“The Discovery of Freedom” by Rose Wilder Lane

July 2, 2019

As we celebrate Independence Day this week, EAI will be publishing a series of blog posts from Americans who helped shape the meaning of liberty in the US over the past two and half centuries. This is an excerpt from Rose Wilder Lane’s 1943 book, published in the middle of WWII.

Rose Wilder Lane was a journalist, travel writer, novelist, political theorist and the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

…Grudgingly and most suspiciously, Americans did at last accept this new kind of Government. But only on condition that every Constitution, while it granted certain limited permissions to men in Government, also definitely prohibited their using force as Governments always had used force.

These prohibitions are called the Bills of Rights.

The name is not a good one, because it is not accurate. It confuses a careless mind.

The name, “Bill of Rights,” is English. It is accurate in England. The English Bill of Rights is a statement of certain freedoms which British Government permits to its subjects. An American Bill of Rights is the exact reverse of the English one. The “Bill of Rights” in American Constitutions is a statement of the uses of force which American citizens do not permit to men in American Government.

This difference is of the utmost importance. It is the essence of this World Revolution. This difference is the whole difference between American revolutionary Government and all other Governments in past history or on earth now.

This is the point upon which the future of the whole world depends today. And on this point, precisely, depends every American’s own personal safety, his liberty, his life.

If Americans ever forget that American Government is not permitted to restrain or coerce any peaceful individual without his free consent, if Americans ever regard their use of their natural liberty as granted to them by the men in Washington or in the capitals of the States, then this third attempt to establish the exercise of human rights on earth is ended.

This curbing of Government is our defence against the ancient tyranny that reigns in Europe today. This is the protection of every American’s life; it is his safety from the Gestapo, the Ogpu, the torturers, the firing squad, the revolver at the back of his neck in the cellar. The counter-revolution that now threatens every American is not merely a matter of submarines and bombers. In this country, in American minds, in every American’s mind and spirit, liberty on this earth must be defended.

Everything that an American values, his property, his home, his life, his children’s future, depends upon his keeping clear in his mind the revolutionary basis of this Republic. This revolutionary basis is recognition of the fact that human rights are natural rights, born in every human being with his life, and inseparable from his life; not rights and freedoms that can be granted by any power on earth.

Americans hold this truth. This knowledge attacks, and for a hundred and sixty years has been attacking, the very foundation of the Old World. This is the knowledge that the Old World’s defenders are now determined to destroy utterly.

American Government is not an Authority; it has no control over individuals and no responsibility for their affairs. American Government is a permission which free individuals grant to certain men to use force in certain necessary and strictly limited ways; a permission which Americans can always withdraw from American Government.

The American Constitutions are statements of the permissions which Americans in the past have granted to men in public office. And every Constitution contains a statement of the uses of force which Americans prohibit to this Government.

An American “Bill of Rights” is in fact a Bill of Prohibitions. It prohibits the men in public office here, to do acts customary everywhere else when these Bills were written, and today either continuing or revived nearly everywhere on this earth.

The true revolutionary course which must be followed toward a free world is a cautious, experimental process of further decreasing the uses of force which individuals permit to Government; of increasing the prohibitions of Government’s action, and thus decreasing the use of brute force in human affairs.

This is the only course toward a richer world. For the only energy creating wealth is human energy. A man is able to use his self-controlling energy effectively toward its natural aim of improving living conditions, precisely to the extent that no use of force restrains him.

During the first century of the Revolution, Americans made, tried, rejected and replaced Constitutions, to the number of a hundred and three. On into his second century, Americans have been making and remaking Constitutions.

Never before on earth, never anywhere in six thousand years, has there been anything like this—a multitude of human beings constantly creating their own Government.

The two instruments which American revolutionists created,the convention of delegates and the Constitution, never before existed.

The Constitution grants and limits the power of men in Government. The convention of delegates is the tool that Americans use to change their Constitutions.

Americans can always peacefully and legally diminish or withdraw any power that Americans in the past have granted to politicians. Americans can always increase, to any extent,the curbs on Government that are called the Bills of Rights.

Rose Wilder Lane was a woman before her time, who lived an amazing life.

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The Ethan Allen Institute is Vermont’s free-market public policy research and education organization. Founded in 1993, we are one of fifty-plus similar but independent state-level, public policy organizations around the country which exchange ideas and information through the State Policy Network.
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