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The liberties of the American people were dependent upon the ballot-box, the jury-box, and the cartridge-box; that without these no class of people could live and flourish in this country. – Frederick Douglass
Last week I alluded to the four boxes of liberty: the soap box, the ballot box, the jury box, and the cartridge box. A modern version of the saying follows up the listing with the admonition, “Open them in that order.” Someone thought I had thought them up. Much as I would like to take credit, the concept of the four boxes of liberty emerged in the 19th century. Frederick Douglass (as in the quote above) frequently used the metaphor, so I thought it appropriate to use it in a discussion of a Douglass quote.
The soap box is a reference to freedom of speech, the power one has to convince others through the liberty to freely offer ones thoughts and opinions. A soap box is a large crate-sized box used to transport bars of soap to stores. The modern equivalent is the cardboard carton, but in the 19th century the soap box was wood, and it was sturdy enough to stand on. Since it was discarded after use, it served as an impromptu rostrum for a street corner orator. This was a common sight in 19th century cities.
The ballot box represents the right to vote, to pick the individuals who lead the country. We take this for granted now. In the 19th century this was still a novel concept. Throughout most of the world one simply did not choose one’s leaders. Leadership was hereditary, imposed from above. Republics or even countries with parliamentary systems were rare. Many of those immigrating the the United States came from places where the powers of kings and ruling nobles were absolute.
The jury box represented trial by jury, the right to have one’s guilt determined by one’s peers. Again, this was revolutionary in the 19th century. Often, a trial meant having a judge appointed by the monarch pass judgement. Or even to have the lord be the judge. Good luck to you if you got crosswise with that justiciar. With trial by jury your fate was decided by six, twelve, or even 24 of your peers, chosen at random from disinterested persons. Since a guilty verdict in a criminal case required a unanimous verdict, even one of the jurors could nullify a conviction. While it is fashionable to disparage trial by jury today, it beats the alternative.
Finally, the cartridge box symbolized the right to take arms against usurpations of our liberties. It is not a box to be turned to lightly, yet it is there as a last resort. The cartridge box founded this country. The United States emerged from a revolution, an armed rebellion against a monarch. The cartridge box created the Republic of Texas and allowed it to join the United States. The cartridge box settled the issue of slavery in the United States. It has been used to oppose tyranny throughout this country’s history, as exampled by the Battle of Athens.
Freedom isn’t free. It has to be bought with the blood of patriots and tyrants. All representative government ultimately rests on the cartridge box; the willingness of a nation’s citizens to uphold the results of a free and fair election by force of arms if necessary. And to do so even if your party lost. It is better to depend on the soap box, ballot box, and jury box before opening the cartridge box. When it is opened, the cartridge box often proves a Pandora’s box. Yet it has to be there. Liberty rests on the determination of individuals who would rather die on their feet than live on their knees.Published in