A Real Civics Lesson
THE ANIMATING CONTEST FOR FREEDOM
This July 4th we celebrate once again the beginning of an amazing venture--the American
experiment in ordered liberty. In the conflict and tumult of politics today it is easy to forget the
spirit of 1776 and the ideas on which this nation was founded. We must not.
Two revolutions contend for the American soul.
The first exploded onto the world stage when Thomas Jefferson's quill touched parchment. The
American Revolution was already in motion, of course. But it soared to majestic heights when the
men of the Continental Congress declared this country and its citizens capable of living in
freedom under the rule of law by the consent of the governed.
But the thunderous boom of that revolution of freedom has been muffled by a counter-revolution
--one that the Founding Fathers would abhor and in all likelihood take up arms against.
Since the progressive era and the New Deal, political leaders have been on a course to increase
the size, power and intrusiveness of government--rejecting the founding principles--usually in the
name of security or justice or rights.
We would do well to consider how the founders saw the world. The American revolutionary was
different from the citizen of today. When he thought about government, he did so with a moral
clarity that is sadly too often missing in today's political arena. Spin has replaced wisdom, and lies
live long after they're exposed.
The "true American Whigs" - as they called themselves - were a skeptical lot. They didn't share
today's trust of big government and good intentions.
Their words and warnings were fearsome and soulful. With explosive words such as "tyranny,"
"despotism," "conspiracy" and "slavery," the revolutionaries described government out of control.
Most of those ideas are dismissed today--archaic expressions of an ancient paranoia. But that
most distinguished generation of American thinkers still has much to tell us.
They saw history as a long train of abuse, corruption and manipulation of the people. History, in
fact, served as a warning to the founders that elite officials in all times and places seek to expand
and use government to further their own aims and increase their power over others.
The revolution of 1776 turned against this idea. The founders believed that a virtuous and
educated citizenry could govern itself under the dynamic spirit of liberty and equality under the
So through the late 18th century, the Founding Fathers feared what they saw in Great Britain's
treatment of the colonies. They felt they were going down a path to slavery if they did not resist
Parliament's efforts to tax the colonies.
Pamphleteer John Dickinson warned that small measures such as the Stamp Act's taxation of
paper goods were actually more dangerous than any invasion or oppression because the
temptation to give in was so great.
''Nothing is wanted at home but a precedent, the force of which shall be established by the tacit
submission of the colonies. . . . If Parliament succeeds in this attempt, other statutes will impose
other duties . . . and thus the Parliament will levy upon us such sums of money as they choose to
take without any other limitation than their pleasure,'' he wrote.
Today's tax code shows how tempting it's been to accept small measures.
As Alexander Hamilton admitted, the issue wasn't the cost of a paltry threepence duty on tea,
which led to the Boston Tea Party. It was the principle of unjust governance.
To the founders, such governance was found in London. It was dominated by ''corrupt boroughs''
- the special interests of their day. Parliament needed to feed the corruption of those special
interests that gorged at the trough of a bigger and bigger government. And that government was
turning its appetites toward America.
''Corruption, like a cancer . . . eats faster and faster every hour,'' John Adams wrote. ''The revenue
creates pensioners, and the pensioners urge for more revenue. The people grow less steady,
spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the
circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and
frugality become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness,
meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society.''
In short, England ''is loaded with debts and taxes, by the folly and iniquity of its ministers,'' he
Having lived under England's iniquity, the founders knew an unchecked government was
dangerous. They agreed that the darker side of human nature - ambition and the lust for control -
would degrade institutions and lead to corruption.
James Madison warned simply: "All men in power ought to be distrusted." Madison's friend
Jefferson agreed. "History has informed us that bodies of men are susceptible to the spirit of
tyranny," he said.
Human nature, therefore, argues for limits on government. As George Washington warned:
"Government is not reason, it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a
With these beliefs, it is no wonder Americans resisted England. They knew that promises of
plenty come at the cost of freedom.
Benjamin Franklin summed this up beautifully: "Those who would give up essential liberty to
purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Were these men wrong about the tendency of government to expand at the expense of liberty?
One need only look at today's government for the answer.
Washington, D.C., takes and taxes ever more—and even in times of surplus the "folly and
iniquity" of politicians will not let go of the people's money once they have their hands on it.
And when they do deign to send the people's money back to them, politicians ask for yet another
sacrifice of freedom.
The American revolutionaries, of course, understood that England was the freest country on
earth at that time. So they didn't take their actions lightly. But they knew they had to protect the
ancient rights of representation and freedom.
"We have committed no crimes to forfeit (these freedoms)," wrote Pennsylvanian founder James
Wilson. "We will leave our posterity as free as our ancestors left us."
Freedom's champions often stand alone. The founders did, against the mightiest country on earth
then. And they had little time for small minds and timid souls.
"If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude greater than the animating
contest for freedom, go home from us in peace," said Samuel Adams of Boston. "We seek not your
counsel, nor your arms. Crouch and lick the hand that feeds you; and may posterity forget that ye
were our countrymen."
Leaders in Washington must learn to see government as the founders did. To them, a massive
government led by special interests is a threat to individual liberty.
But leaders here still must heed the wishes of citizens. Therefore, as citizens, we too must recall
the wisdom of the founders.
Posterity must never forget the amazing men, deeds and words of 1776. On this July 4th we would
do well to remember that the blessings of wealth and prosperity are the fruits of the founders'
spirit - the spirit of liberty and virtue.
(c) Copyright 1999 Investors Business
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