As citizens of the United States of America we have, for almost 250 years, enjoyed a marvelous heritage passed down to us by a relatively small group of courageous men and women who valued liberty for themselves, their families, their descendants, and their fellow man more than they valued their own lives. This relatively small group of men and women fought for liberty in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, Civil War, World Wars I & II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Bosnia, and many other bloody and deadly wars.
Life is precious!
And surely these men and women were just as desirous of a peaceful, pain-free life as any of us today.
Many, if not most of us are familiar with the strong and stirring words spoken by Patrick Henry in 1775, “…give me liberty or give me death!”
But do we know his full speech, and why he gave it?
What other precious pearls of wisdom did he utter at this time?
Why did he feel so strongly about liberty that he considered death preferable to the loss of liberty?
According to the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, one of the purposes of the Constitution was to, “…secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
This is an echo of the sentiment expressed in the Declaration of Independence,
“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…”
*Unalienable means that ownership cannot be transferred by any means voluntary or arbitrary to another party/person/organization.
What is liberty?
My “old-fashioned” paper dictionary from 2001 gives several definitions for liberty which might have been included in Mr. Henry’s definition of the term. Upon examination and critical analysis, two of them clearly do not apply, but let’s examine each of them to see if we can gain a better understanding of the liberty he was speaking of, and why two of the potential definitions do not apply.
Liberty can mean:
1. The condition of being free from restriction or control; freedom
2. Permission or authorization
3. The right to act or believe as one chooses
1. The condition of being free from restriction or control; freedom.
This condition of being free from restriction or control is the dream of every child, many teenagers, and even a large swath of adults. Those among us who have more wisdom understand the value of some restraints, some restrictions. After all, if we didn’t have such basic restrictions as gravity to hold the solar system together, keeping the planets in a predictable orbit around the sun, or the laws of physics that control such things as the tides (gravity again) and the weather, life as we know it would not exist! Few would argue that such restrictions and controls are not good.
Coming closer to home, what would be the result if there were no laws saying, for example, you cannot hit another person, or, you cannot steal from another person?
The result would obviously be a complete lack of safety, yet this is the very path being taken by those who choose to “demonstrate” or “protest” by breaking windows, destroying cars, stealing merchandise from stores (looting), and physically fighting with police, and fighting with, even killing those who don’t agree with them.
Others among us believe that if one person, or group of people, develop their talents and abilities in such a way that they are able to earn more money than others, it is the responsibility of the government to take (steal through taxation) their “excess” (arbitrarily defined) and give it to those who have not worked and developed their talents in a similar way. This is the entire premise of so-called “Socialism” which claims to redistribute wealth to keep everyone equal, except that in virtually all instances of Socialism, the leaders, the elite, consider themselves to be more “equal” than everyone else, thus, they are entitled to a much larger share of the community wealth.
Surely this is NOT the liberty Patrick Henry was envisioning!
2. Permission or authorization.
This definition of liberty is not permanent, rather, it is temporarily granted to a person in lesser authority by one with more authority.
This has traditionally been the term used for soldiers being granted liberty to leave their assigned duties for a specified period of time.
Once again, this is surely NOT the definition Patrick Henry had in mind!
Bringing this definition into more general, and seemingly popular terms, there are those today who would argue falsely that the ability to own guns for the defense of one’s life and property is a permission granted by the government, a permission that can be taken away at will by the government. Note that there is nothing said in either the Constitution, any of the Amendments, nor the writings of the Founding Fathers about a purported right to own guns for the purpose of hunting – it is solely for protection of self, family, community, and nation against all threats both foreign and domestic.
The same holds true for other liberties enumerated by the Constitution. Can you think of some of those?
What are they and what are the reasons that have been put forth for rescinding the supposed “permission” of the government?
Adding to the evidence for this definition NOT being one considered in Patrick Henry’s speech is the line (above) in the Declaration of Independence which states that Governments derive “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.”
If the power of government comes from the consent of those it governs, how can the government legitimately either give or remove permission to exercise what the Declaration of Independence calls unalienable Rights?
The source of the government’s power thus becomes further confirmation that this is NOT the definition Patrick Henry had in mind when he gave his speech. (Have you read his whole speech yet? It can be found here: https://eclecticmusings.blog/2021/03/16/patrick-henry-give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death/ and a witness account that gives even greater meaning to his stirring words is found here:
The source of the government’s power thus becomes further confirmation that this is NOT the definition Patrick Henry had in mind when he gave his speech. (Have you read his whole speech yet? It can be found here: https://eclecticmusings.blog/2021/03/16/patrick-henry-give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death/ and a witness account that gives even greater meaning to his stirring words is found here: https://eclecticmusings.blog/2021/03/16/a-witness-account-of-patrick-henrys-give-me-liberty-speech/)
3. The right to act or believe as one chooses.
With the first two potential definitions of liberty eliminated from probability as the one Patrick Henry had in mind when he made his speech, let’s examine this one.
The ability to choose whom to believe and how to act has been valued from ancient times. In the book of Joshua (24:15) (estimated to approximately 1477 BC) we read, “…choose you this day whom ye will serve…but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Even before Joshua, the Lord spoke to Cain and told him, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door…”
This is a clear indication of Cain having the right, the ability, to choose his own path, to act as he wanted to, but it was also an indication of the oft fought principle that although one may choose for him/herself what to believe and how to act, one does not get to choose the consequences of those beliefs and actions.
For example, I have son who served some time in the military in mainland China. At the time he was there, it was a violation of Chinese law to have any scriptures in one’s possession, on pain of death. In spite of this severe penalty, many people chose to own and believe in the Word of God. Some were killed when they were discovered, because people do not get to choose the consequences for choosing to disobey the laws of their country. The Chinese government has currently softened this law somewhat in allowing possession of “sanctioned” Bibles, but possession of even a hymn book that the government has not approved can result in significant fines and possible prison time. Speaking personally, I would love to know what the differences are between the single “sanctioned” version of the Bible they allow and others, such as the widely used King James version.
Another example of this can be found in Luke 22:36 where the Bible records the Lord saying: “But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.” Under Roman law, it was illegal for a Jew to own a sword, yet that is the counsel given by the Savior. When did He give this counsel? Why is the timing important?
The right to act or believe as one chooses is thus clearly the definition of liberty which Patrick Henry was ready to die in defense of.
J. Rufus Fears said,
“Time and again throughout history people have chosen the perceived benefits of security over the awesome responsibilities of freedom….As to individual freedom, where could one have so much of it, including the basic freedom to create a better life for yourself and your children? People clamor to get into America, because individual freedom opens up a whole new world.”
Do you believe security necessarily impacts freedom or liberty? Why?
What would you choose – liberty or security, and why?
If you would choose security, how much liberty would you be willing to sacrifice, and for how much and what type(s) of security?
If you choose liberty, is there any amount of security you would be willing to sacrifice, and if so, how much, and for what?