17 Benjamin Franklin Quotes on Tyranny, Liberty, and Rights

Americans remember Benjamin Franklin as one of our founders. That is fitting because he was not just our most famous citizen at our country’s birth, but he was also so much a central part of that birth that he has been called “The First American.”

As a member of the Second Continental Congress, Franklin helped draft the Declaration of Independence. As a member of the Constitutional Convention, he helped draft the Constitution. Both documents bear his signature.

He also signed the Treaty of Alliance with France, bringing the colonies French aid against the British, and the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War and recognized the independence of the United States. He was the only person, in fact, to sign all those key documents.

However, Franklin’s role in our founding has been eclipsed in modern memory by his many other accomplishments. He was a prolific inventor, from his trademark bifocals to the Franklin Stove and artificial fertilizer. He ran his own paper and published Poor Richard’s Almanac. He even published the first political cartoon in the colonies. He founded the University of Pennsylvania, as well as America’s first public library and hospital. His discoveries went far beyond his famous kite experiment, including the identification of lead poisoning and the charting of ocean currents.

Unfortunately, attention to what Franklin said about American liberty has often been crowded out by his other accomplishments. On his January 17 birthday, we should remember some of those inspirational words.

  1. “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” (proposed by Franklin for the motto of the Great Seal of the United States).
  2. “From a persuasion that equal liberty was originally the portion, it is still the birthright of all men.”
  3. “Every man…is, of common right, and by the laws of God, a freeman, and entitled to the free enjoyment of liberty.”
  4. “All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual… is his natural right which none can justly deprive him of.”
  5. “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
  6. “Our cause is the cause of all mankind…we are fighting for their liberty in defending our own.”
  7. “[F]requent recurrence to fundamental principles…[is] absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty and keep a government free.”
  8. “The more the people are discontented with the oppression of taxes, the greater the need the prince has of money to distribute among his partisans and pay the troops that are to suppress all resistance and enable him to plunder at pleasure.”
  9. “Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech.”
  10. “Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins. Republics…derive their strength and vigor from a popular examination into the action of the magistrates.”
  11. “Sell not…liberty to purchase power.”
  12. “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
  13. “This Constitution…can only end in despotism…when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.”
  14. “I hope…that all mankind will at length…have reason and sense enough to settle their differences without cutting throats.”
  15. “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes!”
  16. “Ordaining of laws in favor of one part of the nation to the prejudice and oppression of another is certainly the most erroneous and mistaken policy…An equal dispensation of protection, rights, privileges, and advantages, is what every part is entitled to, and ought to enjoy.”
  17. Benjamin Franklin expressed the goal of America’s experiment in liberty when he said, “God grant that not only the love of liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all the nations of the earth, so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say: This is my country.”

As we reflect on current political developments, we should consider how far we are from that goal and how to rekindle America’s liberty.


Gary M. Galles

Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network. In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).

EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

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