Essential Liberty or Toleration – Is There A Distinction?

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By  H. Votaw, a past contributor to the publication, Liberty

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“They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin.

 

In this terse sentence Franklin referred to two things which are often confused by the unthinking. It may be questioned whether or not permanent safety can ever be secured to any individual in any country except through the guaranties of liberty written into the fundamental laws of the land.

It is possible to conceive of a subject’s winning favor at the hand of an absolute monarch and receiving honor, preferment, position, titles, and wealth as evidence of the sovereign’s regard. Such rewards have been bestowed again and again by kings and emperors who claimed to rule by “divine right.”

Unsafe, however, is the position of the subject who has no security beyond the whim of a ruler. History recites so many instances of court intrigue, so many cases of jealous rivals’ poisoning the mind of the master against a faithful servant, so many occasions when without any reason a man has been cast from an exalted post to a vile dungeon, that no real lover of “essential liberty” can be willing to accept “temporary safety” in its stead.  No matter how enviable a position one may enjoy, the thought that its continuance rests upon the frame of mind of a single man or the tolerance of a group, must cause uneasiness, for both individuals and groups are liable to be fickle.

“Temporary safety” seems to signify only toleration.  “Toleration” is a word much used today, and it is well for an individual or a people to practice tolerance; but to the lover of inherent rights “tolerance” is a term that lacks the guaranty of real freedom that “liberty” conveys.  Of “tolerance,” “tolerate,” and “toleration,” Webster says:

Tolerance:  A disposition to tolerate opinions, beliefs, practices, or conduct differing from one’s own; freedom from bigotry; toleration.

Tolerate:  To suffer to be, or to be done, without prohibition or hinderance; to allow or permit negatively, by not preventing; to put up with; as, to tolerate doubtful practices. [Italics mine.]

Toleration:  Disposition to tolerate others or other opinions, etc., especially in religious matters.”

This writer has no disposition to be captious, but feels that if one lets “tolerate,” “toleration,” and “tolerance” mean all they may, he still falls far short of describing the principles of essential liberty.  The real kernel of these words is found in that part of the definitions given which says, “to allow or permit negatively, by not preventing; to put up with; as, to tolerate doubtful practices.”

Under toleration a man may have “temporary safety;” but who wants it?  More than once the fetters of force have been forged when those who were contending for their rights mistook toleration for liberty.  Toleration is generally a sop.  It is usually offered when it appears that more than mere toleration is likely to be secured.  lt seems to presuppose a superiority of some over others.  It seems to clothe one class with unusual magnanimity of spirit.  It leaves the thought that while they “put up with” others, it is only because of the natural goodness of their hearts.  It carries the idea that the practices which they permit are doubtful ones, but that because  of their generous natures they allow others, who are to be pitied rather than scorned, to practice the things that their hearts dictate.

In this land, under the guaranties of our Constitution, men may claim as theirs, without the sanction of others, certain inalienable rights.  Defining “liberty,” Webster says, first, that it is the “state or fact of being a free person;…opposed to slavery, serfdom, bondage, subjection, etc.”  The second definition which he gives, however, sets forth the liberty of which we have been speaking:

“The state, or the sum of the rights and immunities, of those whose rights and privileges are protected by an organized civil community (civil liberty), or of those who are invested with the right effectually to share in framing and conductìng the government under which they are politically organized (political liberty), or of those who are free from external restraint in the exercise of the rights that are considered as without the province of a government to control (individual liberty). Individual liberty under modern constitutional governments in general involves freedom of the person in going and coming (personal liberty), equality before the courts, security of private property, freedom of opinion and its expression, and freedom of conscience.”

Here is defined “essential liberty.”  It is not license; it recognizes the rights of every man.  It cannot be interpreted to mean that any man can claim rights which infringe upon the equal rights of his fellows.  Not infrequently, when attempts are made to secure the enactment of purely religious legislation, either by the Federal Congress or by State legislatures, protection is proposed for the minorities by the enactment of an exemption clause.  Such a clause is nothing more than a toleration clause.  It fails to recognize the rights of the dissenters.  lt only appears to give them something, while actually denying that which is fundamental. It goes without saying that the same power which grants the exemption may revoke it.

lt was for liberty that our forefathers strove.  We are unworthy of them if we are content with less.


 Religious Liberty Wisdom

“God alone rules the conscience.”

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