Opinion / Politics / We The People

The Secret of Liberty


Let me tell you a secret.  Bear with me.  President Trump has steadfastly defended the American Pledge of Allegiance, and rightly so.  The pledge dates to a teacher, patriot and Civil War veteran, George Thatcher Balch.  Updated in 1892, 1942 and 1954 – to include God – the vow is a commitment to America’s flag, liberty and justice. 

Take a moment and think on liberty.  If the flag is clear, and justice subject to varied definitions, liberty is concrete.  Liberty is honored in our First Amendment, Bill of Rights, 1791, guarantee of freedoms we enjoy. 

The Second Amendment assures us the right to “keep and bear arms.”  The First assures liberties of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. Legal tomes have been written on all five, but these freedoms amount to America’s bedrock. 

Thomas Jefferson worried greatly about the first three, “free exercise” of faith, free speech (unencumbered by political intimidation), and free press (unimpaired by government overreach).   

Jefferson felt strongly about state limits on conscience, or religious convictions, and limits on speech.   While not a Baptist, Jefferson wrote persuasively to Baptists that the Bill of Rights would protect them against the imposition of a “state religion” (e.g. Anglicanism) 

While soft spoken – not a Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty, or give me death!”), George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, James Monroe, or John Adams – Jefferson was a devotee of free speech.  After all, he wrote the Declaration, right?

He differed with Adams, America’s second President, on the sanctity of press.  To Jefferson, a free press was everything – without it, government would slide from accountability, lose the trust on which democracy depended. 

Jefferson was often harried by the press.  In his own time, before, during and after being president, he was considered polarizing.  Nevertheless, he declared: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”  

Years on, reflecting on what they had done, Jefferson wrote to his old friend Lafayette, then in France.  The year was 1823, and Jefferson opined: “The only security of all is in the free press,” because “the force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed.”

Adams – with whom Jefferson regularly quarreled – was no pal of the press.  So much did Adams hate “newspapers” that he signed the Sedition Act in 1798, making it illegal to criticize the government.  Jefferson let the act lapse in 1880, deeming it a mortal danger to America’s liberty.  The act made criticizing a president criminal; Jefferson – then president – would have none of it.  

So where are we today?  Liberty is as important today as ever – under attack from every direction.  Every liberty in the First Amendment is under fire.  President Trump is a champion of these liberties.  But he has recently stepped in Adam’s direction, away from Jefferson. 

The state of America’s irresponsible, often untruthful, and proudly anti-traditional press galls him.  While tempers flare – part of the human condition – President Trump has again dubbed the press an enemy.  Jefferson might have felt equally galled by Federalist press but would have held fire.

Yes, many in the press either do not know or do not respect American history – but a free press is not the enemy, not antithetical to our values; it is part of what we have fought to preserve.  Like many presidents, President Trump has been treated unfairly, the press failing to respect his office and achievements.  He has been treated far worse than most and achieved far more.

But pulling back on the throttle is the right thing to do – not the reverse.  Like managing ground effect in a tight space, sometimes the way forward is to give not take, let the process guide the outcome, let facts and principles do their magic, rather than forcing what may not otherwise happen.  As they say, good things take time.

Specifically, in this case, the President lashed out at a news outlet that is usually “fair and balanced.”  He condemned them as “not working for us anymore,” by which he meant not interpreting the world as he sees it, reporting facts he thinks immaterial, and widening the scope of interviews. 

Responding, a news anchor recited the network’s obligation is to report truth, not fawn or favor a political figure.  The President pressed his case, got a rejoinder, and then complained that the network favored his opponents.  Throttling up – particularly against a level-headed outlet – is unproductive.

Here is the truth:  Jefferson never had to put up with the 24-hour news cycle, never confronted false allegations intended to unseat him and undermine his presidency, and never faced the kind of press onslaught that this president has faced.   

But Jefferson was unparalleled in several ways – he had epic prescience, depth of commitment to the Bill of Rights, and timeless wisdom.  He understood principles that protect, preserve, reinforce and sustain liberty.  Press freedom is one. 

Much of what President Trump has done for liberties cherished by Jefferson, the founder would applaud.  Jefferson would be shocked to see attacks on speakers advancing traditional ideas, especially on college campuses.  He would be shocked at how little is learned, how much history is forgotten, how much of what he fought for lost.   He would be utterly appalled to see those of faith mocked and derided, including by members of the US Congress and federal judges. 

But he would ride to the defense of a free press, urging them to be responsible, and urging the president to pull back.  Jefferson once urged his anti-press predecessor, John Adams, to give press freedom a chance.  Jefferson had no love for lies told, but knew America needed a free press.

Does this mean saying a hostile press is not hostile, an untruthful press is credible, a false narrative somehow true, a belligerent antagonist unbiased, an irresponsible journalist professional, undignified reporter dignified, or false story accurate?  No, certainly not. 

Jefferson never gave up trying to clarify the truth.  But that is the whole point.  In a free society, truth has a chance – and facts will out.  So long as we believe in the timeless, sacred freedoms lodged in our First and Second Amendments – and insist they be exercised responsibly – we will be free.  That is the secret.  The secret of liberty is standing by these liberties, even when that is hard.

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3 years ago

I agree in general but you need to clarify something, how do you “insist they [freedoms] be exercised responsibly” without some kind of leverage? What form should that “insistence” take? Who does it? How does that “insistence” not look like manipulation? What about the large number of people who are quite happy with the press’ irresponsibility? They have just as much right to “insist” the press keep doing it.

We all need to step back (especially the Left) and realize that *free* people are free to do things other people, i.e. ourselves, think is the wrong thing to do. If they can’t then they aren’t free. That applies to so-called hate speech but also to what lawn decorations your neighbor puts out — or the press being irresponsible. Each time we limit other people’s ability to make what we consider to be wrong choices we nibble away at Liberty. Freedom has a price, the real price of freedom is letting others do what you think is stupid or irresponsible (up to the point they cause actual, demonstrable harm, as the old saying puts it the freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins).

The best response to an irresponsible press isn’t insisting they be responsible, its supporting and lauding the press that *is* responsible.

The real problem is, as that same Adams put it, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” You can expect freedoms to be abused more and more the less moral and grounded the people are. The founders knew full well that only a people who can largely self-govern their own behavior are fit for self government. The problem with today’s press is exactly that, they’ve lost the idea that truth and honesty are more important than seeing their preferred outcome. They have come to believe that the ends justify the means — as do their supporters. The *only* way back is for them to start believing that integrity matters more than winning. So yeah, I see little hope of that with this generation, we can only hope, and work toward, the next generation being better educated, especially having better morals. As Reagan put it: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” Its abundantly clear we failed to do that with this generation, lets not fail the next.

David Keyston
3 years ago

Free press is essential. However, the mainstream press for the most part does not have the principles that guide them as our press did even 50 years ago. The vast majority of the so-called “free press” is simply yellow journalism on an agenda of their own, mirroring a liberal dialogue and backed by such extreme interests that are antithetical to our our Constitutional form of government as a Republic. Thank God that our true American citizens stand for what is right in regards to these primary rights in our founding documents.

Trump may not be perfect (who is?), but he certainly was exactly the right individual for the job at the right time, and for that I am truly grateful.

3 years ago

Sure, look where forbearance got george bush. His and roves decision to not strike back brought his approval numbers down into the twenties and paved the way for a community organizer. People were tired of the strife and bought into the last presidents campaign fabrications. The electorate sighed and just wanted it to stop. The press was all too happy to oblige, switching into syncophantic mode instantly. Had Trump followed bushes lead, i believe he would be around thirty percent. The big time press is so utterly biased that there now is no choice. Their vitriol and lies must be called out lest the voters give up hope. We are very far along on the road to serfdom. The dems and their press mouthpieces are trying to close the deal. Rinos have taken the high road for forty years. They were afraid of the press. Like Lincoln said of Grant; ‘he fights, i cant spare him’. So it is with Trump.

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