by Karen Kwiatkowski: What
I Saw at the Convention
This talk was presented in Roanoke at the Third Annual Liberty
Tree Dinner of the 2nd
Tuesday Constitutional Group on September 15th,
Good evening. I’m delighted and honored to be here. I want to talk
today about liberty, how it is defined in practical terms, and what
is required of us to gain and preserve it. I’ll talk about a man,
dead for centuries, who spent much of his life in exile or in prison.
A man who led a movement that inspired and informed our own founding
fathers, a man whose ideas and example may well be appropriate for
our own era of reclaiming liberty in our own country.
Before we examine the life of this hero of liberty, I’d like to
mention another young man, who lived in the mid 1500s, in France.
Etienne de la Boetie was still a teenager when he wrote a three-part
essay entitled The
Politics of Obedience: The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude.
De La Boetie divided his essay as follows:
In Part I he asked simply,"Why do people obey a government?"
His answer was that people tend to enslave themselves, and let themselves
be governed even if by tyrants. He believed that freedom from servitude
comes not from violent action, but from a simply refusal to serve.
Tyrants fall when the people withdraw their support.
In Part I, de la Boetie observed that liberty, not servitude, is
the natural condition of the people." Servitude is fostered
when people are raised in subjection, when people are trained to
adore their rulers. He observes that while freedom is forgotten
by many, there are always some who will never submit.
In Part III, he writes that if things are to change, one must realize
the extent to which the foundation of tyranny lies in the vast networks
of corrupted people with an interest in maintaining tyranny.
De La Boetie was fascinated to find that throughout history, the
majority willingly does the bidding of the minority. This obedience
is voluntary. He argued that it would have to be, because there
would be no possible way for any minority to force any majority
to do anything, except by their consent. He noticed that this required
consent was often "manufactured," to recall Edward Herman
and Noam Chomsky’s term in their
1988 book on media.
Manufactured consent, in this case, relies
on a successful sales pitch promoting the existing status quo
government. There is (and there must be) a widely accepted and shared
belief, promoted by the minority, that the existing hierarchical
system – the existing government -- is good, just, and perhaps even
divine. To reject the system, and its innate goodness, was certainly
treason, and often blasphemy.
This majority consent is constantly reinforced by the majority
itself, through group and family pressure to conform, and by group
rejection and family criticism of those who would fail to join in
with the prevailing paradigm. We are happy to be included, and miserable
if on the outside. It is easy to see how this control mechanism
works in a family, a tribe or a group – but harder to see how it
would work for a whole nation. But remember, in the 1500s, Europe
was still a place of kingdoms, with rulers blessed by God, both
royal and divine. Merging the political with the religious was very
effective, and to reject a king would be to reject your very faith.
I mention Etienne de la Boetie because he had three important things
to say to Frenchmen, to Englishmen of the 1600s, to our founding
fathers, and to us today. He understood that freedom comes not from
violent action, but from the refusal to serve. He could see that
tyrants fall when the people withdraw their support. He pointed
out that liberty is our natural condition, and that we are born
free – free born – but are instead taught that our governments or
our kings only allow us freedom. He recognized that to change
things we first must become aware of the locus of real and true
power (which is at the individual level and not at the state level),
and then change our own minds about how we wish to live.
De La Boetie was young, and the young are known for their optimism,
enthusiasm, and fire in the belly demands for liberty. We older
people nod and smile at the naïve antics of young people who
haven’t yet learned what we think we know.
But it is true that when the people withdraw their consent, governments
fall, whether in ancient Rome, or modern Moscow or Warsaw or Bucharest.
It is true that education, whether for freedom or for enslavement,
is important. The father of modern American public schooling, John
Dewey, wrote, "Children who know how to think for themselves
the harmony of the collective society which is coming, where
everyone is interdependent." This observation is not new.
De La Boetie lived in the 1500s in a society where most people
were wholly devoted to their kings and queens, the order of the
day, as they were taught. Yet he could see that the individual matters,
that liberty is fundamental to our humanity, and the rule of government
depends on our belief in it. The moment we stop believing in that
order, government begins to weaken.
I wanted to introduce you, or reintroduce you, to a certain radical
Englishman of the 1600s. His adult life was marked by a
series of civil wars against a tyrannical King spanning 1642
through 1651. It was Parliamentarians against Royalists, Oliver
Cromwell against King Charles I, and ultimately the Parliamentarians
gained ground. One group that fought on the side of the Parliamentarians
against the monarchy became known as the Levellers.
The Levellers were agitators and pamphleteers and soldiers who
demanded constitutional reform and equal rights under the law. They
believed all men were born free and equal. They believed all men
possessed natural rights that resided in the individual, not in
the government. They believed that each man should have freedom
limited only by regard for the freedom of others. They believed
the law should equally protect the poor and the wealthy. They were
the liberty agitators of their day, the classical liberals of the
1700s, the Lysander Spooner style abolitionists of the 1800s, the
anti-imperialists of the early 1900s, and the Taft Republicans of
the 1940s. They would be called libertarians and constitutionalists,
and would constitute the liberty wing of the Republican Party today.
A primary leader of the Levellers was John Lilburne, also known
as known as Freeborn John. Lilburne was a Lieutenant Colonel in
the Parliamentarian Army. He wrote extensively and prolifically,
as did his associate Richard Overton. Through their pamphlets and
their speeches, and their examples of resistance, they rallied the
troops, and the common people, and members of the gentility as well
– in the name of liberty.
The revolution against Charles I, the rise of the Parliamentarians
and the rapid awareness and articulation of liberty might be instructive
for us today. This story is something I wanted to share with you
tonight, because 400 years later in our own country, history could
be repeating. This revolution started in part because no one was
really paying attention to the trendlines.
It was nearing the end of the 30 Year War that began in 1618. Continental
Europe’s landscape and economy had been devastated. England had
been spared, because Charles I could not afford to participate in
the War for long. Because he had dissolved and alienated the Parliament
in 1629, he had no way of raising revenue from the common people
through national taxation. For those next 11 years, Charles I had
ruled without a Parliament, and this period became known as the
"11 years of tyranny."
Charles did need to raise money during this time – but he did so
through fees and creative financial gyrations. For the common people,
this meant several decades of growing prosperity, with no growth
in their tax burden. Charles I became quite a popular king among
this group. Commoners would have had no real voice in the Parliament
in any case – remember the creation of the Parliament was an assertion
of power by noblemen, to rein in kings who threatened their lands
and wealth. On the other hand, the small middle class, property
owners, and noblemen increasingly resented the creative financing
and tax schemes placed on them alone by the King, and they increasingly
felt powerless – they had to pay but they had no voice.
To summarize, English political trends of the day were these: 1)
a gradual loss of a political voice for the productive and property
owning classes, while the poorer classes were experiencing relative
prosperity even as they were not moving up the economic ladder,
and 2) The nation’s leader is increasingly seen as a tyrant, with
his own agenda, unresponsive and contemptuous to the people who
built the country. Does any of this sound familiar?
The trigger to revolution was an overt power play. King Charles
moved to bring the Presbyterian Church of Scotland under Anglican
reforms and rule. In response, the Scots took up arms and invaded
England. Charles apparently didn’t see this coming, and needed to
quickly hire soldiers for the English army. He had no money to pay
those soldiers, so he finally convened a Parliament to raise those
funds. But when he did, he found the representatives were angry,
and more interested in addressing their grievances with the king
than funding his war with Scotland. So Charles dissolved it, and
convened a new one. But this parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell,
passed a law saying it could only be dissolved by its own consent.
King Charles was angry, but he believed that only a handful of troublemakers
were the problem, and he attempted to have these men imprisoned
on charges of treason. But when the kings army came to Parliament
and demanded that they turn over the five troublemakers, no one
would help – no one consented – no one cooperated. Charles left
London, and the parliamentary revolution ensued.
Freeborn John and the Levellers fought with Cromwell on the side
of the Parliamentarians. Yet they were not the same in terms of
goals or principles. In fact, John Lilburne was jailed several times
at the discretion of Cromwell, who would later purge the Army of
many Levellers. If anyone has been paying attention to the GOP and
its liberty wing over the past few years, including at the convention
a few weeks ago, this might sound vaguely familiar. Over time, the
Parliament itself assumed unprecedented powers, and Cromwell, in
some ways perhaps an early neo-conservative, became an expansionist
tyrant in his own right. But the Leveller movement was influential
in the articulating understanding of the natural rights of people,
and the ideal functions of a government that respects and serves
One important work of Freeborn John, first seen around 1647, was
Agreement of the People." This document was a
demand for rights and conditions, among them:
- Equality of all persons before the law
- Trials should be heard before 12 jurymen, freely chosen by their
- No-one could be punished for refusing to testify against themselves
in criminal cases
- The law should proceed in English and cases should not extend
longer than six months
- The death penalty to be applied only in cases of murder
- Abolition of imprisonment for debt
- Tithes should be abolished and parishioners have the right to
choose their ministers
- Taxation in proportion to real or personal property
- Abolition of military conscription, monopolies and excise taxes
- The right to vote for all men over the age of 21 (excepting
servants, beggars and Royalists)
- No army officer, treasurer or lawyer could be an MP (to prevent
conflict of interest)
- Annual elections to Parliament with MPs serving one term only
These demands certainly sound familiar, and several are specifically
reflected in the anti-Federalists positions as seen in the first
ten amendments of the Constitution. Three main concepts of Leveller
thought persist at least in our own Constitution. First, we understand
the natural right of self-propriety, or as we would say today, self–ownership.
Second, we see a clearly stated right of free association. Third,
we embrace equality under the law, for rich and poor, the same rules
applying to both the politically connected and politically outcast.
In a modern era where we hear of people talking about the 99% and
the 1%, when we see government policy favoritism and bailouts directed
by both parties to key financial and industrial giants, and when
we find massive debt accumulated by the central government while
more and more people cannot find productive work, and entrepreneurs
are stifled by government regulation and taxation and oversight
– the very concept of a "Leveller" may even be appealing.
It also sounds a bit communistic, a bit destructive, and not really
related to individual freedom. In fact – the "Leveller"
name was a pejorative term placed on the liberty advocates by the
royalists – John Lilburn and William Overton preferred the term
"agitator", but they were known by the people as Levellers
nonetheless. Hmmm. Imagine the government labeling the liberty movement
as destructive, dangerous, and silly. That’s a new one!
Freeborn John and the levelers were jailed and persecuted, not
only by Royalists but eventually by the very Parliament they had
fought to empower. Just as public schools and collectivist societies
cannot tolerate people who think for themselves, overweening massive
government cannot function in an environment of property-owning
people who are well-versed in the rationality of freedom, and who
will boldly question their government.
Our founding fathers were inspired and informed by 17th
century libertarianism and they designed a system of government
they thought would preserve those values. But much as the evolution
of Oliver Cromwell’s own parliament, our constitutional republic
started out with the right ideas, and then gradually became authoritarian,
and eventually, tyrannical. I say tyrannical. Perhaps there is a
better word. But how else might we describe $16 trillion in federal
debt, millions of pages of laws and regulations, and future unfunded
obligations of $220 trillion? How else might we describe a politicized,
unelected central bank that creates money out of thin air for the
government to spend, and an executive bureaucracy that functions
largely outside the constitution, spending billions to monitor and
regulate our lives and businesses? We are told each day that we
are free, but in fact, we have been made peasants, and our children
serfs. Our grandchildren may indeed be runaway slaves, seeking a
freer country in which to make their lives and fortunes.
If tyranny might have been predicted, history also tells us that
the ideas of liberty remain steadfast and pure, and repeatedly these
ideas take form and flight, and agitate the status quo.
Periodically in our own history, we have seen a resurgence of the
ideas of Freeborn John. We are seeing them in the Republican Party,
most specifically in the person and message of Dr. Ron Paul. We’ve
seen them in the relatively young Libertarian Party.
These ideas – of self-ownership, of religious toleration, of the
right of free association, and of equality under the law, and ideas
that oppose government influenced, government created, and government
subsidized monopolies – these are old ideas, and they are right
Today, we live under a constitution that in words, embraces liberty.
And yet what we have in terms of a government, a president, a Congress,
and a judiciary is arrogant and unrestrained. Just this week, we
witnessed a mild example of actual constitutional process. A federal
blocked the detention of Americans by the executive branch.
Section 1021 of the NDAA provides for the detention of any American
indefinitely without habeas corpus or trial on executive order.
It clearly contradicts the Constitution. Yet, when a federal judge
explained this and blocked the practice, within hours of the ruling,
the Obama administration filed an
extensive and panicked appeal.
Judge Napolitano wrote a
scathing article this week, wondering what our choices were
in terms of a change of national leadership. He basically asked,
"What if the principal parties’ candidates for president really
agree more than they disagree?" He concluded with another question:
"If elections change nothing, what do we do about it?
These observations are not from a nihilist or an anarchist – they
are from a seasoned judge and constitutional scholar, a Fox News
advisor and host. And this same question: "What do we do about
it?" was on the mind of 16th century Frenchmen like
Etienne de la Boietie, and 17th century Englishmen like
John Lilburne and Richard Overton. These were indeed the questions
that our own founders, from Patrick Henry to Thomas Jefferson to
George Washington asked. These questions were also asked by the
anti-imperialist league at the beginning of the 20th
century – and what all of these men discovered about their own roles
is what I believe we must rediscover today.
I believe we must take an active and even aggressive role in the
effort to restore liberty. This is accomplished first in our hearts
and our minds, but that won’t be enough. Like John Lilburne and
Richard Overton, and like our founders and thousands more who stood
with them – we must be ready to face a king’s wrath, social disfavor,
and the criticism of our group or our party. We must be ready to
face arrest and imprisonment keeping our eyes on the long-term goal
of liberty for all of us.
Just last month, federal and state law enforcement officers detained
and arrested a former Marine just outside of Richmond because
they didn’t like what he said in a private Facebook chat. This
man had committed no crime, but a criminal and a nut he was made
out to be, until valiant resistance by his mother, his friends,
and the Rutherford
Institute out of Charlottesville publicized his case. Thanks
to their swift and bold action, Brandon Raub of Chesterfield was
not locked away forever in a mental institution on the command of
a government bureaucrat. Instead, Brandon Raub, former Marine and
solid citizen whose only crime was to annoy and agitate the federal
government, was released free of charges. This release would never
have happened without the publicity and the bold defense by John
Whitehead. John has written in the weeks since he garnered Raub’s
release, that he has heard from hundreds of people all over the
country with similar stories, that didn’t end as well.
If that can happen in Virginia today, then the time is long past
for us to get over our concern that we will stand out from the crowd
if we demand liberty too loudly – and that we will be rejected by
our political party if we argue for the rights of the people to
self-ownership, freedom of association, private property, and equality
under the law. These are simple demands reflect natural law and
they don’t require an Ivy League education to understand. They are
not newly invented, but have been a rallying cry for centuries against
overweening government and against tyranny. We did not invent these
values of liberty! All we are being asked to do, all we must do
today is stand up for them.
I doubt many of us really consider what it means to demand liberty,
at the cost of death. Patrick Henry’s famous words are well known
to us. In the beginning of his famous "Give
Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech, he says this,
…it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We
are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to
the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is
this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle
for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who,
having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which
so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever
anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole
truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.
I believe the challenge before us today is not an election, or
even many elections. The challenge before us is rather to be willing
to know the truth, to know the worst, and to provide for it. It
is in that providing that we will give up comfort and wealth, embrace
our fears, trade away our former dreams and lay it all on the line
to live free, and to never submit to tyranny. We are on that path
now – as those who went before us – because we have indeed been
willing listen, and to see, the terrible truth that a republic of
these United States no longer exists – it has been destroyed and
transformed into a social welfare dictatorship in which voters trudge
angrily to the polls hoping to change things, and yet the only change
we see is the continued growth of a centralized security state,
an indebted and bankrupt nation that seeks wars abroad, suppression
of liberty at home, and preaches a deformed and alien interpretation
of the Constitution to sustain its existence.
want a map, we want to understand how we should be organized to
restore a Republic, and to restore liberty in the hearts and the
lives of Americans. I’ve mentioned some historical figures, and
I’ll rephrase their advice. First, de La Boetie would advise us
to withdraw our consent. Withdraw our consent to tyranny, to statism,
to a lack of equality under the law. In other words, we should obey
no unlawful, and for us, no unconstitutional, order. Freeborn John
would advise us to never compromise on the natural liberty of man.
He would tell us that the only just government is one that honors
and protects the individual and individualism.
He would advise us to always preach dangerous words to power, even
though we may be imprisoned or removed from our livelihood and families.
We already know what Patrick Henry advised, and perhaps we
must also be reminded of the famous last words of Nathan Hale,
who before being hanged on September 22nd, 1776 by the
British: "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my
This is what liberty means, and it cannot mean other than lives
lived free, and given freely. If government, as George Washington
wrote, is force, and dangerous like fire, our very survival and
our children’s survival, depends on keeping that fire in check,
keeping that fire limited, strictly useful, always our servant,
and never our master. If we must learn, teach others, risk everything
to resist tyranny, and fight and die for liberty, then that is what
we must do. That is our instruction. That is our mission. For those
who ask, as we all have, as Judge Napolitano did this week, what
can we do, this is your answer.
columnist Karen Kwiatkowski, Ph.D. [send
her mail], a
retired USAF lieutenant colonel, blogs occasionally at Liberty
and Power and The
Beacon. To receive automatic announcements of new articles,
here or join her Facebook page. She
ran for Congress in Virginia's 6th district in 2012.
2012 Karen Kwiatkowski
Best of Karen Kwiatkowski