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Liberty, Death, or Safety?

October 15, 2010

“Give me LIBERTY or give me DEATH

– Patrick Henry

This chant, coined by Virginia Politician Patrick Henry,  became the battle cry of the British Colonies.  The phrase embodies the cornerstone of the American Revolution: That it would be better to die fighting for freedom than to suffer living in tyranny. Men and boys alike left their homes and died on the principle that it is better to be free or dead than ruled by a single, powerful monarch.

This belief is a direct antithesis to Hobbes’s theory on governance. According to Hobbes, humans should be willing to give up their liberties and self-governance for protection from the harsh state of nature. Hobbes believes life is best lived when under the protection (which also leads to constrictions) of a powerful sovereign.

This got me thinking:  How could two influential thinkers come to two completely opposing views?

After pondering their differences, the largest factor I found was the environment that both men were exposed to. For Hobbes, his environment was a chaotic one, caused by the English Civil War. To Hobbes, the world was a violent, unstable place. This undoubtedly shaped Hobbes faith in human nature. Scarred by the civil war and fear of more bloodshed, Hobbes adopted the theory that it is better to live a simple, sheltered life than to fend for oneself in the cruel, lawless realm of human nature.

Patrick Henry, on the other hand, lived in a time when a powerful monarch was something to be feared. Henry, along with all supporters of the colonial revolution, suffered under the overbearing rule of King George III. In this case, when taxes and military presence became unbearable, the colonies rallied against the sovereign. Fighting with an unorganized army of under-trained and under-armed soldiers, the colonists risked nearly certain death for their civil freedoms.

The most interesting aspect of this comparison is that both forfeit what the other gains:

Hobbes, the ultraconservative, is willing to forfeit freedoms in order to feel safety.
Henry, the freedom fighter,  is willing to sacrifice safety in return for civil liberties.

This poses the question: Is it better to be SAFE or FREE?

Below is a poll where you can express your opinion. While a combination of the two would be ideal, you will notice the poll only offers two choices. This is to force voters to make a decision, instead of riding neutrality and preventing any real results. I’m interested to see which holds more value in current society: freedom or protection. Also, feel free to post your reasoning in a comment. I’m interested to hear what you think about the topic and what aspects of our environment enforce these opinions. 🙂


Give me LIBERTY or Give me DEATH


  1. October 15, 2010 4:07 AM

    Hobbes assumed that man without government would have the right to everything. This leads automatically to a war of all man against all man. So, in order to avoid this, such natural freedom is given up to an absolute sovereign, in order to sustain peace and security. Interestingly, Hobbes depicted three kinds of commonwealths. He claims all are the same with regard to the use of power and domination, merely the constitution of the representatives are different – one is with only one representative (a monarchy), one is with multiple representatives representing only part of society (aristocracy) and the final would be a democracy. Hobbes concluded the monarchy to be best, as for practical reasons. So, if you think about that, I reckon that Henry (whom I did not know) fought for a similar freedom, namely a civil freedom (not a natural freedom), but against an absolute sovereign. Henry fought for a democracy. In my view, the end result is the same. We still give up part of our natural freedom for civil freedom – and we give this to an absolute sovereign, now being the government (which theoretically is us). Rousseau gave the true anti-thesis to Hobbes and Locke –striving for moral liberty (so I chose freedom in the poll as to me it represents democracy, which is the best form of government we will have to do with).

  2. andrewjclark permalink
    October 15, 2010 7:13 PM

    I really liked your general argument here. But I think that the audience also changed the messages that Patrick Henry and Hobbes had. Patrick Henry was appealing to revolutionary farmers and colonists. His message was simple and it rallied the farmers to forget fear and fight the British. However, Hobbes specifically stated that the audience he targeted was university professors and students. His argument was reasoned and while flawed, it had specifics claims and warrants he argued for. He even veered into the sciences (not just social sciences) while trying to prove his point.

    The other thing in this post that interested me was your separation of freedom and safety. Looking back to a comment, Professor LaVaque-Manty stated in his lecture, was that of the TSA and airplanes. Because of the Transportation Security Agency, more people feel secure riding on airplanes and traveling across the country.Some restrictions by the sovereign make people MORE free. When we set these two concepts as being mutually exclusive it leads to less policy opportunity and limiting ideologies. In our modern discussions, I think we should work to see not how big or small government is, but whether it works or not.

  3. October 16, 2010 11:03 PM

    I really enjoyed reading this posts and I think it is a great question that you have posed. What I found extremely interesting after reading your post, was viewing the results of the posted poll. In six votes, everyone voted that it is better to be free than safe because if you can’t enjoy your safety through freedoms, what is the point of being safe at all. I found this to be interesting because I think people in the United States have been ingrained to believe that freedom is all important. In history classes we are consistently told that freedom is the most important thing. Our country was founded on the idea of freedom and slavery is always characterized as the most inhumane thing our country committed because we took away another group’s freedom. I think it would be very interesting to see how peoples in other countries would respond to this poll, especially if they live in a society where there safety is threatened on a daily basis.

  4. matteric9 permalink
    October 19, 2010 9:38 AM

    This is a very interesting blog post! The question on the poll really does stir up some interesting thoughts. I also find it odd that every person that voted on your poll seems to be the manliest of men and there are no wimps in the class. If I were to read this blog without any knowledge of Hobbes or Patrick Henry I feel i would be inclined to take Patrick Henry’s side as well. However, is living a life in fear really going to be as enjoyable as you may think it will be? We must remember that the sovereign was only exists because the majority has consented to his rule!

  5. jaclburr permalink
    October 19, 2010 12:57 PM

    You raise an interesting point on the conditions in which each man lived. This goes along with the famous notion that “the grass is greener on the other side”. Each may have found the opposite of their condition desirable. Nevertheless, I agree with Patrick Henry. Yes, many died and suffered in the name of freedom, but they paved the way for others to enjoy freedom without having to fight for our lives. I am very thankful for them. Yes, a combination of both is ideal, but there are certain things in life that make it worthy of living, and stripped of them, what is life?

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