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RedDeerGuy1's avatar

Can you explain this quote from Benjamin Franklin? (details inside)

Asked by RedDeerGuy1 (15064points) 1 week ago

“Those who would give up personal liberty in exchange for security, deserve neither.”. -Benjamin Franklin

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8 Answers

SavoirFaire's avatar

The full quote is: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” It was first said by Franklin in a letter written in 1755 to the colonial governor of what was then the Province of Pennsylvania. While widely quoted, it doesn’t mean what most people take it to mean.

The Pennsylvania Assembly was in a battle with their governor over its power to tax the Penn family’s holdings in order to fund the colony’s military efforts during the French and Indian War. The Penn family (all of whom lived in England) pressured the governor into vetoing all attempts to tax the Penn’s (an easy task since they had appointed him and had the power to remove him from office).

Instead, the Penn family wanted to give the colonists a one-time cash payment in exchange for the Assembly declaring that it lacked the authority to tax their lands. Franklin thought it was appalling that the Pennsylvania Assembly would be asked to surrender it’s right to self-government (that is, it’s “essential Liberty”) for an amount of money too small to guarantee the colony’s long-term protection (that is, “a little temporary Safety”).

In other words, it is an assertion of the government’s role in assuring the security of its people, not a taking of sides regarding the balance between state power and individual liberty.


The fact that the quote did not originally mean what it is often taken to mean does not entail that there isn’t a lesson to be found within it about the relationship between the state and the individual. It just means we can’t lean on an appeal to Franklin’s authority or to his intentions with regard to this particular statement when deriving that lesson.

SmashTheState's avatar

Allow me to disagree with @SavoirFaire. The so-called “founding fathers” of the United States were firm believers in natural law, evidenced by both their personal writings and the wording used in the Declaration of Independence. Under natural law, certain moral laws are held to be universally and objectively true because they can be shown to be logical corollaries of the moral imperative, itself axiomatic because it must be true in order for knowledge and meaning itself to exist.

Under natural law, liberty has a fundamental value which is self-evident. That is, any attempt to impair liberty fails the test of being universally applicable; tyranny of all by all isn’t possible, and so is self-destroying. This is why Franklin refers to essential liberty and not merely certain specific freedoms. The circumstances @SavoirFaire describes are just the application of natural law as natural justice (the attempt to codify natural law into rules) and not the source of Franklin’s statement.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@SmashTheState Nothing you’ve said disagrees with what I wrote. I explained the quote in context (remember, we were asked to explain the quote), and also noted that it has meaning and value outside of that specific context.

Natural law jurisprudence can also be found in moral and political philosophies other than Kantian deontology and notions of the categorical imperative. As you say, after all, the “founders” were firm believers in natural law. Yet all of the founding documents were written decades before Kant had even begun to expound upon the idea of categorical imperatives.

Dutchess_lll's avatar

Oh, this gonna be good!

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Dutchess_lll Or perhaps there is no real conflict here and @SmashTheState was simply elaborating on something that I did not specifically address, but that is nevertheless congruous with what I said. I suppose we will have to see what his take on it is.

SmashTheState's avatar

I’m not taking issue with the specifics of your statement, which are perfectly true, but just the ordering of horse and cart. I believe in context that Franklin was not drawing his statement about essential liberty from the circumstances you describe (which seems to me to be your implication), but rather it’s a description of his application of the principles of natural law. I think it’s a subtle but important difference.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@SmashTheState I suppose my primary concerns were to explain the proximate cause of the quote (self-government and legislative rights being the specific liberties with which Franklin was concerned when writing the letter in question) and to counter the popular modern notion that Franklin was condemning the notion of state intervention and/or declaring his allegiance to something akin to Nozick’s minarchism (it was written in the context of a tax dispute, and he was writing for the pro-tax side in the service of a military action). But I agree that his views about the moral justification for the state and the limits on its power would have been the ultimate cause of the quote being put in those particular terms.

I know it’s not a particularly high bar, but it would be nice to have a few more contemporary politicians whose policies and rhetoric stemmed a bit more from a considered moral view and a bit less from a convenient expediency.

LostInParadise's avatar

Ignoring the above argument, the trade-off between liberty and safety is a familiar topic. It is not always clear where to draw the line. One could argue, as the libertarians do, that having a government that can impose taxes is a sacrifice of individual liberty.

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