Our Imperiled Liberty

by Derrick G. Jeter

Liberty is rarely lost through revolution—the sudden and violent upheaval of arms. Liberty is almost always lost through evolution—the slow, imperceptible erosion of the animating principles which give liberty its life. Every generation must guard against such erosion and shore up these principles, or there will come a day when we awake and discover that the America we once knew and loved no longer exists; in its place will be the wasteland of despotism.

The founding generation, with manliness, met this challenge by heeding the warning of George Whitefield, the revivalist minister from Britain: “My heart bleeds for America. . . . There is a deep laid plot against both your civil and religious liberties, and they will be lost. Your golden days are at an end. You have nothing but trouble before you.” [1] Not so, our golden days were just dawning, but perhaps they are at end today. Ronald Reagan, in our own day, feared that that day would come when he observed a similar terrifying truth and advised us of its dangers.

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in their bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was like in the United States where men were free. [2]

Will we met the challenge of our generation with the same courage and wisdom as our forefathers?

Since the early 1900s, with few exceptions, individual liberty has slowly faded into obscurity. Like a pleasant memory of days gone by, personal freedom has now lost its vividness with the passing of time and of restrictive legislation. What we thought was written in permanent ink we now know was written in pencil. Woodrow Wilson was the first president to really smudge the lines of liberty. Then came Franklin D. Roosevelt, who erased much of liberty’s memory from the American consciousness by means of the New Deal. Lyndon Banes Johnson followed in FDR’s wake with the Great Society, and Barack Obama, now in his turn, is seeking to obliterate our memories of liberty with the passage of a sweeping $1 trillion healthcare reform law, as well as his desire to pass comprehensive immigration and environmental legislation. If Obama is successful in this legislative trifecta—healthcare having already passed into law—then he would have accomplished his goal, not of restoring America but of “fundamentally transforming” America. American exceptionalism will cease to exist, making us little different than any number of European-like Socialist/Marxist states.

How did we get here? How did America get to the point that her citizens would view their liberty so cheaply to sell it for the shackles of an ever intrusive and bloated government? And what, if anything, can we do to recover our former glory as the land of the free?

Our founding fathers held to three fundamental principles: No republic without liberty, no liberty without virtue, and no virtue without religion.

In 1772, four years before he signed the Declaration of Independence, Samuel Adams wrote in the Boston Gazette that Americans had a religious obligation to stand against tyranny and for liberty.

Is it not High Time for the People of this Country explicitly to declare, whether they will be Freemen or Slaves? It is an important Question which ought to be decided. It concerns us more than any Thing in this Life. The Salvation of our Souls is interested in the Event: For wherever Tyranny is establish’d, Immorality of every Kind comes in like a Torrent. It is in the interest of Tyrants to reduce the people to Ignorance and Vice. For they cannot live in any Country where Virtue and Knowledge prevail. The Religion and public Liberty of a People are intimately connected; their Interests are interwoven, they cannot subsist separately; and therefore they rise and fall together. For this Reason, it is always observable, that those who are combined to destroy the People’s Liberties, practice every Art to poison their Morals. How greatly then does it concern us, at all Events, to put a Stop to the Progress of Tyranny. [3]

In the founders’ view no Declaration, no Constitution, and no law meant to pronounce, establish, and maintain the people’s liberty could withstand the ravages of religious and moral erosion among the people. They believed that a full frontal assault on liberty would always be repulsed by a people who could govern themselves under the watchful eye of God. But if ever the people allowed their moral and religious convictions to grow shabby and soft, their liberties would become vulnerable to the plundering of an unprincipled and power-hungry government.

Is this not what is happening in America today? Through carelessness and inattention—through simple forgetfulness of our history and our founding principles—individual liberty perches precariously on the edge of an abyss. If we hope to back away without further injury to our freedom we must first face the truth that we have been too forgetful for far too long.

[1] George Whitefield to Samuel Haven and Samuel Langdom, 1763, in Portsmith, New Hampshire, quoted in Jerome Dean Mahaffey, Preaching Politics: The Religious Rhetoric of George Whitefield and the Founding of a New Nation (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2007), 190.

[2] Ronald Reagan, “Encroaching Control (The Peril of Ever Expanding Government),” quoted in Mark R. Levin, Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto (New York: Threshold Editions, 2009), 205.

[3] “Valerius Poplicola” (Samuel Adams), Boston Gazette, October 4, 1772, The Writings of Samuel Adams, ed. Harry Alonzo Cushing (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904–1908), 2:336.

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