All Commentary
Tuesday, January 1, 1963

Constitutional Liberty

The first object of a free people is the preservation of their lib­erty; and liberty is only to be pre­served by maintaining constitu­tional restraints and just divisions of political power. Nothing is more deceptive or more danger­ous than the pretence of a desire to simplify government. The simplest governments are despotism; the next simplest, limited mon­archies; but all republics, all gov­ernments of law, must impose nu­merous limitations and qualifica­tions of authority and give many positive and many qualified rights. In other words, they must be sub­ject to rule and regulation. This is the very essence of free political institutions.

The spirit of liberty is, indeed, a bold and fearless spirit; but it is also a sharp-sighted spirit; it is a cautious, sagacious, discrimi­nating, far-seeing intelligence; it is jealous of encroachment, jeal­ous of power, jealous of man. It demands checks; it seeks for guards; it insists on securities; it intrenches itself behind strong defences, and fortifies itself with all possible care against the as­saults of ambition and passion. It does not trust the amiable weaknesses of human nature, and therefore it will not permit power to overstep its prescribed limits, though benevolence, good intent, and patriotic purpose come along with it. Neither does it satisfy it­self with flashy and temporary re­sistance to illegal authority. Far otherwise. It seeks for duration and permanence. It looks beforeand after; and, building on the ex­perience of ages which are past, it labors diligently for the benefit of ages to come.

This is the nature of constitu­tional liberty; and this is our lib­erty, if we will rightly understand and preserve it.

Every free government is nec­essarily complicated, because all such governments establish re­straints, as well on the power of government itself as on that of in­dividuals. If we will abolish the distinction of branches, and have but one branch; if we will abolish jury trials, and leave all to the judge; if we will then ordain that the legislator shall himself be that judge; and if we will place the executive power in the same hands, we may readily simplify government. We may easily bring it to the simplest of all possible forms, a pure despotism. But a separation of departments, so far as practical, and the preservation of clear lines of division between them, is the fundamental idea in the creation of all our constitu­tions; and, doubtless, the continu­ance of regulated liberty depends on maintaining these boundaries.

From a speech in the U.S. Senate, May 7, 1834