The Arc of Liberty
He was never supposed to be king.
The youngest of four boys, John only got the job after an inter-family feud eight hundred years ago. His reign did not go particularly well.
John lost a lot of territory to his French counterpart, Philip II, and had a prolonged struggle with the Church.
He did one thing that put him in history books, though, when his British nobles — with titles such as Lord, Duke, Count, Early, and Baron — were demanding more freedom and greater protections.
Breaking with precedent, John made a deal. He would extend certain protections and safeguards to those pesky, restless nobles. In exchange, they would pledge loyalty and pay him taxes. What we might call a quid pro quo.
In his famous document laying out the terms, now remembered for expanding common rights, John would remind the nobles that there was only one king and his unlimited power rested in his singular ability to grant or take away their freedoms:
TO ALL FREE MEN OF OUR KINGDOM we have also granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written out below, to have and to keep for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs.
In no uncertain terms, John was restating a truth – kings granted or erased liberty – that guided most of human history.
It would last another five hundred and sixty-one years.
Then with a single sentence, thirty-six words in total, a 33-year-old son of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, declared an end to king-granted rights:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Even now, two-hundred and forty-three years later, Jefferson’s statement was not an obvious one. Much of his new nation’s economic, social, and political infrastructure existed by systematically withholding those very freedoms from most of its people.
Yet Jefferson's declaration imagined a society where no man, king or otherwise, could take away another man's Creator-endowed rights. Jefferson’s government of men would exist to protect — not grant — liberty. Lincoln and many others would make it so.
In a narrow sense, both the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence expanded freedom. The lasting difference between the two was who — or what — granted those freedoms in the first place.
In John's England, kings were the source. In Jefferson's America, God was.
As we head into 2020, most candidates do not talk with any depth about the sources of liberty. This feels like a lost opportunity. Significant shifts — economic or technological or otherwise — create new freedoms, new opportunities, and new threats.
We are in the middle of one of those shifts – powered by always-on surveillance tech – but currently lack side rails.
America's first great innovation was its form of government. Now staffed by shockingly shallow representatives, this same government seems uniquely unfit to understand, manage, or lead our generation's great shift. Without dramatic changes, the American political system – its people, incentives, propaganda – will be a threat to freedom moving forward.
Headlines may focus on this issue or that, but something more significant is afoot.
It has to do with who and what protects the freedoms we know and those we cannot yet imagine.