Liberty and Security: Hostile Allies

Hoover Institution, November 10, 2011

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” —Benjamin Franklin

They are perhaps the most famous words ever written about the relationship between liberty and security. They have become iconic. A version of them appears on a plaque in the Statue of Liberty. Every student of American history knows them. And every lover of liberty has pondered them, knowing that they speak to that great truth about the constitution of civilized governments: that we empower government 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.

They appear originally in a 1755 letter 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 and did not want its lands taxed.

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