Freedom is worth the risk

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RALEIGH — During each election cycle, we are treated to an endless parade of politicians extolling freedom. Given how many of them subsequently vote to restrict our freedom, we have ample reason to be skeptical about politicians.

But we should not let our skepticism become cynicism, or realism become defeatism. The cause of freedom is not a sports team for whom we root but whose defeat does us no real harm.

Freedom is of great practical value. The more government suppresses it, the poorer and unhappier its citizens become.

Back in the 17th century, France’s Louis XIV showed just how foolhardy it can be to restrict freedom. The “Sun King” ruled a mostly Catholic country with a significant Protestant minority, the Huguenots. After decades of religious conflict, Louis’s grandfather Henry IV had promulgated a new policy of toleration, the Edict of Nantes, in 1598. Under its protection, the Huguenot community had grown and prospered, producing a disproportionate number of French doctors, lawyers, financiers, and merchants.

But Louis XIV disliked the policy of toleration. When he took the reins of power in 1661, Huguenots began to lose their freedom. Louis formally renounced the Edict of Nantes in 1685. He ordered Huguenot ministers into exile while forbidding the rest of the Huguenots from leaving France. If they were caught trying to leave, the penalty could be compulsory naval service for men, imprisonment for women, or death.

While the king’s policy did force many to convert to Catholicism, a significant percentage of the Huguenots defied him and sought escape to the Low Countries, Switzerland, England, and beyond.

Among them were two teenagers, Abraham Michaux and Suzanne Rochet, who were engaged to be married. They decided to flee separately and meet in Holland. Abraham made it out on the first attempt. Suzanne didn’t. She had hidden herself in a wagon with her sister, who had an infant son. His cries resulted in their capture.

She tried again, this time by secreting herself in a wine cask on a ship bound for Holland.

Imagine young Suzanne, 18 years old, sealed up in a dark, cramped, smelly cask for hours. At one point she had to stifle a scream when she heard policemen whacking the cask with their guns to see if anything was hidden inside. Then she felt the cask being lifted and loaded. Only after the ship reached the open sea could she emerge in safety.

Suzanne Rochet made it to Holland and reunited with her beloved, Abraham Michaux. They married in 1692. One of their daughters was my 7th great-grandmother, Elizabeth Michaux.

The king’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes wasn’t just morally wrong. It was a colossal blunder.

It weakened his own country and enriched his enemies. We should learn from his mistakes, and from those of other rulers who treat people as cogs in a machine that only some ruling elite can operate.

We are not cogs. We are citizens. Politicians should protect our rights, perform only the necessary functions of a limited government, and otherwise leave us alone. They’ll be glad they did.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution (FolkloreCycle.com).

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