The American Declaration   

             Commentary at www.jeromehuyer.com

Author of Locke in America:  The Moral Philosophy of the Founding Era 

  LIBERTY vs POWER: 

The Lessons of History

               Most Americans are good.  While they self-consciously pursue their own self-interests they will not "selfishly" do so at others' expense.  They will not commit theft or fraud against others or arrange for third parties (like legislative bodies or executive agencies) to do their dirty work.  At the same time Americans are foolish and naive.  What would the man on the street say if you told him the precious freedoms he and his family casually enjoy and entirely take for granted are being threatened as never before, that there are Americans who want to fundamentally transform the country into something very different from what it is and was meant to be?  What if you said their plan is to grow government's power over the people and eventually regulate human behavior in the most minute detail is bearing ripe fruit?  Crazy, right?             

               The precious sphere of privacy Americans treasure endures.  As it was, so it still is.   Americans cannot see the approach of a police state or the end of their liberties.  Nothing in their  experience points to such an impending disaster. 

               Americans go about their lives, caring most about the things that matter most, family, faith, friends, occupations or careers, and their daily diversions.  With fortitude and patience, they work to achieve concrete goals and mostly realize their hopes and dreams (even if it merely means having a steady, secure livelihood and a peaceful, loving  family life).  Above all, they pay their own freight.

Of course, they wish they weren't taxed so heavily and many must worry about the high cost of complying with ever-more intrusive and burdonsome business regulations.  Americans are contemptuous of their leaders, to be sure, and with just cause. Leaders, especially, Liberal leaders, lie with carefree abandon, they line their own pockets at public expense and make promises they don't keep, But what can one person do? That aside, life is good. America is still a land of opportunity (certainly compared to how those in other lands live).

     It is a lot to ask Americans to believe they are living in the early days of some enveloping  tyranny. Or even worse, that it's later than any of us may think?  Preposterous, right?  But recall one terrifying lesson of history.

     The Nazi Party started out a faint voice in an ideologically diverse political wilderness.  But tough times and promises of restored glory brought a mighty orator to the fore.  Powerful rhetoric and a chest-pounding push for power eventually gave rise to the twin sorrows of terror and tyranny.  Propaganda, indoctrination and the silencing of all dissent led a nation and world to ruin.              

Now, America is not the pre-Hitler, Weimar Republic.  Nor is it Russia before Lenin, China before Mao, Venezuela before Hugo Chavez, or Cuba before Castro.   America is grounded in a strong democratic tradition.  Individual liberties are protected by a clear separation of powers and a complex web of checks and balances.  The constitutional guarantees of free speech, a free press, religious liberty, fair elections, and an iron rule of law that affords the accused a presumption of innocence are largely intact.   We're all perfectly free to speak our minds, elect who we please, and protest what we don't approve.  What's there to worry about?   

The Founding Era:  A Lost Lesson of History

    

                   In times past, things were different.  Once upon a time, Americans had a wholesome fear of power.  They knew of its awful influence on human affairs.  The founding generations studied the lessons of history carefully.  Human experience unerringly pointed to an age-old contest between Liberty and Power.  They diligently traced the corrosive role corruption invariably played in gradually eroding the people's liberties and promoting despotic forms of government.   Today, that tradition of suspicion has been all but lost. 

            

.              Living with the immediate and rising threat of losing their liberties to an imperious motherland, the founding generation could not afford to be so sanguine.  In rebelling against encroaching power and starting the world anew, they knew they had to avoid committing the mistakes past generations had committed.  They looked to the writings of popular writers to show them the way. The preeminent historian who exposed the ideological origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn put it like this:

      What gave the ideology of the American Revolution its distinctive character, "what dominated the colonists' miscellaneous learning and shaped it into a coherent whole "was the influence of the eighteenth-century Commonwealthmen and their Post-Restoration forebears:"

      From the earliest years of the century, this [British] Opposition thought...was devoured by the   colonists.... It nourished their political thought and sensibilities...[so that] there seems never to have been a time after the Hanoverian succession when these writings were...absent from polemical politics.[

       No single volume of Opposition thought played a larger role in shaping the colonial outlook than did John Trenchard's and Thomas Gordon's one hundred and forty four "Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious."  First published between 1720 and 1723, then quickly collected and called Cato's Letters  these insightful letters held a particular fascination for eighteenth-century America.[  

      With "Cato," Bailyn reports, the colonists studied the processes of decay and dwelt endlessly on the evidence of corruption they saw about them  . . . Everywhere, they agreed there was corruption---corruption technically in the adroit manipulation of Parliament by a power-hungry ministry, and corruption generally, in the self-indulgent, effeminizing luxury, and gluttonous pursuit of gain . . .

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               This healthy, reflexive suspicion of power no longer haunts the American imagination.  It's a pity. To paraphrase Santayana, those who fail to study the mistakes of the past will ever be condemned to repeat them.  There is nothing new under the son.  What will happen in the future has already happened.  Freedom has been won and lost across the sands of time.  No nation has proved immune to power's awful influence.  Though America is far from a totalitarian state, ever more intrusive encroachments on individual freedom can be counted and can be seen by anyone who cares to look. 

Next Time

Power vs. Liberty, Pt. 2: 

How Goes the Contest

               Unfortunately, reality isn't always as it appears.  Because the danger isn't apparent, it doesn't mean there is no danger.  The signs of advancing power stand there before us.  They are visible to any who open their eyes. Of courses, one must know where to look - i.e., how to add up the threats that face us.  The signposts of tyranny are unvarying.  It begins with a desire to grow the reach of government.  Is that not what we are witnessing daily.