By: Michael Boldin
Corruption and repression, weighted down by a massive bureaucracy – it’s all around us and getting worse year by year. But an alternative to total tyranny – while not easy – is attainable.
As we commemorate our 17 year anniversary – and kick off the next 17 years – I thought it was important to share with you what we see as the essential principles underlying our work. These top-5 also make up the foundation of what’s absolutely necessary to get things moving on a path to liberty.
- Rights are not gifts from government.
It’s not really liberty if it requires a government permission slip.
Thomas Paine said, “It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights.”
We find this essential principle in the Declaration of Independence as well:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Thomas Jefferson later noted that he wasn’t trying to establish “new principles, or new arguments” in the Declaration, but rather, “it was intended to be an expression of the American mind.”
There are many similar statements on natural rights prior to the Declaration, including Samuel Adams, in his 1772 Rights of the Colonists:
“Among the natural rights of the colonists are these: First, a right to life; secondly to liberty; thirdly to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can. These are evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature.”
- Government power is always dangerous to liberty.
Even if you support the people wielding that power – or if you like what they’re doing with it – eventually that same power is going to be in the hands of other people who just might want to use it against you.
Oliver Ellsworth, who served as the 3rd Chief Justice, put it this way:
“A power of doing good always implies a power to do evil if the person or party be disposed.”
In the North Carolina ratifying convention, William Lenoir coupled this understanding with a warning about human nature:
“It is natural for men to aspire to power – it is the nature of mankind to be tyrannical.”
But Thomas Jefferson may have summed it up best:
“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will, within the limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’; because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.”
- It’s power FROM the people not TO.
In the American system, sovereignty – or final authority – is with the people of the several states, not the government.
George Mason wrote, “In all our associations; in all our agreements let us never lose sight of this fundamental maxim–that all power was originally lodged in, and consequently is derived from, the people. We should wear it as a breastplate, and buckle it on as our armour.”
James Wilson noted that “the supreme power resides in the people.” And the first Chief Justice John Jay, explained that the entire system rests on this foundation:
“The Constitution only serves to point out that part of the people’s business, which they think proper by it to refer to the management of the persons therein designated.”
- Constitutions don’t enforce themselves.
They never did. And they never will.
A “good constitution,” John Dickinson told us, can “promote” a good administration, but cannot guarantee it – because words on paper aren’t enough.
And James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” made this clear as well, referring to the Constitution he supported as a mere “parchment barrier.”
“Will it be sufficient to mark, with precision, the boundaries of these departments, in the constitution of the government, and to trust to these parchment barriers against the encroaching spirit of power?”
Madison continued, pointing out that there’s something more than a document that’s needed to keep a government in check:
“A mere demarcation on parchment of the constitutional limits of the several departments, is not a sufficient guard against those encroachments which lead to a tyrannical concentration of all the powers of government in the same hands.”
- It’s up to the people
To protect and defend their own constitution and their own liberty – whether the government likes it, or not.
Following his point in Federalist 48 that something beyond a “parchment barrier” is needed to keep government in check, James Madison provided an answer, quoting Thomas Jefferson, in Federalist 49:
“As the people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived, it seems strictly consonant to the republican theory, to recur to the same original authority, not only whenever it may be necessary to enlarge, diminish, or new-model the powers of the government, but also whenever any one of the departments may commit encroachments on the chartered authorities of the others.”
In short – all power comes from the people. The people have final say over their government. The people can, as noted in the Declaration, “alter or abolish,” but it’s also up to them to keep things in check whenever any part of the government goes beyond its constitutional limits.
In the North Carolina ratifying convention, James Iredell agreed, and noted that this is the only way to stop usurpations of power:
“The only resource against usurpation is the inherent right of the people to prevent its exercise.”
Asking the question – when there is a “bad administration” – what is to be done? John Dickinson may have put it best, noting that the answer is to be found before “the supreme sovereignty of the people.”
“IT IS THEIR DUTY TO WATCH, AND THEIR RIGHT TO TAKE CARE, THAT THE CONSTITUTION BE PRESERVED; Or in the Roman phrase on perilous occasions—TO PROVIDE, THAT THE REPUBLIC RECEIVE NO DAMAGE.”
The fact that none of these five foundational principles are part of the mainstream thought – the “expression of the American mind” today – means the people, for generations, have failed to do their job in support of the constitution and liberty.
But that doesn’t mean it’s game over. In fact, we’re just getting started!
St. George Tucker summed it up best:
“The acquiescence of the people of a state under any usurped authority for any length of time, can never deprive them of the right of resuming the sovereign power into their own hands, whenever they think fit, or are able to do so, since that right is perfectly unalienable.”