Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A True Martyr of Liberty

Three hundred and twenty-five years ago this December in the year 1683, in England, an innocent man met his fate at the executioner’s block. Parliament had been dissolved by King Charles II two years previous. In June of that year a plot to assassinate the King was discovered, and many well known Republicans were arrested …

As dawn broke on the morning of December 7th, the sky was overcast and the air was cold and damp. The London fog seemed thicker than usual, which added to the gloominess. In the Tower of London, locked in prison, sat a solitary figure – previously sentenced to die by execution that day. His alleged crime? – “Treason against the King.” With the pen and ink and paper provided as his last request, he was writing in the dim light of his cell. Who was this man, and how is he connected to America’s Independence?

When Thomas Jefferson was asked to name the sources for the principles of the Declaration of Independence, he named the writings of our prisoner -- titled “Discourses Concerning Government” -- as one of his primary guides. When Jefferson established the University of Virginia, he instituted a course on the Constitution with “Discourses” as a required text. He also said that “Discourses” was “probably the best elementary book of the principles of government … which has ever been published in any language.”

"Discourses Concerning Government" stands for the proposition that, "the principle of liberty in which God created us . . . includes the chief advantages of the life we enjoy, as well as the greatest helps towards felicity, that is the end of our hopes in the other" ... and, "If the public safety be provided, liberty and propriety secured, justice administered, virtue encouraged, vice suppressed, and the true interest of the nation advanced, the ends of government are accomplished ..."

During the Revolutionary War period, our prisoner was a patriot’s hero. In addition to Jefferson, his book was cited by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and others, as authority for both the revolution itself -- and as a guide to the formation of our republic.

Was this man guilty of treason? – only in the same sense that the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence were also guilty of treason against the King of England -- because he (and they) believed that “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness …”

One who attended his execution reported:

When he came to the scaffold, instead of a speech, he told them only that he had made his peace with God, that he came not thither to talk, but to die; [he] put a paper into the sheriff’s hand, and another into a friend’s, said one short prayer as short as a grace, laid down his neck, and bid the executioner do his office …

Algernon Sidney was beheaded on December 7, 1683.

By: J. David Gowdy

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Power in the Republic

The continuing challenge of any people and government is to maintain a balance of power with adequate controls to ensure the safety and felicity of the people. The entire treatise of the Federalist Papers serves as reference to the need to delegate and diffuse governmental powers in order to ensure our safety and felicity from potential external and internal harms.

James Wilson wrote: "Liberty and happiness have a powerful enemy on each hand; on the one hand tyranny, on the other licentiousness [anarchy]. To guard against the latter, it is necessary to give the proper powers to government; and to guard against the former, it is necessary that those powers should be properly distributed." Woodrow Wilson said: "The history of liberty is a history of the limitations of governmental power, not the increase of it." Both the limitation and balance of power lie at the heart of the Constitution.

More than any other form of government, the maintenance of our republic requires wise and virtuous leaders, who respect the Constitution and the principles of delegated power. James Madison said, “The aim of every political Constitution, is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust." Under the Constitution, "We the People" are the ultimate determinants of who will be our leaders ...

When the Constitution was signed by the members of the Constitutional Convention in September 1787, it then went to the several states for ratification. The states each held their own ratifying conventions wherein they debated its provisions. In one such convention held in North Carolina in July 1788, a representative named William Goudy (who may be a distant relative), spoke on the subject of tyranny:

“Mr. Chairman, I wonder that these gentlemen, learned in the law, should quibble upon words. I care not whether it be called a compact, agreement, covenant, bargain, or what. Its intent is a concession of power, on the part of the people, to their rulers. We know that private interest governs mankind generally. Power belongs originally to the people; but if rulers be not well guarded, that power may be usurped from them. People ought to be cautious in giving away power. These gentlemen say there is no occasion for general rules: every one has one for himself. Every one has an unalienable right of thinking for himself. There can be no inconvenience from laying down general rules. If we give away more power than we ought, we put ourselves in the situation of a man who puts on an iron glove, which he can never take off till he breaks his arm. Let us beware of the iron glove of tyranny. Power is generally taken from the people by imposing on their understanding, or by fetters [shackles].”

--William Goudy (July 21, 1788, “The Debates in the Several State Conventions, (North Carolina), on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution”, Elliot's Debates, Volume 4, page 10).

Just as our founding fathers, we as citizens “ought to be cautious in giving away power” or in allowing it to be "taken" from us.

By: J. David Gowdy

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions

On January 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln gave an address before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, entitled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, describes the event this way: "we had a society in Springfield, which contained and commanded all the culture and talent of the place. Unlike the other one its meetings were public, and reflected great credit on the community ... The address was published in the Sangamon Journal and created for the young orator a reputation which soon extended beyond the limits of the locality in which he lived."

In his landmark address, Lincoln explores potential dangers to our Republic, and inquires of us:

"But, it may be asked, why suppose danger to our political institutions? Have we not preserved them for more than fifty years? And why may we not for fifty times as long?

“We hope there is no sufficient reason. We hope all dangers may be overcome; but to conclude that no danger may ever arise, would itself be extremely dangerous. There are now, and will hereafter be, many causes, dangerous in their tendency, which have not existed heretofore; and which are not too insignificant to merit attention. …

[T]he history of the world tells us … that men of ambition and talents will … continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.--It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction ... Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.” (italics in original)

In this election year, it would be wise for us to examine our candidates for public office -- those who seek to represent and to govern us, whether by "a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair" -- by this test suggested by Abraham Lincoln over 170 years ago.

By: J. David Gowdy

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

September 17th -- Constitution Day

“The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
--James Madison, Federalist No. 51

Both the limitation and balance of power lie at the heart of the
U. S. Constitution. It stands as the preeminent example of how a government may be structured with "checks and balances" to secure liberty "with equal justice for all." Various governments may be traced throughout history; yet, the liberty that has existed in America since the establishment of its Constitutional government in 1787 is the most profound and enlightened in secular history. It has served as the model for constitutions of many other nations.

Benjamin Franklin said of the U. S. Constitution: "It astonishes me to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does." Gladstone called it, "The most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man." The inspired Constitution of the United States of America truly serves as the cradle of liberty.

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." (Preamble)

By: J. David Gowdy

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Liberty requires Knowledge

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
--James Madison

Thomas Jefferson said: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." He also stated: "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome direction, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power."

The diffusion of knowledge and an enlightened citizenry are essential elements required to maintain liberty. In this regard, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote that the “best guides” to the “distinctive principles” of the government of the United States of America are found in:

· The Declaration of Independence;
· The "Federalist Papers"; and
· George Washington’s “Farewell Address.”

Have we read and considered each of these works? Have we studied and learned the principles of the Constitution in the tradition of the Founding Fathers? Are the Constitution and principles of liberty as espoused by the Founding Fathers being taught in our schools? Has their history and significance been diluted? Vigilance in learning and imparting liberty's knowledge is part of liberty's price.

By: J. David Gowdy