What is Eternal Vigilance?

First of all, thanks to Jeff Schreiber for inviting me to share some of my writing here at America’s Right.  I’ve been preparing stuff for the last couple of weeks, and I’ve got a lot of great topics I’m looking forward to hitting.  But before I get to my piece reviewing “The Roots of Obama’s Rage” or prognosticating on the fate of the Democratic Party after the upcoming elections, I want to respond directly to some of Jeff’s hopes for the future of America’s Right.

In his Jeff’s Corner post from October 14, he cited two things he wanted to accomplish at America’s Right:

  1. “We need to start educating again, or in the alternative, we need to resume devastatingly tearing apart arguments from the left with more than just impassioned language espousing conservative principles.”
  2. “I think we should all take on a bit more of an activist role going forward.”

Those two principles–education and activism–are exactly what I hope I can help bring here to America’s Right.

Look, my background is in academia.  Given the fact that the modern American academic establishment is engaged in public relations, research, and outright recruiting of the American left I feel I need to explain myself.  So, I’ll quote Friedrich Hayek:

The attitude of the [classical] liberal toward society is like that of a gardener who tends a plant and, in order to create the conditions most favorable to its growth, must know as much as possible about its structure and the way it functions.

This quote shows the way that activism and education go hand in in hand in the preservation of liberty, and Hayek was not the first person to make this point.

One of the most well-known quotes is that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”  It’s been said by abolitionist Wendell Phillips, President Andrew Jackson and others, but my favorite version is from Milton Friedman:

Maybe I did well and maybe I led the battle but nobody ever said we were going to win this thing at any point in time. Eternal vigilance is required and there have to be people who step up to the plate, who believe in liberty, and who are willing to fight for it.

But “eternal vigilance” is a bit vague.  What exactly does it mean?  From looking over a collection of quotes related to liberty I found three major themes.

#1 — Personal Responsibility

Political freedom requires personal moral responsibility.  No amount of law can ever force people to behave ethically, but the less responsibility citizens take for their own actions the more politicians will be able to garner public support for further encroachment on our civil liberties.  Sure, legislating immorality or bad luck out of existence will never work, but politicians will gladly smile and give it their best shot anyway.

Much could be written on this topic, but it’s not my focus today so I’ll simply end it with the observation of revered American classicist Edith Hamilton:

When the freedom they wished for most was the freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and never was free again.

#2 — Education

The Founders were clear that the first of all civic duties is the obligation to know what is going on in our own government.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “If once [the people] become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions.”  Monitoring our elected representatives is only the beginning, however.  John Adams said “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people,” and Jefferson said simply “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free… it expects what never was and never will be.”  Madison joined in with his observation that “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.”

The vital role of education among the citizens is not something that the Founders invented.  Plato wrote that “the penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men,” and Pericles put it simply: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”

The clearest warning of all, however, comes from Daniel Webster.

There is no nation on earth powerful enough to accomplish our overthrow.  … Our destruction, should it come at all, will be from another quarter.  From the inattention of the people to the concerns of their government, from their carelessness and negligence, I must confess that I do apprehend some danger.  I fear that they may place too implicit a confidence in their public servants, and fail properly to scrutinize their conduct; that in this way they may be made the dupes of designing men, and become the instruments of their own undoing.

The kind of education that American citizens need is not necessarily the kind you get from an accredited university.  It’s the kind of education available to all Americans who take the time and effort to open good books and read them and who open their eyes and their minds to pay attention to what is happening around them.  The basics of human nature, economics and most importantly our history are the education that can protect our liberty.

But of course education, alone, is not enough.

#3 — Courageous Action

Ronald Reagan said it clearly:

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.

One of the first things anyone will learn when studying our history is the same fact that Reagan stated: freedom is always balanced precariously between anarchy and authoritarianism.  There are always those who want to take power for themselves, and there are always those who believe the world could be a better place if only we made a few more laws to better organize society.

Libertarian author James Bovard said that “as soon as the people drop the reins of government, government will leash the people,” and the Supreme Court noted in American Communications Association v. Douds that “It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.”

Have we been upholding our civic duty?  Until very recently, the answer was unquestionably “no”.  The American people had fallen asleep.  We were lulled into complacent slumber by prosperity and security.  In so doing we were not merely failing in our duty as American citizens, but as human beings.  Albert Einstein said “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “Not to act is to act.”  Ignorance and apathy are not excuses.  They are indictments.

The greatest benefit of the Obama administration for the country has been the awakening of the American people.  Not all of the responses have been balanced, accurate, or even especially sane, but at least a wide swath of the American people are awake now.

If we want to wait for the day when all Americans are united together in the preservation of our liberty, aligned on every principle and in agreement on every detail, then we’ll be waiting forever.  The cold, hard fact is that the majority of Americans will continue to shirk their responsibility to be educated and involved in American political life.  Luckily, we can survive anyway.  As Samuel Adams pointed out, “It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.”

No one really knows exactly how the polling would have turned out leading up to the American Revolution, but the estimates that I’ve read have the population split roughly in thirds.  One third were loyalists who supported the King.  One third supported liberty.  And one third–probably more–didn’t know and didn’t care.  Thus, the Founders were in a minority, but they were also both irate and tireless.

The Founders won, and in winning they secured liberty for their generation.  Now each of us must work to secure liberty in our generation.  Thomas Paine wrote that “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”  Fatigue is the right word.  Now is not the time for glamorous sacrifice or violence.  Now is the time for mundane efforts applied day-in and day-out.  Now that the American right has become re-energized, now is the time for staying the course.  This sounds both easy and obvious, but let’s see how many people are still reading about our history, posting on message boards, talking to their friends, and showing up for rallies in 2011.  Or in 2013.  If history is any guide, the bandwagon is a great ride, but also a very short one.

There’s a reason that the phrase is “eternal vigilance”.  And so, to further emphasize the timeless nature of this obligation, let’s go back to the beginning.  To George Washington’s First Inaugural Address:

The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.

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Comments

  1. whats_up says:

    A very good piece, well written and thought out. No matter what your beliefs are more Americans need to become involved in their government. We should have a civic life just like we have a professional and private life. That is the only way our system of government will work.

  2. Randy Wills says:

    Welcome, Johnny Lathop. What a great article. You may have trouble topping it in your coming contrbutions.

    And I loved the quotation from Edith Hamilton, but you REALLY hooked me by quoting from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As ealier readers of AR know, he is right at the top of my list of “heros of the faith”. In fact, I am presently reading Eric Metaxes’recently published “Bonhoeffer; Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy”. I highly recommend it to all who would look for a model Christian (at least my type of Christian).

    Looking forward to more from you on a regular basis. It’s clear to me that Jeff just ratcheted up the stature of AR by adding you to his existing stable of contributors.

    Randy

  3. Jordan Bell says:

    You definitely don’t sound like someone from academia ;)

    Welcome to America’s Right. I look forward to your future articles.

    I especially like your Samuel Adams quote.

  4. kay2the2nd says:

    I only wish you had not used the heading ‘Education’, since that seems always linked to that slime the government pushes onto our children. I think a more accurate heading for that section might be ‘Informed Citizen/Electorate.
    butthatsjustme

  5. Dee says:

    Johnny, wonderful article. I agree that the public has been lulled to sleep when things were going well. I only hope that the reawakening continues and that people do take the time to vote. I know many people who don’t vote because they think their vote will not make a difference. What if we all felt that way?
    It will be very important for those who do get elected to keep in mind what the majority is now saying. Hopefully, once they get to DC it will not be politics as usual.
    People must make an effort to listen to both sides and not just msm. I have found them to be, putting it nicely, a bit slanted.
    Thank you once again for a very good article with excellent quotes. I look forward to reading your future articles.

  6. jvbii says:

    Welcome Aboard!

    Excellent, looking foward to more.

    I would only add

    “It does not take a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of Men.”

    Samuel Adams

    Keep freedoms fire lit.

    Semper Fi

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