"Common Ground"

The American Vision


American Leaders Comments on Liberty, Power, Conquest, and Dissent





George Washington

"Freedom , not safety , is the highest good."

"Overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty."

From Washington's Farewell Address, 1796


John Adams

"Liberty can not be preserved without a general knowledge among the people."


Thomas Jefferson

"Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny."

"I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it."

"An elective despotism was not the government we fought for, but one which should not only be founded on true free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among general bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others."  - Notes on Virginia Q. XIII, 1782

“What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”

"Conquest is not in our principles. It is inconsistent with our government."

"I abhor war and view it as the greatest scourge of mankind."

"It behoves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others: or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. "

"It is more dangerous that even a guilty person should be punished without the forms of law than that he should escape."

"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

"All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent."

"Educate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty."

"For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead."

"Great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities."

"Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom."

"I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led, and bearding every authority which stood in their way."

"Resort is had to ridicule only when reason is against us."

"Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

"The essential principles of our Government... form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty and safety." --1st Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801

primary author, Declaration of Independence


James Madison


Madison contributed to the Virginia Bill of Rights ,  along with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton was an author of  The Federalist Papers, is widely regarded as the father of the U.S. Constitution, and worked for the passage of the Bill of Rights  .


"All men having power ought to be mistrusted."

"No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

"If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy."

"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

"It is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad."

"Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other."

"The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty."

"The executive has no right, in any case, to decide the question, whether there is or is not cause for declaring war."

"The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse."

"The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home."

"We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties."


John Quincy Adams


"But (America) goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.

She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.

She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.
 

She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.

The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force....

She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit...."

Excerpted from the speech given by John Quincy Adams to the U. S. House of Representatives, July 4, 1821, in celebration of American Independence Day.  This speech is sometimes referred to as the "Monsters to Destroy" speech.  In 1821, John Quincy Adams was serving as Secretary of State, and between 1825-1829 served as the 6th President of the United States.


Benjamin Franklin

"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."


Thomas Paine

"When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon."

On Torture:

"They may introduce the practice of France, Spain, and Germany--of torturing, to extort a confession of the crime. They will say that they might as well draw examples from those countries as from Great Britain, and they will tell you that there is such a necessity of strengthening the arm of government, that they must have a criminal equity, and extort confession by torture, in order to punish with still more relentless severity. We are then lost and undone ..."    Debate in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 16, 1788

Common Sense, 1776

The Rights of Man, 1791-1792


Theodore Roosevelt

"To announce that there should be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, it is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American people"   -   "Roosevelt in the Kansas City Star", 149, May 7, 1918

"No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man's permission when we require him to obey it.""Obedience to the law is demanded as a right; not asked as a favor."
Third Annual Message to Congress, December 7, 1903


Harry S. Truman

"Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear."

General Douglas Macarthur 

"The object and practice of liberty lies in the limitation of governmental power."


Dwight Eisenhower

"We know that freedom cannot be served by the devices of the tyrant. As it is an ancient truth that freedom cannot be legislated into existence, so it is no less obvious that freedom cannot be censored into existence. And any who act as if freedom's defenses are to found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America."

“The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without.”

“There is no way in which a country can satisfy the craving for absolute security, but it can bankrupt itself morally and economically in attempting to reach that illusory goal through arms alone.”

“If all that Americans want is security, they can go to prison. They'll have enough to eat, a bed and a roof over their heads”-- as president of Colombia University, 12/8/49

“A preventive war, to my mind, is an impossibility. I don’t believe there is such a thing, and frankly I wouldn’t even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing.”-- Press conference in 1954

“When it comes to the matter of war, there is only one place that I would go, and that is to the Congress of the United States.” --January 1956 [A few months later, he explained]”I am not going to order any troops into anything that can be interpreted as war, until Congress directs it.”

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”

“The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government……..The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

From Eisenhower's Farewell Address, January 17, 1961

General Omar Bradley

"Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner."


John F. Kennedy

"Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed -- and no republic can survive."


Sen. J. William Fulbright

"We must dare to think 'unthinkable' thoughts. We must learn to explore all the options and possibilities that confront us in a complex and rapidly changing world. We must learn to welcome and not to fear the voices of dissent. We must dare to think about 'unthinkable things' because when things become unthinkable, thinking stops and action becomes mindless."


Justice William O. Douglas

"Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us."

Judge Gideon J. Tucker

"No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session."


Justice Louis D. Brandeis

"Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficent. "








American Leaders on Dissent



"Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

- Thomas Jefferson


"To announce that there should be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, it is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American people" 

- Theodore Roosevelt, in the Kansas City Star", 149, May 7, 1918


"Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear."

- Harry S. Truman


"We know that freedom cannot be served by the devices of the tyrant. As it is an ancient truth that freedom cannot be legislated into existence, so it is no less obvious that freedom cannot be censored into existence. And any who act as if freedom's defenses are to found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America."

- Dwight D. Eisenhower


"Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed -- and no republic can survive."

- John F. Kennedy


"We must dare to think 'unthinkable' thoughts. We must learn to explore all the options and possibilities that confront us in a complex and rapidly changing world. We must learn to welcome and not to fear the voices of dissent. We must dare to think about 'unthinkable things' because when things become unthinkable, thinking stops and action becomes mindless."

- Sen.  J.  William Fulbright


"Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us." 

- U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas







American Leaders on Executive Power



"The executive has no right, in any case, to decide the question, whether there is or is not cause for declaring war."

- James Madison


“When it comes to the matter of war, there is only one place that I would go, and that is to the Congress of the United States.”

- Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 1956


"An elective despotism was not the government we fought for, but one which should not only be founded on true free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among general bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others." 

- Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia Q. XIII, 1782


"Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny."

- Thomas Jefferson


"All men having power ought to be mistrusted."

- James Madison


“What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”

- Thomas Jefferson


[America is] ".... a nation of laws, not of men"

- John Adams


"No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man's permission when we require him to obey it.""Obedience to the law is demanded as a right; not asked as a favor."

- Theodore Roosevelt, Third Annual Message to Congress, December 7, 1903


"To announce that there should be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, it is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American people"

- Theodore Roosevelt,   - in the Kansas City Star, 149, May 7, 1918


The legal principle that no man, not even the King, is above the law was established with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 at Runnymeade.  the signing of the Magna Carta established principles that were reflected in the American Revolution, in the declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  Winston Churchill said of the Magna Carta in 1956,

"...here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break. This reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression in a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta; and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it."
















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