All Commentary
Friday, February 1, 1974

Our Lives and Goods


 

Mr. Bradford is well known as a writer, speaker, and business organization consultant. He now lives in Ocala, Florida.

Charles the first of England was in many respects a bad king and an uninspiring man. Certainly he can not be held up as a shining example, either of ethical understanding or princely conduct.

But every man has his moment of truth, and Charles achieved his one grim day in 1649, on a scaffold at Whitehall. There he spoke briefly as he faced his executioners, making his profession of innocence and his confession of faith. And there was another matter on his mind.

“For the people,” he said, “truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whatsoever; but I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consists in having those laws by which their lives and goods may be most their own.”

Those laws by which their lives and goods may be most their own!

What better statement could be made concerning the proper end and aim of law and government? What happier expression could be found as to the nature of liberty? True, it is not couched in elevated language. There is no oratorical effect. After all, in just a few moments the weary prince was to kneel before the headsman’s axe. It was not a time for the careful choice of language. But as a formulation of freedom’s essence those words are hard to improve upon or equal. In the current jargon, Charles had put it all together.

“Oh Liberty! How many crimes are committed in thy name!” So spoke Madame Roland, also from the scaffold — or rather from the guillotine, for the scene was Paris. The doomed lady was no doubt correct in her bitter and much-quoted apostrophe — and the crimes committed in Liberty’s name have been rhetorical and literary as well as extra-legal and inhumane.

Freedom Personified

A great deal of very high-flown rhetoric has been expended on the theme of liberty and freedom. Milton envisaged liberty as a beautiful mountain nymph. Pope sighed for “a hollow tree, a crust of bread and liberty.” Thomas Campbell imagined that “Freedom shrieked as Kosciusko fell,” and William Cowper insisted that Freedom “has a thousand charms to show.” Freedom indeed has been personified in countless canvas and marble representations, usually as a beauteous and rather buxom female of ample charms. In New York harbor, and in a smaller rendering beside the Siene, Bartholdi’s heroic sculpture presents Liberty Enlightening the World, with the Law in one hand and the torch of Freedom in the other.

And this is all to the good! The spirit of liberty, the urge to be free, has been a moving force in the life of man. He has struggled for it, dreamed about it, fought for it — and died for it. It is fitting that a thing so central and precious should be expressed oft times in ideal, artistic and symbolic terms.

But such expression, it must also be confessed, sometimes sets Liberty upon too tenuous a pedestal. It glorifies Freedom now and then beyond the recognition of men who live, after all, on a very mundane level and who, along with a keen interest in the blessing of personal freedom, are also concerned necessarily with such prosaic matters as the level of taxes and the price of beans!

A Condition of Life

Freedom is indeed a noble abstraction; but it is also a condition of life — a condition that may be curtailed or denied altogether by the governmental concepts and practices under which men live. It is for this reason that these last thoughts of Charles on the scaffold are pertinent to the present scene. He was about to lose the greatest freedom of all — the freedom to live! And in that grim moment he saw with prophetic clarity that what the people of England really wanted was not alone the abstract blessings of political freedom. What they wanted, then as now, like all men everywhere, was the condition of law under which their lives and goods might be most their own.

It is an affectation of our times to pretend a lofty disdain for things material. Ardent advocates of achieving the good life for everybody through national bankruptcy speak much of “human values”; and they postulate that these are somehow superior to and at variance with material values.

This rather etherial cliche can, of course, be easily reduced to an absurdity. For aside from the priceless benefits of political and personal liberty, the much-talked of human values are simply matters of food, clothing, shelter, and the satisfactions of comfortable living. They are the physical conveniences of life — modern plumbing, central heat, air conditioning, radio, television, labor-saving appliances, motor cars. They are education and health. They are vacation trips and visits to the zoo. They are books and pictures. In short, they are largely things to be physically enjoyed.

Charles understood this, as did most people of his day. He was not doing any specially “advanced” thinking when he equated the possession of goods with freedom. In those times, and for long thereafter, men were not reticent about the value they placed upon what Charles called “goods” —meaning material possessions. Indeed, the very name he used for such possessions derived then as it does today from the esteem in which they have always been held. They were looked upon as good things to have; they were therefore “goods.” And the right to possess and enjoy them was a basic right, essential to liberty and the full life.

What Thomas Jefferson eventually expressed as man’s unalienable rights, i.e., life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, had been rendered long before by John Locke as “life, liberty and property.” And during the decades when the American revolt against England was slowly brewing, the same idea found expression very often in a popular newspaper slogan: ” Liberty, Property — and No Stamps.”

The stamps, of course, were simply an annoying infringement of the property rights which the Colonials held so dear. Eventually those bits of sticky paper came to have a symbolism and mystique of their own, especially those that were senselessly and punitively applied to tea. But at the beginning they were merely an impediment to the free exchange of goods, imposed without the consent or approval of the colonists; and as such they were roundly and properly damned.

The Principle of Ownership

A point to remember is that all this represented an unabashed devotion to the principle of ownership — a devotion that man has evinced all through his history. He worked; he made things; he bartered them for other things he needed or wanted more, or for a medium of exchange (a shell, a bead, a minted coin) which he could use in future exchanges of like nature. And he wanted no interference with this simple and useful process of making, selling, bartering, buying and using the things he called “goods.”

So it did no violence to reality for Charles to lump “goods” and life itself together as the two things men wanted to be “most their own” — by which he meant, of course, least interfered with, least minimized, least withheld and diluted by the State. For life, after all, is in itself a species of possession — the quintessential good thing that a man can call his own. To be sure, it has a mystical quality that transcends all materiality, even as it passes all understanding and defies all explanation. That a few pounds of elemental substance should by some strange alchemy coalesce into the miracle of a human life — this has always been and perhaps always will be the first and final mystery.

Confronted with this enigma, man gropes beyond the physically obvious and seeks answer in the supernatural. Unable to explain or even to comprehend the intricate processes that combine to make a man, he turns to the idea of special creation, not as a chemical formulation, but as an act of God.

Thus groping, thus hoping, man comforts and ennobles himself; and in the exercise of hope he dismisses or evades the despair of ignorance. In the end he achieves a sense of origin that transcends atom and protoplasm and relates him filially to God. He becomes the Final Result of the First Cause!

But he is also a physical animal, with every hungry cell demanding sustenance. If he does not live by bread alone neither can he subsist solely on a diet of philosophy or spiritual contemplation. Moments of ultra-physical comprehension come and go, with their ecstasies and torments; but his stomach remains fairly constant in its demands.

Human Nature

So man ekes out his days and drifts finally into the limbo of things forgotten, sustained equally by his spiritual concepts and by his use and enjoyment of what he makes and earns. There is no separation or distinction of values as between the material and the “human.” All his needs are human needs; and they are satisfied alike by his intellectual or spiritual perceptions, and by his ownership and consumption of the “goods” he has created or acquired.

The essential condition of freedom is not to live without fear, but to live without unnatural fear. That man should fear wild beasts, or robbers, or the scourge of pestilence — this is a natural heritage of his mortality. To fear the unknown, or adverse fortune, or pain, or death — these also are fears natural to man. But it is not natural, or should not be, to fear government, which is an instrumentality man has himself created, not for his oppression, but for his protection. To the degree that government at any time renders the citizen apprehensive as to his life and possessions, it has betrayed its purpose and disserved its sole reason for being.

The government that curtails or cancels man’s right to own and enjoy his material possessions —such a government has diminished or destroyed his freedom as truly as though it had denied his right to think, or speak, or vote, or pray. Common sense and the sanction of long usage, to be sure, dictate that the citizen will surrender a portion of his earnings in return for the protection and stability of an organized society. This is the essence of the implied agreement between the citizen and the State that is known to scholars as the Social Contract.

The Overpowering State

But when the State constantly takes more from the citizen than is needed for the normal act of governing; when in the name of social progress it piles debt on debt and sets the printing presses to work grinding out paper money of ever-diminishing value; when its leaders rashly undertake to substitute their puny economic guesses for the impartial wisdom of the free market; and especially when, with callous arrogance, they presume to instruct the people how their savings shall be disposed of, or whether, indeed, they shall be allowed to have any savings at all — when such usurpations occur, under whatever pretext or camouflage, then the Social Contract has been violated, and the State is no longer a government in the historic and traditional sense. Instead, it is an expensive and dangerous experimental laboratory in which the citizens not only pay the cost but serve as the guinea pigs!

A Legacy of Truth

January is usually cold and raw in London, and in 1649 its last day but one was doubtless no exception. Whitehall itself was a chill and gloomy pile. Charles probably welcomed the brisk walk across from St. James, where he had been held prisoner. It is of record that he asked his guards pleasantly to “walk apace.”

What were his thoughts in that last hour? Regret? Remorse? Did all his intrigues come forth to accuse him? Did he lament his own perfidy in letting the faithful Strafford go to the block? Was he sustained by the knowledge that his private life had been austere and blameless?

Who knows? He is dead now these three hundred years and more. About all we can say for sure is that he met his end well, bringing to the scaffold that day whatever of dignity and decency the fading moments of a wasted life could summon. That much… and also that he managed to utter one brief legacy of truth, namely That our liberty and freedom consist in having those laws by which our lives and goods may be most our own!


  • Mr. Bradford was a noted poet, writer, speaker and business organization consultant.