All Commentary
Saturday, May 1, 1965

The Will To Be Free

Mr. Durrette is pursuing graduate studies in Political Science at Johns Hopkins University.

In the strange dialectic of Rous­seau the mystery of freedom lies in the forcing of others to be free: a perversion so immense that it has captured many minds in its beguiling grasp.

The Founding Fathers of the United States suffered no such il­lusions, for they believed man ca­pable of self-responsibility. As Dr. Felix Morley expressed it in The Power in the People: “To put the power in the people implies faith. It implies that the component in­dividuals are, for the most part, already endowed with self-control. This Republic is grounded in the belief that the individual can gov­ern himself. On the validity of that belief it will stand—or fall.”

This is a recognition of the es­sential nature of freedom: that it cannot be imposed from without; it must exist and thrive in the minds and hearts of men or not at all. It is on this foundation that the Founding Fathers sought to construct a nation. Though the structure is important, they knew, and we must remember, that free­dom can only survive if men cher­ish and prize it above all else.

James Madison wrote in The Federalist (No. 39) of “that hon­orable determination which ani­mates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”

Benjamin Franklin voiced this same thought. The story is told that he was asked shortly after the Philadelphia Convention concern­ing the nature of the product which their labors had produced.

“We have given you a Republic, madam, if you can keep it,” is re­puted to have been the old gentle­man’s reply.

Usually this anecdote is recalled to emphasize that our government was conceived as a Republic, not a democracy, suggesting that the key to the continuity of our concepts of liberty and individual freedom lies in the preservation of this governmental structure. This accounts for much of the ef­fort to protect the integrity of the Constitution by detailed an­alysis, laborious research, and scholarly writing, and explains why such importance is given to the balancing of power among the three repositories of Federal au­thority and between the national and state governments.

That this structure has contrib­uted immeasurably to the preser­vation of liberty is not to be de­nied. Yet, there was more, an es­sential ingredient—present in the past, but fading today.

This ingredient is the spirit and vision of freedom captured by the Declaration of Independence and manifested in the Constitution, the fire of liberty which burns in the minds and hearts of individ­uals. Here is the foundation upon which this nation was built, and the only foundation upon which it can endure.

Thomas Jefferson knew that the strength of our Republic lay in the people’s fidelity to the vision of 1776, to the spirit of freedom: “When that is lost,” he wrote, “all experience has shewn that no forms can keep [people] free against their own will.”

Thus viewed, Franklin‘s “if you can keep it” assumes greater sig­nificance than is usually attributed to it. The structure was only as strong and enduring as man’s will to be free.

As Judge Learned Hand phrased it: “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no con­stitution, no law, no court even can do much to help it.”

Here then lies our challenge. The governmental framework is important, perhaps vital; but even the best governmental structure is merely a paper barrier against tyranny unless there are those who value freedom.

Madison, Jefferson, Hand, and Franklin, among many others, have clearly seen this. They knew that freedom lives and breathes in the hearts of men, not in a con­stitution nor a formal code of law. At best these forms can only serve to preserve the conditions propi­tious to the continued life of the vision.

But when the vision goes, the structure soon follows. Our pri­mary task is to rekindle that vi­sion. Should we succeed, we need worry little about the structure. For the will to be free provides its own structure; and where free­dom is found, men manage to cre­ate and preserve the framework around which it can grow.