October 12th, 2007

Our Collective Duty to Safeguard Liberty


photo credit: harmony19490

The responsibility to safeguard liberty and keep the government in check belongs to each citizen of this nation. No true patriot nor concerned citizen should ever outsource, delegate, or shirk such a duty. This duty requires that we not only fight to ensure our own personal liberty, but that of each person entitled to it.

A troubling sentiment exists whenever people dismiss the situation of another person whose Constitutionally guaranteed liberties are being abused, simply because it’s not happening to them. One such example is the case of José Padilla, where one person suffered the effects of a loss of liberty once guaranteed to every person in this nation. The important thing to realize, however, is that what happens to one can happen to all.

Perhaps the best expression of such an outcome is found in the infamous poem “First they came…” by Pastor Martin Niemöller. Summarizing the inactivity and apathy of some Germans following the Nazi’s rise to power and elimination of their enemies, Niemöller’s words express why each citizen should be alarmed at the infringement of the liberty of any other citizen:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

While the Holocaust is an extreme example in citizen inaction regarding such autocratic advances, the lesson to be learned is that the onus of speaking out rests with each of us. We cannot remain idle while the rule of law is broken, even in a single instance. So said James Madison:

It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The freemen of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. (James Madison, via Quoty)

The “first experiment on our liberties” has happened. In some cases it has happened slowly, and in others it has come by surprise.

The responsibility to safeguard liberty and ensure that government officials operate within their enumerated powers is an arduous and never-ending task, one that naturally leads to indifference and inaction. For this reason, liberty slowly withers away. But we as citizens must not falter in our duty, for the struggle for power continues on each day:

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty—power is ever stealing from the many to the few…. The hand entrusted with power becomes … the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot: only by unintermitted Agitation can a people be kept sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity. (Wendell Phillips, via Quoty)

Much like we are counseled to “seek first to obtain [God’s] word” before preaching it, so too we should take it upon ourselves to intensely and throughly understand just what our liberties are:

One who knows not what his rights are can never know when they are taken and is unable to defend them. He is like a man who believes he owns a piece of ground which his neighbor also claims, but he doesn’t know its boundaries. The neighbor continues to encroach further and further onto land he suspects is his, but since he is never certain where the boundary is, he cannot check the advance. Until he takes a firm position and says: “this far and no further,” there is no line. (H. Verlan Andersen, via Quoty)

Knowing what our liberties are, however, is not enough. Daniel Webster once said that “God grants liberty only to those who love it and are always ready to guard and defend it.” While God does grant liberty to each person, wicked men can suppress such liberty and deny a person his rights, especially a person who does not fully understand them.

Our Constitution was designed to severely limit the scope and power of government, while securing and protecting individual liberty. Bastiat described the nature of that liberty afforded us:

Actually, what is the political struggle that we witness? It is the instinctive struggle of all people toward liberty. And what is this liberty, whose very name makes the heart beat faster and shakes the world? Is it not the union of all liberties — liberty of conscience, of education, of association, of the press, of travel, of labor, of trade? In short, is not liberty the freedom of every person to make full use of his faculties, so long as he does not harm other persons while doing so? Is not liberty the destruction of all despotism — including, of course, legal despotism? Finally, is not liberty the restricting of the law only to its rational sphere of organizing the right of the individual to lawful self- defense; of punishing injustice? (Frederic Bastiat, via Quoty)

We are our brother’s keeper, and it is incumbent upon each of us to speak out at the first sight of something immoral, illegal, or un-Constitutional. If nobody does speak out and take a stand, who is to stop a growing government, rising dictator, or withering Constitution?

No doubt pondering such things, Thomas Jefferson once described the eventual course of liberty in America:

Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless. A single zealot may commence persecutor, and better men be his victims. It can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united. From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion. (Thomas Jefferson, via Quoty, emphasis added)

May we all loose ourselves from the shackles of indifference, apathy, and inaction. May we all regard the liberty of another as equal to our own, and with “prudent jealousy” guard them from encroachment, and act wherever and whenever we are empowered to do so.

One Response to “Our Collective Duty to Safeguard Liberty”

  1. October 14, 2007 at 3:08 pm #

    Well said Connor. I like these quotes:

    “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of
    the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them, and these will continue till they have been resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they suppress.”
    -Frederick Douglass

    “Unless the people, through unified action, arise and take charge of their government, they will find that their government has taken charge of them. Independence and liberty will be gone, and the general public will find itself in a condition of servitude to an aggregation of organized and selfish interest.”
    Calvin Coolidge

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