Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

The James Bryce Lecture ("Reason and Religion: The Moral Foundations of Freedom")

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Great Hall, Lincoln’s Inn, central London
Source: Thatcher Archive: press release
Editorial comments: Embargoed until 1845. The lecture took place under the auspices of the Institute of United States Studies in the University of London.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4307
Themes: Arts & entertainment, British Constitution (general discussions), Civil liberties, Foreign policy (USA), Labour Party & socialism, Law & order, Religion & morality, Science & technology


It is a great honour to have been asked to inaugurate the James Bryce Lecture on the American Commonwealth for the Institute of United States Studies. And it is a pleasure to be able to do so here, in the Great Hall of Lincoln's Inn. This medieval centre of legal learning is a very special place to me, having been called to the Bar here. My continuing association as an Honorary Bencher is an abiding source of pride.

It is also fitting that the Bryce Lecture be given here. Lord Bryce himself received his legal training at Lincoln's Inn, although it does not seem to have been the happiest time of his life. As he remembered his days here:

“Streaming down Oxford Street, about 11 every morning to the Inn; then books, very dreary books it must be said, most of them interminable records of minute facts through which it is not easy to trace the course of a consistent and clarifying principle till 1:30; then lunch . . . [and] then more books till 5:30; then dinner in the hall of Lincoln's Inn, disagreeable in . . . that one rises from the table to walk two miles through narrow dirty streets homeward.”

Of course, once he became a Member of Parliament, he probably looked back on his time here as the good old days, tedium and dreariness being somewhat relative.


It is most appropriate that the Institute of United States Studies has chosen to honour the memory of Lord Bryce in these annual lectures. For not only is he a man worthy of our remembrance, but the subject which so captivated him, the American commonwealth, is of special importance to us still. It is no different in our day than it was in his. For the United States continues to be, as he said, of “enormous and daily increasing influence.”

When Bryce wrote his American Commonwealth in 1888 the United States was only a century old and the world was far different from the one we live in today. Queen Victoria governed the British Empire and Tsar Alexander III ruled Russia. The Great War was still a quarter century away and Adolf Hitler would not be born until the following year. America herself consisted of only 38 states with a population of 60 million. Indeed the entire state of New York boasted a population only one-half of that of New York City today. But even then Bryce saw that America was truly exceptional. As he put it,

“The institutions of the United States . . . are believed to disclose and display the type of institutions towards which, as by a law of fate, the rest of civilized mankind are forced to move, some with swifter, others with slower, but all with unresting feet.”

The end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union have made such an inexorable march more possible now than ever before. Thus it is essential that we of this generation intensify the serious study of America.

Not simply its politics and institutions of government - we must focus on all aspects of America, from its history to its literature to its art and its music. The fact is, America looms large in the world culturally as well as politically. And to understand America properly means we must endeavour to understand America fully. For democracy in America is not simply about forms of government; it is also, as Bryce's celebrated French predecessor Alexis de Tocqueville knew, about its manners and its morals.

Writing half a century before Bryce, Tocqueville said that he had undertaken to study America because he “saw in America more than America.” It was, he said, “the shape of democracy itself which I sought, its inclinations, its character, prejudices, and passions; I wanted to understand it so at least to know what we have to fear or hope therefrom.” As we witness the spread of American influence around the globe and in all aspects of life, it behoves us to follow Tocqueville and Bryce in their attempt to understand the deeper implications of that influence.

Perhaps we can best grasp what makes America such a powerful presence if we go back to the beginning. For there we shall see not only what makes America exceptional, but also the problems and the prospects facing those nations that follow in the American path.


The modern world began in earnest on July 4th, 1776. That was the moment when the rebellious colonists put pen to parchment and pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honour in defense of truths they held to be self-evident: “That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . . and that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Henceforth patriotism would not simply be loyalty to the homeland, but a dedication to principles held to be both universal and permanent.

From that first formal step in the creation of the American republic through to the final ratification of the Constitution in 1788, the Americans established the most enduring tenet of modern constitutionalism: that men are capable of forming their governments from “reflection and choice” and are not doomed to accept whatever “accident and force” might bring. The world has never been the same since.

Near the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson reflected on the importance of that act of rebellion in Philadelphia fifty years before. The Declaration of Independence, he wrote, would eventually “be to the world . . . the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the security of self-government.” As Jefferson continued:

“That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favoured few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

As Bryce would later remark, viewing the principles of liberty and equality as abstract and eternal truths “gave them a magic power.” And that confidence so vividly expressed by Jefferson was nothing less than “a fresh breeze of morning” that cleared away “the foul vapours that had hung over an enslaved world.”

But Jefferson and his generation of American founders also understood that true liberty was only possible through a well constructed constitutional government resting upon the consent of the governed. They knew, as John Locke had taught them, that the maxim that “no government allows absolute liberty” was a proposition as “certain . . . as any in mathematicks.”

For those who founded the American commonwealth, democracy was a form of government that brought with it certain problems. This was why they sought to establish not simply a democracy, but what they termed a democratic republic. They opted for republicanism for the simple reason, as James Madison said, that it was “the best of all governments, because the least imperfect.” Thus did they still seek to create a constitution that, through its institutional balances such as representation, the separation of powers and federalism, would provide a “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.”

The Americans were not utopian idealists who thought that by reason alone they could achieve a perfect world. They did not pull their theories from thin air; they did not cut their institutional design from whole cloth. Experience was their guide. Unlike the French Revolution in 1789 or the Russian Revolution in 1917, the American Revolution was, in Martin Diamond's words, a revolution of “sober expectations.” And the sobriety and success of the American founding stemmed in large part from the liberal traditions that had grown up in Britain during America's recent colonial past.

Today, as we watch the nations of the former communist bloc struggle to establish free institutions on the rubble of past tyrannies, we should be ever mindful of the caution exhibited by the American founders in approaching the problem of creating free governments. At a minimum, we must remember that democratic self-government is a plant of slow growth. For free government to flourish, its institutions cannot, as Bryce said, be planted “in a soil not prepared for them either by education in practical principles or by the habits of constitutional government.”

As the Founding Fathers frequently insisted, government must be fitted to the genius of the people. Left untended, democratic regimes can degenerate into tyrannies no less awful, and in some ways worse, than those ancient oppressive orders that were swept away by the wave of democratic revolutions. The tyranny of the majority is still tyranny.


In any democratic form of government there are inherent tensions that must be kept in check. Ironically, the core principles of democracy, equality and liberty, left alone contain within themselves the seeds of their own destruction.

There is a tendency to forget that “liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty, as well as by the abuses of power.” Without restraints imposed by the rule of law, liberty can consume itself. Rights and “rights talk” , as Mary Ann Glendon has shown, can come to overwhelm the necessary sense of duty and responsibility in a free country. In the process, liberty decays into license in an atmosphere where all is permitted and nothing prohibited. The resulting permissive society is in fact no society at all. It is little more than a state of nature where the line between right and wrong is first blurred and then obliterated - a place where no one dares to say no.

There can be no freedom without order. There can be no order without authority; and authority that is impotent or hesitant in the face of intimidation, crime, and violence, cannot endure. The rule of law is all that stands between civilization and barbarism, for, as Locke said, “where there is no law, there is no freedom.” Most important, the purpose of law is not to diminish but to enlarge freedom. Perhaps Thomas Hobbes said it best: “[T]he use of laws . . . is not to bind people from all voluntary actions; but to direct and keep them in such a motion, as not to hurt themselves by their own impetuous desires, rashness, or indiscretion; as hedges are set, not to stop travelers, but to keep them in the way.”

The idea of equality suffers as great a potential for degeneration as that of liberty. As liberty can degenerate into anarchy, equality can degenerate into a new kind of democratic despotism. Equality, properly understood, does not mean that men are equal in every respect. It only means that they are equal in their right to be free, and to enjoy all the rights bestowed on them by “the laws of nature and of Nature's God.” This notion of equality acknowledges and accepts that there will be differences - often glaring differences - among men when it comes to abilities; true equality can produce inequalities in wealth and station.

But this understanding of equality can come to be perverted into a radical egalitarianism that seeks to render everyone exactly “equal” by an over-active government through such pernicious policies as the abolition of private property and income redistribution. The result, as Tocqueville warned, is a new kind of despotism in which the government in the name of achieving equality of result “covers the whole of social life with a network of petty complicated rules.” This new administrative despotism, he wrote, “hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.”

We have, of course, seen both of these phenomena in our time. The decline in law and order has rendered all of us less secure than we of a right should be. From the most heinous acts of terrorism to the petty burglar and street-corner mugger, we are confronted by those for whom words such as “justice” and “right” have no meaning. We are reminded daily of the truth of Aristotle's view that as “man is the best of animals when perfected, so he is the worst when separated from law and justice.”

So, too, do we see around us the licentiousness of modern society manifested in popular culture. We have witnessed a coarsening of everything from art to music to literature to film - but for some people there seems to be nothing beyond the pale - for them freedom has no limits. Freedom of individual expression is all, no matter how perverse, no matter how demeaning, no matter how dangerous. The younger generation is being reared in a morally corrosive atmosphere where they are taught that in the name of liberty, anything goes. But there is no elevation of the human spirit in works designed merely to shock or to appeal only to our most base instincts.

When it comes to equality, Britain since 1945 experienced first-hand just how dangerous the concept can be. We lost our Enlightenment innocence. No longer were we to be guided by the fundamental principles of equality before the law and equality of opportunity. Waving the banner of equality, the older generation of socialists promised to lead us down the road to greater freedom. They bargained without Friedrich Hayek who pointed out that their alleged high road to freedom turned out to be the low road to serfdom. We know well how stultifying and how suffocating is socialism.

Clearly, we have not learned our lessons as well as we should have done. Even today there is still a willingness to muddle the issue. The free market is too harsh and cruel, we are told; the blanket of socialism, recently rewoven, is warm and comforting. It is held that it is up to the state to do away with the inequalities of wealth that are an inevitable part of a free economy.

But no less than in the old days, the new “comfort” comes at a very high price, for state-enforced egalitarianism is always the foe of freedom. For “while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.” And if we should be enticed once more down the rutted and muddy road of socialism, we will again find Britain mired in a morass of stifling regulations and government controls - whether led by our own socialists or by those in Brussels.

Also in the name of equality, we are told that there can be no differences between cultures; all are equal. But, as we remember from Orwell, “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others” . Then we are instructed by the politically correct that Western civilization is the worst, a collection of ideas that have been foisted upon the world by those who are now dismissed as “dead white males.” Well, I, for one, as a live white female, think that many of those dead white males - and even some who are not so dead - have contributed greatly to civilization and are worthy of our highest regard.

The notion that in the name of a misguided equality the great works of Plato and Locke, Homer and Shakespeare, Burke and Bryce, should be pushed from the centre of education is simply preposterous. The best that has been thought, said, and written must be taken seriously - questioned perhaps, improved upon if possible - but taken seriously as the highest achievements of the human mind. What makes those great works great is that they seek to penetrate the deepest mysteries of the human condition and to elevate mankind from the jungle of untutored nature.

The idea that some things are more politically correct than others is not new, of course. It has been the guiding sentiment of tyrants in every age who believe that if you can control what people read and thereby what they think then you can control them. The idea that one can become, as Locke said, “the dictator of principles” and establish as the most basic principle “that principles must not be questioned,” is the essence of tyranny. By such means are tyrants able to “cram their tenets down all men's throats.” As Locke asked: “what improvements can be expected of this kind? What greater light can be hoped for in the moral sciences?” where men are denied the liberty of thinking for themselves.

There is an often unarticulated assumption in these modern times that in human affairs progress is the general rule and decline and corruption the exception. But as many commentators have shown, it is really the other way around. Freedom and civilization are conditions that require great effort, deep thought, and unwavering commitment. As both Tocqueville and Bryce demonstrated, this is especially so in democratic times.

Progress is not simply a material, but a cultural and spiritual thing. It is the movement from primitive to polished times. John Adams put it best when he wrote to his wife Abigail that “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy . . . in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” As Adams knew, civilization is a fragile thing, which, once lost, takes generations to regain. We must constantly reaffirm that our Western civilization is worthy of an unfaltering and unapologetic commitment to its perpetuation.


The principle that informs democratic times and makes them so volatile and tumultuous is that of the sovereignty of the people. For some this idea can be reduced to a simple democratic dogma that holds that each person has the right to live his or her life according to their own will and inclinations. This is what in part gives democratic times their great vitality; but it can also cause degeneration. There must be something more, something that will temper the otherwise unchecked impulses of which men are capable. There must be something outside and above man to which he will willingly defer. As Bryce wrote, “The more democratic republics become, the more the masses grow conscious of their own power, the more they need to live . . . by reverence and self-control, and the more essential to their well being are those sources whence reverence and self-control flow.” There must be a standard of right and wrong, justice and injustice, by which men can measure their lives and actions.

The two great pillars of Western civilization have been faith and philosophy, that is to say, religion and reason. The great vitality and durability of the West have derived from the traditions spawned by Athens on the one hand and Jerusalem on the other. Together they have supplied the “spiritual oxygen” which has furthered freedom and progress.

The power of reason and imagination is undeniable. By man's ability to think, science is possible; and by the advances of science the burdens of human existence have been greatly lessened. By the sheer power of the creative mind men have traveled to the moon and released the enormous power of the atom; we have extended the life span of most people beyond what earlier generations could have ever imagined; and we daily make progress towards exterminating the diseases that plague so many. And by the philosophic exercise of our political judgement, we have succeeded in replacing such notions as the divine right of kings with the natural equality and liberty of all men.

Yet unguided reason can lead men astray. Education alone is not enough. Such pernicious notions as socialism, communism, fascism, and nihilism did not grow from the common sense of ordinary people. As we know only too well, the greatest tyrannies of our century have been the result of intellectuals such as Marx and Lenin and Nietzsche. There was at least a grain of truth in Hobbes's indictment of the intellectuals of his day when he said that “the universities have been to this nation, as the wooden horse was to the Trojans.”

The unparalleled horror of the Nazi holocaust shows most clearly what happens when perverted science is allowed to overflow moral and ethical banks. If man is simply the measure of all things then justice is whatever a majority of men at any given moment says it is, or whatever a “dictator of principles” may impose by force. Without a standard of justice external to human reason there will be no necessary restraint on what men may legitimately do. The only law will be “that of the tooth and the claw.”

The great moderating influence in Western civilization has been the Judeo-Christian tradition. The idea of an omnipotent God who not only judges but may mete out punishment in the next life for transgressions in this one bolsters man's rational impulse toward civil society and obedience to the positive law. That one might commit crimes in this world and elude punishment by the civil authorities, but still have to face one's Maker in the next, tends to focus one's attention.

The broader importance of our religious tradition is that it reinforces man's sense of responsibility to his neighbour, of trusteeship towards the next generation, and of respect towards society's institutions and achievements. Religion teaches us that there is something higher than mankind, and therefore a need to restrain oneself in accordance with those higher standards. As Tocqueville described it, the power of religion in a democratic republic means that “the human mind is never left to wander over a boundless field; and whatever may be its pretensions, it is checked from time to time by barriers that it cannot surmount.” Certainly a world that lived by the moral guidance of the Ten Commandments would be a better place. And to an extraordinary degree, those dictates of divine law have informed and defined the Anglo-American constitutional and legal tradition. As Edmund Burke put it, “There is but one law for all, namely, that law which governs all law - the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity, the law of nature and of nations.”


Lord Bryce recognised that American greatness in many ways derives from the fact “that the American people is an English people, modified in some directions by the circumstances of its colonial life and its more popular government but in essentials the same.” This sentiment was also expressed by no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson. As he wrote in 1810, “Our laws, language, religion, politics and manners are so deeply laid in English foundation, that we shall never cease to consider their history as a part of ours, and to study ours in that as its origin.” Even the American Revolution itself was a decidedly English affair. When the time came to dissolve the political bands by which they had been connected to England, the Americans turned for their guidance to the likes of John Locke, Algernon Sidney and James Harrington.

They took from those Englishmen the arguments on behalf of the natural rights of men and the belief that government, to be legitimate, must rest upon the consent of the governed. It was this view of the centrality of the individual, of his fundamental rights of life, liberty, and property, and the attendant responsibilities they require, that gave moral substance to what was otherwise a mere imperial dispute over the rights of disgruntled Englishmen in distant English colonies. The principles that had been hammered out here in the heat of the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution were expanded and extended in America, the world's first republic created through “reflection and choice.”

The Americans also took from us the understanding that the success of free governments depends upon the morals and the manners of the people. They thought, as Bryce would later describe it, that “Democracy is based on the expectation of certain virtues in the people, and on its tendency to foster and further develop those virtues.” The civic virtues necessary to free government were a sense of devotion to the common good, and a willingness to participate in the affairs of governance. Self-government “assumes not merely intelligence, but an intelligence elevated by honour, purified by sympathy, and stimulated by a sense of duty to the community.”

Britain and America continue to share these common commitments and it is upon them that the deep and abiding relationship between our two nations will be secured. While we may find many mutual advantages in trade and national security, Britain and America are linked in a far more fundamental way. As I have had occasion to say before, the reason our interests have so often coincided is not merely expediency but because we stand upon the same hallowed moral ground: an enduring belief in the sanctity of the individual, a commitment to democracy and representative government, common religious traditions, and an unfaltering dedication to the rule of law. And it has been by our willingness to defend those basic principles that America and Britain have served as a beacon to the world, lighting the way through the darkest days of this century.

In many ways, the twentieth century has been the American century. By the strength and leadership of that great people the forces of evil have been kept in check: first German imperialism, then fascist aggression, and finally communist tyranny were all defeated by America's moral stance and her willingness to send her sons to fight and die on foreign soil in defense of freedom. Nor is there much doubt that the twenty-first century will also be an American century.

The post-Cold War world is not a world of peace and security. Rather, we are confronted by a stream of dictators and tyrants who will seek to dominate those nations around them, if not the entire world. Human nature being what it is, we can expect no respite from aggression. The price of freedom remains what it has always been, eternal vigilance.

The Cold War was not just about military power and the threat of nuclear holocaust. At its deepest level, at its most important level, it was a battle of ideas, a clash of ideologies each rooted in different conceptions of the state and the nature of man. Although the Soviet Union has disappeared, and the Berlin Wall has been torn down, the deepest conflicts between men will not subside, nor can they subside until the basic principles of individual liberty and political freedom are embraced throughout the world. The great intellectual struggle must continue until democracy and freedom triumph.

In closing, I would like to dedicate these remarks this evening to my dear friend, President Ronald Reagan. More than anyone of his generation, he understood that the moral foundations of freedom upon which the American commonwealth stands make it, as he was so fond of saying, a shining “city upon a hill.” And he also knew that such good fortune carried with it moral obligations. May America always remember the promise he made on her behalf to those poor souls throughout the world who suffer the shackles of tyranny and oppression and who long for freedom: “your struggle is our struggle, your dream is our dream, and someday, you, too, will be free.”