On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry rose in St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia and, aware of the risks inherent in undertaking a rebellion against the British crown, chose the principle upon which he would stand. "Give me liberty," he said, "or give me death."
It was not a rhetorical flourish. Rebellion was treason and the penalty for treason was precisely that: death. Patrick Henry and his fellow rebels, Washington and Jefferson, the Adamses, Madison and Franklin, in declaring their independence from the British monarch, put everything -- their reputations, their possessions, their very lives -- on the line for the right to live as free men, governing themselves, no longer bound by distant and arbitrary rule. Patrick Henry may have been a bit more of a firebrand than some, his speeches a counterpart to Thomas Paine's writing, but he was merely putting into words the thoughts that ran through Nathan Hale's head, and George Mason's, and Benjamin Rush's.
Americans today are caught up in conflicts great and small -- how much authority to give to government, how to square guaranteed rights with the imperatives of security, how much taxation is too much (even when imposed by one's own representatives) -- but in each case, these are decisions we make, collectively, as we see the need.
The problem with self-government is the need to constantly address current difficulties within a framework of constraints designed specifically to ensure that the liberty Henry cherished is not sacrificed in the name of expediency or anticipated benefit. It is sometimes a complicated calculus. The recently departed Bush administration, faced with consequences far less dire than those which confronted Patrick Henry (including not only individual deaths but the extinction of independence), had little compunction about setting aside liberties (protection against searches without a warrant, requirements that the government obey laws enacted by the peoples' representatives) to ensure a bit more security. Today, people within and outside the Obama administration wrestle with where to draw the line: how great a risk is liberty worth?
Patrick Henry's speech 235 years ago recognized the trade-off, a dilemma that surfaced again during the Cold War against the Soviet Union with its, and our, nuclear capacity. "Better Red Than Dead" or "Better Dead Than Red?" For me, the issue was settled when Henry rose to his feet, acknowledged the difficulty and danger inherent in setting one's face against the magisterial weight of the British Crown, and nonetheless declared: "I know not what course others may choose, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death."
The American Constitution is replete not only with provisions empowering the new government to act at the direction of the people, but with lines separating the authority of the governors from the private lives of the governed. We continue, two-plus centuries later, to debate where that line shall be drawn, but the bottom line remains the same: it is the essential liberty that accompanies American citizenship that defines who and what we are as a nation and as a people. Patrick Henry said it best: liberty is our common heritage and it is a blessing preserved only by vigilance. July 4 has its meaning (independence) and September 17 has its legacy (a constitutional framework for self-government). And March 23 has its lesson, too: free men and women remain free only by commitment and effort.
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