Would you trade your liberties for your safety?

In 1755, the British Province of Pennsylvania… centered on the small town of Philadelphia, and stretching north east along the Susquehanna and Delaware river valleys to the Appalachian mountains… had a problem.

Pennsylvania was only 80 or so years old, and had been founded as place of religious freedom for the radical Christian sect known as ‘Quakers’ who had proved so dangerous, that they had been killed for their heretical ideas in the English colonies of New England.  In 1755 Quakers were still the dominant religious group in the colony, and perhaps it was their dangerous and irresponsible ideas about human nature, and or relationship with God, that gave rise to the problem the colony now had.

The Quakers had maintained good relations with the Delaware and Shawnee people who had lived in the Susquehanna and Delaware river valleys, treating them respectfully, and living in peace.  The other British colonies did not have such relations.  Virginia and New England had very hostile relations and repeated wars, with their natives, and New York did whatever the Iroquois told them to.

The French and Iroquois had gone to war two years prior… the English had sided with the Iroquois as allies, so the French had started arming the native people who had been conquered by the Iroquois… and now war was spreading throughout Eastern North America, as lines were drawn between peoples.

And this meant that things escalated so the Delaware and Shawnee attacked families and settlements throughout the Pennsylvania colony… particularly isolated farmsteads and settlements close to the mountains that formed the frontier… not withstanding the good relations they had historically had with the Quaker settlers.

Upon learning of Indian attacks at Penn’s Creek and other places in the Susquehanna Valley, Governor Morris summoned the Assembly November 3, 1755. He urged them to pass a militia law and provide funds for defense, although he cautioned them to “not waste your Time in offering me such Bills, as you must know … it is not in my Power to consent to.”

In the same message Morris reported that the Delawares and Shawnees had defected to the French.

Assuming that ill-treatment of those Indians by Pennsylvania must be the reason they now ravaged the frontier, Quaker leaders in the Assembly secured approval of a message, November 5, asking the governor to seek the causes of the disaffection and do whatever was necessary to regain the friendship of the Indians.

The same day the Assembly resolved that £60,000 be granted for the King’s use to be struck in paper bills of credit backed by a tax on all estates in the province. Including the Governor’s wealthy friends… the Penn Family. Benjamin Franklin and five others were appointed to prepare a bill pursuant to the resolution.

It was brought in the next day and was passed on November 8.

The pacific message about the Indians plus the renewed effort to tax the proprietary lands sent Morris into a rage. He sent a message the same day ridiculing the Assembly for its foolish attention to grievances “of the Indians now engaged in laying waste the Country, and butchering the Inhabitants,” reproved it for passing a tax bill it knew he could not accept, and informed it that he and a quorum of his Council would leave immediately for the frontier since obviously nothing was to be gained from staying in town to deal with such a body as the Assembly. A committee which included Franklin was appointed to draft a reply.

On November 11, Benjamin Franklin published his scathing reply to the Governor.

Franklin argued that: the people of Pennsylvania had a right to raise taxes and seek peace through means other than war.  That the right of a people to address a threat to their very lives (armed, murderous neighbouring nations) as they saw fit to protect themselves was an essential freedom… and he accused the Governor of refusing to contemplate the tax levy against the wealthy estates to fund this… basically to protect his position… was cowardice, putting his personal career safety before all else, letting vanity triumph over virtue.  Franklin argued that the governor had no right to expect permission for a militia to wage war, when that wasn’t how the people of the Province of Pennsylvania wanted to address the problem they were facing.

And so he penned the words that have become immortal to chastise the governor:

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Franklin argued that sufficient money had already been raised to arm the settlers so they could defend themselves with fire arms in the prior years… and that clearly it wasn’t enough and more money (and a better solution, i.e. seeking peace with the Natives) was needed.  Franklin pointed out:

“…since late Experience in our neighbouring Colony of Virginia (which had every Advantage for the purpose [individually arming settlers to fight natives] that could be desired) shows clearly, that it is next to impossible to guard effectually an extended Frontier, settled by scattered single Families at two or three Miles Distance, so as to secure them from the insiduous Attacks of small Parties of 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.”


  • Do you agree with Ben Franklin’s assertion that individually letting scattered people be armed to deal with a wave of organized murderous violence will prove an ineffective solution?
  • Do you agree with Ben Franklin’s assertion that the right of people to raise funds, and seek peaceful and immediate resolution to a wave of organized murderous violence is “an essential Liberty”?
  • Do you agree with Ben Franklin’s assertion that a politician or civil servant who refuses to allow a bill, essential to people’s well-being, be passed, because it would be inconvenient to those who donate to their campaigns… are acting only with a concern for their own (professional) safety?
  • Do you agree with Ben Franlkin’s assertion, given the context, that “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” ?

Sir Tainley

Article URL : https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-06-02-0107#:~:text=Those%20who%20would%20give%20up,deserve%20neither%20Liberty%20nor%20Safety.