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Ben Franklin's Famous 'Liberty, Safety' Quote Lost Its Context In 21st Century

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Ben Franklin's Famous 'Liberty, Safety' Quote Lost Its Context In 21st Century

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Ben Franklin's Famous 'Liberty, Safety' Quote Lost Its Context In 21st Century

Ben Franklin's Famous 'Liberty, Safety' Quote Lost Its Context In 21st Century

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Benjamin Franklin once said: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." That quote often comes up in the context of new technology and concerns about government surveillance. Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the editor of Lawfare, tells NPR's Robert Siegel that it wasn't originally meant to mean what people think.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Ben Franklin was innovative, but it's fair to say that he didn't imagine a future of cellphones and of all the privacy issues that come with them. Still, his words are often applied to such issues. Take our conversation last week about police technologies with Virginia State Delegate Richard Anderson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RICHARD ANDERSON: Very simply - and I'm paraphrasing here - but Ben Franklin essentially said at one point, those who would trade privacy for a bit of security deserve neither privacy nor security.

SIEGEL: Now, Anderson did say he was paraphrasing, but a few of you wrote in anyway saying, hey, that's not the quote. So we're going to clear things up right now. Benjamin Wittes, editor of the website Lawfare and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, joins us. Hi.

BENJAMIN WITTES: Hey.

SIEGEL: What's the exact quotation?

WITTES: The exact quotation, which is from a letter that Franklin is believed to have written on behalf of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, reads, those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

SIEGEL: And what was the context of this remark?

WITTES: He was writing about a tax dispute between the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the family of the Penns, the proprietary family of the Pennsylvania colony who ruled it from afar. And the legislature was trying to tax the Penn family lands to pay for frontier defense during the French and Indian War. And the Penn family kept instructing the governor to veto. Franklin felt that this was a great affront to the ability of the legislature to govern. And so he actually meant purchase a little temporary safety very literally. The Penn family was trying to give a lump sum of money in exchange for the General Assembly's acknowledging that it did not have the authority to tax it.

SIEGEL: So far from being a pro-privacy quotation, if anything, it's a pro-taxation and pro-defense spending quotation.

WITTES: It is a quotation that defends the authority of a legislature to govern in the interests of collective security. It means, in context, not quite the opposite of what it's almost always quoted as saying but much closer to the opposite than to the thing that people think it means.

SIEGEL: Well, as you've said, it's used often in the context of surveillance and technology. And it came up in my conversation with Mr. Anderson 'cause he's part of what's called the Ben Franklin Privacy Caucus in the Virginia legislature. What do you make of the use of this quotation as a motto for something that really wasn't the sentiment Franklin had in mind?

WITTES: You know, there are all of these quotations. Think of kill all the lawyers - right? - from Shakespeare. Nobody really remembers what the characters in question were saying at that time. And maybe it doesn't matter so much what Franklin was actually trying to say because the quotation means so much to us in terms of the tension between government power and individual liberties. But I do think it is worth remembering what he was actually trying to say because the actual context is much more sensitive to the problems of real governance than the flip quotation's use is, often. And Franklin was dealing with a genuine security emergency. There were raids on these frontier towns. And he regarded the ability of a community to defend itself as the essential liberty that it would be contemptible to trade. So I don't really have a problem with people misusing the quotation, but I also think it's worth remembering what it was really about.

SIEGEL: Ben Wittes of the Brookings Institution. Thank you very much.

WITTES: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And Virginia State Delegate Richard Anderson also received a couple of emails about his Ben Franklin Privacy Caucus, and he says he's going back to its original name, the Ben Franklin Liberty Caucus.

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