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What Ben Franklin Really Said

Friday, July 15, 2011 at 6:53 AM

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The article I was writing when I posted this two years ago is available here.

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.

I started looking into this quotation because I am writing a frontal attack on the idea that liberty and security exist in some kind of “balance” with one another–and the quotation is kind of iconic to the balance thesis. Indeed, Franklin’s are perhaps the most famous words ever written about the relationship. A version of them is engraved on the Statue of Liberty. They are quoted endlessly by those who assert that these two values coexist with one another in a precarious, ever-shifting state of balance that security concerns threaten ever to upset. Every student of American history knows them. And every lover of liberty has heard them and known that they speak to that great truth about the constitution of civilized government–that we empower governments to protect us in a devil’s bargain from which we will lose in the long run.

Very few people who quote these words, however, have any idea where they come from or what Franklin was really saying when he wrote them. That’s not altogether surprising, since they are far more often quoted than explained, and the context in which they arose was a political battle of limited resonance to modern readers. Many of Franklin’s biographers don’t quote them at all, and no text I have found attempts seriously to explain them in context. The result is to get to the bottom of what they meant to Franklin, one has to dig into sources from the 1750s, with the secondary biographical literature giving only a framework guide to the dispute. I’m still nailing down the details, but I can say with certainty at this stage that Franklin was not saying anything like what we quote his words to suggest.

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.

What’s more the “purchase [of] a little temporary safety” of which Franklin complains was not the ceding of power to a government Leviathan in exchange for some promise of protection from external threat; for in Franklin’s letter, the word “purchase” does not appear to have been a metaphor. The governor was accusing the Assembly of stalling on appropriating money for frontier defense by insisting on including the Penn lands in its taxes–and thus triggering his intervention. And the Penn family later offered cash to fund defense of the frontier–as long as the Assembly would acknowledge that it lacked the power to tax the family’s lands. Franklin was thus complaining of the choice facing the legislature between being able to make funds available for frontier defense and maintaining its right of self-governance–and he was criticizing the governor for suggesting it should be willing to give up the latter to ensure the former.

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.

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