Essay On Eternal Vigilance Is The Price Of Liberty


The quote “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often mistakenly attributed to the Irish lawyer and politician John Philpot Curranand frequently toThomas Jefferson.

In fact, Curran’s line was somewhat different. What he actually said, in a speech in Dublin on July 10, 1790, was:

       “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”

And, according to Jefferson scholars there is “no evidence to confirm that Thomas Jefferson ever said or wrote, ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’ or any of its variants.”

Traditionally, the most famous use of “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” that’s included in books of quotations is from a speech made by the American Abolitionist and liberal activist Wendell Phillips on January 28, 1852.

Speaking to members of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society that day, Phillips said:

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. The living sap of today outgrows the dead rind of yesterday. The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”

However, Anna Berkes, a research librarian at the Jefferson Library, has discovered uses that predate Phillips’ speech.

In a post on the Jefferson Library blog, Berkes wrote:

“Not to be mean to Mr. Wendell Phillips, but he’s about to get slightly less famous. After two days of ridiculously feverish searching, I’ve traced the purported Phillips version of this quote all the way back to 1809.  (For the record, Mr. Phillips was -2 years old at that time.)”

Berkes noted that, in a biography of Major General James Jackson published in 1809, author Thomas Charlton used the same words, just in a different order. Charlton wrote that that one of the obligations of biographers of famous people is “fastening upon the minds of the American people the belief, that ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.’

Berkes also found several news articles that include the more familiar version of the line as later used by Phillips.

For example, an article in the May 2, 1833 edition of The Virginia Free Press and Farmers' Repository says:

“Some one has justly remarked, that ‘eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.’ Let the sentinels on the watch-tower sleep not, and slumber not.”

One of the news articles she found, in the January 4, 1838 edition of the Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier, uses the same quote and attributes it to Thomas Jefferson — one of the earliest sources to do so.

Berkes reiterated that the consensus of Jefferson scholars is that he never spoke or wrote the words “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

She also concluded that, although Wendell Phillips still gets credit for the most famous use of that phrase, it was already a well-known saying prior to his speech in 1852.

Many witty variations on this old saying have been created since then.

My personal favorite is by the novelist Aldous Huxley. In an  introduction to the 1965 radio version of his novel Brave New World, Huxley said: “Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty; eternal vigilance is the price of human decency.”

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 Related reading…

Leonard Henry Courtney, 1st Baron Courtney (6 July1832 – 11 May1918) was a Britishpolitician, long held to have made the first published reference to the phrase "Lies — damned lies — and statistics" in 1895. He later became president of the Royal Statistical Society (1897–1899).

Quotes[edit]

  • There is an imperialism that deserves all honor and respect — an imperialism of service in the discharge of great duties. But with too many it is the sense of domination and aggrandisement, the glorification of power. The price of peace is eternal vigilance.
    • As quoted in The Life Of Lord Courtney (1920) by G. P. Gooch
    • The statement "The price of peace is eternal vigilance" has been widely attributed to others, including George Marshall, however even Courtney's use of it is probably derived from an earlier statement with several variants:
      • The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
      • The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
      • Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
    These have often been attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but also to Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, and many others; Lord Denning in The Road to Justice (1988) states that the phrase originated in a statement of Irish orator John Philpot Curran in 1790: "It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance."

To My Fellow-Disciples at Saratoga Springs (1895)[edit]

Essay in The National Review (London, 1895) (PDF document online)
  • What a jolly awakening there will be some few years hence, when the inevitable argument of experience will show us a nation contradicting itself through the voices of its chosen representatives! The stupidest politician will sit up, rubbing his eyes. After all, facts are facts, and although we may quote one to another with a chuckle the words of the Wise Statesman, "Lies — damned lies — and statistics," still there are some easy figures the simplest must understand, and the astutest cannot wriggle out of. So we may be led to the serious consideration of change by the evolution of materials of conviction which those who run may read, though some who read may wish to run away from them.
    • This is one of the earliest known uses of the term "Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics" which is often attributed to Mark Twain, who in his Autobiography (1924) in a passage probably written in Florence in 1904, attributes it to Benjamin Disraeli, perhaps because he thought him "The Wise Statesman" Courtney referred to. An even earlier incident has recently been located, in which Mrs Andrew Crosse (Cornelia Augusta Hewitt Crosse) states in "Old Memories Interviewed" (1892):
It has been said by some wits that that there are three degrees of unveracity: "Lies, d—d lies, and statistics."
Even earlier uses of similar but not identical expressions have been found in notes by T. H. Huxley of a meeting of the Royal Society of London on 5 December 1885:
Talked politics, scandal, and the three classes of witnesses — liears, d—d liears, and experts.
  • We may blunder on in spite of repeated miscalculations of the popular will. More penetrating and pernicious is the influence our ill-devised machinery has upon the character of our national life. It eats in and into it. It degrades candidates and electors alike. It does its worst to reduce to sterility of influence many of the best of the component elements of the people. The individuals survive, but with their political activity dead or dying, no opportunities of life and growth being afforded them. Finally it presents as an embodiment of the nation an assembly or assemblies into which none can enter who have not been clipped, and pared, and trimmed, and stretched out of natural shape and likeness to slip along the grooves of supply. A free press, free pulpits, and a free people outside help to correct what would otherwise become intolerable but press, pulpits and people, free as they are, work and live in strict limits of relation to the machinery established among them. The world revolves on its axis subject to the Constitution of the United States, and the most Radical newspaper man in London, if such there be, never lets his imagination range out of hearing of the Clock Tower.
  • The young man who is moved in any way to contemplate an entry into public life, whose creed is not in absolute inheritance from his fathers, learns first of all to understand that there are two great political organizations, with one of which he must associate himself, learning and echoing its catch-words, accepting its leadership, and steeping himself in the belief that in it are wisdom and truth while the other party is void of both. It is not everyone whose ductile mind takes him through this training, and a goodly number of up-growing men of not the worst promise for the future have to step aside.
  • What an education follows! It is really a fine comedy, though the players rarely know it. I am but a clumsy performer myself, and have to confess to incurable defects of training, so that I sometimes wonder I have not been hissed off the stage; still I have seen the performance through more than once or twice, and know something about it. Such tender and delicate adjustments and readjustments of convictions to keep the party balance sure! Such abundance of spoonmeat on the one hand, and such careful economy on the other of truths that may prove too strong for weak digestions! Such avowals of readiness to consider seriously any opinion, however obviously absurd, broached by a possible supporter! Such prompt denunciations of all the devices of an irreconcilable opponent!
  • As for life within a Legislature,— who can tell how warped and bent and twisted, and accommodated to the exigencies of party struggle become the faculties of belief? Strong and courageous natures know it, and remain strong and courageous in spite of knowledge and practice; but the pliancy of man is beyond admiration, and is nowhere better seen than under the schooling of Parliament.
  • It is true— it has been already admitted— that the picture will not be universally recognized; but it has been suggested that the failure of recognition lies rather in the degeneracy of the faculty of seeing than in the misrepresentation of the vision to be seen. It may be also confessed that life often survives all the perversities of training. We cannot absolutely nullify the prodigality of nature, try as hard as we may. In spite of most careful management, untractable growths survive in the most provoking way, and intrude themselves into fields believed to be kept free from their presence. And sometimes it happens that the poor party managers have to accommodate themselves to the genius they curse.

External links[edit]

The price of peace is eternal vigilance.
Facts are facts, and although we may quote one to another with a chuckle the words of the Wise Statesman, "Lies — damned lies — and statistics," still there are some easy figures the simplest must understand, and the astutest cannot wriggle out of.

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