Benjamin Franklin on the Tension between Liberty, Virtue, Safety, Wealth and Power#


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

Alternatively, an earlier quote from Franklin is relevant here and resembles the more famous one:

Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power.


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In November 11, 1755 Benjamin Franklin[1] (1706-1790) addresed the Governor of Pennsylvania in the name of its Assembly[2][3] regarding his unwillingness to pass a series of Supply Bills. The Supply Bills Franklin was advocating for intended to fund the defense of the colony from French and Indian attacks via taxation of the Penn estate, bills which the governor, at the behest of the family which appointed him, continued to reject[4]. The Governor’s stance, however, would allegedly damage the ability of the colony protect itself and the liberties of its inhabitants. The intent of Franklin’s quote in this first appearance is not fully clear and hotly debated, as it was somewhat thrown into an already involved writing which related to and considered multiple points of view[5].

There’s disagreement on the relevance of this quote in the modern world, especially as it has been used to support stances all across the political spectrum: mainly relating the dangers of surveillance in the hands of government and for the safety of its citizens, advocating for a small government and against, seldom for, taxation. Although amusing and paradoxical, the context in which Franklin’s famous utterance was first used was one in which he was indeed advocating for taxation and affording government the means, more means, to protect its people’s liberties.

In fine, 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.9 Such as were inclined to defend themselves, but unable to purchase Arms and Ammunition, have, as we are informed, been supplied with both, as far as Arms could be procured, out of Monies given by the last Assembly for the King’s Use; and the large Supply of Money offered by this Bill, might enable the Governor to do every Thing else that should be judged necessary for their farther Security, if he shall think fit to accept it.

Regardless, and based on the quotation reproduced above, it’s sensible to interpret Franklin’s famous quote as paraphrasing the Freemen’s stance and concerns in face of the vicissitudes they were confronted with.

Moreover, the liberty of which Franklin was speaking becomes even clearer when he decides to recycle his famous quote twenty years later in 1775[6].

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

His objection to acts proposed by the crown relates to the liberty of colonies to make their own laws, an essential liberty a lot more important than mere safety, from war, or money[7]. Should they allow the British crown, through the Parliament, to write their laws for them, in order to delay war and death, they would be giving up essential liberty to secure temporary safety, and would deserve neither.

An earlier variant of the famous quote from Franklin dealt with compromises on one’s own virtue in order to acquire wealth and concessions made on one’s own liberty in the interest of gaining power[8]:

Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power.

Therefore, in my view, the modern usage of Franklin’s quote in which the dangers of trading “essential” liberties for a mere promise of, sometimes temporary, safety are thematized is perfectly acceptable and quite in the spirit which it was used by him: consider your greater objectives as well as principles and do not be distracted by the temporary safety or gains that might come from compromising on those.

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