January 28, 2013

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”


The quote “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often mistakenly attributed to the Irish lawyer and politician John Philpot Curran and frequently to Thomas Jefferson.

In fact, Curran’s line was somewhat different. What he actually said, in a speech in Dublin on July 10, 1790, was:

       “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”

And, according to Jefferson scholars there is “no evidence to confirm that Thomas Jefferson ever said or wrote, ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’ or any of its variants.”

Traditionally, the most famous use of “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” that’s included in books of quotations is from a speech made by the American Abolitionist and liberal activist Wendell Phillips on January 28, 1852.

Speaking to members of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society that day, Phillips said:

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. The living sap of today outgrows the dead rind of yesterday. The hand entrusted with power becomes, either form human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”

However, Anna Berkes, a research librarian at the Jefferson Library, has discovered uses that predate Phillips’ speech.

In a post on the Jefferson Library blog, Berkes wrote:

“Not to be mean to Mr. Wendell Phillips, but he’s about to get slightly less famous. After two days of ridiculously feverish searching, I’ve traced the purported Phillips version of this quote all the way back to 1809.  (For the record, Mr. Phillips was -2 years old at that time.)”

Berkes noted that, in a biography of Major General James Jackson published in 1809, author Thomas Charlton used the same words, just in a different order. Charlton wrote that that one of the obligations of biographers of famous people is “fastening upon the minds of the American people the belief, that ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.’

Berkes also found several news articles that include the more familiar version of the line as later used by Phillips.

For example, an article in the May 2, 1833 edition of The Virginia Free Press and Farmers' Repository says:

“Some one has justly remarked, that ‘eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.’ Let the sentinels on the watch-tower sleep not, and slumber not.”

One of the news articles she found, in the January 4, 1838 edition of the Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier, uses the same quote and attributes it to Thomas Jefferson — one of the earliest sources to do so.

Berkes reiterated that the consensus of Jefferson scholars is that he never spoke or wrote the words “‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

She also concluded that, although Wendell Phillips still gets credit for the most famous use of that phrase, it was already a well-known saying prior to his speech in 1852.

Many witty variations on this old saying have been created since then. My personal favorite is by the novelist Aldous Huxley. In an  introduction to the 1965 radio version of his novel Brave New World, Huxley said: “Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty; eternal vigilance is the price of human decency.”

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