Sunday, August 8, 2010

Liberty or Death?

"Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!"

Famous words by Patrick Henry that, in a way, launched the American Revolution. And the rest, as they say, is history. The US has stood as a beacon for freedom over generations and is often cited as a preferred location for people to be free - whether it be religious, political, social or otherwise. This does not mean that it is always the case and there are certainly instances throughout US history that demonstrate that the reality has not always fit the perception. However, the US is one of the few countries that has not necessarily shunned its past in favor of a more favorable presentation. Fights against perceived injustices permeate US history and a war was fought to correct the grievous injustice of slavery. For those (and there are many) who argue that the US has committed any number of wrongs (social, moral, etc.), they should consider the history of most any other nation in the world and how those nations have responded to the bad things perpetuated in their countries. Outside of Germany's reaction to the Holocaust, it is hard to find many other nations that have tried to make up for negative events in their history.

But I digress from my intended subject of liberty and freedom. I had the opportunity to watch a historical re-enactment of the Second Virginia Convention that was the scene of Henry's iconic speech. But what caught my attention was that the decision to take up arms for the pursuit of liberty was not undertaken with unanimous consent and that the discussions that led up to his speech were eerily reminiscent of arguments that take have surely taken place all over the world before and since - and are still done today. The decision taken by the members of the Virginia delegates to the second convention to raise arms and fight against the injustices they felt were inflicted upon them by the British in support of the colonists in Boston was one that had fervent support on both sides of the debate. Some felt that they could suffer no more under the taxation without representation under which they lived at the time while others felt that they had support that was building in England and that they simply needed to give them more time to assume the power that would enable them to return to the "halcyon days of yore".

The debate, essentially, was reduced to a peaceful and hopeful view that patience would see a return to more tranquil and reasonable days where everyone was allowed to prosper and live according to their own standards versus a belief that there was, and could be, no liberty to live free of the yoke of tyranny imposed by the British crown without an armed insurrection by the colonials. As was pointed out at the end of the re-enactment, the vote was won by only a slim margin of 5-6 votes in favor of raising a militia to serve as a defense against the British.

Freedom, as with most things, is a nuanced perception. Henry and his supporters were in favor of freedom to live and make choices on their own - or at least the right to have a say in the governance of their affairs. To those who stood in opposition, it seemed that freedom represented the ability to live their lives peacefully with the hope and belief that things would improve without forcing their active intervention. While it would seem that history has proven (for now) that the US was right to fight for its freedom, it was certainly not a decision taken lightly nor with the perceived consensus with which it seems it is often portrayed to the students who study that history. Only the future and its participants will determine how that freedom is partaken by the benefactors of that speech.

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