A Quote on Essential Liberty

Pennsylvania Assembly; likely Benjamin Franklin

11 November 1755

Thoſe who would give up ESSENTIAL LIBERTY to purchaſe a little TEMPORARY SAFETY, deſerve neither LIBERTY nor SAFETY.


This quote first appears in 1755, in a letter from the Pennsylvania Assembly to the then governor of Pennsylvania.  In 1757, the letter was published in London by Benjamin Franklin in the book An Historical Review of the Constitution and Government of Pennsylvania.  This first edition of the book does not specify who the author of the quote is.

The second edition of this book was published in Philadelphia in 1812, after Franklin’s death.  This edition attributes the quote to Benjamin Franklin.

In 1760, Franklin wrote to David Hume that he had not written the book, “except for one small section and some of the text attributed to the Assembly when he was serving there” (Minsky).

It seems reasonable that the above quote may be Franklin’s, as it appears quite similar to a proverb he wrote in the 1738 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack:  “Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power.”

Text of the Letter

Our Aſſemblies have of late had ſo many Supply Bills, and of ſuch different Kinds, rejected on various Pretences; ſome for not complying with obſolete occaſional Inſtructions (tho’ other Acts exactly of the ſame Tenor had been paſt ſince thoſe Inſtructions, and received the Royal Aſſent;) ſome for being inconſiſtent with the ſuppoſed Spirit of an Act of Parliament, when the Act itſekf did not any Way affect us, being made expreſly for other Colonies; ſome for being, as the Governor was pleaſed to ſay, “of an extraordinary Nature,” without informing us, wherein that extraordinary Nature conſiſted; and others for diſagreeing with new diſcovered Meanings, and forced Conſtructions of a Clauſe in the Proprietary Commiſſion; that we are now really at a Loſs to divine what Bill can poſſibly paſs.  The Proprietary Inſtructions are Secrets to us; and we may ſpend much Time, and much of the public Money, in preparing and framing Bills for Supply, which, after all, muſt, from thoſe Inſtructions, prove abortive.  If we are thus to be driven from Bill to Bill, without one ſolid Reaſon afforded us; and can raiſe no Money for the King’s Service, and Relief or Security of our Country, till we fortunately hit on the only Bill the Governor is allowed to paſs, or till we conſent to make ſuch as the Governor or Proprietaries direct us to make, we ſee litttle Uſe of Aſſemblies in this Particular; and think we might as well leave it to the Governor or Proprietaries to make for us what Supply Laws they pleaſe, and ſave ourſelves and the Country the Expence and Trouble.  All Debates and all Reaſonings are vain, where Proprietary Inſtructions, just or unjust, right or wrong, muſt inviolably be obſerved.  We have only to find out, if we can, what they are, and then ſubmit and obey.  But ſurely the Proprietaries Conduct, whether as Fathers of their Country, or Subjects to their King, muſt appear extraordinary, when it is conſidered that they have not only formally refuſed to bear any Part of our yearly heavy Expences in cultivating and maintaining Friendſhip with the Indians, tho’ they reap ſuch immenſe Advantages by that Friendſhip; but they now, by their Lieutenant, refuſe to contribute any Part towards reſiſting an Invaſion of the King’s Colony, committed to their Care; or to ſubmit their Claim of Exemption to the Deciſion of their Sovereign.

In fine, we have the moſt ſenſible Concern for the poor diſtreſſed Inhabitants of the Frontiers.  We have taken every Step in our Power, conſiſtent with the juſt Rights of the Freemen of Penſylvania, for their Relief, and we have Reaſon to believe, that in the Midſt of their Diſtreſſes they themſelves do not wiſh us to go farther.  Thoſe who would give up eſſential Liberty, to purchaſe a little temporary Safety, DESERVE neither Liberty nor Safety.—Such as were inclined to defend themſelves, but unable to purchase Arms and Ammunition, have, as we are informed, been ſupplied with both, as far as Arms could be procured, out of Monies given by the laſt Aſſemly for the King’s Uſe; and the large Supply of Money offered by this Bill, might enable the Governor to do every Thing elſe that ſhould be judged neceſſary for their further Security, if he ſhall think fit to accept it.  Whether he could, as he ſuppoſes, “if his Hands had been properly ſtrengthened, have put the Province into ſuch a Poſture of Defence, as might have prevented the preſent Miſchiefs,” ſeems to us uncertain; ſince late Experience in our neighbouring Colony of Virginia (which had every Advantage for that Purpoſe that could be deſired) ſhows clearly, that it is next to impoſſible to guard effectually an extended Frontier, ſettled by ſsattered ſingle Families at two or three Miles Diſtance, ſo as to ſecure them from the inſiduous Attacks of ſmall Parties ſkulking Murderers:—But thus much is certain, that by refuſing our Bills from Time to Time, by which great Sums were ſeaſonably offered, he has rejected all the Strength that Money could afford him; and if his Hands are ſtill weak or unable, he ought only to blame himſelf, or thoſe who have tied them.

If the Governor proceeds on his Journey, and takes a Quorum of his Council with him, we hope, ſince he retains our Bill, that it will be ſeriouſly and duly conſidered by them; and that the ſame Regard for the public Welfare which induced unanimouſly to adviſe his intended Journey, will induce them as unanimouſly to adviſe his Aſſent.  We agree therefore to his keeping the Bill, earnaſtly requeſting he would re-conſider it attentively; and ſhall be ready at any Time to meet him for the Purpoſe of enacting it into a Law.

See also

Franklin Quoted by Minsky

Richard Minsky

Poor Richard’s Almanack 1733–1758

Benjamin Franklin