What is Liberty? (Part 3)

My goodness, it’s been a while since my last post. I could offer excuses, but they are pretty dull and very much in the realm of the personal. Perhaps it is time to resort to an excuse I’ve longed to use my entire life.

But time gives a person a chance to think things through.  Liberty is the right to protect the God-given rights possessed by human beings and to protect those rights by force if necessary from anyone using arbitrary power  to strip them of their liberties. My assertion in Part 2 is a serious one: Liberty is worth fighting for. Do I mean with arms and war? When the occasion is right, yes. (Note to Homeland Security: This post is not a call to armed revolution against the government of the United States.) Today of all days is worth discussing what that fight means during times of peace.

I hold a profound sense of wonder regarding the achievements wrought by the men and women of the Revolutionary Generation who were guided, encouraged, and challenged by the words of the Declaration. Many of my colleagues (as well as many professional historians in the academy) tend to regard any awe toward the traditional heroes and heroines of America’s past as sentimental, even tasteless by the standards of intellectual and political correctness, or evidence of triumphalism, that most egregious of the historian’s sins that promotes a nation’s cultures or achievements over the culture and achievements of others. As unfortunate as those assumptions are, what is even more harmful is the consequences of those attitudes, namely that nothing good can come from that sense of wonder. The most potent antidote to that fallacy is a simple conclusion: We live on the far side of democratic revolutions that occurred more than two centuries ago, and we take for granted that democracy is simply the chosen form of government any reasonable human being would tolerate. The fact that reasonable human beings accepted that drastic change is jaw-dropping when viewed in hindsight. Popular government had a bad reputation among 18th and 19th century students of history and politics: Shaky at best, even in the hands of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and sometimes murderous as the English Commonwealth became under Oliver Cromwell. Monarchy was the “gold standard” for political stability and reliability, tested by time for its efficiency, and Great Britain had created a constitutional monarchy that offered its subjects political liberties that were (before the American Revolution) second-to-none. Even in the colonies whose early battle cry before the Revolution was “no taxation without representation,” one of the most democratic colonies was Rhode Island (known to its contemporary detractors as “Rogue’s Island”), and it was renowned for its “restless state,” eighteenth-century shorthand for a population swayed constantly by demagoguery. Carter Braxton, one of the Virginians delegated to the Second Continental Convention, presented the Rhode Island political paradigm as an example why Americans should not declare independence, forsaking a king and Parliament that at least kept order. When Jefferson wrote, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” there were plenty of people from all walks of life – including Americans struggling to decide whether to support the revolution that the Declaration embodied – who believed he was drafting a recipe for anarchy.  Much has been written about how the American Revolution prevailed in the face of armed opposition from the British Empire, the most potent economic, military, and political force of the 18th century world. What is even more amazing is how so many men at the apex of the colonial social pyramid backed a revolution that gained them nothing but the chance to lose their status and wealth through support of a republican, anti-monarchial revolution – and many of them were the writers and signers of the Declaration. They gave power away. If that does not prompt a sense of wonder in an observer regarding the events that created our nation, what will? That sense of wonder and admiration is part of the fight.

Ordinary Americans still hunger to know more about why America is great. They have a sense of duty regarding the United Statesand a deep respect for its founders. In addition, they are intelligent people, and many, many Americans know (at the very least) that their revolution changed the world. They want to discover why it is both legitimate and valuable to have a sense of wonder about the Founder’s accomplishments, and why our shared heritage is the only thing we can claim that makes us Americans.  They know that this nation is more than a place where the economically down-trodden from other lands can make more money, or just one nation among many other nations. They see the value of the Declaration every day in a nation that has made the world a better place because America was founded with a careful choice of words. Those words are worth reading and it worth the time to examine the ideas and history behind them. Reading and understanding the Declaration and how it applies today with its timeless values is part of the fight.

The Declaration is our heritage; it also is our history.The Declaration is more than a document that produced a state or described a political reality. One of those Americans was among our greatest. As I worked both on my book and the numerous entries to this blog, I became increasingly aware of the long shadow that Abraham Lincoln cast over the question of the importance and influence of the Declaration.

Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. President, 1809-1865

No citizen of this nation understood the Declaration better; he is among the few who lived its promise to its fullest. Lincoln once stated that he never had a feeling that did not spring from the Declaration of Independence and he spent his life defending the principles of political freedom, free markets and the economic opportunities it describes (he called it “the right to rise”) for Americans both black and white, as well as its defense of the morality of self-government that became the heart of this nation.Lincoln found those self-evident truths important, and when we commonly say that he “saved the nation” we must remember that he did not save a geographical entity, which had protected the enslavement of other human beings through lines drawn on maps that delineated slave and free. He worked to the day he died to save the enlightened love of freedom and liberty that the Founders declared – that is the nation he loved and saved. If we choose to be more like Lincoln when we exercise our citizen’s duty, then we are part of the fight.

I am keenly aware of America’s failures. Our government has fought cruel, unnecessary wars. Women have been treated as less-than-equal-human beings without the rights of this nation’s male citizens. Slavery was a cancer in the body politic of the republic, and blacks were held in political and economic subjugation long after America fought its bloodiest war to end the blight of human bondage. Loyal Japanese-American citizens were wrongfully placed in internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Anyone who has graduated from many public high schools and American universities has learned little else. But I am also aware that this great nation has inestimable worth because of our political heritage. Millions can justifiably thank God on a daily basis for the efforts of Americans who worked, and even died, in the cause of freedom and liberty. Too often, professionals in both history and education present American history as an unremitting story of oppression. The revolution in the writing of history that forced the craft to examine marginalized people undoubtedly improved scholarship and told stories about our past that had gone unnoticed or forgotten. However, in an effort to avoid the pitfalls of excessive American exceptionalism many professional historians have gone too far in the other direction, producing exceptionalism of another kind: We are so bad, so very bad, and there is little worth acknowledging in the traditional story of American liberty. I humbly suggest that this approach is no longer useful to the craft of history. It is exhausted; it tells us nothing new; it has lost its critical edge. Besides, those traditional ideas have often been the source of our survival as a nation, even a civilization. For reasons other than a grateful sense of patriotism, I am glad the men at Valley Forge and Saratoga, Antietam and Gettysburg, Normandy Beach and Iwo Jima, the A Shau Valley and Da Nang did not choose to see the history of this nation in the same way many professors and social studies teachers do. Belief in the liberty and freedom described in the Declaration sustained many who fought for this nation’s survival when there was little else to trust in. When the British sent the largest invasion fleet in their history to put down the American Revolution– so large it was only dwarfed 170 years later by D-Day –Congress spent two days revising the draft of the Declaration. “Wars, it understood, were not won by ships and sailors and arms alone. Words, too, had the power to serve victory,” wrote one historian about their actions. There must be something good and worthy in that fact of American history. If we know both our weaknesses as a nation and the strength of the words that have changed us for the better, we are continuing the fight.

The Declaration of Independence is worth knowing and understanding. Some words are better than others; some words are more important than others. It is no surprise that it is often the outsider or an admirer from another nation who comprehends the truth of the Declaration with far more respect and even awe than many American citizens. In 1990, the late Vaclav Havel, then the newly elected president of a Czechoslovakia freed from Soviet tyranny, stood before Congress to describe the hopes of his liberated nation rising from the end of the Cold War. Speaking in his native tongue, Havel said:

Vaclev Havel

As long as people are people, democracy, in the full sense of the word, will always be no more than an ideal. One may approach it as one would the horizon in ways that may be better or worse, but it can never be fully attained. In this sense, you, too, are merely approaching democracy. You have thousands of problems of all kinds, as other countries do. But you have one great advantage: you have been approaching democracy uninterruptedly for more than 200 years, and your journey toward the horizon has never been disrupted by a totalitarian system ….

Wasn’t it the best minds of your country, people you could call intellectuals, who wrote your famous Declaration of Independence, your bill of human rights and your Constitution and who, above all, took upon themselves practical responsibility for putting them into practice? The worker from Branik in Prague that your president referred to in his State of the Union message this year is far from being the only person in Czechoslovakia, let alone in the world, to be inspired by those great documents. They inspire us all; they inspire us despite the fact that they are over 200 years old. They inspire us to be citizens.

Then, Havel spoke these words in English to his electrified audience:

When Thomas Jefferson wrote that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” it was a simple and important act of the human spirit. What gave meaning to that act, however, was the fact that the author backed it up with his life. It was not just his words; it was his deeds as well.

Jefferson and the revolutionary generation – men and women, white and black – performed deeds that make us pause even now and reflect on the power and the influence of their work of changing ideals into a political reality. Eleven years after Congress issued the Declaration, James Madison wrote, “Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society.” The Declaration of Independence was the birth-cry of a nation that has changed the lives of millions with words with a significance rarely seen in history. Our lives as Americans cannot be lived with complete meaning if we do not understand what Vaclav Havel, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, slaves yearning for freedom, abolitionists who challenged human bondage, and so many others understood as self-evident truths. We should learn them.  It is the only way we will stay in the fight.




Filed under Commentary

3 responses to “What is Liberty? (Part 3)

  1. Ellen

    Well put. Thanks for a strong, thought-provoking post.

  2. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” | The Shout Heard 'Round The World: Exploring the Meaning and the Message of the Declaration of Independence

  3. Pingback: Pauline Maier, RIP | The Shout Heard 'Round The World: Exploring the Meaning and the Message of the Declaration of Independence

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