“The genius of the American revolutionaries was that in the Constitution they gave freedom the political framework in which it could thrive and endure.” Os Guinness
“The Founders faced three tasks in establishing a free republic. The first was winning freedom—the objective of the revolution in 1776…The second task was ordering freedom—the objective of the U.S. Constitution in 1787…The third task was sustaining freedom.” Ibid
America Today: Has Freedom Become its own worst enemy?
Os Guinness, Centennial Review, March 2014, p. 1, 2
From the ringing cry of Moses, “Let my people go!” to the heroic stands of the Greeks at Thermopylae and SaTamis, to the assassins of Julius Caesar shouting “”Libertas!” with their daggers dripping blood, to the Magna Carta, to the English Bill of Rights in 1689, to the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen published the same week in 1791, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, freedom – has been a central theme in the history of the West—even if freedom has often had to be won from evils and oppressions that were Western themselves.
‘Free Always’ isn’t Easy
No country has aspired to this ideal and shouldered this responsibility more openly than the self-proclaimed “land of the free.” As a European admirer of the American experiment, I would argue that one of America’s greatest contributions to the history of human freedom is the brilliant and daring attempt by the founders to build a free republic that they believed could remain free for all time. “Always free, free always,” as it was once expressed.
Not once in my thirty years in Washington, DC, however, have I heard anyone, let alone a national leader, talk of sustainable freedom—and certainly not with the wisdom and realism that was so characteristic of the Founders or the young Abraham Lincoln. Yet two and a third centuries after the establishing of freedom in 1776, sustainability is the issue of the hour for freedom.
The Founders faced three tasks in establishing a free republic. The first was winning freedom-^the objective of the revolution in 1776. This was the most glorious of the tasks, but it was not unique. The French won freedom in 1789, the Russians in 1917, and the Chinese in 1949. The second task was ordering freedom—the objective of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. And here the French, the Russians, and the Chinese did not do it. Their revolutions spiraled down to a demonic disorder that was worse than the tyrannies they replaced. The genius of the American revolutionaries was that in the Constitution they gave freedom the political framework in which it could thrive and endure.
The third task was sustaining freedom. Many people can quote Benjamin Franklins words to a woman who asked what the constitutional convention had achieved: “A republic, Madame—if you can keep it!” Few Americans today can go beyond that, yet many of the Founders gave considerable thought to what they called the “perpetuation” of the new institutions.
What the Young Lincoln Knew
Indeed that was the title of his talk chosen by the 28-year-old Lincoln when he was asked to address the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, in 1837. If winning freedom is the work of a few years, and ordering freedom only a few years more, then, sustaining freedom is the challenge of the decades and centuries. It should certainly be regarded as a prime task for American citizens today.
The Founders’ realism over sustaining freedom included a deep awareness of why freedom was so difficult to sustain. They knew, the classics well, and had ransacked them in a daring attempt to use history to defy history. They drew on such writers as the Greek general and historian Polybius and the Roman orator and statesman Cicero, who had each analyzed the different reasons why the wheel of history kept turning and no form of government lasted forever.
The first challenge highlighted by the ancients was the danger of external menaces, but this was the Founders’ least concern for obvious reasons. Most of them came from a small protected island, they found themselves on a large protected continent, with the world’s two largest oceans as their buffer, and the nearest serious enemy was three thousand miles away.
Read George Washington’s Farewell Address and Lincoln’s Lyceum speech and they almost disdain what Lincoln calls the threat of some “transatlantic Bonaparte” putting his foot down in the cornfields of Ohio. Needless to say, we can no longer afford such blithe assurance in a day of intercontinental ballistic missiles and terrorists with box cutters.
The second classical menace came from what . Polybius called a corruption of customs. What was decisive for any nation, he argued, was its constitution. But every constitution rests on a bedding of traditions, customs and moral standards, and if these are corrupted, the best constitution in the world will not hold things together. Such a corruption, Polybius notes, most often happens in periods of power and prosperity.
The third classical menace is in one word: time. It is striking that the U.S. Constitution came into force the same year that Edward Gibbon published the final volume of his classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In the last chapter he raised the question, why did Rome fall? And his first answer was “the injuries of time.”
Such a history-born realism was second nature to the Founders of the American republic and to the young Lincoln. In his Lyceum address, he added up the “accounts running” fifty years after the revolution, and warned of the “silent artillery of time” damaging the walls of the republic in a way that no foreign invader could do. Contrast this with the appalling disregard of contemporary American leaders for the importance of history and their poor understanding of their own political system.
From the vantage point of global history, we face a simple but very challenging paradox: Freedoms greatest enemy is freedom. There are common ways in which freedom undermines itself—when freedom becomes permissiveness and then license; when those who love freedom put such an emphasis on safety and security that they destroy freedom (think NSA surveillance), and when those who prize freedom do anything to defend it—even using methods that contradict and destroy freedom (think Abu Graibh).