Benjamin Franklin, ‘War on Terror’ Pundit

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. Chances are you have seen this lately. But what does it come from? What’s the bigger picture? Does it really have relevance to our world now, what with terrorism and the concern for civil liberties?

“In fine,” Franklin said,

We have the most sensible concern for the poor distressed inhabitants of the frontiers. We have taken every step in our power, consistent with the just rights of the freemen of Pennsylvania, for their relief, and we have reason to believe, that in the midst of their distresses they themselves do not wish us to go farther. Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.[1]

The fuller context for this popular quote, which has been popping up all over the place in the wake of the recent surveillance revelations, is quite elaborate. Franklin spoke these words in the Pennsylvania Assembly during the French and Indian War, which was a horror-show of terror attacks by native tribes, allied with France, on the frontier colonists of territories that would not become America for another generation. At hand was a bill backed by the British Crown to establish a standing militia to protect the “back counties” against the depredations and brutality of the Delawares and Shawanese.

Franklin was hardly a pacifist, having organized popular resistance in the thousands against the Indian threat to the homeland. The issue was that certain people known as the Proprietaries, a small minority of wealthy landowners in the Pennsylvania colony, were to be exempted from the taxes that would need to be raised to fund the new army. Franklin and other future revolutionaries thought this was an outrage to self-governance, which is an interpretation offered by a scholar in the early 1900s named Sydney George Fisher.

Fisher records that “as the war was being waged for the defence of [the 18th century equivalent to corporate elites, e.g. ‘the 1%’] as well as all the other property of the country, the Assembly and the people in general were naturally very indignant when the governor refused his consent to any bill which did not expressly exempt [William Penn’s and other families’ lands] from taxation.” What followed then is the genesis of the famous Franklin aphorism. “The proprietors, through the governor,” he explains,

offered a sort of indirect bribe in the form of large gifts of land, — a thousand acres to every colonel, five hundred to every captain, and so on down to two hundred to each private, — which seemed very liberal, and was an attempt to put the Assembly in an unpatriotic position if it should refuse to exempt the estates after such a generous offer. But the Assembly was unmoved, and declined to vote any more money for the purposes of the war, if it involved a sacrifice of the liberties of the people or enabled the proprietors to escape taxation.[2]

Several paragraphs earlier, Franklin offers us another quip, one that seems to be less in usage: “The populace are never so ripe for mischief as in times of most danger.”[3] There was plenty of danger; in September and October of 1755 there was “a terrible invasion of the Indians, who massacred the farmers almost as far east as Philadelphia,” according to Fisher’s account, so “evidently something more was necessary to protect the province.”[4] The means of raising money for that defense force formed the crux of the issue.

In a sort of timeless way, money and power shaped the debate the assembly and its royal patrons held between the existential need for self-defense and the cost, not only monetary, of a standing armed force — an alien concept to founding revolutionaries like Franklin, and for others. We have no idea what the citizen-statesman-playboy would make of contemporaries like drone strikes, wiretaps… or, for that matter, hijacking airliners (flying machines, after all).

Scholars like Benjamin Wittes recognized that the way people interpret the quote, i.e. as a trade-off between freedom and security, is almost totally wrong. Yet that does not mean no parallels to our time can be allowed. There are plenty of differences with our current fight against extreme Islamists and the wars between the colonists and the natives, but the sense of fear and threat was all the more visceral then — and even with those conditions, Franklin declared that free people cannot so easily buy, literally “purchase,” their safety without selling off their status as free people. (It makes one wonder what Philly’s most famous resident would have thought about private security contractors.) The colonists would end up displacing and decimating the indigenous nations — including the Delaware and Shawnee who had raided the province, posing a menace to pre-revolutionary homeland security.

Our leaders today are faced with a much less elemental threat, though violent extremism is serious. On top of that, we would be well-served to look at our own violent extremism.


[1] American Politics Before the Revolution: The Works of Benjamin Franklin, vol. II (Philadelphia: William Duane, 1809), p. 253. Italics in original.

[2] The True Benjamin Franklin, 5th ed. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1903), p. 205.

[3] The Works of Benjamin Franklin, p. 245. My emphasis.

[4] The True Benjamin Franklin, p. 206.

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