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Ben Franklin on Liberty

February 3, 2003

Americans remember Benjamin Franklin as one of our founding fathers. And well they should, as he was not just our most famous citizen at our country's birth, he was a central part of that birth.   

As a member of the Second Continental Congress, Franklin helped draft the Declaration of Independence.  As a member of the Constitutional Convention, he helped draft the Constitution.  Both documents bear his signature.  He also signed the Treaty of Alliance with France, bringing the colonies French aid against the British, and The Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War and recognized the independence of the United States. He was the only person, in fact, to sign all of these key documents.

Franklin's role in our founding has, however, been eclipsed in modern memory by his many other accomplishments.  He was a prolific inventor whose inventions ran the gamut from his trademark bifocals to the Franklin Stove to artificial fertilizer.  He ran his own paper and published Poor Richard's Almanac.  He even published the first political cartoon in the colonies. He founded the University of Pennsylvania, as well as America's  first public library and public hospital.  His discoveries went far beyond his famous kite experiment, and included the identification of lead poisoning and the discovery and charting of ocean currents.

Unfortunately, the result has been that attention which deserves to be paid to what Franklin said about America and the liberty it was designed to protect has often been crowded out by that paid to his other accomplishments.  It is worth remembering some of those inspirational words.

  • They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty or safety...
  • Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature.
  • This will be the best security for maintaining our liberties.  A nation of well-informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved.  It is in the religion of ignorance that tyranny begins.
  • ...it is a common observation here that our cause is the cause of all mankind, and that we are fighting for their liberty in defending our own.
  • Where liberty dwells, there is my country.
  • ...a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles ...is absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty and keep a government free.
  • Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech.
  • Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.
  • When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.
  • Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.
  • Sell not...liberty to purchase power.
  • In free governments, the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns.  
  • Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.  As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.
  • I hope...that all mankind will at length, as they call themselves reasonable creatures, have reason and sense enough to settle their differences without cutting throats; for in my opinion there never was a good war or a bad peace.
  • Men will ultimately be governed by God or by tyrants.
  • Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.
  • The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness.  You have to catch it yourself.

At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Franklin reflected the risk and unity of purpose that led to America's founding when he said, "Gentlemen, we must now hang together, or we shall most assuredly hang separately."  But he also knew how uncertain was the maintenance of the vision of liberty which animated our founders.

  • Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in the world nothing can be certain except death and taxes.
  • History affords us many instances of the ruin of states...the ordaining of laws in favor of one part of the nation to the prejudice and oppression of another, is certainly the most erroneous and mistaken policy...An equal dispensation of protection, rights, privileges, and advantages, is what every part is entitled to, and ought to enjoy...

Benjamin Franklin made clear the ultimate intended result of America's experiment in liberty, when he said, "God grant that not only the love of liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all the nations of the earth, so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say: This is my country."  As we reflect on the political developments of the day, we should take a moment to reflect on how far we are from that goal, and ask how new life can be brought to  that ideal which America was intended to embody.

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Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. Send him MAIL, and see his Mises.org Daily Articles Archive


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