“Hamilton,” Torture and Freedom | The Center for Victims of Torture

“Hamilton,” Torture and Freedom

Annie Sovcik, Esq.
Thursday, June 30, 2016

Annie Sovcik is director of CVT’s Washington office

As the musical “Hamilton” continues to wow Broadway, and theater fans across the country wait breathlessly for the hit show to go on tour, our Founding Fathers have achieved a new kind of 21st century pop fame. This resurgence of popularity—full of engrossing lyrics, catchy tunes and top-notch dancing—also raises the question:  How would our Founding Fathers react to the inflammatory rhetoric we’ve heard lately calling on the United States to bar people from entering the U.S. based on their religion? To close the door to refugees? And to embrace policies of torture and cruelty, all under the auspices of keeping us “safe”?  

At risk of being another 21st century lawyer trying to surmise what our Founding Fathers would say, knowing the historical context in which the U.S. Constitution was written and the principles embodied in that founding document, it’s easy to infer that such claims run counter to the ideals upon which this country was built.  In a Politico op ed entitled, “Our Founders Knew Not to Torture,” Former U.S. Senator David Boren—the longest serving Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee­—wrote, “a closer examination of our history makes clear that even when America faced an even more existential threat, our leaders clearly renounced such tactics.”

In 1787, Alexander Hamilton warned, “The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.” 

The Federalist Papers, the collection of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay promoting the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, focused on themes related to the principles of a representative government, the relative power of states and the federal government, and the doctrine of separation of powers, including the importance of establishing clear systems of checks and balances. Writing at a time when the United States was not only in its infancy, but the very notion of a representative government was still largely one held by philosophers, their efforts represented a great political experiment. The recognition of the fragility of their new country was not lost on our Founding Fathers—if anything, the most consistent theme throughout both the Federalist Papers and the U.S. Constitution is one of preservation. But not just preservation of the government; they strived to design a sustainable system of government that can protect against tyranny while guaranteeing the preservation of individual liberty. Our Founding Fathers recognized that state and individual goals can actually be mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive.  

As Juan Cole, a Professor of History at the University of Michigan, wrote upon the 2014 release of the Executive Summary, Findings and Conclusions of the Senate Intelligence Report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, “We know what the Founding Fathers believed. They believed in universal rights. And they believed in basic principles of human dignity. Above all, they did not think the government had the prerogative of behaving as it pleased. It doesn’t have the prerogative to torture.”  Our Founders knew in the 18th century what we know today: Torture is wrong.

Proponents of torture may want to flex their muscles and rely on flawed arguments about keeping America and its allies safe. The argument that using torture shows we are strong or helps to keep us safe has been dismissed by prominent foreign policy experts, retired military leaders, intelligence experts and security chiefs. By contrast, torture is unreliable, puts our troops in greater danger and is so contrary to American values that it is corrosive to the soul of this country.

This Fourth of July, as Americans join family and friends for fireworks and barbeques in celebration of freedom (perhaps with the “Hamilton” song, “History Has Its Eyes On You,” playing in the background?), I urge you to pause and reflect upon what freedom means to you.  And what do you risk if you agree to be less free in exchange for the illusion of safety?



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