Did Ben Franklin Actually Think Liberty Was More Important Than Security?

With possibly the most brutal terrorist attack on American soil since September 11 just barely in the country’s rearview mirror, an old debate is likely to be reinvigorated — the debate over how much freedom to give up in the name of national security being able to protect against further such attacks. Naturally enough, this discussion will pit new coalitions of civil liberians against new coalitions of national security hawks, but one thing is almost certain to carry over from the old debates about counterterrorism during the Bush administration: That is, the talking points.

And perhaps no talking point is as well worn as the oft-quoted line by Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” This line is a hobby horse for civil libertarians, and one that is used constantly against security hawks to prove their alleged cowardice.

But what does this line mean in context? At least one critical academic — Benjamin Wittes of Harvard and the Brookings Institute — has posited an alternate explanation for what might have motivated Franklin to write this infinitely quotable line:

Here’s an interesting historical fact I have dug up in some research for an essay I am writing about the relationship between liberty and security: That famous quote by Benjamin Franklin that “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” does not mean what it seems to say. Not at all.[…]

The words appear originally in a 1755 letter that Franklin is presumed to have written on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly to the colonial governor during the French and Indian War. The letter was a salvo in a power struggle between the governor and the Assembly over funding for security on the frontier, one in which the Assembly wished to tax the lands of the Penn family, which ruled Pennsylvania from afar, to raise money for defense against French and Indian attacks. The governor kept vetoing the Assembly’s efforts at the behest of the family, which had appointed him. So to start matters, Franklin was writing not as a subject being asked to cede his liberty to government, but in his capacity as a legislator being asked to renounce his power to tax lands notionally under his jurisdiction. In other words, the “essential liberty” to which Franklin referred was thus not what we would think of today as civil liberties but, rather, the right of self-governance of a legislature in the interests of collective security.[…]

In short, Franklin was not describing some tension between government power and individual liberty. He was describing, rather, effective self-government in the service of security as the very liberty it would be contemptible to trade. Notwithstanding the way the quotation has come down to us, Franklin saw the liberty and security interests of Pennsylvanians as aligned.

Is this accurate? Was Franklin railing against craven private interests preventing the assessment of taxes to pay for national security, and if so, does that obviate the quote’s effectiveness? To find out, we took a look at the text of the letter itself, which one blog was kind enough to reprint (with the original archaic spelling intact, no less). We have reproduced it, corrected for modern readers, below:

Our Assemblies have of late had so many Supply Bills, and of such different Kinds, rejected on various Pretenses; some for not complying with obsolete occasional Instructions (tho’ other Acts exactly of the same Tenor had been past since those Instructions, and received the Royal Assent;) some for being inconsistent with the supposed Spirit of an Act of Parliament, when the Act itself did not any Way affect us, being made expressly for other Colonies; some for being, as the Governor was pleased to say, “of an extraordinary Nature,” without informing us, wherein that extraordinary Nature consisted; and others for disagreeing with new discovered Meanings, and forced Constructions of a Clause in the Proprietary Commission; that we are now really at a Loss to divine what Bill can possibly pass.  The Proprietary Instructions are Secrets to us; and we may spend much Time, and much of the public Money, in preparing and framing Bills for Supply, which, after all, must, from those Instructions, prove abortive.  If we are thus to be driven from Bill to Bill, without one solid Reason afforded us; and can raise no Money for the King’s Service, and Relief or Security of our Country, till we fortunately hit on the only Bill the Governor is allowed to pass, or till we consent to make such as the Governor or Proprietaries direct us to make, we see little Use of Assemblies in this Particular; and think we might as well leave it to the Governor or Proprietaries to make for us what Supply Laws they please, and save ourselves and the Country the Expense and Trouble.  All Debates and all Reasonings are vain, where Proprietary Instructions, just or unjust, right or wrong, must inviolably be observed.  We have only to find out, if we can, what they are, and then submit and obey.  But surely the Proprietaries Conduct, whether as Fathers of their Country, or Subjects to their King, must appear extraordinary, when it is considered that they have not only formally refused to bear any Part of our yearly heavy Expenses in cultivating and maintaining Friendship with the Indians, tho’ they reap such immense Advantages by that Friendship; but they now, by their Lieutenant, refuse to contribute any Part towards resisting an Invasion of the King’s Colony, committed to their Care; or to submit their Claim of Exemption to the Decision of their Sovereign.

In fine, we have the most sensible Concern for the poor distressed Inhabitants of the Frontiers.  We have taken every Step in our Power, consistent with the just Rights of the Freemen of Pensylvania, for their Relief, and we have Reason to believe, that in the Midst of their Distresses they themselves do not wish us to go farther.  Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, Deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.—Such as were inclined to defend themselves, but unable to purchase Arms and Ammunition, have, as we are informed, been supplied with both, as far as Arms could be procured, out of Monies given by the last Assembly for the King’s Use; and the large Supply of Money offered by this Bill, might enable the Governor to do every Thing else that should be judged necessary for their further Security, if he shall think fit to accept it.  Whether he could, as he supposes, “if his Hands had been properly strengthened, have put the Province into such a Posture of Defence, as might have prevented the present Mischiefs,” seems to us uncertain; since late Experience in our neighbouring Colony of Virginia (which had every Advantage for that Purpose that could be desired) shows clearly, that it is next to impossible to guard effectually an extended Frontier, settled by scattered single Families at two or three Miles Distance, so as to secure them from the insiduous Attacks of small Parties skulking Murderers:—But thus much is certain, that by refusing our Bills from Time to Time, by which great Sums were seasonably offered, he has rejected all the Strength that Money could afford him; and if his Hands are still weak or unable, he ought only to blame himself, or those who have tied them.

If the Governor proceeds on his Journey, and takes a Quorum of his Council with him, we hope, since he retains our Bill, that it will be seriously and duly considered by them; and that the same Regard for the public Welfare which induced unanimously to advise his intended Journey, will induce them as unanimously to advise his Assent.  We agree therefore to his keeping the Bill, earnastly requesting he would re-consider it attentively; and shall be ready at any Time to meet him for the Purpose of enacting it into a Law.

 As the host website for the letter notes, this letter “appears quite similar to a proverb he [Franklin] wrote in the 1738 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack:  ‘Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power.'”

This is not the first time someone has quibbled with the original Franklin quote. In 2006, Michelle Malkin slammed Leftist protesters for featuring the quote without qualifiers. Yet that was a matter of semantics. There was, until now, no serious attempt to claim that in context, the quote meant something different entirely.

But does it? The context of the line in question is ambiguous. It comes after a reference to the frontiersmen of Pennsylvania, and is not directly made with reference to the Penn family, the “Proprietary commission” or any other governing body. Rather, the line that precedes it is, “We have taken every Step in our Power, consistent with the just Rights of the Freemen of Pennsylvania, for their Relief, and we have Reason to believe, that in the Midst of their Distresses they themselves do not wish us to go farther.” In other words, Franklin can quite plausibly be read as saying, “We have gone as far to ensure security as residents of Pennsylvania actually want, and if they don’t want us to go further, we won’t. After all, giving up one’s liberty in the name of security means you deserve neither liberty nor security.”

Moreover, the next sentence complains that the colonial governor of Pennsylvania does not have the money to ensure their safety in the future, and cites arming the residents of Pennsylvania to defend themselves as the national security concern in question. This is a much more libertarian approach to national security than what is done in the modern context, though that is understandable, given the sizable advances in technology. Nevertheless, it does rather under mine Wittes’ argument that the famous sentence about liberty and security was wholly unconnected to modern libertarian conceptions of liberty.

Does that mean that the implication Wittes draws from the whole letter is wrong? No. But to claim that the sentence in question is a vindication of the modern day national security state, or of the modern day state’s power to tax, is not clear from the context in which the line appears. Moreover, even if this particular line turns out to not refer to precisely the security policies being contemplated today, Franklin’s library of quotes provides others — for instance, the line from Poor Richard’s Almanac quoted above — that apply more directly without intervening context. In short, whatever Franklin meant in this instance, he seems to have believed something like the usually interpreted meaning. And that arguably makes him a valid source for civil libertarians to draw on.

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