"I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." -- Written by Thomas Jefferson in a private letter.
Digging into primary sources is an exciting way to learn. Interested in Civil War medicine? Then browse teaching manuals and letters written by patients, doctors and nurses of that era. Want an in-depth retelling of an event such as the St. Louis Expedition or the Chicago Fire? Then find eye-witness accounts. I cherish my first-edition, Barriers Burned Away, written by Edward Payton Roe. This Civil War correspondent and New York minister traveled to Chicago in 1871 while the city burned to gather material for a powerful novel. His book describes terrified residents ducking into Lake Michigan to escape embers and victims seeking aid at hastily-established soup kitchens.
Tracking down primary sources turns anyone into Sherlock Holmes and the lure of uncovering topical tidbits becomes irresistible. My daughter, a Junior in high school, became fired up about Dante Alighieri this winter. After reading a mention of Dante's lesser-known La Vita Nuova, a work inspired by Dante's courtly love for pure Beatrice, my daughter ranged over town to the college library on a wintry day to find an obscure copy. That kind of interest fuels real learning.
Americans need to re-ignite a like passion for liberty. What is "freedom," rightly used? How is it maintained? How was it won for America? If we cherish our liberty, we should be brushing off and reading our copies of the Constitution. Many public schools are dropping mandatory requirements to learn cursive, but children should master this art, so they, too, can study copies of original documents like the Declaration of Independence. In our home, we have a facsimile of that document on a parchment scroll, that we bring out for patriotic holidays.
What did early founders of America say about liberty? Snatching just a phrase or two out of context -- usually all we get in textbooks or articles -- is like eating the cherry, but leaving the hot fudge sundae. Digesting speeches, letters and other documents in their entirety helps us see famous quotes in context and better savor our nation's unique flavor of liberty. My son, a freshman in high school, is reading original American documents from a book called Words Aptly Spoken, compiled by Jen Greenholt. Included is Patrick Henry's famous March 23, 1775 speech to Virginia Congressional delegates in which he exclaims, "Give me liberty or give me death!"
Taking five minutes to read this entire speech fleshes out Henry's ideas. Fellow patriots like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison also have much more to offer than faces on currency, or a pithy phrase or two. Sacrificing everything for the cause of liberty, these men's' reflections on the topic are not only still timely, but prophetic, and worth investigating.
A friend shared powerful Thomas Jefferson quotes with me this week, spurring my resolve to put these quotes into context, and explore more of this statesman's speeches and writings:
"When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe ...
"The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not ...
"It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which, if acted on, would save one-half the wars of the world ...
"I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.
"To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical ..." -- Thomas Jefferson
"My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government."
In 1802, Thomas Jefferson said, "I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property -- until their children wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered."
Jefferson took his liberty seriously and so must we, voting along lines of freedom and in the light of truth. The most important primary document -- Scripture -- informs our consciences and illuminates our minds about true liberty. We can access the leading of the Church each day through Scripture readings and the homily at Mass. Or, we can meditate on Scripture, and reflections of current theologians and early Church fathers, in our Magnificats or on online sources such as Universalis. Never has the Church wavered in teaching that we must cherish and protect inalienable rights of every person, from conception through death.
May God save America's liberty and bless her current and future generations. May we do our part -- studying, working and praying to further the noble cause of human freedom.
"America, you are beautiful and blessed. The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless. If you want equal justice for all and true freedom and lasting peace, then America, defend life." -- From another prophetic hero who loved human freedom, Pope John Paul II
Topics: Religious freedom