The literature of liberty

I enjoy re-reading the Declaration of Independence every year, and since it was a drizzly Fourth this year, I settled into a comfy chair and spent a few hours soaking up the rich literature surrounding America’s founding.

So many learned men engaged so many ideas on liberty in so many different formats (pamphlets, letters, editorials, resolutions and more), there could literally be a Bartlett’s Quotations edition solely about America’s independence.

In years past, I have suggested Arkansas create a Constitution Class as part of our public school curricula. I’m amending that now, to propose instead that we create an American Independence Class.

The class could cover the period from about 1760 to 1790. In a 180-day school year, that would devote roughly six days to each year in the three-decade span. Some years might only get a couple of days in classroom instruction, some critical ones (1774-1776, for example) might need two weeks apiece.

The beauty of offering a course dedicated to better understanding the ideas, principles, people and events behind American Independence is that there is a treasure trove of original material from which to draw.

There’s no reason for modern textbook writers to paraphrase the views of the various patriots, Whigs, Tories or British political figures. They all left incredible documentation in their own eloquent words—and much of it is explicitly contrary to errant assertions made and repeated today about the founding era.

How much more informative it is to hear how British leaders characterized the colonies, and how the colonists themselves debated the issues and circumstances involved in separating from England.

English statesman Edmund Burke, renowned as an author and orator and philosopher, delivered a powerful speech in Parliament in March 1775 proposing conciliatory measures with the colonies.

Part of his reasoning that peaceful reconciliation would be superior to military suppression was based on the colonists themselves as a new breed of citizen.

“In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole,” he said. “… This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other people of the earth.”

He credited several powerful causes, including their English heritage (and fidelity to English ideas of liberty) and their religion.

“Religion, always a principle of energy, in this new people is no way worn out or impaired,” Burke told the members of Parliament. “The people are Protestants; and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favorable to liberty, but built upon it.”

The intractable, unconquerable grit in Americans also owed much to their education, Burke argued.

“In other countries, the people, more simple and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance,” he said. “Here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”

Thomas Jefferson first established his reputation for revolutionary penmanship with “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” in 1774. Virginia’s colonial convention ultimately decided the document was too radical, but Jefferson’s stirring words explaining the American perspective were still compelling, especially in outlining colonial self-sufficiency and growth.

“America was conquered, and her settlements made and firmly established, at the expense of individuals, and not of the British public,” he wrote. “Their own blood was spilt in acquiring lands for their settlement, their own fortunes expended in making that settlement effectual. No shilling was ever issued from the public treasures of His Majesty or his ancestors for their assistance, till of very late times, after the colonies had … become valuable to Great Britain for her commercial purposes.”

Often published anonymously, colonial newspaper editorials minced no words, as evidenced in a November 1774 piece “On The Depravity of Kings and the Sovereignty of the People.”

“We read, now and then, it is true, of a good king; so we read likewise of a prophet escaping unhurt from a lion’s den, and of three men walking in a fiery furnace without having even their garments singed,” the editorialist wrote. “The order of nature is as much inverted in the first as it was in the last two cases. A good king is a miracle.”

The lessons to be learned in an American Independence class are broad and limitless. There is second-guessing of General Washington during the war, dissidence regarding slaves in a free land, and expressed worries and hopes galore about self-government and its uncharted political frontier.

Scams work best on the unsophisticated. The best weapon against the soundbite, special-interest, PAC-funded campaigns that distort history and heritage is what founder after founder urged: the diffusion of knowledge and virtue and the principles of liberty and government through education.

We have a wealth of wonderful literature on exceptional American Independence; all we have to do is teach it. Make it a required class in every grade, and we’ll raise better experts on liberty.

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