"WHAT IS FREEDOM?
"It's a free country," any American child will say, a comfortable assurance that this same American carries as he or she grows up. We scarcely consider that that sentence descends to that child from arguments for liberty that date back through generations of Enlightenment-era English and French philosophers, who were trying to work out what "a free country" could possibly look like - even as they themselves lived through or looked on reigns of violently abusive and capricious monarchs.
We tend to think of American democracy as being somehow eternal, ever-renewable, and capable of withstanding all assaults. But the Founders would have thought we were dangerously naive, not to mention lazy, in thinking of democracy in this way. This view - which we see as patriotic - is the very opposite of the view that they held. They would not have considered our attitude patriotic - or even Americans: The Founders thought, in contrast, that it was tyranny that was eternal, ever-renewable, and capable of of withstanding all assaults, whereas democracy was difficult, personally exacting, and vanishingly fragile. The Founders did not see Americans as being special in any way: They saw America - that is, the process of liberty - as special.
In fact, the men who risked hanging to found our nation, and the women who risked their own lives to support this experiment in freedom, and who did what they could to advance it, were terrified of exactly what we call dictatorship. They called it "tyranny" or "despotism." It was the specter at their backs - and they all new it - as Americans debated the Constitution and argued about the shape of the Bill of Rights.
The framing of the documents upon which the new national government rested did not take place as we were taught it did - in a sunny glow of confident assertiveness about freedom. That scenario is a Hallmark-card rewrite of the real mood of the era and the tenor that surrounded the discussions of the day. The mood as early Americans debated the proposed Constitution and the Bill of Rights was, rather, one of grave apprehension.
For the founders shared with the rest of the people awaiting the outcome of their labors a dread of what nearly all of them - Federalist of anti-Federalist - saw as the real prospect of a tyrannical force rising up in America. This repressive force could take many forms: the form of a rapacious Congress oppressing the people; the form of an out-of-control executive; or even the form of the people themselves, cruelly oppressing a minority. (Footnote 12) The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were set forth not as a flag flying merrily but as a bulwark: a set of barriers against what the Founders and their fellow countrymen and women sw aas people's natural tendency to oppress others if their power is unchecked.
What recurred regularly in various arguments as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights took shape was the widespread fear of an unchecked executive. (Footnote 13) It's not surprising that these patriots would so deeply fear a single man invested with too much power. They had just freed themselves from being subjugated to George III, an abusive, not to mention mentally ill, monarch.
The Founders had fled repressive societies themselves, or were children or grandchildren of those who had done so. The North American colonies were settled by people - Puritans, Quakers and others - who had fled countries in which they had been imprisoned and even tortured for such acts as assembling in groups to pray; or for attending certain churches; or for publishing pamphlets critical of the King or of Parliament. The Founders knew from their own experience how the Crown treated those who talked about democracy (that is, "sedition"). They knew about criminalized speech, arbitrary arrest, and even show trials. They had personally to recon with the risk of state-sanctioned torture and murder: Each of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence could have been hanged if the colonies had lost the Revolutionary War.
When Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, the little book that helped start the big revolution, he risked being hanged by the British Crown for treason. Indeed, the Crown did charge Paine with sedition for having written another book, The Rights of Man. He was tried by a jury hand-chosen by the government that he had attacked - a jury sure to condemn him. The proceedings were a mockery of the rule of law. In spite of this lawyer's brilliant defense, as one witness put it, "The venal jury...without waiting for any answer, or any summing up by the Judge, pronounced [Paine] guilty. Such an instance of infernal corruption is scarcely upon record" Paine's publisher was dragged off to prison in chains. (Footnote 14)
Arbitrary arrest, state intimidation, and torture were the tactics of the tyrannical monarchs of eighteenth century Europe - tactics that the Founders sought to banish from American soil forever. The Founders' rebellion on this continent intended systematically to open a nation up to freedom - meaning , fundamentally, freedom from these evils.
In colleges with progressive curricula, the Founders are often portrayed as "dead white men," whose vision was imperfect, who denied women and the poor civil rights, and who defined an African slave in America as being three--fifths of a person; old guys in wigs who wrote documents that are now dusty in language that seems to us to be either arcane or to offer sentiments that are so obvious now they have become cliches ("...life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness...").
Here's what we're not taught: Those words at the time they were written were blazingly, electrifyingly subversive. If you understand them truly now, they still are. These men and the women who supported their work were walking further out intot he unknown - betting on ordinary people's capacities - than anyone had ever walked in the history of the human race. You are not taught - and it is a disgrace that you aren't - that these men and women were radicals for liberty; that they had a vision of equality that was a slap in the face of what the rest of their world understood to be the unchanging, God-given order of nations; and they they were willing to die to make that desperate vision into a reality for people like us, whom they would never live to see.
You weren't taught that the way they brought the freest nation in the world into being was by reading passionately about fledgling democracies of the past; by positioning their imaginations directly against the violent repressions they had fled; and by carefully, delicately crafting a mechanism of checks and balances, and a bill of rights, that would protect these extreme manifestations of freedom. The Founders set out to prove that ordinary people could be entrusted with governing themselves in a state where no one could arbitrarily arrest them, lock them up, or torture them.
Living against the backdrop of violent repression, these men and women saw the democracy they were seeking to establish, and the checks and balances that protected it, as being in need of continual rededication against potential tyrants in America who would want to subjugate Americans.
Thomas Jefferson's initial reaction to the proposed Constitution was negative, for, as he wrote to James Madison, he feared the possibility of the rise of an American tyrant: "...Roman emperors, popes, German emperors, deys of the Ottoman dependencies, and Polish kings - all were elective in some sense." Indeed, historian Bernard Bailyn sees the "[T]he fear of power - the very heart of the original Revolutionary ideology - was an animating spirit behind all of [Jefferson's} thinking..."(Footnote 15)
Jefferson wasn't alone in the Revolutionary generation in fearing an American despot. After the publication of the proposed Constitution in 1787, critics shared his apprehension. They feared a president's treaty-making power, because they were worried he might make deals in secret. They worried about his power to make certain decisions without a two-thirds majority, because they feared he might do anything he wanted with that power. They argued that an American executive would not be immune to despotic tempations, just as an unchecked Congress would not be immune. [Footnote 16]
The authors of The Federalist Papers - Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay - wrote that series of essays to help reassure their fellow Americans. They did so by explaining that the complex web of tensions they were proposing - these "checks and balances" - would prevent a person or a group united in "a common interest or passion" from depriving others of their rights. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay did not think that this web was self-sustaining. They thought that the delicate mechanism of the interdependent executive, legislative, and judiciary branches was only as reliable as the character of the people who were either protecting or abandoning it. They saw all people as corruptible and so set up the system to keep anyone from having unconfined power. [Footnote 17]
It was a truism to the Revolutionary generation that if the fragile mechanism became unbalanced, American leaders too - of course - would revert to brutality. We are so removed from the tyranny that the nation's first patriots experienced personally that we have not only forgotten this crucial insight, we have even forgotten to consider how obvious it was to the fathers and mothers of our country.
The Founders never expected us to fall asleep or get lazy. They counted on us to keep the web of the precious system intact so that an American despot could never arise. They trusted us to cherish liberty as they did.
The price of liberty, the generation that debated and created the Constitution understood, is eternal vigilance.