those in power need checks and restraints

SPEAKING OF THINGS like those in power then and now, William O. Douglas remarked, “The privacy and dignity of our citizens (are) being whittled away by sometimes imperceptible steps. Taken individually, each step may be of little consequence. But when viewed as a whole, there begins to emerge a society quite unlike any we have seen—a society in which government may intrude into the secret regions of a (person’s) life.”

Douglas’s term as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Douglas lasted almost thirty-seven years (1939–1975), the longest term in the history of the Supreme Court.

Here are a few more of his observations:

“Those in power need checks and restraints lest they come to identify the common good for their own tastes and desires, and their continuation in office as essential to the preservation of the nation.” 

“Once the government can demand of a publisher the names of the purchasers of his publication, the free press as we know it disappears. Then the specter of a government agent will look over the shoulder of everyone who reads. . . . Fear of criticism goes with every person into the bookstall. The subtle, imponderable pressures of the orthodox lay hold. Some will fear to read what is unpopular, what the powers-that-be dislike. . . . [Then] fear will take the place of freedom in the libraries, book stores, and homes in the land.” 

“The framers of the constitution knew human nature as well as we do. They too had lived in dangerous days; they too knew the suffocating influence of orthodoxy and standardized thought. They weighed the compulsions for restrained speech and thought against the abuses of liberty. They chose liberty.” 

“Only when there is a wilderness can man harmonize his inner being with the wavelengths of the earth. When the earth, its products, its creatures, become his concern, man is caught up in a cause greater than his own life and more meaningful. Only when man loses himself in an endeavor of that magnitude does he walk and live with humanity and reverence.” 

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2 Replies to “those in power need checks and restraints”


    Sorry to be a sour note, but itsa gotta be said: the checks and balances on the ambitions of government are provided by the Second Amendment. According to the great liberal we know as Thomas Jefferson (to William Stephens Smith on November 13, 1787):

    “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.

    We have had 13 states independant 11 years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.

    The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order. I hope in god this article will be rectified before the new constitution is accepted.”

    (The reference to the “kite” is probably to the predatory bird that preys on chickens, rather a toy of paper, sticks, and string.) It’s crude, gruesome, often unworkable, and reminiscent of the wrong wing of the body politic, but that is what he wrote.

    But we have also the system of juries, including the investigation and indictment powers of the grand juries. While these yet snore, the carriage of state careens off the path of liberty and into the dark forest of Ferguson and beyond.

    But if these should ever awake . . .

    What would happen if a grand jury were convened, and it began indicting all the people who should be indicted? See the article “3 Ways the Ferguson Grand Jury Illustrates a Two-Tiered Legal System” by Kirsten Tynan (link below). There is more on this subject than they tell you in school—which may have been nothing at all. The Fully Informed Jury Association has a story we should all hear.


    1. MARK

      No arguments from me, accept that an armed “rebellion” against the government as envisioned in the 18th century is inconceivable in the 21st century. As for “the people” being “well informed,” well, today we can brag that they are well opinionated!

      As for FIJA: please accept my invitation to write an explanation of the meaning and power of a fully and well informed people sitting in judgment of our laws on a jury in Ferguson or Birmingham or Wilkes-Barre or good ol’ Anytown USA and submit it here so that I can post it and both of my regular readers can remain fully informed . . .


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