The history of liberty
“Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is a history of resistance.” — Woodrow Wilson
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…” — Thomas Jefferson, from the Declaration of Independence
Whenever a government moves to uphold or defend freedom, it’s easy to get confused and think that the freedom came from the government. In reality, freedom is secured by governments, not granted by them, and even that happens only insofar as governments act in accordance with the will of the governed. One need not look far into the history books to find confirmation of Wilson’s assertion that the history of liberty is inextricably bound up with resistance to governmental tyranny.
There is a difference, of course, between oppression and unpopular legislation. I think people on either end of the political spectrum are far too quick to refer to anything they disagree with as “facism,” and to liken any political opponent to Hitler. Such words begin to lose meaning when they are tossed about as hyperbole, and desensitization to their concepts is dangerous.
It’s important to recognize, especially in a democracy, that the will of the majority must not disregard the liberty of the minorities. Thus the sometimes inexorably slow and cumbersome process of governmental checks and balances will test the patience of citizens who care passionately about their country’s actions and policies.
The great thing about having lived through many years of alternating dominance of one political party or another is that it gives us a sense of how it feels to be on either side of the equation. We’ve all felt elation when elections or court decisions went the way we hoped they would, and disappointment or even despair when they did not. If nothing else, it should give us a measure of sympathy for each other, regardless of our differing affiliations and ideas.
The next time you find yourself in either a winning or losing political position, remember that the liberty we all claim to value has never been uniformly and consistently available in all aspects of life. To value liberty is to accept the inevitability of disagreement, and the best we can do is act, speak and live in ways that will keep such conflicts in the realm of civil discourse. The most inhumane atrocities had their beginnings in tiny seeds of prejudice, anger, blame, malicious rumor and disrespectful behavior.
The history of liberty is indeed a history of resistance – including resistance to gratuitous hostility.
One year ago today