Since the announcement of the Declaration of Independence when, in the words of John Adams, “the bells rung all day and almost all night,”
Americans have proudly celebrated what, in truth, were revolutionary premises for the establishment, exercise and control of governmental powers.
The protection of those premises—liberty, popular sovereignty, accountability and equality, in short, the rights of man—requires eternal vigilance. Thomas Paine, whose incendiary, persuasive and historic pamphlet, Common Sense, rallied a nation to the cause of revolution in the winter of 1776, observed, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”
The price we pay for the protection of our liberty was on Thomas Jefferson’s mind, as he lay on his deathbed. On July 4, 1826—his last day on earth, and the 50th anniversary of the Declaration—Jefferson penned his final words to a nation anxious to hear from one of the last of the founders. As he focused his commentary on the rights of man, Jefferson stated: “For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”
The maintenance of our liberties involves more than memorization or recitation of those rights catalogued in the Bill of Rights. “Undiminished devotion” requires the steady exercise of our rights, a habit of mind and practice, with an abiding comprehension of the grave difficulty, if not impossibility, of regaining liberty once lost. A nation that surrenders its rights and freedoms is a nation that surrenders the virtues of liberty.
The celebrated Montesquieu, an 18th Century French philosopher whose theories of separation of powers influenced the our founders’ thinking about constitutional government, produced a little known work on the question of regaining lost liberties, while focusing on the fall of the Roman Republic.
In the discussion, Sylla the Roman dictator, tells his friend, Eukrates, that his aggrandizement of power in the face of an emergency was necessary to restore liberty. The temporary violation of laws and disregard of the citizenry’s rights and liberties was justified by the crisis at hand. He then explains that he has relinquished his authority and restored power to his fellow Romans.
Eukrates is unwilling to accept Sylla’s claims. He states that in the act of usurping power Sylla has provided an example of the crime which he, himself, has punished. The act of usurpation, not the act of moderation, will be admired by those eager to flaunt laws to achieve their ends. Sylla concludes that when the gods suffered Sylla to make himself dictator of Rome, they banished liberty forever.
Montesquieu emphasized that Sylla’s aggrandizement of power and disregard of liberties had so warped Roman virtue that his act of returning power to the people, and restoring their liberty, was an exercise in futility. The life, ways and practices of the republic, it seemed, had been eclipsed. Once conscripted, liberty could not be recovered.
An “ undiminished devotion” to our liberties requires a nation of Madisonian Monitors, a citizenry heeding James Madison’s plea for vigilance in monitoring government, to insure scrupulous adherence to the Constitution and vigorous enforcement of the citizenry’s rights and freedoms. In a republic, there is no substitute for an electorate anxious to preserve its liberties. Who, after all, is more interested in the protection of rights and freedoms, and constitutions that limit the exercise of governmental power, than the people themselves? That understanding is what inspired the founders’ confidence in the proposition of self-government.