For this post-Fourth-of-July ramble, I'll follow in Berkes's footsteps, but add a different kind of detail. Specifically, I'll take a look at five notable earlier appearances of this phrase. My focus will is on what specifically were the early users of the quotation suggesting that we liberty-loving people need to be eternally vigilant about?
- The first time that we know the terms "eternal vigilance" and "price of liberty" were used in close proximity was by an Irishman named John Philpott Curran in 1790, discussing the rules for electing the Lord-Mayor of London.
- The first time we know that the the entire phrase was used together was during in an 1809 discussion of how James Jackson helped fight off the "Yazoo land grab" in western Georgia.
- The first use by a US president, in Andrew Jackson's Farewell Address in 1837, was about the need to fight off the Bank of the United States.
- The first use by someone who would later be a US president was when James Buchanan applied the phrase to discussing the merits of the presidential veto.
- The use of the term in its more modern meaning, as pushing back against encroachments on personal liberty, in the speeches and writings of Frederick Douglass starting in 1848 and continuing to the years after the Civil War.
John Philpott Curran (1750-1817) was a lawyer who is probably best-remembered today as an advocate for freedom in Ireland. At the time of the election of the Lord-Mayor of Dublin in 1790, Philpott gave a speech pointing that while the Lord Mayor had traditionally been elected, a situation had evolved in which Alderman of the city had both become the only ones eligible for the position of Lord Mayor, but also decided among themselves who would hold that position. Thiw quotation is from The speeches of the Right Honourable John Philpot Curran, published in 1865 (July 10, 1790, p. 105, italics added).
"The Lord Mayor of this city hath, from time immemorial, been a magistrate, not appointed by the crown, but elected by his fellow citizens; from the history of the early periods of this corporation, and view of its charters and bye-laws, it appears that the Commons had from the earliest periods, participated in the important right of election to that high trust; and it was natural and just that the whole body of citizens, by themselves or their representatives, should have a share in electing those magistrates who were to govern them, as it was their birthright to be ruled only by laws which they had a share in enacting. The Aldermen, however, soon became jealous of this participation, encroached by degrees upon the Commons, and at length succeeded in engrossing to themselves the double privilege of eligibility and of election of being the only body out of which, and by which the Lord Mayor could be chosen.
Nor is it strange that, in those times, a board consisting of so small a number as twenty-four members, with the advantages of a more united interest, and a longer continuance in office, should have prevailed, even contrary to so evident principles of natural justice and constitutional right, against the unsteady resistance of competitors so much less vigilant, so much more numerous, and, therefore, so much less united. It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance, which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt.
In this state of abasement the Commons remained for a number of years; sometimes supinely acquiescing under their degradation; sometimes, what was worse, exasperating the fury, and alarming the caution of their oppressors, by ineffectual resistance. The slave that struggles, without breaking his chain, provokes the tyrant to double it; and gives him the plea of self-defence for extinguishing what, at first, he only intended to subdue.
Example #2: Thomas Charlton, James Jackson, and the Yazoo Land Fraud
The earliest use of the exact phrase, "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," dates to an 1809 book called The Life of Major General James Jackson, by Thomas U.P. Charlton. James Jackson was a member of first Continental Congress and was in the US Senate in early 1790s. He became Governor of Georgia, and then later returned to the US Senate. The specific issue here is the "Yazoo land fraud," in which the Georgia legislature--some of whom had been bribed--sold large quantities of land in the western part of the state. Jackson made a political issue of sale, was elected Governor, and overturned it, also using the opportunity to disgrace a number of his political opponents. Here is the sympathetic and florid passage from Charlton's book (pp. 84-87), which is only a portion of the surrounding paragraph (!). Notice that Charlton puts the phrase of interest in quotation marks (and I've put it in italics), which might either mean that the phrase was already well-known to his readers, or else that he is just setting off a phrase of his own invention for ease of reading.
"In 1793, 1794, and 1795, he [Jackson] was a senator in congress. Recalled by his fellow citizens, who (inflamed almost to madness, and discerning around them, in every quarter, their rights trampled upon by men of highest character) passed resolutions in their primary county meetings demanding his aid at home, he resigned his honorable station, and immediately embarked all the faculties of his mind, all the firmness of his nature, and all the reputation he had acquired, in indefatigable exertions to effect a repeal of the act by which Georgia had sold to companies of speculators millions of acres of her western territory. To recall the memory of her degradation, to assist in extending remembrance of her shame, can give no satisfaction to her sons. The biographer approaches the subject with loathing, impelled to it by the obligations he has assumed. His painful duty will be comparatively light, if he can convince himself that his succinct presentation of the speculation shall have the least effect in fastening upon the minds of the American people the belief, that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance"; and in convincing them that, whilst a just confidence is given to their public servants, they should be watched with eyes that never sleep. A majority of the Georgia legislature had been bribed by promises of shares— some by certificates of shares, for which they were never to pay—others by expectations of slave property. The foulest treason had been perpetrated, under the guise of legislation. Citizens of the most exalted standing from several States, some of them high public functionaries: one a senator from Georgia, whose duty required him to have been at his post in Congress; others judges, generals, revolutionary characters, whose popularity and past services made them more dangerous, and served ultimately to heap degradation upon their heads, had attended at Augusta, in January, 1795, and executed their unhallowed purpose. Georgia had been robbed of her domain—her own law givers corrupted and consenting and an indelible stigma fixed upon her fame, her own children blackening her escutcheon. The full iniquity of this nefarious legislation—if usurpation can be denominated legislation—was exposed by General Jackson in a series of letters addressed to the people under the signature of "Sicilius." At the following session he was a member. The all-absorbing subject, with the petitions, remonstrances, memorials, and other proceedings of the people, was referred to a committee of which he was chairman. Testimony was taken upon oath, which established deep and incontrovertible guilt. The rescinding law was passed. It was drawn and reported by General Jackson, and adopted as it came from his pen. The merits of this latter act— its constitutionality—its consistency with republican principles—its necessity—its justice—have all been freely and ably discussed in our country, in private circles, in pamphlets, in the public gazettes, in the Congress of the Union, in the Supreme Court. The decision of the country, perhaps, has been against the power of the rescinding legislature, so far as innocent purchasers under the fraudulent grants were interested; but, whether constitutional or not, nothing is more certain than that the honest of every section of the United States; all who detest corruption, admire virtue, and regard an honest representation as the bulwark of the public liberties, have considered its action upon the Yazoo speculation as pure, and its motives patriotic. The citizens of Georgia, especially, have held in horror and detestation the authors and abettors of her humiliation; and have consecrated with their best affections the memories of those who were faithful to the State. The Yazoo act repealed, every vestige and memorial of its passage expunged from the public records, and burnt with all the ceremony and circumstance which popular indignation demanded, the popularity of General Jackson became unrivalled.Example #3: Andrew Jackson and Opposition to the Bank of the United States
In President Jackson's Farewell address on March 4, 1837, he took a few whacks at his old adversaries who favored the founding of a Bank of the United States. He said (italics added):
"The powers enumerated in that instrument do not confer on Congress the right to establish such a corporation as the Bank of the United States, and the evil consequences which followed may warn us of the danger of departing from the true rule of construction and of permitting temporary circumstances or the hope of better promoting the public welfare to influence in any degree our decisions upon the extent of the authority of the General Government. Let us abide by the Constitution as it is written, or amend it in the constitutional mode if it is found to be defective.
"The severe lessons of experience will, I doubt not, be sufficient to prevent Congress from again chartering such a monopoly, even if the Constitution did not present an insuperable objection to it. But you must remember, my fellow-citizens, that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty, and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing. It behooves you, therefore, to be watchful in your States as well as in the Federal Government. The power which the moneyed interest can exercise, when concentrated under a single head and with our present system of currency, was sufficiently demonstrated in the struggle made by the Bank of the United States."
Example #4: James Buchanan and the Presidential Veto
In 1842, the US Senate was considering a bill that would alter the US Constitution to eliminate the presidential veto: that is, what Congress passes by majority vote becomes law. James Buchanan, who would later become president from 1857-1861, just before the Civil War, gave a speech "On the Veto Power" on February 2, 1842. This is from volume 5 of The Works of James Buchanan published from 1908-1911 (p. 130). Buchanan said (italics added):
"This veto power was conferred upon the President to arrest unconstitutional, improvident, and hasty legislation. Its intention (if I may use a word not much according to my taste) was purely conservative. To adopt the language of the Federalist, " it establishes a salutary check upon the legislative body, calculated to guard the community against the effects of faction, precipitancy, or of any impulse unfriendly to the public good, which may happen to influence a majority of that body," [Congress.] Throughout the whole book, whenever the occasion offers, a feeling of dread is expressed, lest the legislative power might transcend the limits prescribed to it by the Constitution, and ultimately absorb the other powers of the Government. From first to last, this fear is manifested. We ought never to forget that the representatives of the people are not the people themselves. The practical neglect of this distinction has often led to the overthrow of Republican institutions. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; and the people should regard with a jealous eye, not only their Executive, but their legislative servants. The representative body, proceeding from the people, and clothed with their confidence, naturally lulls suspicion to sleep; and, when disposed to betray its trust, can execute its purpose almost before their constituents take the alarm."Example #5: Frederick Douglass and the Fight against Slavery and Racial Discrimination
Our proverb of interest was something of a favorite for Frederick Douglass. In Wolfgang Mieder's 2001 book, No Struggle, No Progress: Frederick Douglass and His Proverbial Struggle for Civil Rights, Mieder lists seven times when Douglass used the term spanning the years from 1848 to 1889, The first time was in an essay in Douglass's journal The North Star, on March 17, 1848 (the Library of Congress has a manuscript of the essay here). Douglass wrote (italics added):
"It is in strict accordance with all philosophical, as well as experimental knowledge, that those who unite with tyrants to oppress the weak and helpless, will sooner or later find the groundwork of their own liberties giving way. "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." It can only be maintained by a sacred regard for the rights of all men. The people of the North have sought to attain and secure their rights, by a most flagrant infringement of the rights, liberty and happiness of others. They have consented to stand side by side with the tyrant; with their heels on the hearts of fettered millions, leaving them to perish under the weight of what they call "our glorious Union", and in doing so, have given the Southern slaveholder the most effective power to control and govern the North."Douglass's usage made the eternal vigilance a matter of universal civil rights and human rights, not just about rules for electing the Lord Mayor or being opposed to arguably ill-considered legislation. On the 26th anniversary of emancipation on April 16, 1888, Douglass gave a speech in Washington, DC, now often titled, "I Denounce the So-Called Emancipation as a Stupendous Fraud." He focused on the dire situation of blacks in the South (where he had just returned from a visit),
"It is well said that "a people may lose its liberty in a day and not miss it in half a century," and that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance." In my judgment, with my knowledge of what has already taken place in the South, these wise and wide-awake sentiments were never more apt and timely than now. ...
"I have no taste for the role of an alarmist. If my wishes could be allowed to dictate my speech I would tell you something quite the reverse of what I now intend. I would tell you that everything is lovely with the Negro in the South; I would tell you that the rights of the Negro are respected, and that be has no wrongs to redress; I would tell you that he is honestly paid for his labor; that he is secure in his liberty; that he is tried by a jury of his peers when accused of crime; that he is no longer subject to lynch law; that he has freedom of speech; that the gates of knowledge are open to him; that he goes to the ballot box unmolested; that his vote is duly counted and given its proper weight in determining result; I would tell you that he is making splendid progress in the acquisition of knowledge, wealth and influence; I would tell you that his bitterest enemies have become his warmest friends; that the desire to make him a slave no longer exists anywhere in the South; that the Democratic party is a better friend to him than the Republican party, and that each party is competing with the other to see which can do the most to make his liberty a blessing to himself and to the country and the world. But in telling you all this I should be telling you what is absolutely false, and what you know to be false, and the only thing which would save such a story from being a lie would be its utter inability to deceive.The first quotation from Douglass in this passage, about how "a people may lose its liberty in a day," is commonly attributed to Montesquieu, but I don't know the original source. (And I wouldn't dream of putting any faithful reader who has stuck with me this far through another search!)
1) I suppose that the economist in me likes the phrase "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" because it is a prominent example of a nonmonetary price. But maybe that reason doesn't resonate with everyone!
2) The word "vigilance" is powerful and interesting. Vigilance is about a heightened level of perception and responsibility, about being present not just physically, but also emotionally. For example, a sentry who is responsible for the safety of others may keep vigil, or there are vigils before certain religious events, or people might sit vigil near a with someone who is dying or already dead.
3) "Vigilance" leaves open the question of what political tactics are appropriate at a given point in time. Vigilance doesn't mean that you react on a hair-trigger, or that you react in a dramatic way--although sometimes those responses may be advisable. Vigilance is about awareness and sensitivity and noticing.
4) The idea that vigilance must be "eternal" is pleasing to me, because it suggests a hard-headed view both of political actors and of ordinary people. It suggests both that political actors and social groups will always and inevitably be trying to encroach upon liberty.
5) In a broad sense, this sentiment is not just political in its meaning. Back in 1956, in the previous to a CBS Radio adaptation of his novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley said (January 27, 1956):
"The price of liberty--and even of common humanity--is eternal vigilance." I suspect that Frederick Douglass would have agreed, although some of the earlier users of the term might have felt that Huxley was missing the point.