Happy Birthday, Benjamin Franklin

By on January 15, 2010

This weekend we celebrate U.S. founder Benjamin Franklin’s birthday, January 17, 1706.

Among his many famous quotations is this one on behalf of liberty:

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

The exact language apparently appeared with variations over the years, but here’s the context for this version as chronicled by eminent Franklin historian J. A. Leo Lemay:

[I]n May 1751, after the death of a Philadelphia representative, [Benjamin Franklin] was elected to the Pennsylvania House. He quickly became its most active assemblyman, serving on more committees than anyone and writing the reports for the committees on which he served.

[...]

Believing that the Pennsylvania Assembly was becoming too powerful, Thomas Penn decided [ca. the early 1750s] that he or his primary deputy, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania (in practice, the lieutenant governor in Pennsylvania was called the governor), would control the funds the assembly raised. Further, Penn forbade the governor to pass any act of assembly that taxed his estate in Pennsylvania. [...]

[...]

[Pennsylvania] Governor [William] Denny continued to veto the assembly’s money bills [especially for fighting on the frontier] because they either taxed the proprietors or did not grant the governor complete control of the funds. Franklin wrote the assembly’s rallying cry: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

Thus, even in the face of wartime conditions on the frontier, Franklin chose to stand up for "essential Liberty"a point we have recently addressed. That’s one reason FIRE is celebrating this great American’s birthday this weekend.