Are we a free people? Upon its face, having for years drank deeply from the goblet of patriotism, of course we are. America’s economy is among the most dynamic in the history of the world. Our standard of living is among the highest in the world and has been for decades. We enjoy many liberties that peoples of other nations could only dream of, hence the long line around the globe awaiting entry to the U.S.
Perhaps in a relative sense, compared to other nations on earth, we are free. But are we free in the manner that our founders envisioned and that our Constitution is supposed to ensure? We are not, and sadly, we grow less so with each passing day. I support this assertion with a simple equation; there is a direct correlation between the growth in the size of the security apparatus needed for our political elites and the erosion of our liberties. Let me explain.
In ancient Rome, a force known as the Praetorian Guard served as bodyguards for the emperor. In addition, they also took on duties as secret police and elite military detachments. They eventually wielded considerable political power, given their proximity to and protection of the emperor, when they realized all they had to do was support the claimant to the throne that promised them the grandest benefits. They were eventually disbanded when their avarice got the better of them and they were defeated in the field, led by a man who was long on promises and short on generalship.
What does this have to do with our freedom you ask? Well, have you ever wondered why our founders and the pre-Civil War presidents never really had a protection detail? Even post-Civil War presidents up until Theodore Roosevelt had minimal and intermittent protection and it really didn’t kick into high gear until after Kennedy was assassinated (and the giant welfare state that followed).
I first noticed this while reading David McCullough’s biography of John Adams years ago, so I did some digging. George Washington had a commander-in-chief guard, but it was disbanded after the Revolutionary War. Adams had no detail to speak of while Jefferson actually walked from his boarding house to the Capitol unaccompanied by any guard for his inauguration. Despite receiving threatening letters, John Quincy Adams requested no protection and engaged in frequent solitary walks around DC and dips in the Potomac. Even Andrew Jackson, the first Democrat president, who aroused much passion given his populist demagoguery and was first assaulted and then almost assassinated, did not prompt protection for the Chief Executive. He famously quipped, “I want no man to stand between me and my assailants.” Harry Truman was the last president who actually dared to go out and informally stroll around DC, like a common citizen, while in office.
So what changed? The relationship between citizens and the State. In the past, the President, cabinet officials, and members of Congress did not need a detail because they were free citizens, just like you (slaves excepted of course). No better, no worse. The chief executive was not a ruler and did not seek dominion over you. No emperors here. He was but a small part of a brilliant system designed protect your liberty and leave you alone. If the constitution was followed, government was restrained and hence, not a threat to you. Consequently, you had little animus toward its agents. When we had a truly citizen government, someone in office was guarded solely by his strength of character and adherence to a system that prevented him from encroaching on your liberty; there was no need for outsized cohorts or countless legions to guard them. They were defended by their own honor and the good will of their compatriots.
Now, as our government has morphed into an aristocratic ruling class, a new Praetorian Guard has emerged. Much like the division of a cell, this bureaucratic membrane developed to cleave the cell in two; to separate the rulers from the ruled, as it were. The President, his cabinet, Congressional leaders are all now protected by hundreds upon hundreds of bodyguards which is commensurate with the power that we have allowed them to accumulate. We see continued growth of this protection in the form of manpower, equipment, and facilities, in conjunction with growth of government writ large. We see this new Praetorian showing signs of exerting its authority for its own ends, at the expense of its patrons. The Praetorians of old showed they could designate the emperor, which is probably true of some of our institutions today (Clinton non-indictment by FBI for starters).
Why is all this necessary? Do these “superior” people really fear the unwashed masses that much? What do they need protection from if they are so magnanimous and loved and are truly doing a great job, as fellow citizens–not rulers–protecting our liberties? No, they know they are in violation of our founding documents and have been for some time. Ignorance and deception keep them in power and they know their legitimacy wanes, hence the cohorts. Bottom line, the simplest explanation is usually the right one; only tyrants need worry of tyrant killers.