As county sheriffs, prosecutors, and police chiefs in a growing number of states refuse to enforce what they see as over-reaching lockdown orders issued by state governors, they channel the wisdom of past champions of American freedom including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Henry David Thoreau.
Local public officials, most often elected at the county level in California, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Washington, are publicly refusing to enforce business closure and stay-at-home orders that they deem excessive or impractical.
Citing low-infections rates, violations of the United States Constitution, state constitutions, a lack of statutory authority for gubernatorial actions, and just plain common sense, a growing chorus of those who enforce the decrees of governors have defied them. Their reluctance to incarcerate members of their community, for exercising their rights and their bodies in public, is apparently looming larger than reverence for their state governments.
The tradition of electing rather than appointing the chief law enforcement officer in many jurisdictions is an unusual but important feature of the American political structure. As James Madison, the architect of so much of the United States Constitution explained at the time, dividing the power of government first between the national and state government and then within those levels of government is a key element of protecting the individual liberties of our citizens.
Exalted and impressive as the authority of presidents and governors may be, in practical terms, the day-to-day lives of individual Americans are most directly impacted by the conduct and decisions of local officials. As a result, on their shoulders lies the greatest responsibility to protect God-given and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
Local governments and their employees, including police officers, health department personnel, and deputy sheriffs, have the power to make or break small businesses, to harass local residents, to discourage acts of worship. To exercise those powers correctly, they need to be governed by a thoroughgoing respect for the freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution and a healthy skepticism toward growing concentrations of power in government.
Although Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States and chief scribe for both the Declaration of Independence and the constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia (which includes a robust bill of rights), is often wrongly credited with the saying, “The government that governs least governs best,” that sentiment found its way into common political parlance in the early years of the American republic.
Something akin to that phrase was adopted explicitly by Henry David Thoreau in his seminal pamphlet, “Civil Disobedience.” The same sentiment underlies the thinking and public pronouncements of the growing number of local public officials who are declining to enforce some aspects of intrusive gubernatorial decrees.
What Jefferson did say which relates to the tension between government authority and individual freedom is this: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”
Many in power seem to see only opportunity in the crisis of the moment, an opening to exert greater control over individual lives, to concentrate unprecedented power in the hands of government agencies and bureaucrats at both the national and state levels. (These dangers are keenly articulated in the book Crisis & Leviathan, edited by Robert Higgs, for those looking for further reading.)
Stout-hearted citizens and local officials in Orange County, California, Racine County, Wisconsin, several counties in Washington, and elsewhere, seem willing to stand up and be counted in opposition to the accelerating attack on their freedoms. Perhaps in so doing, they can take some inspiration from another comment in Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence: “I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
Keith A. Hanson is a practicing attorney and teaches Political Science at Trinity International University.