Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, as I did, the Revolutionary War becomes an intimate friend. After all, we were minutes from the homes of George Washington, George Mason, and Lighthorse Harry Lee, and an easy day-trip from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The old part of our town had been an important Revolutionary-era port, and it was not unusual to see bellringers in colonial garb walking down the sidewalks, or parades of minutemen with canon and fife.
At school, too, our curriculum was dominated by early American history; we studied the Revolution, read books like Johnny Tremain, and even learned how to churn butter and to spin and card wool, just like our Founding Mothers. We learned all the great stories: Betsy Ross, Paul Revere, Ben Franklin with his kite and key, and, best of all, Patrick Henry at the Second Virginia Convention, crying out, “Give me security or give me death!”
Actually, that’s not what he cried out. The Founding Fathers and Mothers of our nation understood that certain things mattered more than the paltry security of body. Freedom to think, to grow, to learn, to set one’s own course — these were the inalienable rights of a human being (however they defined a human being), and those who fought for our freedom placed their lives, their livelihoods, and the well-being of their families into the balance in order to achieve that liberty.
The Constitution, too, reflects those priorities, beginning with these famous words: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. Security, here, is one good among many, and does not even take precedence: liberty, justice, and the general welfare of those in the Commonwealth all take their place alongside it.
Today, we hear talk of security far more often than we do of liberty. (Indeed, the word itself has gone out of fashion.) In the name of security, we are increasingly asked to abide the curtailment of those very liberties for which our nation’s founders spilled their blood.
But liberty, by its very nature, entails risk. Freedom of speech risks the possibility that someone will say something mean. Freedom of association risks the possibility that people may congregate for nefarious purposes. Freedom of religion means giving other people the right to worship in ways that offend you, or not to worship at all. Freedom of the press involves the possibility that a paper might publish an article that is not true — and the only check on such behavior (other than a libel suit) was and remains the determination of citizens to obtain their news from sources that have proved worthy of trust.
Liberty, by its nature, entails risk — and so does life. There are no guarantees. There is only the question: what kind of world is big enough for your heart? And the related question: what will you do to obtain that world for yourself and for others?
And so, this Independence Day, let us consider for a while what it means to be free: what you’d be willing to surrender and what you must never surrender if you wish to live as a free person upon this earth. Because whatever liberty is, we do know this: it is easily lost, and most difficult to regain. Treasure it, today and always.
Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death! — Patrick Henry, 1775
For freedom Christ has set you free. — Galatians 5:1