What did Ben Franklin really mean?

In the aftermath of the disclosure of the NSA program called PRISM by Edward Snowden to a reporter at The Guardian, commentators have gone into overdrive and the most iconic quote is one attributed to Benjamin Franklin “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”.

It was amazing that something said over 250 years ago would be so apropos. Conservatives favor an originalist interpretation of documents such as the US Constitution (see Federalist Society) and so it seemed possible that very similar concerns existed at that time.

Trying to get to the bottom of this quote, Ben Wittes of Brookings wrote that it does not mean what it seems to say.

The words appear originally in a 1755 letter that Franklin is presumed to have written on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly to the colonial governor during the French and Indian War. The Assembly wished to tax the lands of the Penn family, which ruled Pennsylvania from afar, to raise money for defense against French and Indian attacks. The Penn family was willing to acknowledge the power of the Assembly to tax them.  The Governor, being an appointee of the Penn family, kept vetoing the Assembly’s effort. The Penn family later offered cash to fund defense of the frontier–as long as the Assembly would acknowledge that it lacked the power to tax the family’s lands.

Franklin was thus complaining of the choice facing the legislature between being able to make funds available for frontier defense versus maintaining its right of self-governance. He was criticizing the Governor for suggesting it should be willing to give up the latter to ensure the former.

The statement is typical of Franklin style and rhetoric which also includes “Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power.”  While the circumstances were quite different, it seems the general principle he was stating is indeed relevant to the Snowden case.