10 Quotes on Tyranny

Arts & Literature

March 5, 2015
by A. K. Fielding Also by this Author


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The world has seen many a tyrant from Genghis Khan to Hitler. At all times, people have had an impression of what made one a tyrant. Americans living during the Revolutionary War were no exception to the matter and they too held a decided view on tyranny. Here is a list of ten quotes on tyranny as recorded by eighteenth century Americans:

  1. “Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.”[1] In his A Summary View of the Rights of British America, written in 1774, Thomas Jefferson argued against the British Parliamentary jurisdiction over the colonies noting that American colonies had been free since their founding and that colonists only held an allegiance to the British King and that too only if he advanced the interests of his colonial subjects. In this passage, Jefferson highlighted the complaints of colonists calling attention to the “unwarrantable encroachments and usurpations” that they suffered under the British government and wanted redressed. Jefferson stated that an occasional tyrannical act against a people can be overlooked but if the “oppressions” continue repeatedly, they are no longer a figment of someone’s imagination but true and intentional acts of a tyrant.
  1. “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”[2] On December 23, 1776, in The Crisis Number 1, firebrand Thomas Paine demanded from Americans if they were a “summer soldier” or a “sunshine patriot.” Was it not “slavery” to be “bound” to pay taxes the British imposed upon Americans? Paine understood the difficulties Americans faced against the powerful British kingdom, yet, he was convinced that Americans must endure and fight for their independence. He wrote in the simplest form but with passion and conviction to unite colonists to break from the tyrannical rule of the British nation.
  1. “Americans are like other men in similar situations, when the manners and opinions of the community are changed by the causes I mentioned before, and your political compact explicit, your posterity will find that great power connected with ambition, luxury, and flattery, will as readily produce a Caesar, Caligula, Nero, and Domitian in America, as the same causes did in the Roman empire.”[3] In a series of articles written against the Federalist during the ratification process, “Cato” argued that the new Constitution was weak and unable to safeguard liberty when confronted with tyranny. On November 22, 1787, Cato, stated that the Constitution provided too many opportunities for abuse of power. Cato claimed if the new Constitution was adopted, it would be a matter of time before America produced a tyrant as Rome did with Caesar.
  1. “The object of every free government is the public good, and all lesser interests yield to it. That of every tyrannical government, is the happiness and aggrandizement of one, or a few, and to this the public felicity, and every other interest must submit.”[4] Beating back on the claims of the Federalist on effective representation under the new Constitution, “Brutus” wrote Essay No. IV on November 29, 1787. Brutus argued that the House of Representatives and Senate were unable to effectively ensure that Americans would find an “equal and full representation” in government. Indeed, Brutus claimed that under the new Constitution, as with the judiciary, both the House of Representatives and Senate may produce tyranny and not a free government.
  1. “History will teach us…those men who have overturned the liberties of republics the greatest number have begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing Demagogues and ending Tyrants.”[5] So began a series of articles that would eventually be known as The Federalist. Writing as “Publius,” Alexander Hamilton introduced the arguments in favor of the new Constitution on October 27, 1787 to dispel the suspicious minds of Americans who worried about an all too powerful government. In The Federalist No. 1, Publius warned those who claimed to fight for the liberties of the people by pandering to their desires, often were the people’s abusers.
  1. “The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”[6] In the Federalist No. 47, “Publius”/James Madison pointed out the necessity of having separation of powers. Publius warned of the dangers of concentrated power. By sharing power between the different branches of government, the new Constitution provided the necessary checks and balances to safeguard the rights of the American people.
  1. “I am more and more convinced, of the propensity in human nature to tyranize over their fellow men….”[7] The spirited Mercy Otis Warren wrote to her friend John Adams sometime in Oct, 1775 inquiring why “man” was determined to forget principles that supported liberty but wanted to “cherish” an overgrown “monster” of a government. A student of history, Warren understood well the laws of nature. She noted that unprincipled men would eventually overtake the legislature and use the power to tyrannize the people.
  1. “…should We consent to an order of Cincinnati consisting of all the Officers of the Army & Citizens of Consiquence in the united States; how easy the Transition from a Republican to any other Form of Government, however despotic! & how rediculous to exchange a british Administration, for one that would be equally tyrannical, perhaps much more so? this project may answer the End of Courts that aim at making Us subservient to their political purposes, but can never be consistent with the Dignity or Happiness of the united States.”[8] Elbridge Gerry’s November 23, 1787 letter to John Adams discussed both foreign and domestic problems. On the domestic front, Gerry informed Adams of the foundation and growth of the Society of the Cincinnati. Formed under the blessings of General Henry Knox, the Cincinnati was created as an institution to help soldiers who served in Revolutionary War. Requirements for membership to Cincinnati reeked of an oligarchical scheme to many Americans. Gerry warned that such a society was unconstitutional and would demean the republican principles, the bedrock of the United States.
  1. “Statesmen my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand. . . . The only foundation of a free Constitution, is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People, in a greater Measure, than they have it now, They may change their Rulers, and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty.—They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies.”[9] On June 21, 1776, John Adams wrote to Zabdiel Adams about the need for a “permanent Constitution” and “foreign aid” for the United States. In the letter, Adams also expressed his belief in the necessity of a religious and moral society to ensure freedom and liberty. Adams recognized that only religion and morality could inspire “virtue” in people which would then promote the true principles of liberty in America.
  1. “We have lamented the infatuation of Britain and have wished an honourable reconsilation with her till she has plunged her Sword into our Bosoms and laid 40 of our Breathren in the Dust. Tyranny, oppression and Murder have been the reward of all the affection, the veneration and the loyalty which has heretofore distinguished Americans.”[10] On May 21, 1775,* Abigail Adams, writing on behalf of John Adams, penned a passionate letter to Edward Dilly about the mayhem and chaos in New England. She described in vivid details the distress and abuse of the Americans at the hands of the British. Adams noted that the British were mere mobsters and unworthy of the love and respect of Americans.

The founding generation understood the importance of history. They knew unchecked power often resulted in tyranny. They also knew that tyranny resulted in utter chaos and destruction of a nation. It was through their study of history and recognition of tyranny that they forged ahead and build a republic founded on the bedrock principle of liberty. In doing so, not only did they leave us a glimpse of how they planned our nation but also a blueprint of how we ought to consider the future of our nation.


[1] Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson: Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: The Library of America, 1984), 110.

[2] Thomas Paine, The Crisis, (New York: Prometheus Books, 2008), 7.

[3] Cato, “Letter V, November 22, 1787,” in The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates: The Clashes and Compromises that Gave Birth to Our Government, ed. Ralph Ketcham (New York: New American Library, 2003), 338.

[4] Brutus, “Essay IV, November 29, 1787,” in Ketcham, The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates: The Clashes and Compromises that Gave Birth to Our Government, 346.

[5] Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist No. 1,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Roy P. Fairfield (New York: Anchor Books, 1966), 3.

[6] James Madison, “Federalist No. 47,” in Fairfield, The Federalist Papers, 139.

[7] Mercy Otis Warren, “To John Adams from Mercy Otis Warren, October 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-03-02-0142 [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 3, May 1775 – January 1776, ed. Robert J. Taylor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979, 267–272.

[8] Elbridge Gerry, “To John Adams from Elbridge Gerry, 23 November 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-15-02-0185 [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 15, June 1783–January 1784, ed. Gregg L. Lint, C. James Taylor, Robert F. Karachuk, Hobson Woodward, Margaret A. Hogan, Sara B. Sikes, Mary T. Claffey, and Karen N. Barzilay. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010, 369–376.

[9] John Adams, “John Adams to Zabdiel Adams, 21 June 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-02-02-0011 [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 2, June 1776 – March 1778, ed. L. H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963, 20–21.

[10] Abigail Adams, “Abigail Adams to Edward Dilly, 22 May 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0135 [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 1, December 1761 – May 1776, ed. Lyman H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963, 200–204. (*According to the primary source, draft of the date was written on May 21, 1775).


  • “Tyranny,” like “Liberty” was a major buzzword of the times. After all, it encapsulated all the abuses, real and imagined, perceived by pro-Independence colonists. Here, Washington uses both words in his brusque letter to Gen. Gage August 20, 1775:

    Whether British or American Mercy, Fortitude, and Patience are most preeminent, whether our virtuous Citizens, whom the Hand of Tyranny has forced into Arms to defend their Wives, their Children, and their Property, or the mercenary Instruments of lawless Domination, avarice and Revenge, best deserve the Appellation of Rebels, and the Punishment of that Cord, which your affected Clemency has forborne to inflict: whether the Authority, under which Fact, is usurped, or founded upon the genuine Principles of Liberty, were altogether foreign to the Subject. I purposely avoided all political Disquisition; nor shall I now avail myself of those Advantages, which the sacred Cause of my Country of Liberty, and human Nature, give me over you:

    1. SPM,

      I was drafting something along the same lines, but using “treason” as one of those catch-all phrases employed to sweep so much disparate conduct under one heading (a fault committed by both the Americans and British).

      That’s why I get pretty hesitant to use such “big” words as freedom, democracy, rights, etc. – they say a lot, but then, they really say so very little about particularized issues. However, we have to consider that these were words for the masses in rallying support for whatever position was being advocated. For the discerning and critical among them, one has to look deeper into their writings for a truer understanding of their positions.

  • The liberties that we strive to undertake are the best in the world. We cannot forget what this country fought for over and over. The current government we have is not up to the task of protecting the US constitution. We need change!
    Time will heal! The country will fine!

  • Abigail Adams put tyranny on a more personal level in her “remember the ladies” letter of March 31 1776: “Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.”

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