“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”—Thomas Paine
Such was the mood on the North American continent centuries ago, when pilgrims and pioneers dreamt of a brand new nation to call their own.
Somehow, their experiment worked. Despite the founders’ striking flaws and all of modern America’s faults, the United States remains a great beacon of liberty for the rest of the world.
I’ve been on a pilgrimage this last month down the east coast of the USA. It’s my first time here, so given my obsession with the history of ideas, I made sure to visit Philadelphia and Washington—among many other cities—to better understand the origins of America for myself.
“There’s an urgent need for us to recapture the ideas that shaped the free world.”
Yes, we Australians can struggle to relate to the unbridled patriotism of America. What they achieved in a sudden, dramatic break from Britain, we too now enjoy in our quiet corner of the world. And we managed it without the same fanfare, past or present.
But with all that said, the architects of the American project continue to inspire any who stop and consider what they achieved. They were years ahead of their time, bold and zealous, and their love of liberty still resounds today.
Consider 25 quotes from America’s founders on what freedom cost—and what’s required to keep it alive.
Freedom Requires Risk
Many today want to feel safe from every conceivable danger—even hurt feelings. But there’s always a trade-off between safety and freedom. If we want freedom, we also have to endure a level of discomfort and uncertainty.
“Those that can give up essential liberty to gain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”—Benjamin Franklin
“If we want freedom, we also have to endure a level of discomfort and uncertainty.”
“If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or your arms.”—Samuel Adams
“Timid men… prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty.”—Thomas Jefferson
Freedom Requires Appreciation
When freedom is all we’ve ever known, it’s easy to take it for granted and even be apathetic about its demise. But when we know the price others paid for our freedom, we’re inspired to preserve it for coming generations.
“You will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make a good use of it.”—John Adams
“It’s easy to take freedom for granted.”
“I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”—Patrick Henry
“The truth is, all might be free if they valued freedom, and defended it as they ought.”—Samuel Adams
Freedom Requires Forbearance
If we truly value freedom for ourselves, this means defending it for others—even when that makes us uneasy or offended. The ability to tolerate and even love people with views wildly different than ours is good for them, good for us, and good for society.
“It behoves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others.”—Thomas Jefferson
“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”—Thomas Jefferson
“If we truly value freedom for ourselves, this means defending it for others.”
“If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”—George Washington
“He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”—Thomas Paine
Freedom Requires Vigilance
“The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”—Thomas Jefferson
“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”—Thomas Paine
“Freedom is hard won, easy to lose and, once lost, hard to regain.”
“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”—John Adams
“A constitution of government, once changed from freedom, can never be restored. Liberty once lost is lost forever.”—John Adams
“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”—Thomas Jefferson
Freedom Requires Godliness
Government can provide for our general safety and welfare, but what it cannot do is protect us from our own corruption. Unpopular as it is to admit, the further a society drifts from virtue and godliness, the further we drift from freedom.
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”—Benjamin Franklin
“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion… Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”—John Adams
“Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.”—William V. Wells
“Freedom cannot protect us from our own corruption.”
“A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.”—Samuel Adams
“Those people who will not be governed by God will be ruled by tyrants.”—William Penn
“It is when people forget God that tyrants forge their chains.”—Patrick Henry
Freedom Requires God
It is no coincidence that the freest and safest nations on earth are also those most profoundly shaped by the Bible. The idea that all people are born free, equal, and with inherent rights is not universally accepted around the world, and it did not arise in a vacuum. Human rights find their origins in the explicit teachings of Christianity.
“Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature.”—Benjamin Franklin
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.”—Declaration of Independence, 1776
“Human rights find their origins in the explicit teachings of Christianity.”
“It cannot be emphasised too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.”—Patrick Henry
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”—Thomas Jefferson
We owe much to those who laid the groundwork for the centuries of freedom we’ve enjoyed in the West. May we honour them, and take their word on what’s needed to preserve it for the centuries to come.