The Unstoppable Force of Liberty
Everyone yearns to be free. Freedom of choice — free agency — is a divine gift we each receive at birth. It is part of our human nature and it is our ever-present desire. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “the God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.” Liberty is indispensable to each person’s self-fulfillment and progress. Nowhere but here was a government instituted to the end that the individual’s rights and sovereignty — liberty — would be guaranteed against, and protected from, the state. Government was to be our servant. Liberty was to be the very definition of America, its heart and soul.
Especially on Independence Day, we have reason to thank God for the liberty that is our birthright and for the Founding Fathers, who made protection of that birthright the very purpose of government by affixing their signatures to the Declaration of Independence. We should take this occasion to commit ourselves to the re-establishment of a government of, by, and for the people that abides by the self-evident truths in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence and roots out all forms of authoritarianism.
A member of the five-person committee appointed by the Second Continental Congress to draft the Declaration of Independence, 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson, during the third week of June 1776, penned the bulk of what became the Declaration. He did so in the Graff House on 7th and Market Streets in Philadelphia, writing with a quill pen over parchment on a portable writing desk he brought for the occasion from Monticello. The 55 matchless words Jefferson penned in that second paragraph are the most important in the history of liberty. They established for the first time and for all time a charter of liberty, the truths of which resonate worldwide and through all ages, essential principles that, when adhered to, give America the foundation for its unique greatness and its people their greatest happiness:
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—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…
Astoundingly unselfish, the Founding Fathers pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor so Americans of the newly minted United States could enjoy for all generations to come individual liberty, a right to live unmolested by government to the maximum extent possible. As Jefferson would later explain to Isaac H. Tiffany on April 4, 1819, the liberty contemplated was sweeping, with a sharp edge directed at the heart of government: “[R]ightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will, within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.”
The significance of his contribution to freedom did not elude Jefferson. He wrote to Tench Coxe on June 1, 1795: “[T]his ball of liberty, I believe most piously, is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe, at least the enlightened part of it, for light and liberty go together. It is our glory that we first put it into motion.” He wrote to Roger C. Weightman on June 24, 1826: “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them…”
Abraham Lincoln believed the Declaration a permanent intellectual framework for liberty and a powerful retort to tyranny everywhere. He wrote to Henry L. Pierce and others on April 6, 1859: “All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to…reappearing tyranny and oppression.”
The unalienable rights Jefferson enshrined in the Declaration were meant by him to be universal. We know this from, among other evidence, a 168-word paragraph Jefferson included in his draft Declaration wherein he condemned slavery as a violation of the rights of man. He wrote of King George III, whom he blamed for bringing slavery to America: “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This…is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And…he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
In his autobiography, Jefferson wrote that his language was in certain respects “mangled” by the Continental Congress and that the specific paragraph he included condemning slavery was “struck out” by delegates from South Carolina and Georgia. The quest to achieve implementation of Jefferson’s self-evident truths would require a Civil War and generations later the persuasive eloquence of another orator who celebrated Jefferson’s Declaration, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Perhaps the greatest compliment to the principles of liberty in the second paragraph of the Declaration came not from an American but from a Frenchman, one who at age 19 was lured to America from French aristocratic luxury by the cause of liberty, the righteousness of which entirely captivated him: General Gilbert Motier de Lafayette (the Marquis de Lafayette). In his letter to Bailli de Ploen, Lafayette wrote: “I have always loved liberty with the enthusiasm which actuates the religious man, with the passion of a lover, and with the conviction of a geometrician.” Lafayette served in the Continental Army without pay, commissioned Major General by the Continental Congress. He fought alongside Washington throughout the war, was wounded in the leg at the Battle of Brandywine, suffered the deprivations and hardships of Valley Forge with the great man, and celebrated with Washington the defeat of British General Lord Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown. After the Cornwallis surrender, Lafayette wrote: “Humanity has won its battle. Liberty now has a country.” Lafayette named his son George Washington in homage to his beloved mentor.
President James Monroe, who served under Lafayette in the war, invited him to an American farewell tour, affording people across the country a last chance to thank Lafayette for his heroic services and unwavering support of the war for independence. Lafayette toured the then 24 states between August 15, 1824, and September 9, 1825. He spoke passionately in favor of liberty and in gratitude for American independence. He understood the American revolution to be momentous; it was not only a war to liberate America from British control, it was a war to establish for the first time on earth a republic in which the people’s rights would be protected and they would be sovereign.
It is in no small measure because of Lafayette’s great reverence for American symbols of liberty that Philadelphians came to view the Pennsylvania State House and the Liberty Bell as worth preserving and displaying. At the time of Lafayette’s visit to Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania State House was unused and in disrepair. The city planned to auction it off, along with the Liberty Bell. Lafayette arrived in Philadelphia surrounded by throngs of well-wishers and proceeded to the State House to deliver a speech. In it, he said: “Within these sacred walls, by a council of wise and devoted patriots, and in a style worthy of the deed itself, was boldly declared the independence of these vast United States, which…has begun, for the civilized world, the era of a new (and of the only true) social order founded on the unalienable rights of man…” He explained with emotion his love of liberty, reverence for the Declaration, and gratitude for the work of the second Continental Congress. To Lafayette, the Pennsylvania State House was a place of veneration, the exact spot where true liberty was born, where Jefferson and his fellow members of the Committee of Five delivered the Declaration of Independence containing the essential principles of liberty to Congress for approval. His words inspired the well-wishers and ultimately helped persuade the Philadelphia commissioners to purchase the state house and rename it Independence Hall, and to purchase the Liberty Bell and assign it a place of honor. On the bell, there is an inscription taken from Leviticus 25:10, which reads: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Lafayette viewed the American creation of a republic in defense of individual liberty as a model for France and the world to follow.
The tour was Lafayette’s last visit to America, but before he left, he made it a point to visit his dear friend, the Declaration’s author. Both knew the meeting would be the last they would have in this mortal life. Departing from his carriage upon arriving at Monticello, Lafayette saw the aged frame of Jefferson standing in the portico. “Ah, Jefferson!” said Lafayette as he embraced him. “Ah, Lafayette!” said Jefferson as he hugged his loyal compatriot. The two men shed tears. They had sacrificed so much to make America free.
Americans have been richly blessed with liberty and have much for which to be grateful. President Reagan reminded us that as a free people, we control our destiny and must assiduously defend liberty, or we will lose it. At the bicentennial observance of the British surrender at Yorktown, he said:
Let us remember our forebears 200 years ago, the price they were willing to pay for liberty, and rededicate ourselves to the principles of our Revolution. Let the struggle that took place [at Yorktown] remind us all: the freedom we enjoy today has not always existed and carries no guarantee. We can look to our past with pride, and our future can be whatever we make it. We only have to act worthy of ourselves. God Bless America.
This article was originally published July 04, 2022, on PJMedia.com