Liberty and Union
by Stephen D. Palmer (e-mail: [April 13th, 2004]

Although sharp differences of opinion existed during the forming of the Constitution, the Founding Fathers of our nation thoroughly understood the delicate balance between majority rule and minority rights. The debate, then as now, centered on discovering the best form of government possible that would enable the greatest number of people to enjoy the greatest measure of liberty and protection.

“While it is desirable to preserve as much freedom as possible for minority groups in society, they must never be allowed to assert their rights at the expense of the liberties of the majority.”

Proponents of the Federal Government at the time, well aware of the deficiencies and impotency of the Articles of Confederation during the Revolutionary War, argued that the preservation of the Union of individual states was imperative to ensure adequate protection for the people, both from external threats from other nations and from internal threats to liberty and order. Others, however, perceiving the potential hazardous consequences of a concentration of power, favored investing the states with rights, powers, and authorities superseding those of the federal government in an effort to keep the power as close to the people as possible, thus preserving greater liberties for more individuals.

No event in our history more vividly illustrates this struggle than the Civil War. Beginning in 1861, the Civil War was initiated by the southern states seceding from the Union protesting encroachments upon their right to slavery and what they felt were attempts to weaken the political and economic power of the south by the northern states.

While the South may have had legitimate objections to the political objectives and methodology of the North, their secession and subsequent aggression was wholly unjustified, and their reasons constituted nothing more than a recipe for anarchy. An 1860 census showed that not more that 4.7% of the population of the South were slave owners. Furthermore, no state held a referendum in making the decision to secede. It was decided by a total of 854 men in various secession conventions, all of them selected by legislatures, not by voters. Of these 157 voted against secession. So 697 men, mostly wealthy, decided the destiny of 9 million people, mostly poor, which ultimately led to the bloodiest war in our history which left almost 600,000 people dead.

The very nature of republican government requires individuals to cede certain liberties to the will of the majority in order for them to enjoy the benefits and protection of the government. Governments properly derive their just power from the consent of the majority of the governed. President George Washington, in his Farewell Address, said, “The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, until changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.” The southern states, by ratifying the Constitution, agreed to obey it fully, despite any lingering objections they may have had.

While it is desirable to preserve as much freedom as possible for minority groups in society, they must never be allowed to assert their rights at the expense of the liberties of the majority. Majority rule, despite its limitations, is the only logical way to maintain the highest societal order and organization possible and to secure and preserve the greatest degree of freedom for the greatest number of individuals. When minority groups feel that their rights and liberties are being threatened, they must seek redress within the existing framework of government and not resort to violence. Violent measures lead to anarchy and a subsequent loss of freedom for all.

As the Declaration of Independence states, “Prudence...will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” There is no justification to take measures or use means beyond the existing legal structure except when “...a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism.”

As long as one is enjoying the privileges, benefits, and protections of a government, one has no right to subvert or disobey it. Freedom is not the absence of law and consequence, for it requires the fulfillment of corresponding duties and responsibilities for its preservation.

Resources and Avenues for Further Study

  • The Liberator: The Divided States of America
  • Institute for American Liberty: George Washington's Farewell Address
  • Founding: The Declaration of Independence

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