The history of liberty

Banners at the Holocaust Museum remind us our actions matter, April 2013.

Holocaust Museum banners in Washington DC remind us our actions matter, April 2013.

“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

The one who thinks differently


  1. Jack

    I’ve learned that avoiding discussion of politics and religion, and letting others stand up for their own views is usually pretty good practice. If as my political hero Abe Lincoln contends, government is indeed “by the people, of the people, for the people”, doesn’t presume to be some higher moral authority separate from and better than the people, democracy won’t be perfect, but it will be the best of the imperfect systems. I think I just made a political statement 🙂

    • Yes, as the saying goes, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.” Lincoln is a pretty good guy to have as a political hero. I guess mine is John Adams but I admire many of the presidents. Today’s post is in honor of Reagan’s birthday, as was last year’s.

  2. Julia, good evening. I admire John Adams, Harry Truman, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter…their families was important to them.
    I admire most of the presidents for their courage to serve. after reading the book “all the President’s Children” changed how I viewed the presidents.
    I seldom discuss the polictic or religion. Even on the UR devotional I don’t question some of the comments. 🙂

    • Hi Merry, I too admire the men you listed, and many others as well. I know it’s popular to hate politicians, but I think they have an incredibly hard job. From the times I’ve been around them, it seems to me that they all have to listen, listen, listen for hours, and that goes for all of them, from the most junior state delegate up to the U.S. President. Then no matter what they do or say, somebody is going to criticize them. I know very few people who could tolerate a job like that.

      I think you’re wise to refrain from comments at UR – I try to do the same although I see quite a bit there that I question; the great thing about it is that so many people with a huge spectrum of ideas are able to reason together despite differences. For an unmoderated blog, I think it has an amazingly supportive and positive tone – largely thanks to people such as you who stay positive or keep silent! 🙂 Thanks for being here – and there!

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