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Liberty of Security

800px-BattleofLongislandIn 1775, the Revolutionary War was started with the British Army’s march on Concord, Massachusetts. Why were elements of the British Army heading there? Because it had been discovered that Concord was the location of a local militia’s weapons. Thus, on that fateful April 19th, the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired and a great movement to implement the principles of the American Revolution was begun. The entire Revolutionary War was finally started, after years of agitation, when the British government threatened to remove the American colonists’ liberty of security.

There exists a certain understanding widely held that liberty and security are two opposing ideals, and that it is impossible to have both in full. After all, every social contract mandates that some rights held by individuals in a state of nature must be ceded to society in order for the collective people to remain in effective and beneficial political association. Therefore it stands to reason that rights, or liberty in general, are somewhat antithetical to security, which gives us what we all want out of government anyway.

While this is true for every type of government except republics and democracies, those two exceptions are rather important, especially the former. In fact, concerning republics, their security directly stems from their liberty. Clearly the security of the state that governs the republic is not directly tied to the liberty of its people, but that is entirely beside the point. Any good republican (a term which here means a political theorist believing in limited, representative government, not someone who voted for either of the Bushes) will say that the security of the people comes from their liberty, and that the government’s job is merely to protect this liberty.

I think it would be helpful here to define my terms, just to make sure that I’m being clear. Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines “liberty” ten different ways. I will employ his third definition, that of civil liberty: “… the liberty of men in a state of society, or natural liberty, so far only abridged and restrained, as is necessary and expedient for the safety and interest of the society, state, or nation….” This means that civil liberty differs from natural liberty in that civil liberty is an abridgment of natural liberty. John Winthrop gives the most succinct definition of natural liberty: “The freedom to do as one lists.” So civil liberty is that which brings order to society without encroaching too much on man’s natural freedom to act as he wills.¬†Webster defines “security” six different ways; I will use his third one: “Protection; effectual defense or safety from danger of any kind…” In the context of this piece, this would mean that the people of a nation posses the right of protection, defense, or safety from any kind of danger.

To put these two terms together, in the way they were used in the last part of the introduction, the British Army was removing the colonists’ natural liberty to provide defense for themselves from danger. The danger in this case was specifically an invading army sent to fight an enemy that did not exist before it arrived. When the people of Massachusetts realized that this army was about to destroy its only method of defense, therefore abridging illegally their liberty, they were forced to provide their own security. The government was no longer acting to protect its subjects, but only to provide safety for the state.

This point was so crucial to the Founding Fathers that they made it the crux of their case for dissolving their political bonds with Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence states: “…when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” The Founders understood that government is not the originator or perpetuator of security or liberty. It is, however, their guard. Discussion of terms such as liberty and security were always in context of the people, not of the government. Thus the Founders were far more interested in government that did not act to continually preserve itself, but those to which it was responsible.

The idea of the people possessing the liberty of security, and employing government only in so far as it promotes their security and not its own, has far-reaching consequences for today. The colonists of 1775 realized that it was their duty to provide new guards for their security when the institution that was entrusted with this task became antithetical to it. This was revealed after it became apparent that the only enemy the British government was interested in fighting was the people themselves. I believe it is high time to remember this fact when certain people in power denounce those seeking to expose similar actions in the U.S. governmet as traitors. What treason can there be in the defense of one’s people?

Discussion — 2 Responses

  • Jessica Hooker July 11, 2013 on 8:28 am

    When I first saw the title of this post, I thought it was a typo. After reading it, however, I understood. Yet I do wonder if perhaps it would have been better titled, “The Security of Liberty,” for I think that’s what you were really trying to get at.

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