It may help to remove some of the heat from further discussions if we can all agree that individual liberty was never any American's birthright. The idea that people should be left alone and not harassed by officialdom was as radical an idea as the notion that God does not need appointed intermediaries to translate the message of faith.

Exhibit 1: The Oath of a Freeman

And June 1st was the anniversary of Mary Dyer's execution on the Boston Common.

David Lillienfeld writes: 

Since your citations are more than a century before the Declaration, I'm not sure I'm ready to accept your proposition. What are your distinctions between a 1776 definition of individual liberty and what you would characterize as what was viewed as the birthright?

Stefan Jovanovich replies: 

Franklin, who opposed actual slavery of other human beings, was wise enough to edit out of the Declaration of Independence Jefferson's indictment of King George for making white Americans "slaves". Jefferson, who never saw anything wrong with the enslavement of black and copper-skinned people, had thought it was a telling indictment and a politically appealing one to be added to the 1776 "definition of individual liberty". Franklin knew better. Neither Jefferson not anyone else i 1776 had a good answer offered to Samuel Johnson's question: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"

You really must sit down and actually read the Declaration of Independence, David. There is no definition of individual liberty in the document; if you want to find even a hint of that radical idea, you have to fast-forward nearly a dozen years. First, you have to watch the country go through a ruinous civil war and catastrophic financial default. Then you get to watch the genius and wisdom from experience of Washington, Franklin, Morris and (to a lesser extent, although the academics like you give him the greatest credit) Madison produce the first official confirmation of the rights of individual citizens in American history - the U.S. Constitution.

Here are a few things for you to consider as you follow the lesson plan:

1. The Declaration of Independence has no legal authority as far as the United States of America is concerned; it was the unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America. That is why it is the favorite document of people who want to believe in absolute "states rights" and, like Justice Sotamayor, in a legal authority that is not required to be confirmed by the votes of the actual citizens of the country, as the U.S. Constitution has been.

2. If you read the document carefully, you will find that it has absolutely nothing to say about individual liberty; it is very detailed in its descriptions of the abuses by the King and his ministers and agents against individuals but those violations are mentioned as justifications for the rebellion that had already occurred in and around Boston, not as wrongs to be corrected in the laws of England and America.

3. War messages never, ever contain assertions about individual liberty; they only speak of "the people" and "the state". Note the entire absence of any statements about individual liberty in Jefferson's Wow finish: "That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." The colonists are telling King George what the new boss is going to do; they are not spending any time telling him what the distinctions will be between their sovereign authority and the one held by the old boss.

I offered "my citations" as a reminder that Americans have not yet been gifted with individual freedom from birth. The arrival at Plymouth did not change that; neither did 1776. Thanks to the war veterans who were the majority in Philadelphia in 1787 and those who were a majority in the Congress in 1868 we have, as a country, made a more than decent start at establishing, once and for all, that people's natural rights come before everything else at law. But, we are still very far removed from Jeff Watson's ideas of freedom; and it is the worst kind of schoolie propaganda to assert that this is a nation founded "in liberty". We Americans (and the foreigners unfortunate enough to be snagged in our courts) have a few specific individual rights that can, with money and luck and honest judges, be successfully asserted. But, as too many of our List members know from painful experience, "the law" spends most of its time telling the citizens that the sovereign is right even when it is clearly wrong and then charges "the people" extra for the privilege of reminding them who is boss.


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