Benjamin Franklin's famous statement is often paraphrased as, those who would trade freedom for security, deserve neither. And the big problem of governments is that we create them for security, only to then need security from them. Human beings have a tendency to want to create institutions to accomplish our goals, whether it is protecting our borders, putting out fires or perpetuating a sense of national greatness. But by collectively investing power in any institution, we risk creating an institution whose power cannot be taken away.
The American Experiment was just that, an experiment, and it was tested from the start. From the Whiskey Rebellion to the Bonus Army, from Dred Scott to the New Deal, the testing has often shown that there are conflicts and contradictions in what America is and what it should be. The Founders understood that too. They were not creating a perfect system, there is no perfect system of government. As long as people are imperfect, any system of theirs must by necessity be imperfect as well. The American Experiment was not an experiment in creating a perfect government, but a stable and yet malleable one that would keep tyranny at bay.
And for the most part the experiment succeeded for a long time. There was no Praetorian Guard in Washington D.C., and though some political dynasties do exist, no noble line of rulers. No tyrant ever marched in to take his seat at the head of an army and a despairing legislature did not throw up its hands and beg the Hapsburgs to send them a king to rule over America, as the late 18th century rumormongers suggested they would. For centuries, American citizens have voted in official representatives who directly or indirectly ran the country. And that is more than most of the Framers had hoped for.
But the weak point of the American Experiment has always been security. Franklin understood this well enough. So did many others, which is why the Constitution acted to limit and divide the powers of government. The Federal system had been created out of necessity to oversee key areas that a confederation of states could not manage. And to prevent it from slipping into tyranny, its ability to control political activities by the public were sharply curtailed.
Security however remained the problem. The American people had proven that they could not be military conquered. Not even as their weakest. Geography and population size and density had made it unfeasible during the Revolutionary War. And America would only grow stronger since then.
The average American was also independent minded. He might bleed passionately for a leader, but he tended to draw the line at absolute power. Nor was there any hankering for kings or a royal elite on the part of the general population that remained after the war.
Tyranny then could only come from the desire for security. Because not all tyrants march in at the head of an army. Rather they assure the masses that giving up their freedom will improve their security. That was the position of the English during the Revolutionary War, when they placed soldiers in people's homes and applied taxes for the defense of the colonies. The revolution was an explicit rejection of exchanging freedom for security, of giving up political representation and personal liberties for security's sake.
But in the aftermath of the Revolution, the problem of security remained. Particularly economic security. The need to stabilize the currency of the new country and find revenue sources to meet its debts, quickly dragged the new country back to some of the tactics of the old... as the Whiskey Rebellion unfortunately demonstrated. Similarly slavery was protected in order to protect the country's trade in cotton. The race between the factory and the plantation helped drive the country into a Civil War, and put an end to First American Republic.
The Second American Republic that followed was a republic of the factory and the mine, in which the winners of the war profited from using immigrant labor to increase their production and resource exploitation. It was the twilight of the farmer and the sunrise of the urban worker. And above it all was a changing America under a progressive government in which both Republican and Democratic Presidents were besotted with the possibilities of using science to create an ideal state. And when in the Great Depression, the factory stopped, the railroad stilled and the unemployment lines grew-- those same ideas were skillfully used to create the first socialist state in America. FDR's New Deal. The Third American Republic.
It is of course overly simplistic to pretend that the New Deal had come out of nowhere. FDR's New Deal was not a radical break with the governance and philosophies of Hoover, Wilson or Theodore Roosevelt-- much in the same way that Obama's governance is not a radical break with that of Bush, Clinton or Carter. Like Obama, the New Deal was shocking in the extent of its radicalism, the breathtaking arrogance with which it was implemented and its casual willingness to upend the Constitution. But it was not a true break, rather it was the idea of a domestically powerful government taken to its radical conclusion, through the exploitation of fears of economic insecurity.
It was not just the relationship between the government and Americans that had changed during the Second American Republic. The attitude of Americans toward their government had changed as well. By taking on more power, the government had also raised expectations. "Do something" quickly became a clarion call in the event of a crisis. And that is a call that tyrants are very willing to answer.
The idea that government was a science, rather than a tool. Fear of Communists gaining sway over American workers. And of course a public that now held politicians accountable for the economy, even if they had nothing particularly to do with it. All these were major ingredients in the fall of the Second American Republic. But above all else was the insecurity of freedom.
Free men create governments to provide security, because freedom may be a philosophically satisfying state, but it is also an insecure and often dysfunctional one. But there is a difference between responsibly creating institutions, and irresponsibly creating them. Responsible creation, whether of a government or a child, means remaining involved with it even after it is created. Irresponsibly creating institutions means people giving up power they hardly know they had, and stretching out their hands to those same institutions in search of a solution.
To do the former is to be part of a people ruled by a government of the people. To do the latter is to invite tyranny, even when placed in the hands of men who are not tyrants by nature. For if you give up power, someone will take it. If you announce yourself incapable of managing your own affairs, someone else will manage them for you. If you make yourself a slave, sooner or later someone will clap a collar around your neck.
The American Experiment was a challenge to the American people, to be responsible, to accept the insecurity of freedom while maintaining the necessary security of collective institutions by being a people within a government of the people and in doing so to remain free men and women. That experiment is endangered today because it has become too tempting to exchange freedom for security, to let others solve our problems, meet our challenges and do our thinking for us. But if America is to be a free nation again, Americans must once again rise to the challenge, bravely accepting the insecurity of freedom as a strength rather than a weakness. For freedom is responsibility, and those who have none may not wear visible chains, but are nonetheless slaves.