A QUOTE IN CONTEXT – What did Franklin really think about Liberty and Safety?

I love Franklin quotes. He was a genius of a writer. The man himself was a mixed bag, and if I’d known him personally I would probably have had serious issues with some of his behavior. But there is no doubt that he left an astounding number of great quotes for posterity. So great, in fact, that over 200 years later, people still love to throw them around.

But do we really know what they mean?

Today, I want to talk about a quote that is very popular among libertarians and others who worry about government overreach:

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Seems like a pretty straightforward quote, right? If you give up your liberties by trading them to purchase some kind of temporary safety, you don’t deserve either.

The quote is often used to argue against things like like government surveillance of citizens. And though I haven’t actually seen it, I’m sure somebody has used it to argue against the shelter-in-place orders in the current crises. But was that kind of meaning what Franklin actually had in mind?

Well, some people argue it wasn’t. Look what happened when I googled some key words to find the quote:

The top two results both quote Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, basically saying that the quote is being taking out of context and completely misused. The argument is roughly as follows:

The original quote comes from a 1755 letter about taxation and defense during the French and Indian war, in which Franklin is urging the governor to pass a bill sent to him by the legislature, and along the way arguing that the influential Penn family shouldn’t object to being taxed, along with everybody else, to raise funds for the defense of the frontier border of their state.

Wittes claims that this context means Franklin was not actually talking about liberty as we think of it, but about money and defense, and that the quote therefore doesn’t really apply to most of the causes it is commonly attached to. In fact, he implies, it is closer to the opposite. In the words of of Inigo from Princess Bride:

Wow. Is he right?

I immediately set off to find out. (As those of you who know me are probably aware, random research is basically what I do for fun.)

But I immediately encountered a far-too-common problem: NO ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS.

Oh yes, the articles (read them here and here if you want) certainly reference original documents. But they don’t let me SEE them. They paraphrase things in their own words and talk about what that the documents mean. Problem is, I’m not really all that interested in their personal opinions. I speak English. I’m literate. If you give me the actual letter, I can see the context quite well myself, thank you. But no. They don’t include the letter, or even a large quotation, in either article. Not even a link to where I could find it elsewhere.

Thankfully, after searching around a bit, I was able to find a digital version of it here. It’s rather long, but I dutifully read the whole thing, and finally found the section in question way down in the second-to-last paragraph. And it turns out, the context is somewhat ambiguous. After spending most of the letter talking about the taxation, the war, the Penn family, etc, we get a slight shift in subject and encounter this in the start of a fresh paragraph:

“…we have the most sensible Concern for the poor distressed Inhabitants of the Frontiers. We have taken every Step in our Power, consistent with the just Rights of the Freemen of Pennsylvania, for their Relief, and we have Reason to believe, that in the Midst of their Distresses they themselves do not wish us to go farther. Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety…”

He then moves on to talk about arming the settlers, and getting ammunition to those who need it. So this key quote is almost an aside. He does not elaborate a lot on what he meant by “going further.” Apparently there is a line that ought not be crossed, even for the defense of the settlers (and they themselves would not wish the government to cross it) but what that line IS he does not really specify.

However, even this small amount of context make’s Wittes’s argument seem faulty. Yes, he’s right, the main point of the letter was about taxation and money. But this particular section was NOT.

However, I grant that there might be some room for confusion, because of the way the statement is just sort of thrown out there without a lot of explanation, in the middle of a letter that is mostly on a different subject. How do we know exactly what Franklin meant? How do we know if we are really interpreting the quote the way he intended?

Elementary my dear Watson. We ask Franklin himself.

It was not only future generations who found Franklin so wonderfully quotable. In fact, Franklin rather enjoyed quoting himself! (A quirk that was humorously mentioned in another one of my favorite movies, 1776.***)

I grew up watching this movie every Fourth of July.
The humor in it is absolutely priceless.

(Wow. I seem to be on a movie-quoting spree today.)

Anyway, as it turns out, the first person to recycle this famous statement about liberty and safety into a new context was….you guessed it…Benjamin Franklin. He used a slightly altered version of this quote 20 years later in 1775. At that point, he was part of a delegation that was still trying to achieve a peaceful reconciliation with the British crown. (*Spoiler Alert…they failed). Seventeen points were brought forward for discussion, some of which were rejected by each side. In making a report on the situation, Franklin admitted that some of the issues might be compromised on. But on others, specifically the ones about Parliament meddling in the internal political affairs of the colonies, and troops being quartered in the colonies without the consent of the local legislature, he was quite firm. The colonies could NOT compromise these without compromising their basic liberties. Even for the sake of “temporary safety.”

And here he is, quoting himself:

As to the other two acts, the Massachusetts must suffer all the hazards and mischiefs of war rather than admit the alteration of their charters and laws by Parliament. ‘They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.’

In other words, their laws and liberties were too precious to be infringed upon, even for the sake of safety. And it would be better for them to risk a lot of death and suffering than to allow those liberties and laws to be trampled on. (Read the full context of his comments here.)

So. Although his first use of the phrase MIGHT be considered a bit ambiguous in it’s context, I’d say that its later use pretty clearly spells out what he meant. Anybody who claims that the modern use of the quote is “taking it out of context” or “butchering” it’s original meaning is, I politely maintain, just plain wrong. They might be very sincere. They might have the best of intentions. But they simply don’t have the facts straight.

Now, you don’t have to agree with Franklin. (I disagree with him on plenty of subjects myself.) You can say he got his priorities backward, that he blew things out of proportion, and didn’t value human life enough. You can say he was a lunatic for all I care. But please don’t try to tell me that the “original context” of the quote proves he was saying something totally unrelated to what we thought he was saying.

It doesn’t. And he wasn’t.

Franklin’s famous quote means pretty much exactly what we think it means.

(Sorry, Inigo.)


P.S. I know some of you are probably wondering what in the world this post had to do with my writing or costume designing. Well….nothing, actually. But sometimes I just get really interested in a random subject and assume somebody else might be too. Haha.

***Warning. This movie, although great fun, does have a significant amount of language. Lots of d–n, h–l, and taking God’s name in vain. I recommend using filtering technology of some kind if this bothers you. (I’ve had friends take my mention of the movie as a recommendation and then be horribly offended by the content. So. Fair warning.)

What do YOU think? Have you ever wondered where Franklin’s famous quote originally came from? Do you think it still applies today? Have you heard someone try to claim it doesn’t “mean what you think it means”? Also, does anybody else think Princess Bride is one of the most quotable movies ever? Let me know in the comments!

One thought on “A QUOTE IN CONTEXT – What did Franklin really think about Liberty and Safety?

  1. Kellyn Roth says:

    I love this! I honestly had never thought about the context, but … it totally means exactly what I thought in context. 😛 Glad you dug into it a bit, though!

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