On Tyranny and Self-Government—Obama’s Address to Ohio State University
President Barack Obama made the following statement yesterday to the graduating class of Ohio State University:
Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that's at the root of all our problems. Some of these same voices also do their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, and creative, and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.
We have never been a people who place all our faith in government to solve our problems. We shouldn’t want to. But we don’t think the government is the source of all our problems, either. Because we understand that this democracy is ours. And as citizens, we understand that it’s not about what America can do for us, it’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government. And class of 2013, you have to be involved in that process.
Obama seems to think that warnings about tyranny are new. Quite the contrary—they began not with the Tea Party but with the founding fathers:
Alexander Hamilton warned, “If the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people, whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed, and take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution as the exigency may suggest and prudence justify.”
George Washington warned Americans to be on guard against tyranny because “government is not reason; it is not eloquence. It is force. And force, like fire, is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”
Advising college students to reject such warnings is a call for them to reject our nation’s founding principles and the wisdom of those who knew how to preserve liberty.
Obama said that our nation is an experiment in self-rule and that anyone who criticizes the government is criticizing the very nature of democratic self-government. This is not true, of course, because critics of the government today are not critical of our democratic way of life or our republican form of government but of the erosion of it over time.
However, Obama’s comment does bring to light an important point (though not the collectivist one he intended). Government is, indeed, “by the people.” The bedrock of a self-ruling nation is the individual exercising self-government. It is the first foundation, a foundation built on the unchanging, objective morality of nature and nature’s God, and a foundation supported by the family, by religious institutions, and finally by the state.
When self-government erodes, everything else eventually crumbles. This is a point the founders made repeatedly:
Washington in his First Inaugural address in 1789 stated, “The foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality; ...the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.”
Thomas Jefferson (who was no Christian moralist) said, “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God” and “Freedom is lost gradually from an uninterested, uninformed, and uninvolved people.”
James Madison stated, “We base all our experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”
And, finally, John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people, and is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”
Obama told the students of Ohio State that those who warn of tyranny suggest “that our brave, and creative, and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.” Conservatives don’t think self-rule (democracy) is a sham or that it can’t be trusted. The founders certainly believed Americans had the capacity to exercise self-rule free from the imposing power of a king; they had every confidence in the success of the American experiment.
However, they understood that it can only succeed if self-government is exercised according to moral, rational principles. The warnings the founders issued about tyranny were based on the knowledge that liberty will inevitably be lost if individuals abandon self-government to anarchy of the soul.
Obama was wrong to tell college students to ignore warnings of tyranny—warnings such as these are part of our American heritage. But wouldn’t conservatives also be wrong to tell students that the only threat to their liberty is the increasing power of the government at the hands of tyrannically minded officials?
If we have learned anything from the founders, shouldn’t we also be telling students that one of the greatest threats to their personal liberty is their personal immorality?
Just as we cite Madison and Montiesquieu about the dangers of unlimited government, shouldn’t we also quote the words of Benjamin Franklin, that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom; as nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters”?
If we don’t, if we’re too afraid because we don’t want to seem intolerant or judgmental, shouldn’t we accept some of the blame for our nation’s decline?