Eternal Vigilance

I’m currently reading The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution, by Thomas P. Slaughter. Near the beginning of Ch. 8 he uses the phrase “eternal vigilance.” “Eternal vigilance was the price paid for the blessings of liberty.” Or as it was stated over 200 years ago:

“Free government, in any country naturally verges by imperceptible advances to tyranny, unless corrected by the vigilance of the people. Nothing but perpetual jealousy of the governed has ever been found effectual against the machinations of ambition.” [From the National Gazette, Jan. 16, 1792, p. 3, as quoted by Slaughter.]

This sentiment, uttered by the so-called “friends of liberty,” was in contrast to the sentiments of the so-called “friends of order,” who were concerned that the American republic was spinning out of control. In this historical context, typical of the periods both before and after the Revolutionary War, the vigilance is required against those that seek too much government.

What struck me about this quote and Slaughter’s slightly altered phrase, “eternal vigilance,” is that in today’s patriotic rhetoric it is rather the “friends of order” who have co-opted the phrase. We are being called to vigilance against foreign enemies. In today’s rhetoric implied in the call for eternal vigilance is a strong standing army, expanded powers for the national police to ferret out dissenters within our borders, both citizens and aliens, and a large military budget to pay for it. Two centuries ago “eternal vigilance” was the watchword against taxes, a standing army, and federal government attempts to clamp down on dissent within its borders.

I wonder if many of today’s patriots who bandy about such sentiment as a defense of our huge, permanent military are aware that they have turned 180° from the sentiment of the Revolutionary period.


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