October 20, 2012
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 in myriad ways, 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. Nor is freedom simply an abstraction to which we should occasionally salute while going about our daily lives.
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 the doctors, lawyers, financiers, and merchants of France.
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 – including many of France’s ablest professionals and entrepreneurs – defied his command 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. But Suzanne didn’t. She had hidden herself in a wagon with her sister, who had an infant son. His cries resulted in their capture.
Later, two of Suzanne’s sisters escaped, promising to send a coded letter to Suzanne when they thought the time was right for her to make a break for it. The code would read: “It would be perfectly fine to send the little nightcap which we left behind.” When the signal letter finally arrived, Suzanne was determined to try again for freedom – this time, by secreting herself in a wine cask on an English 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 French policemen whacking the cask with their guns to see if anything was hidden inside. Then she felt the cask being lifted and loaded onto the ship. Only after it reached the open sea could she emerge in safety.
Suzanne Rochet – known to Huguenot history as “Little Nightcap” – made it to Holland and reunited with her beloved, Abraham Michaux. They married in 1692 and made their home in Amsterdam, where she gave birth to the first seven of their 12 children. In 1702, the Michaux family joined other French exiles on a ship bound for a new Huguenot settlement on the James River in Virginia. That’s where Abraham and Suzanne’s remaining children were born, including my 7th great-grandmother, Elizabeth Michaux.
Louis XIV’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.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward, a book on North Carolina’s economy. It is available at JohnLockeStore.com.