it is their aim to make everything fair and equitable. Individual rights lose ground to special interests, and civil society is weakened as all aspects of life become politicized. Groups are identified, and dissenters are targeted. Polarization is released to run amok, and government uses the crises to foment division, and to become more powerful.
James Madison recognized that government attracts those with a lust for power, and that the essence of government itself is power. He said, “The essence of government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
After forming a weak government under the Articles of Confederation, the fledgling United States needed a powerful lion to protect, preserve, and promote the union of sovereign states. The new federal government needed to be powerful when handling the external issues, while absent, or nothing more than a mediator, when it came to local issues. The problem with lions, however, is that they have a tendency to want to eat you. So how could the founders create a lion that could be unleashed against enemies of the union of states, yet restrained when it came to the internal issues of the new country? To keep the lion restrained, it would need to be caged, or chained. These limitations were the essence of the principles that went into the writing of the United States Constitution. It was a way to reduce as much as possible the potential abuse of governmental power, while protecting individual rights to life, liberty, and property.
Thomas Jefferson, though not present at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, recognized the brilliance of the document. He first viewed it while in France, and sent back to the states his resounding approval. Later, he said of the limiting principles in the Constitution, “The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first.”
The goal of the Founding Fathers was to create a structure of government that would protect individuality, natural rights, and property, while also standing the test of time. The demise of civilizations, historically, were the result of tyranny, so to protect the free society in the United States into the future, the government must be limited, and it must be maintained by an informed people.
“In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” – Thomas Jefferson
The Constitution, however, was only one piece of the puzzle. Without an informed people to defend it, the Constitution is nothing more than ink and paper. James Madison wisely observed, “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.”
Without being educated regarding American exceptionalism, and the principles of the Constitution, the American People would surely lead themselves, one day in the future, to bondage. Without being informed, the people would not even be able to recognize tyranny. They would mistake it for freedom, and believe the manipulated language presented to them. We The People would surely, if not properly educated about the principles of limited government, fall for the idea that government can provide utopia. . . if only you are willing to give up your freedom.
George Washington recognized the necessity for the citizenry to be properly educated, and went even further by articulating that we must educate the younger generation regarding the principles of freedom, limited government, and our constitution. He said, “A primary object. . . should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing. . . than communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”
Thomas Jefferson believed that often the people would be led astray. He believed it was possible that to alter or abolish a tyrannical system, we may need to fight a bloody revolution every twenty years! Jefferson also recognized that in the end, with liberty implanted in them as an inheritance, even if led astray, the people would find their way. He said, “The good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray, for a moment, but will soon correct themselves.”
Correcting ourselves is our God-given right. As a friend once told me, “Nobody deserves tyranny.”
In the Declaration of Independence, in the second paragraph, our duty, and right, to take action in the face of tyranny, is clear. The first paragraph sets up that right, rightfully stating that it sometimes becomes necessary to take action against a tyrannical government. The Declaration reads, “. . . to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form.”
Government is necessary. Madison regarded it as self-evident “that persons and property are the two great subjects on which Governments are to act; and that the rights of persons, and the rights of property, are the objects, for the protection of which Government was instituted.”
Divine Providence was the centerpiece of the view of the founders. Through Divine Providence, the English Colonies defeated the most powerful military force in the world, and through Divine Providence, the greatest constitution in history was written after about four months of grueling debate. Benjamin Franklin, likely the least religious of the delegates, recognized God’s Hand in the forging of this nation, and was not afraid to voice his opinion on the matter after the first few weeks of debate during the federal convention of 1787 was yielding little by way of results.
The new nation needed solutions, and the men present were arguing over matters that would not matter if the country collapsed. The elder statesman, Benjamin Franklin, who had been watching the tumultuous beginnings of the convention with patience, and in silence, spoke up. “Gentlemen, we are missing something.”
Franklin knew that in order to move forward the battling delegates needed to find a common bond that was both inspirational, and demanded virtuous action. He reminded the delegates of the Revolutionary War, and how all odds were against the states that had united for war defeating the mightiest war power on Earth. Yet, with the Hand of Divine Providence guiding them, and protecting them, the newly formed union of states defeated the British, and stood at the gateway of an exceptional existence. But as those men were fighting over the dangers, and benefits, of a central government, they had forgotten to place the proceedings in the Hands of God.
Benjamin Franklin recounted all of the miracles of America, and explained how after four or five weeks of bickering, and disagreements, on virtually every issue brought to the floor, no matter how minor, it simply proved that human understanding is imperfect. He commented on how they had studied history for examples of good and bad government, including the different forms of republics. He went on to talk about the laborious research they had engaged in, looking at the current systems of government throughout Europe. No system studied, however, was perfectly suitable for the needs of the fledgling United States.
Even with all of that research, Franklin observed, they were still unable to find the political truth they sought. How is it that they could not find the answer? Could it be that something was missing?
Should they, perhaps, humbly appeal to The Creator? Should they not consult the “Father of lights to illuminate our understandings?”
The American Revolution was a dangerous undertaking. The founders, Franklin reminded the delegates, were on their knees in daily prayer. The prayers were heard, for only His Favor could account for their victory.
Franklin said that they were “consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance?”
Benjamin Franklin was not known to be a religious man, and he admitted that in his younger years he did not give much thought to the credence of the existence of God. But, as he had grown older, his observations were telling him otherwise. To explain this, Franklin said, “I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth- that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”
Without God, he assured his fellow delegates, “We labor in vain.” Without God, the government formed by the convention would fail. Without God they would be divided, bickering over little partial local interests. Without God, the greatness that could be the United States would be lost to future generations.
Benjamin Franklin, the celebrated “deist,” then recommended that they pray before each session of the convention.
After the motion was seconded, an interesting development occurred.
Alexander Hamilton, and a number of others that shared his political views, after Mr. Franklin’s proposal was seconded, expressed their apprehensions about praying before each session of the convention. Hamilton believed the Constitution was limiting the authorities of the federal government too much, and now was bothered that God was going to be inserted into the convention. Like the Democrat Party during their convention of 2012, the statists in the convention were not sure they desired that God be a part of their platform.
In the end, the delegates decided that no clergy could be hired, partly due to a lack of funds, and therefore a formal prayer before each session of the Constitutional Convention was not possible. Nonetheless, refusing to allow that to stop them from seeking God’s Will before continuing, the delegates walked to the nearest church, and congregated there for a prayer.
Later in America’s journey, based on Franklin’s request, the tradition of prayer before each session of Congress was initiated.
In the opinion of a majority of the founders, Divine Providence was an important key to the success of America, and was an integral part of the essence of freedom.
In the view of the Founding Fathers, limitations on the government, the preservation of individualism, and a reliance on Divine Providence, were inseparable from justice (defined as “rules of just conduct,” not a sanctioned distribution of income) and liberty. Without that combination, the security of personal property, and natural rights, would be in danger. “That alone is a just government,” wrote Madison, “which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.”
The United States of America was founded upon the concept of classical-liberalism, which is consistent with limited government and the rule of law. The essence of liberty was recognized in the limitations of government, in a system where checks and balances defended individuality, personal rights, and property, while preventing corruption, and providing a sound foundation for the emergence of a spontaneous free market that spawned wealth creation, and individual opportunity.
Until we recognize that the Constitution is the solution, and it provides the most sound system of governance when it comes to a long-run viewpoint, rather than what we see emerging where the majority rules through a purely democratic system, we run the risk of losing our liberty. An informed electorate, by taking a long-run view, and exercising their original authority through the sovereignty of their States, will protect and preserve individualism, and be more aware of the political tides. Understanding the essence of liberty makes us more likely to recognize the constitutional limits that insulate economic life from politics and prevent free-loader behavior that embraces the redistribution of wealth, rather than the creation of wealth through a free market system.
For the essence of liberty to prevail, government must be limited, and just. The security of individualism, natural rights, and property must take precedence over political philosophies, and the misguided desire of the ruling elite to engage in social engineering.
The essence of liberty is found in the limitations of government, and a limited government promotes economic freedom, the rule of law, and the preservation of the rights of the people.
Without limitations on government, the essence of liberty will become nothing more than a memory of freedom.
Douglas V. Gibbs
Doug V. Gibbs is a longtime Internet radio host, conservative political activist, writer and commentator; he is the host of Constitution Radio and teaches weekly classes on the Constitution in Southern California. Follow him @douglasvgibbs.
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