History casts important shadows that don’t fade with time. The year was 1774. The Declaration of Independence was still two years off, and liberty for those who called themselves Americans was far from inevitable.
What all Americans recognized, however, was a simple truth. The imperial British government was, with inordinate haste, promulgating laws intended to snuff out provincial and individual liberty, aiming to shut down opposition to its central authority.
Moreover, laws protecting individuals against that authority were suddenly going unenforced. The toxic mix — aggressive criminalization of formerly noncriminal acts and blatant nonenforcement of liberty-assuring laws — was more than unsettling.
It created a wave of fear. It also awoke the sleepiest of early Americans, who saw it was not right.
Thomas Jefferson took up his pen. He produced a short piece about basic rights, not the Declaration for which he would later be famous, but a little piece titled “The Rights of British America.”
He hoped to convince the overreaching British government to pull back, show restraint, slow the juggernaut of oppression, and remember that sovereignty belongs to the people, not to a government.
In his essay, Jefferson wrote that “unwarrantable encroachments and usurpations” were curbing basic liberties. He noted that, since the beginning of time, these liberties had belonged to individuals.
He explained that “his majesty” had begun unilateral assertion of formerly legislative powers, and that the crown was undertaking imperial exercise of “wanton power,” and that “rights of human nature are deeply wounded by this infamous practice.”
Jefferson, in his inimitable way, noted that “this is so shameful an abuse of power trusted with his majesty for all purposes, as if not reformed would call for some legal restrictions.” He closed noting that “your majesty or your governors have carried this power beyond every limit known or provided for by the laws.” There he left it.
Meantime, Benjamin Franklin had a word to say. He penned a piece in 1773 titled “Rules by Which a Great Empire May be Reduced to a Small One.”
Among Franklin’s “rules,” in this sardonic parody, he listed what a government should do to properly alienate the people. He noted “a great Empire, like a great Cake, is most easily diminished at the Edges.”
He suggested the king “contrive to punish” those who appeared to be “friends of liberty.” When appointees did something “odious,” the king should “recall and reward them with pensions,” putting them to pasture with profit.
He suggests veterans be “harassed with novel taxes,” that the empire find ways to reduce “security in property,” and “remember to make your arbitrary tax more grievous for your provinces” than those at the seat of power. That was the last humorous piece Franklin wrote about the king.
We inhabit a world that was once founded on the words of these great lovers of liberty. In this new world, we now find novel “encroachments and usurpations,” either by regulation, executive order or one-sided, vote-then-read legislation.
We find growing confusion over the sanctity of individual liberty, with invasions of privacy, incursions into formerly sacrosanct constitutional rights in the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendments to our Constitution. We witness the criminal investigation of seasoned reporters and celebrated moviemakers, gun banning, and selective political prosecution of future contenders to the throne.
We find that state laws no longer matter, except when they excuse nonenforcement of inconvenient federal law or parts of the Constitution that the president does not like. We find that agents of the president, such as the Internal Revenue Service, go unpunished as former leaders are recalled, retired and rewarded with pensions.
We see veterans who defended our liberty held in minimal respect, facing enormous delays in promised medical benefits, heaped with novel taxes and kept from seeing monuments to their service.
All this is patently unsettling, even if we now live under a Constitution and electoral system that allows us to peaceably right a listing ship. Today, we need not make recourse to the only measure Jefferson, Franklin and early America had.
The truth is that, because of their sacrifices and insights, we are today free to vote out leaders who act like kings and their legislative minions. It does help, now and again, to see how easily power rides up on the backs of those who feel unaccountable.
If history does not exactly repeat itself, that is only because we have levers of a constitutional government to pull. The shadows from our Founding endure, reminding us why we feel ill at ease. That is why it is worth recalling the writings of the great men to whom we owe vigilance over our precious liberties.
Robert B. Charles, a former counsel to then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and an assistant secretary of state, heads the Charles Group LLC.