May 16, 2005
Give me liberty, or give me death!
Fifth grade is the year for American history, when the Constitution is broken into three branches of government, the Bill of Rights is memorized, and famous patriots stir our imagination. American children grow up, nurtured on the ideals of independence and freedom.
Patrick Henry lives on today at Colonial Williamsburg, America’s largest living history museum. In body and voice, Richard Shumann recreates Henry and the words he used to stir colonists to battle.
In March 1775, Patrick Henry urged his fellow Virginians to arm in self-defense, closing his appeal (uttered at St. John’s Church in Richmond, where the legislature was meeting) with the immortal words: Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains or slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take but as for me; give me liberty or give me death!
Henry, “a Quaker in religion but the very devil in politics,” mobilized the militia only a few hours after the British march on Concord. His words are said to mark the beginning of the American Revolution in Virginia.
Liberty, the cause of the American Revolution, burns bright in the minds of Americans as the ultimate cause worth defending. We want our freedom. Independence. Liberty. No one is going to bar our way, get in our face, tell us what to do. America is the land of the free.
But there is another Henry. And another quote. This Henry speaks of liberty, too. But more to the point, he speaks about the purest essence of liberty, the distillation of what our freedom must be in order to allow us to be free.
Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty. –Henry M. Robert
So, who is this Henry? Henry Martyn Robert was born May 2, 1837, in Robertsville, South Carolina. Active in his community, he was chosen to chair a committee and was embarrassed by his inability to handle their meetings effectively.
Henry’s work in the army allowed him to travel and study the different systems used in various communities to order their meetings. He envisioned a uniform set of rules used by all people that would allow people from different towns to work together effectively.
Encouraged by friends, Henry wrote a book and finally found a publisher willing to gamble on a printing of 4,000, enough copies to last a couple of years. Instead, the first copies of Robert’s Rules sold out in a few months.
Henry M. Robert died in 1923 in New York, leaving us an important lesson about liberty. Unfettered and unrestrained, liberty is a freedom that will enslave us. Order, rules, and governance are the friends of freedom that protect us from ourselves.
Too much liberty corrupts us all. –Terence (185 BC – 159 BC)
Liberty: Defined in simple terms, it is the power to do as one pleases. But if one is thorough in reading to the end of the definition, the reins on freedom are spelled out: permission especially to go freely within specified limits.
Libertine: A word no longer needed in America where everything goes, it has a lesson to teach. A person who is unrestrained by convention or morality; specifically : one leading a dissolute life…a life dissolving through unrestrained liberties?
Dissolute: lacking restraint; especially : marked by indulgence in things (as drink or promiscuous sex) deemed vices <the dissolute and degrading aspects of human nature. Is this a concept Americans are able to…even willing to…understand?
As we work to teach our children the value of saving sex until marriage, we must look ourselves full face in the mirror. We must admit that our culture has used our love affair with liberty to enslave us to our passions.
In a culture that celebrates excess, we must restore the truth about liberty. Give us liberty. Yes. But give us also the courage and character to submit our liberty to restraint.
Civilization begins with order, grows with liberty, and dies with chaos.
–Will Durant (1885-1981)
Law is order in liberty, and without order liberty is social chaos.