Happily for America, happily we trust for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution that has no parallel in the annals of human society. . . . In Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power. America has set the example . . . of charters of power granted by liberty. James Madison
Throughout history, small groups of men with political power have controlled the masses of men by force. On every continent, stretching back through the centuries, the pattern was essentially the same — a pharaoh, king, emperor or dictator had ultimate control over the lives and fortunes of his subservient followers. The underlings were taught that their proper role was to serve those in power. Whatever small freedoms the common men had were considered to be gifts from the sovereign — gifts which could be taken away if the sovereign chose to do so.
Then, in eighteenth-century America, a group of enlightened men turned the world upside down. They instituted a government that was subordinate to the people. They believed that whatever powers a government has are granted by the people. Government exists to serve the people. People do not live to serve the government.
They said that each man owned his own life and could act freely in peaceful pursuit of his own happiness. They called the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness “unalienable” — that is, that they are not gifts of government and may not legitimately be taken away. They stated that the sole purpose of a moral government was to secure these fundamental and inherent rights. Thus, they wrote a constitution that was intended to limit strictly the power of government over the lives of free men.
This was the only political revolution in history that was truly revolutionary. It was a total break with the principle that men are mere pawns in the grand design of those in power. It offered a radical new political system. Other revolutions had merely produced a new tyrant — simply a new person to exercise control over men. The true revolution was the one that openly questioned the control.
Eighteenth-century Americans lived and died in the spirit of liberty. Virginian Richard Henry Lee said, “The first maxim of a man who loves liberty should be never to grant to rulers an atom of power that is not most clearly and indispensably necessary for the safety and well being of society.”
Boston preacher Samuel Stillman said, “We are engaged in a most important contest; not for power but for freedom. We mean not to change our masters, but to secure to ourselves and to generations, yet unborn, the perpetual enjoyment of civil and religious liberty, in their fullest extent.”
Even small encroachments on liberty were met with defiance. When the Stamp Act was passed in 1765 — an act which levied only a very small tax on certain transactions — the strength of the resistance forced a repeal of the law in less than a year. A prominent Boston preacher, Jonathan Mayhew, said that while a few people quietly accepted the stamp tax, most Americans “were firmly united in a consistent . . . plan, to run all risks, to tempt all hazards, to go all lengths, if things were driven to extremity, rather than to submit; preferring death itself to what they esteemed so wretched and inglorious a servitude.”
And we all know how the Sons of Liberty reacted to a two-cent tax on tea. They took their rights — their liberty — seriously. They knew that when a tyrant gets his foot in the door, the rest of the beast is sure to follow. As George Washington said in 1774, “The crisis is arrived when we must assert our rights or submit to every imposition which can be heaped upon us, till custom and use shall make us . . . slaves.”
The contempt felt for those who would not fight for their own liberty was expressed by Samuel Adams: “If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.”
Imagine that men from that era were observing us today. They would see that we send up to 50% of our income to different levels of government, and we are told that this is not sufficient — that our duty is to sacrifice more. (Consider this shocking fact: the colonists paid approximately 1% of their incomes in taxes!) They would see an incredible number of regulations on all types of domestic and foreign commerce. They would see an immense army of bureaucrats to enforce the regulations and another army of real soldiers residing more or less permanently in other countries. It would be clear to them that Jefferson’s statement is unfortunately still true that “even under the best forms [of government] those entrusted with power have, in time and by slow operation, perverted it into tyranny.”
The biggest surprise to our observers would not be that those in power seek to expand their power. They would have expected that. The biggest surprise would be the degraded state of many Americans who have lost the stature that comes from taking responsibility for one’s own life. They would see millions of dependent creatures, comfortable in their dependency, crouching and licking the hands that feed them, and begging for more, asking only that the benefits they get are paid for by the sacrifices of other people.
Can any of us deny that the citizens are primarily to blame for the erosion of their own liberties? Most are traveling the road to serfdom willingly. But the road goes nowhere new. It leads only to the same forms of tyranny that have characterized most societies in history.
There is liberty . . . and there are thousands of forms of tyranny. There are men’s rights . . . and thousands of rationalizations for violating them. When it comes to liberty, everything but the real thing is the wrong thing. We must accept no substitutes.