Thoughts on Independence Day Posted by: McQ
on Tuesday, July 04, 2006
As we’ll hear today, there will be numerous tributes to this nation on its birthday. And that is as it should be. Whether satisfied or not with how the country today is a reflection of the Founder’s intent, the nation we all live in is still a modern miracle, in relative terms, of freedom and liberty.
But before we celebrate the holiday with the traditional fireworks displays, picnics and family gatherings, it might be helpful to revisit the words of our Founders on various subjects. While the celebration we’ll each enjoy today is perfectly warranted, thinking about the way our nation started, the wisdom of the Founders and the warnings they left us in their words is also a worthwhile endeavor for the day.
Libertarians are often accused of being out of the mainstream and living in a world which can’t or doesn’t exist. But as you review these quotes, consider their ideological bent in the context of the times and you’ll discover the very same thing could have been said about many of our Founders.
For instance, James Madison on government:
“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
James Madison also remarked on another threat to our liberty:
“If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy. “
He restated the point in another quote:
”It is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.”
Thus stated in the 18th century is the premise of George Orwell’s famous “1984”.
These ideas ring just as true today as they did then. Madison’s point is about the inherent nature of government, not about foreign wars. This isn’t to cite any particular thing today as a threat to our liberty, but to point out that the threat for such abuse existed and was recognized when Madison lived and it certainly hasn’t diminished since. It is a call to vigilance and a warning to exercise it constantly. The fact that, for the most part, we’ve done so over the years is a testament to our system and our desire to maintain our liberty. It also means that we must continue to exercise it constantly, especially today.
Government is an instrument. And it should be the instrument of the governed and not that of an elite. Alexander Hamilton knew the innate danger to be found in any government:
“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.”
The only way to ensure government would control itself was to limit its ability to do otherwise. And the instrument chosen for that control was the Constitution of the United States. It establishes the foundational principle of the rule of law, and the Founders believed that the rule of law was the most important and best way to ensure the equitable rule of men over men and to oblige government to control itself. Hamilton explored that point when he said:
“A large and well-organized republic can scarcely lose its liberty from any other cause than that of anarchy, to which a contempt of laws is the high-road. ... A sacred respect for the constitutional law is the vital principle, the sustaining energy of a free government. ... The instruments by which it must act are either the authority of the laws, or force. If the first be destroyed, the last must be substituted; and where this becomes the ordinary instrument of government, there is an end to liberty”.
The concept of limited government was established to guarantee and guard our liberty and it wasn’t and isn’t a modern libertarian or conservative idea. Thomas Jefferson specifically voiced that principle in his day:
“A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor and bread it has earned - this is the sum of good government.”
Limited government of a very specific type was very important to our Founders because of the lessons of history and their experience. Jefferson pointed that principle out as well:
“Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”
Again, the purpose of this is not to intimate anything specifically about current conditions or events. It is to provide you with something to think about with the hot dogs and fireworks today. Take a moment, consider the real dream that those who pledged their “lives,” their “fortunes” and their “sacred honor” to establish in this country and where we are today.
Liberty is a precious and perishable right. It is something each of us should guard jealously. It is something for which we should be willing to fight. And if not, it is something we really don’t deserve. Again turning to a couple of Jefferson quotes:
“I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”
As do I. And that includes both domestically and in foreign affairs.
However, we still have work to do:
“I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”
Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter—with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens—a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.
If you want to read even more hard-core libertarian stuff, try the Radical Whigs whose writings helped inspire anti-Royalist activism in the American colonies. Paine is good, too. When the Clintonistas tried to use the Oklahoma City bombings and the Militia Menace to combat "hate" (i.e., pro-freedom anti-statist) speech, I used to wonder: "Have these people never heard of Tom Paine?" Paine made Rush Limbaugh sound like Deepak Chopra.
Paine’s "Common Sense" was the original literary spark of the American Revolution, and it is as least as important, now. Everyone should learn it and know it.
The Anti-Federalists don’t get their due at all, anymore. Melancton Smith (New York), Patrick Henry (of course, Virginia), "Brutus" (published in the New York Journal (October 1787-April 1788 and variously attributed to Robert Yates or Thomas Treadwell), and "The Address And Reasons of Dissent of the Minority of the Convention of Pennsylvania To Their Constituents" (1787) are all still as intellectually vital as ever, even if almost nobody knows them. Post-Resvolutionary literature is rife with anti-Federalist reasoning, and there has never been a better time in American history to pay attention to it.