Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

Benjamin Franklin on the trade off between essential liberty and temporary safety (1775)

In January 1775 Benjamin Franklin (1796-1790) was part of an American delegation sent to Britain in an attempt to resolve the outstanding disagreements between the Crown and the colonies. Seventeen points were up for discussion of which several were rejected outright by the Crown while others were rejected by the colonies. Franklin’s comments regarding the last two points produced one of his most famous sayings from the period:

As to the other two acts, (i.e. 16. The American admiralty courts reduced to the same powers they have in England, and the acts establishing them to be reënacted in America; and 17. All powers of internal legislation in the colonies to be disclaimed by Parliament) the Massachusetts (sic) must suffer all the hazards and mischiefs of war rather than admit the alteration of their charters and laws by Parliament. ‘They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.’

Remarks on the Propositions.

Art. 1. In consequence of that engagement, all the Boston and Massachusetts acts to be suspended, and, in compliance with that engagement, to be totally repealed.

By this amendment article fourth will become unnecessary.

Arts. 4 and 5. The numerous petitions heretofore sent home by the colony Assemblies, and either refused to be received, or received and neglected, or answered harshly, and the petitioners rebuked for making them, have, I conceive, totally discouraged that method of application; and if even their friends were now to propose to them the recurring again to petitioning, such friends would be thought to trifle with them. Besides, all they desire is now before government in the petition of the Congress, and the whole or parts may be granted or refused at pleasure. The sense of the colonies cannot be better obtained by petition from different colonies than it is by that general petition.

Art. 7. Read, such as they may think necessary.

Art. 11. As it stands, of little importance. The first proposition was, that they should be repealed as unjust. But they may remain, for they will probably not be executed.

Even with the amendment proposed above to article first, I cannot think it stands as it should do. If the object be merely the preventing present bloodshed, and the other mischiefs to fall on that country in war, it may possibly answer that end; but, if a thorough, hearty reconciliation is wished for all cause of heart-burning should be removed, and strict justice be done on both sides. Thus the tea should not only be paid for on the side of Boston, but the damage done to Boston by the Port Act should be repaired, because it was done contrary to the custom of all nations, savage as well as civilized, of first demanding satisfaction.

Art. 14. The judges should receive nothing from the king.

As to the other two acts, the Massachusetts must suffer all the hazards and mischiefs of war rather than admit the alteration of their charters and laws by Parliament. ‘They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.’

About this Quotation:

It is interesting to see where the main lines of disagreement lay between the colonists' delegation to London and the Crown in early 1775 which one would think would have been the last opportunity at some kind of reconciliation before independence was declared and war broke out. The sticking points for the Crown were the 8th, 11th, and 17th Articles which were declared to be “inadmissible” or were “refused absolutely”: “8. No troops to enter and quarter in any colony, but with the consent of its legislature. 11. The late Massachusetts and Quebec Acts to be repealed, and a free government granted to Canada. 17. All powers of internal legislation in the colonies to be disclaimed by Parliament.” The payment of back taxes might be negotiable but when it came to the stationing of troops or placing limits on the power of Parliament over colonial legislatures no compromise was possible without giving up political power. Franklin’s remarks about the trade offs between “essential liberty” and “a little temporary safety” seem to have been directed at those in the colonies who could see that further compromise was no longer possible by the Crown and that it was up to the colonies to cave in in order to maintain the peace. Franklin was urging them that to do this would be to give up the entire game and thereby scuttle any chance for real liberty and independence in the colonies.

More Quotations