Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Wisdom from Witherspoon

Let us now ask this short question, what is the value and advantage of civil liberty?

Is it necessary to virtue? This cannot be supposed. A virtuous mind and virtuous conduct is possible, and perhaps equally possible in every form of government.

Is it necessary to personal private happiness? It may seem so. We see the subjects of arbitrary governments, however not only happy, but very often they have a greater attachment to their form of government than those of free states have to theirs. And if contentment be necessary to happiness, there is commonly more impatience and discontent in a free state than in any other. The tyranny even of an absolute monarch does not affect with personal injury any of his subjects but a few, and chiefly those who make it their choice to be near him. Perhaps in free governments the law and the mob do more mischief to private property than is done in any absolute monarchy.

What then is the advantage of civil liberty? I suppose it chiefly consists in its tendency to put in motion all the human powers. Therefore it promotes industry, and in this respect happiness--produces every latent quality, and improves the human mind.--Liberty is the nurse of riches, literature and heroism.

Rev. John Witherspoon, Lectures on Moral Philosophy (c. 1768). Witherspoon, of course, was sixth president of the College of New Jersey (a.k.a. Princeton) and signed the Declaration of Independence.

Ironic fact, by the way: Reese Witherspoon is a direct descendent of John Witherspoon. The irony is that Witherspoon wrote several tracts on the immorality of stage-plays.

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