The Origin of Liberty


You were born free; a gift from God. Or, as someone else once wrote, we are all “endowed by (our) Creator with certain unalienable rights” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Yet those rights have been pretty alien to most of humanity. From the beginning, roving bandits raided farmers and travelers, depriving them of life, liberty, and any opportunity for happiness. Eventually they became stationary bandits and called themselves kings.

Thus formed governments, which used their monopoly of the legitimate use of force to deprive all their people of liberty in exchange for a measure of security.

That’s a few hundred pages of academic thought boiled down to six sentences, but the important part is what comes next. In 1788, the American Founding Fathers created our government as a compact between “we the people.” The new Constitution came with constraints on what the government is allowed to do; the government would serve a few specific purposes, but otherwise avoid trampling on the rights of American citizens.

When modern day Americans discuss the genius of the Constitution, we often reference checks and balances and the foresight to make “ambition counter ambition.” We marvel at the durability and wisdom of three distinct branches of government and a bicameral legislature. We celebrate the laboratories of democracy created through our federal system.

But we often forget the most important factor: we the people.

Checks and balances, distinct branches of government, federalism, and all the other institutions that make our Republic great are wholly dependent upon us. When we decide to reward party over policy, we cause politicians to submit themselves to groupthink led by their most prominent member. When we become more concerned with political victories or beating our opponents than we are with liberty, we invite presidents to assume legislative power by governing with a pen and a phone. When we insist our way is the only way, we demand a national solution to a local problem.

The Constitution has barely changed in over two centuries, but how we the people view our relationship with the government has altered drastically.

When free speech is limited, when the president rules by executive fiat, when nine men and women in black robes invent new unchallengeable laws, the fault is not with the Constitution. The fault is with we the people who rail against unconstitutional acts by the other party, and then declare turnabout is fair game when our party takes power. The fault is with we the people when we judge politicians by their party identification instead of their actions. The fault is with we the people when we demand our neighbors live by our ideals through government coercion.

The U.S. Constitution is a brilliant document that established the framework for the oldest and most successful democracy in existence. But it gets its power and authority from the reverence in which it is held. Without support from the American people, without a population that values the Constitution over power, it is just words on a page. We the people secured our liberty. If it is to endure, we the people must protect it.