If one spends significant time in the trenches of liberty, one necessarily is forced to grapple with this penetrating question, “Is liberty self-perpetuating?” Does individual liberty continue without an external force? What if one or two generations ignore the principles of liberty? What happens? How long would it take for liberty to evanesce? Thomas Paine provided a hint of what the founding generation believed, “Whenever we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember virtue is not hereditary.” It’s not in one’s DNA. English statesman, moralist, and playwright, Samuel Johnson agreed with our Founders, “No people can be great who have ceased to be virtuous.” Revolutionary War Princeton president John Witherspoon observed, “So true is this, that civil liberty cannot be long preserved without virtue.” Irish statesman Sir Edmund Burke concurred, “Among a people generally corrupt liberty cannot exist.” Frederick Douglass, understood the inextricable link between virtue and longevity, “The life of a nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful and virtuous.” Though millions believe otherwise, God doesn’t grade on a curve?
In 1951, General Douglas MacArthur, remarked, “History fails to record a single precedent in which nations subject to moral decay have not passed into political and economic decline. There has been either a spiritual awakening to overcome the moral lapse, or a progressive deterioration leading to ultimate national disaster.” Any signs of revival? God could send it. Would we cooperate? From the ancient scribes we’ve been forewarned, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace any people.” God has ordained that certain principles of conduct and behavior are immutable-as are the subsequent consequences. This Ole Republic is wobbly on virtue. Some warn we’re closer to paganism, with rare pockets of exceptions. That should vex one’s soul.
“Liberty can no more exist without virtue and independence, than a body can live without a soul,” said John Adams in a paper to the inhabitants of the Colony of Massachusetts, on February 6, 1775. Among his many warnings was that the “License of the press may be an engine to complete their ruin.” Adam’s further condemnation of the press in his day, was but a foreshadowing of our day. “But if you look for liberty, you will grope in vain, and the freedom of the press, instead of promoting the cause of liberty, will hasten its destruction, as the best cordials, taken by patients, in some distempers, become the most rancid and corrosive poisons.” What was reportedly given for good, like a medical elixir, may, in the end, be deadly to the patient-as with a nation. This was a time when many colonies were preparing for armed military defense. Adams further observed, “That nothing, by the law of God, in the Old and New Testament, gave parliament authority over America, or the law of nature, or common law.”
Nearly forty-five years later in correspondence from Adams to Thomas Jefferson, asked once again, referencing Rome of yesteryear, “Would the outcome have been different had Brutus and Cassius been conquers? Would they have restored virtue and liberty to Rome?” Once again, challenging his old adversary to remember a time in history of an example of a Nation once thoroughly corrupted, that was afterwards restored to Virtue. Adams answered his own rhetorical question, “And without Virtue, there can be no political Liberty.” Adams concluded, “That absent a Miracle of Divine Grace, that would instantaneously convert a whole Contaminated Nation from turpitude to purity.” Adams continued his use of rhetorical questions of how to prevent the predictable lure of power, luxury, and “intoxication extravagance of Vice and Folly.” He pressed his old friend and adversary, “When will you answer me these questions?”
It’s apparent to any reader of this correspondence, that without Virtue, that composed a national character, including such traits as frugality and Piety-liberty is not self-perpetuating. Many agree It was Adams who held great sway in it’s early perpetuation of liberty. He understood that liberty must be anchored in the law and virtue, not in political elites. Interestingly he used the word “liberty” less than contemporaries of the day. He was concerned that human frailty would confound liberty as a license to plunder and purloin, rather than doing good. He used the concept of virtue driving liberty.
For context on constitutional longevity, consider that the Dominican Republic has had 32 constitutions since 1844. Venezuela 26, Haiti 24, and Ecuador 20. Why has ours endured for nearly two-and-a half centuries? Fiat? Providential intervention? That hackneyed phrase,“Talk is cheap” demands context. Even on liberty, a vigorous conversation had to occur. Initially a group of prescient seers advanced that conversation into action. There were fence-sitters back then too. Not everyone was up for a fight. It’s impossible to know the exact number of American colonists who favored or opposed independence or a revolution. From the personal writings of John Adams, in 1815, he estimated that not more than 20% of colonists were loyalist. Consider Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” pamphlet, that fanned the flame of the Patriot’s cause. However, in the end, many loyalists simply left America, and settled in Canadian provinces.
Samuel Adams believed liberty’s more than a proclamation. Rather heroic efforts by a few brave souls that the love of liberty’s interwoven with the soul. Sir Edmund Burke understood that genuine liberty is grasped only by a minority. Going as far as to proclaim that the masses were indifferent to it’s cause then-and now. Once again, the Founders insisted that patriotic citizens must understand that liberty is like a delicate plant, that even watering it with the blood of martyrs, is a dubious nutriment. Benjamin Franklin’s son, William, a loyalist governor of New Jersey, opposed the Revolution.
Was it the malevolent coalition of fear and cowardice that restrained those who refused to join the Revolution? Or like today’s sentiment, “Let’s be reasonable.” We’ll need a new generation of Patriots to join us, willing to cross swords for liberty. Growing secularism is ill-equipped to launch or sustain virtuous liberty, unconvinced that our Constitution has God’s finger prints all over it. Apathy’s a major obstacle to the cause of perpetuating liberty as a common cause. It becomes increasingly clear, that the ruling impulse of tyranny won’t be thwarted by dormancy, denial or dereliction of duty. Few things are self-sustaining, like God’s Word (Ps.40:8.) Constitutional liberty requires a force behind it equal to, or greater than, the object itself. The physics of liberty.
On May 18, 1947, three-term Democrat Massachusetts Congressman, John F. Kennedy, at a “I Am an American Day” program, remarked, “The fires of liberty were not self-starting, nor are they self-perpetuating.” Kennedy understood liberty must be fueled by mental ascent and willful action. We’ll need dogged insistence that Liberty, under God, must not fade from this Republic. What if the mantle of liberty rested solely on our shoulders? What would it look like? Would we willingly suffer the fate of Roman Tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus for Liberty? What do you think?
Mike Pyatt’s a Natrona County resident. His email’s email@example.com