The United States was born into war with the Declaration of Independence, the most important statement of liberty and natural rights ever made. Since then, America has been the world’s freest country and has become its most secure, with a military equal to any threat. America has avoided the fate of nations that have traded freedoms for promises of security, or security for unlimited freedom, and achieved neither. Yet the healthy fear that one or the other will disappear has been present in every era since the Founding. How must America balance security and civil liberties?
“Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention, that of providing for their safety seems to be first.”  So wrote John Jay in The Federalist, in which the Constitution’s leading Framers explained the government on which they hoped to build America.
The founding generation knew firsthand the oppression of tyranny. The litany of British abuses and usurpations is cited in the Declaration of Independence: lawless decrees, the quartering of troops, wholesale plunder, and deprivation of liberty and life according to whim, not law. To the Founders, these were violations of both man’s natural rights and of the security that a sovereign is obliged to provide the people. In such circumstances, “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
And so they did, and the nation was thrust into war. From the first, Americans saw liberty and security as one and the same, and not in opposition.
Although we often speak of the proper “balance” between security and liberty, the two need not be in tension. Policies that make the nation more secure, particularly against foreign threats, do not necessarily undermine its people’s liberty. Protecting individual liberty does not invariably hobble the nation’s defense. Rather, as the Constitution recognizes, the two are reinforcing: we “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” A threat to America’s security is also a threat to Americans’ liberties.
“In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,” observed James Madison, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Almost all nations achieve control of the governed, though more often by force than by consent. Limits on the power of governments are rarer, and more complex. Yet they are essential to preserving both security and liberty. This problem was the Framers’ chief concern in drafting the Constitution, and their solution was radical and brilliant.
The problem they faced was the one identified deftly by Ronald Reagan: “The kind of government that is strong enough to give you everything you need is also strong enough to take away everything that you have.” Any power delegated by the people to their government may be abused and used against them. History is replete with examples of such oppression, and it remains common today.
“[L]iberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others.”
John Locke, 1690
But it has not happened in America. The Constitution’s Framers placed their faith not in specific guarantees of rights—those came later—but in an elegant system of checks on government. Foremost is the separation of power between the three branches of the federal government, as well as between the federal government and the states. These arrangements provide the flexibility necessary to ensure security and the restraint essential to safeguard liberties.
A dramatic example came with President Truman’s attempt to seize private property to further the Korean War effort. Claiming his actions were justified by national security, Truman authorized the Commerce Secretary to take control of the nation’s steel industry. Within weeks, the matter was before the Supreme Court, which rebuffed Truman’s claim that he had the power to act without, and even contrary to, any law enacted by Congress.
Justice Jackson’s famous concurrence hit on the danger of the President’s position: “Presidential claim to a power at once so conclusive and preclusive must be scrutinized with caution, for what is at stake is the equilibrium established by our constitutional system.” By contrast, “When the President acts pursuant to an express or implied authorization of Congress, his authority is at its maximum.” When the political branches are in agreement, Jackson recognized, security and liberty are most likely to go hand in hand.
The government is also checked by the ballot. When the branches of the federal government have conspired to abrogate the people’s liberties, the people have responded. In 1798, President John Adams and his Federalist allies in Congress passed the Sedition Act, which criminalized “false, scandalous and malicious” speech concerning the government, Congress, or the President. The Act was intended to suppress criticism of naval warfare with France, and it was a clear violation of Americans’ rights to speak freely and to question their government’s actions.
Instead of suppressing dissent, the Act ignited a political firestorm, as states passed resolutions denouncing the law and candidates ran on their opposition to it. The Federalists, including Adams, were swept out of office, and President Thomas Jefferson, who succeeded Adams, pardoned those serving sentences under the Act.
The protections codified in the Bill of Rights are the final firewall against any intrusions on liberty that would unravel the checks in the Constitution. For example, without the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to free speech, to assemble, and to petition government, the political branches would be less responsive to citizens’ concerns, and voters would be less informed of the significance of their choices. The Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures ensures that the government may not arbitrarily harass those who oppose its policies. The Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause requires the burden of government policies to be shared broadly.
While they are important, these enumerated rights are also narrow and specific. They are only an infinitesimal portion of the rights retained by the states and the people. For example, you have the right to provide for your family, to direct the upbringing of your children, to make contracts, and to own a house. These rights, which are too numerous to list and too changing to set forth in a constitution, are subject not to specific guarantees but to the Constitution’s structural protections. Thus, most matters of national security and liberty are fit not for adjudication by the courts, but for the exercise of the judgment of the people through the political branches.