The Hope of Liberty

by Derrick G. Jeter

In the deepness of winter of 1620, a small band of English men and women first set foot on what was to become the second English colony established in America. Landing on Plymouth on December 21—cold, sick, and dying—these Pilgrims were greeted with the icy kiss of a New England wind. Without shelter and provisions running low half their number died before winter was gave way. And yet, by the grace of God, their faith, perseverance, hard work, and friendship with local natives sustained them to glorious success.
One hundred and forty-five years later, on a late fall day, John Adams, not too many miles removed from Pilgrim Landing, sat at his desk in his Braintree, Massachusetts farmhouse and scratched out the fourth in a series of articles for the Boston Gazette—pouring out “the emanations of an heart that burns, for its country’s welfare,” as he put it. Published in England as A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law, No. 4, Adams remembered his Pilgrim forefathers and argued against the introduction of English canon and feudal law into America, which would subvert the political and ecclesiastical system they had established and lead to tyranny. Adams was, of course, right. Ten years later, Adams would argue for independence from a tyrannical Great Britain. But that was yet future. For the time being, he was content to remember the Pilgrims and their “hope for liberty.”
On this anniversary of the Pilgrim’s landing at Plymouth it’s well worth remembering their courage and sacrifice to live free. And John Adams’s words are well-fitting for the occasion.
Let us read and recollect and impress upon our souls, the views and ends, of our own more immediate forefathers, in exchanging their native country for a dreary, inhospitable wilderness. Let us examine into the nature of that power and the cruelty of that oppression which drove them from their homes. Recollect their amazing fortitude, their bitter sufferings! The hunger, the nakedness, the cold, which they patiently endured! The severe labours of clearing their grounds, building their houses, raising their provisions amidst dangers from wild beasts and savage men, before they had time or money or materials for commerce! Recollect the civil and religious principles and hopes and expectations, which constantly supported and carried them through all hardships, and patience and resignation! Let us recollect it was liberty! The hope of liberty for themselves and us and ours, which conquered all discouragements, dangers and trials! In such researches as these let us all in our several departments chearfully engage! But especially the proper patrons and supporters of law, learning and religion.
For most people this day will come and go with no thought to the past. All thoughts are on the future . . . Christmas, after all, is just days away. But we who live under liberty’s light, free to enter into the joy and celebration that is the Christmas season are only able to do so because “the hope of liberty” burned brightly in the hearts of those who so long ago were willing to suffer and die rather than see it snuffed out. Perhaps it would do us good to pause a moment in our pursuit of presents and thank the babe born in Bethlehem for the Pilgrims, who for the love of Christ braved savage seas and a hostile wilderness to find freedom “for themselves and us and ours.”
John Adams, “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law, No. 4,” Boston Gazette, 21 October 1765, quoted in Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed. C. James Taylor (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2007), (accessed December 21, 2010).