Americans take our liberty for granted because we assume that it lasts forever. Like our suicidal obesity rates, we have forgotten that liberty and health, requires something from us. Both are not passive existences where we float through life aimlessly and helplessly.
Statistically speaking, we know many Americans are woefully uninformed about their civic duties and rights. The tragedy of this isn’t just that Americans willingly vote to oppress themselves by more government, or that they do not know the names of the three branches of government, but that Americans are blissfully unaware of the moral basis for liberty and what that entails for each of us in order to live well and preserve liberty for ourselves and future generations.
Unfortunately, our school system being neutered to America’s Founding means that they do not acknowledge the moral requirements that made our Revolution and Founding possible and that are necessary for liberty to thrive.
First, in order to appreciate liberty one must understand the difference between liberty and freedom. Marie Rogerson, Executive Director of Program Development at the 2022 Moms For Liberty Joyful Warrior National Summit, said in her wonderful speech that freedom is a spectrum. On one end is licentiousness and chaos like Marie mentions, but the other end isn’t liberty, it’s tyranny. A people who do not know and understand the highest ideal of freedom, liberty, will find out naturally what history has already taught us, chaos ultimately turns to tyranny.
Tyrants understand that chaotic people are much easier to manipulate and control than grounded and principled people of liberty. Chaos is the wielding of passions by anyone and everyone without concern for who is impacted or the consequences of our actions. As Montesquieu tells us in The Spirit of the Laws, in despotic governments “only passions are needed to establish it, everyone is good enough for that.” Indeed, anyone can govern through force and passion as little wisdom, prudence, knowledge, and creativity are needed.
That is why virtue is an essential prerequisite to sustain liberty against the many challenges it faces. It starts with having an understanding of what it means to be virtuous. A virtuous person is someone who behaves in a morally upright manner despite hardships or challenges. A virtuous person is honest, just, strong, and prudent. They are someone who can be trusted and who adheres to a strict code of ethics. They do not focus on being "nice" but rather on being good and a good person does and says the right thing regardless if it is popular or what the masses deem as "right." A virtuous person also has limits to their actions. They do not act or behave in ways not because they are illegal but rather because they are fundamentally wrong. A virtuous person looks inward towards more self-government rather than outward towards more centralized government to better their lives and communities.
That is why liberty is the limiting of our passions and actions to live not only free but well. Liberty isn’t the silly notion that we are able to do whatever we want whenever we want. As John Locke writes in his Second Treatise, "but freedom is not, as we are told, a liberty for every man to do what he lists: (for who could be free, when every other man's humour might domineer over him?)” In a world without limits no one is free.
There is a code of ethics among civilized and free societies that must be maintained in order to preserve the quality of liberty that promotes human flourishing. The Founders understood that a republic could only be as strong as the character of its citizens. That is why they placed such a high importance on virtue, they knew it was necessary for the maintenance of a free and just society.
The American Founding generation developed this belief from a few different sources. First, American Founders were deeply influenced by ancient Greek and Roman philosophers who taught that there are certain things humans must do in order to live well together. These are called virtues, and they include such principles as wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control. The Founders understood that if Americans were to live up to their full potential as a people, they would need to cultivate these virtues in their own lives.
The Founders were also deeply influenced by the Bible, which teaches that all humans are fallen beings in need of God's grace. They believed that it is only by God's grace that we can hope to be virtuous people. This is because virtue is not something that comes naturally to us – it is something that we have to work for and without God's help, we will never be able to achieve it. Virtue therefore is a humbling trait that reminds us all that we are equally flawed and vulnerable.
The Founding generation were also influenced by the Enlightenment, which taught that reason is the best way to understand the world. They believed that humans could use reason, our conscience, perhaps even a little common sense, to figure out what was right and wrong, and if we abandon reason then all we are left with is whatever appeals to our passions. As John Locke tells us, to live in a world without reason is to be loose to the “boundless fields” of self-interest.
The Founders were also motivated by a desire to promote the common good. They believed that everyone could play a part to work for the betterment of society as a whole. And they also believed that local government should be used as a tool to help people live virtuously and to promote that common good. Contrary to the "live and let live" dogmas of today the American tradition is not "hands off" when it comes to promoting a common good way of life. But that doesn’t mean it was supposed to be done at the national level. More centralized power was not the virtuous Republic our Founders sought to create.
The Founders understood all of this as the cornerstone of a healthy republic. Liberty was the means to accomplish the good that we seek in life for ourselves and the millions unborn. That is why as Patrick Henry said in his speech to the Virginia Convention in March 1775, "I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" This is not the statement of a weak man but of someone who is standing on the grounds of virtuous liberty. You shall not take all that is dear from me without a fight.
This principle of virtuous liberty is what our school system hasn't but should be teaching.
Because what could be more valuable and inspiring than that?