Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.
Freedom keeping is fatiguing. I fear we won’t long reap her blessings because we weary. We weary of holding freedom up. We trade the spangled banner and wave a paler flag. The strain is tiring so we walk away and throw the towel and forfeit freedom’s blessings.
And as goes the individual, so goes the family. As goes the family, so goes the nation. Our nation cannot be stronger, cannot be better than its constituent parts. On this 242nd anniversary of our Independence Day, I’m fixed on two big ways our founding fathers were stronger than so many of their native sons.
Our fathers bore two immensely fatiguing weights of freedom that today we can scarcely bear.
Weight #1: Virtuous To The Core
And let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
It’s wearisome to be virtuous. The Spirit’s fruit is free, but it takes great effort to pull the weeds.
Virtue is effortful. The strongest battles I face are the ones I fight inside my soul. The ones I fight between submission and self, between forgiveness and grudge, between self-control or glut. Victory with those weeds makes me strong.
Benjamin Franklin nailed the need for personal virtue when he said, It is a grand mistake to thing of being great without goodness and I pronounce it as a certain that there was never a truly great man that was not at the same time truly virtuous.
Patrick Henry, knew it too. Bad men cannot make good citizens, he said. It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains. A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom. No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.
Our founders well knew this.
George Washington said: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” and “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.”
James Madison stated: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical [imaginary] idea.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and … their minds are to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and to be deterred from those of vice … These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure and order of government.”
Samuel Adams said: “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend of the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue.”
John Adams stated: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
They fought the fatiguing battles for personal virtue that raged within their souls. And because they won their soul’s battles, our nation grew. Their virtue supported freedom’s fruit.
Do we bear such fruit? Or has it fallen from the vine?
Weight #2: Civil When In Conflict
Let each of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. Be angry and do not sin. Ephesians 5:25-26
Beyond the daily weight of striving to be men of virtue, they bore this other massive weight. One doesn’t need to read too broadly on the fathers to see a lot of conflict. Drafting and ratifying documents like the Declaration and the Constitution required the immense strength of civility.
The term isn’t used much anymore, and a newer term, tolerance has muddied the waters. Civility, writes Gregory Koukl,
[C]an be loosely equated with the word “respect.” Tolerance applies to how we treat people we disagree with, not how we treat ideas we think are false. We respect those who hold different beliefs from our own by treating such people courteously and allowing their views a place in the public discourse. We may strongly disagree with their ideas and vigorously contend against them in the public square, but we still show respect to their persons despite our differences. Classic tolerance requires that every person be treated courteously with the freedom to express his or her ideas without fear of reprisal no matter what the view, not that all views have equal worth, merit, or truth.
With a few notable exceptions, while the fathers didn’t all see eye to eye on every idea, they refused to walk away. Or at least to be gone for very long.
Our fathers stayed engaged when ideas clashed. They believed better was in their grasp and they were willing to work for it. They bore that heavy weight of disagreement with ideas while showing respect for persons.
And that, probably more than virtue, is a weight we don’t much care to bear. We crumble under the slightest weight of disagreement. Our “right” to feel comfortable trumps the right to free expression.
When our ideas conflict with another’s we often disengage. We wander off and find Facebook groups for folks who think like us. We say, You have your ideas and I have mine and never the twain shall meet and dialogue’s done right there. And we are the weaker for it.
Staying civil in disagreement is taxing. Representing oneself lovingly and well with those who oppose our ideas is exhausting. Staying engaged when you’re misunderstood is soul-wearying. Civility is a heavy weight. It requires persevering and persisting and caring. For those with whom we disagree.
Thomas Jefferson was John Adams’ greatest political rival. And 50 year-long friends. The two met at the First Continental Congress in 1775. It waned when the two faced off in the 1800 presidential race. In a truly amazing grace story, their friendship was rekindled with help from their mutual friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush suggested Jefferson write Adams and he did and Adams wrote back and their friendship endured to the day they both died in 1826.
Bearing Freedom’s Weight
I’m no expert. But I know that what makes makes muscles strong is bearing lots of weight. And I know that what makes a marriage or friendship or a church or nation great is not 100% unanimity all the time. What makes us great is working side by side, staying engaged, in relationship, when we don’t see eye to eye. Pressing on and plowing through and virtuously, civilly moving right along.
I do this feebly and sluggishly and sometimes when I disagree, I press too hard or disengage too long. But this is where I want to be. It’s where Jefferson and Adams were.
Fifteen years after Dr. Rush helped the two reconcile, Jefferson and Adams’ friendship ended.
[O]n July 4, 1826, Jefferson and Adams died within hours of each other. Their deaths occurred — perhaps appropriately — on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Unaware that his friend had died hours earlier, Adams’ family later recalled that his last spoken words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives.”
The written words of Jefferson and Adams, however, survive to this day, preserving the rich legacy of their friendship, thoughts, and ideas. In their later years, Jefferson responded to a reflective question from Adams: “You ask if I would agree to live my 70. or rather 73. years over again? To which I say Yea. I think with you that it is a good world on the whole, that it has been framed on a principle of benevolence . . . . I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern.”
Our founders bore these two weights: the weight of civility when big, founding-of-a-nation ideas were in conflict and the weight of virtuous living.
Pressing On Imperfectly
They did not do either perfectly. There were defeats along the way. Personal virtue flagged. For all his pursuing frugality and virtue, Jefferson’s Monticello was sold for debt upon his passing. Hamilton never resolved his differences with Burr and Jefferson grew so frustrated by the sometime lack of civility that he did resign from Washington’s cabinet.
General Washington suffered a few defeats along the way, like the one at Brandywine Creek. But the war would still be won. The day after Washington’s defeat by the British, under General Howe at Brandywine, Thomas Paine wrote these timeless words. The first line of his speech began this post. Here is how Paine ended his “short address to [British] General Howe,”
You, sir, are only lingering out the period that shall bring with it your defeat. You have yet scarce began upon the war, and the further you enter, the faster will your troubles thicken. What you now enjoy is only a respite from ruin; an invitation to destruction; something that will lead on to our deliverance at your expense. We know the cause which we are engaged in, and though a passionate fondness for it may make us grieve at every injury which threatens it, yet, when the moment of concern is over, the determination to duty returns.
So we are not moved by the gloomy smile of a worthless king, but by the ardent glow of generous patriotism. We fight not to enslave, but to set a country free, and to make room upon the earth for honest men to live in. In such a case we are sure that we are right; and we leave to you the despairing reflection of being the tool of a miserable tyrant.
And so we say to our strongest foe, who threatens daily to undo us- who tempts us to lapse in virtue and be uncivil in conflict-we say to him,
We know the cause which we are engaged in. We are and by right ought to be free. We fight not to enslave, but so that we may live as Christ made us to be. We live with these weights and weary ourselves to make room for honest men to live. We now declare ourselves free.