The Price of Liberty is… Eternal Vigilance
The name of Mama Liberty’s webzine is of course taken from this well-known (and often misattributed) quote, but she always looked at it as having many levels of meaning.
The earliest known citation is found in a biography of Major General James Jackson published in 1809, where author Thomas Charlton wrote that that one of the obligations of biographers of famous people is “fastening upon the minds of the American people the belief, that ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.’”
Today, the phrase is sometimes inverted, without changing the meaning. The phrase is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but no one has found where he wrote this, or that anyone documented him saying this. It certainly does fit what we do read of his writings and know he spoke.
It is often attributed to the American Abolitionist and liberal activist Wendell Phillips in a speech he made on January 28, 1852. Speaking to members of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society that day, Phillips said:
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. The living sap of today outgrows the dead rind of yesterday. The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”
It has also been attributed (or used) by Andrew Jackson, the author Aldous Huxley, and many others. No doubt, in various ancient languages, the same phrase would not be unfamiliar to ancient lovers of liberty and fighters for freedom, all the way back to Abraham, Moses, and the founders of the Roman Republic.
But it is no less true today than in those ancient times, or even in 1809 or 1852.
(to be continued)
(originally published in The New Price of Liberty webzine)