All Commentary
Sunday, May 1, 1955

Loyalty Oaths

Is there any logic in passing a law which states that one person must be loyal to another person? Isn’t that about the same thing as threatening to use force to make one person love another person? Can it be done?

Our government now demands that its citizens in various capacities swear that they will be loyal in all things and at all times to this government. Is there any logic at all in such a demand?

The American colonists, as members of the British Empire, were subjects of Great Britain. George III demanded loyalty of them. Should they have respected these demands? Without question, if one accepts the principle of undeviating loyalty, of constant and perpetual assent, then tyranny and evil can have no stopping place. In any event, the colonists did turn disloyal to the Mother Country. They were so serious about it that they used guns to express their disloyal convictions. Not only was the U.S.A. born in acts of disloyalty to an oppressor, but disloyalty to future oppressors was adopted as a fundamental principle, for in the Declaration of Independence itself is this admonition:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. (Italics added.)

Were these actions of the colonists right or wrong? The answer comes clear when the proper questions are posed. Does one owe loyalty to a spouse turned unfaithful? Does one owe loyalty to a government turned socialist or communist? The answer is final when one sees that loyalty is not a condition that can be imposed but, instead, is an attitude that can only be earned. As Frederic Bastiat phrased it: “The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable.”

Loyalty, like love, is a personal response on the part of others to one’s own pleasing, agreeable, acceptable behaviours. It is a response and nothing else. Quite true, it is a hoped-for response. But simply because it is desirable does not signify that it can be insured by fiat or edict. As the reading on a thermometer is but a recording of heat, so is the degree of loyalty but a recording of feelings in the human heart toward the behaviour and actions of others. To attempt the fixing of either one, without regard to the conditions from which they spring, is to act absurdly. The most that can be said is this: If one wishes loyalty in another, let him inspire it by actions the other considers both efficacious and just. This applies to government as well as to persons.

The confusion in the loyalty question appears to arise from a semantic difficulty. There is a quality a person has a right to expect of another, a quality which if conspicuously absent in the citizenry makes any proper government impossible. That quality is integrity; its opposite is two-facedness—such as, claiming loyalty to one’s spouse while practicing infidelity in his or her absence; affecting friendship in the presence of an other while acting unfriendly when the other’s back is turned; espousing free enterprise when in the company of free enterprisers and going along with the socialists when a little government pap appears expedient; accepting the privileges of citizenship in one’s country while secretly serving as the agent of a foe. The Judases, the two-racers, the double-dealers are cases in point.

When we reduce the evil so loosely termed “disloyalty” to the real evil “two-facedness,” it becomes quite apparent how little in the way of effacing it can be accomplished by either legislation or public oaths. Penalties can be ira-posed for perjury and the government can discharge any person who is not properly doing whatever he was hired to do. That about states the limits of what legislation can accomplish. But this will not greatly deter the person who desires to deceive. In his case, oaths tell nothing.

In fact, oaths may well be worse than useless. Two-facedness, for instance, is part and parcel of the Moscow-apparatus credo. Dishonesty, misrepresentation, dissimulation, are actually marks of virtue according to communist standards. These vile vices are rungs in the ladder of all power-politics schemes acknowledged by communist schemers; denied by other schemers; practiced by all of them.

Public oaths give the deceitful the chance to publicize their false faces while they more safely hide their true faces. And public oaths exacted from persons of integrity are obviously senseless and serve no real purpose at all.

To demand loyalty is to acknowledge a failure to earn it. Any person or institution, government or whatever, that attempts to exact or demand loyalty oaths hangs out a banner with either “sickness” or “weakness” written all over it. []

For God’s sake do not drag me into another war! I am worn down, and worn out, with crusading and defending Europe, and protecting mankind; I must think a little of myself. I am sorry for the Spaniards—I am sorry for the Greeks—I deplore the fate of the Jews; the people of the Sandwich Islands are groaning under the most detestable tyranny; Bagdad is oppressed—I do not like the present state of the Delta—Thibet is not comfortable. Am I to fight for all these people? The world is bursting with sin and sorrow. Am I to be champion of the Decalogue, and to be eternally raising fleets and armies to make all men good and happy? We have just done saving Europe, and I am afraid that the consequence will be, that we shall cut each other’s throats. No war, dear Lady Grey!—no eloquence; but apathy, selfishness, common sense, arithmetic! I beseech you, secure Lord Grey’s swords and pistols, as the housekeeper did Don Quixote’s armor.


Sydney Smith, Letter to Lady Grey, February 19, 1823

There is more of misery inflicted upon mankind by one year of war than by all the civil peculations and oppressions in a century. Yet it is a state into which the mass of mankind rush with a greatest avidity, hailing official murderers, in scarlet, gold, and cock’s feathers, as the greatest and most glorious of human creatures.

Sydney Smith, 1813

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”