Give me liberty or give me death.
July 4 is the day that many Americans feel at least a little patriotic. How does this love of country manifest itself? Usually, in the number of hotdogs and hamburgers barbecued or the intensity of the fireworks display or the newly unfolded flag battered by the wind against a blue sky. I know in my case the sight of the flag does get to me somehow, making me think about how many men and women died in order for it to still fly freely across this great land. Of course there were the members of my own family (uncles, cousins, my grandfather, and my father) who fought in the Navy, Army, and Marines to whom I feel an extra sense of gratitude, especially for making it back home.
There was a cartoon in one of the local papers a couple of days ago that really hit my emotional buttons. People were standing around eating and drinking at a barbecue and one of the very little kids asks something like, “Why are we celebrating?” In the next frame in a hazy bubble there was a figure of a Revolutionary War soldier huddled in the snowy cold of Valley Forge. I apologize for not knowing where I saw the cartoon or the name of the artist, but man, did I find that visually arresting. I have not been able to stop thinking about it since I saw it.
I guess the point is knowing what we have and understanding what we might not have. Patrick Henry’s words make it very clear that some things are worth fighting for and, ultimately, even dying for. If one can’t be free then one is essentially dead; therefore, the struggle of the revolution was a necessary and compelling one, charting a course not just for the American colonists but for all human beings who longed for dignity and freedom whilst under the oppressive yoke of tyrants.
Obviously, the men who almost froze to death at Valley Forge embraced Patrick Henry’s words. The same can be said for those brave souls who fought to keep the Union from being torn asunder, the Doughboys who crawled through the muck and mire of trenches in World War I, and the GIs who changed the fate of all human beings in World War II. Can we imagine what this world would be like if everyone reacted differently to George Washington’s call? To Lincoln’s hope to save the Union? To the desperate situation of World War I? To the barbaric attack on Pearl Harbor?
I remember my father telling me how his brother and he ran out and signed up for the Army in December 1941, weeks before the call to duty came in the mail. They weren’t waiting for a decree to defend their liberty; they were ready to join the cause immediately because not to do so would be not only unpatriotic, it would be foolish because “liberty” for everyone was at stake.
For inspiration and guidance one needs only to turn to the Declaration of Independence. Granted, it’s an old document now, written and signed by long dead men; however, the words spring forth in my mind as eternally visceral and vibrant. The unrelenting truth set forth in Jefferson’s plainly eloquent words rises to the level of scripture, for in reading it one is elevated to heights seemingly sacred. The straightforward first paragraph is like the first page of Genesis in the Bible, for what it is as a narrative but also what it represents as a preamble to all the amazing events to follow:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one
people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with
another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate
and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God
entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that
they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
In this way Jefferson captures the attention (if not the conscience) of King George and the leaders of Britain in a way that calls upon the sanctity and dignity of the human race as evidence of a need for independence. Also, by sending this message as a “declaration,” Jefferson and the signers of the document make the bold action even more decisive and obvious. They are not asking permission for freedom; they are taking the initiative themselves and will be free of their own accord.
The very next paragraph of the document is, in my mind, the most powerful and sacrosanct of all words written about human beings and their right to be free.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created
equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable
Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
If we think about it, these words have never been more meaningful or essential than they are today. Ever since they were written, they have inspired people the world over to be free. They are quoted by freedom fighters; they are seen as the inspiration for an arduous journey to come to the USA to live, and they highlight a need for human rights everywhere. They are even the real reason why terrorists everywhere hate us, because to embrace the essence of these words destroys any hope for success for the tyrants and thugs who prey on the weak and oppressed.
I remember one of my favorite Star Trek episodes from the original series involved the words from the preamble. On a planet many light years away, Kirk and his crew are caught in a vicious civil war. As the "rebels" slowly take over the capital and capture Kirk and crew, it becomes clear that they are fighting for much the same thing as the American colonists did so long ago. Somehow a copy of the Declaration of Independence has made it across time and space (as well as a tattered American flag), and as the rebel leader begins to read the words written by Jefferson, Kirk recites them because he knows them by heart. While it is of course fictional, I think this episode makes clear the far-reaching and eternal power of Jefferson’s words and their meaning for all people who long for dignity, equity, and freedom.
So, on this July 4th, I recognize some self-evident truths. Among them are that no matter how I (or anyone for that matter) feels about the war in Iraq, there are over a hundred thousand American men and women there who deserve and need our support. Putting politics aside is never easy, but we must remember that those service people in Iraq are kindred spirits to those who were at Valley Forge, Gettysburg, the Ardenne, Normandy, Iwo Jima, and so many other places.
I revel in having an opportunity to live in a country where dissenting opinions are part of the fabric of the flag; I enjoy the freedoms put forth in the Declaration and proudly worship the god of my choice; I happily raise my child in a country where demonstrating against the war is as patriotic a practice as supporting it. Most of all, I celebrate the fact that I am very fortunate to live in the United States of America, and today I wish my country and all its citizens a happy 230th birthday, and we should celebrate with passion and vigor because this is the day that changed the way the people of the world saw themselves, which is the best self-evident truth of all.