Monday, September 12, 2011

Give Me Liberty

This September, ten years after 9/11 is a fitting time to consider what Freedom and Liberty means to us and also to consider how it was won, that is, through the American Revolution. War directly and seriously affects the health of individuals and populations, and the American Revolution demonstrates the importance of "high stakes" in that true story, and in all fictional stories.

Give Me Liberty by author Russell Freedman, written in 2000, still resonates, and includes a discussion of slavery and African American sacrifices during the revolution, never discussed when I was a child. How were a group of ragtag colonists about to beat the well trained British Army?

Since 9/11 we've heard a great deal of discussion about when, why and where to go to war. But as the debate unfolded in the late 1700's in colonial America, it became more and more clear that the stakes were high, easily understood, and personal.

Tension between Britain and the colonists rose when King George tried to pay off his debt incurred during the French and Indian Wars by imposing the "Stamp Tax" on the colonies. In 1765, Patrick Henry spoke against it, declaring that no one had a right to tax the colonies except their own elected representatives, and the colonies had no representation in Parliament. Benjamin Franklin resented that Britain treated the colonies like children: We have an old Mother that peevish is grown,/ She snubs us like Children that scarce walk alone;/ She forgets we're grown up and have Sense of our own;/ Which nobody can deny, deny, which nobody can deny.

After years of continued tyranny, and stunning protests such as The Boston Tea Party, in 1775,  Patrick Henry proclaimed, "Give me liberty or give me death!"

As the colonists took sides and ratcheted up their talk of fighting, "The king's ministers rejected any talk of a negotiated settlement." British General Gage was confident he could win against the colonists seen as "raw, undisciplined, cowardly men."

So how did these "cowardly" colonists win? Because the stakes were high. Each man believed, and it had been proven to them, that the only way to get out from under unfair taxes and tyranny was to fight the war. They cared. Losing was not an option for the colonists. What had to be done became obvious.

The colonists in Freedman's story are the protagonists. A protagonist in almost any story has to want something and if that something is not attained, there has to be serious consequences. That is what makes the story of the American Revolution and Give me Liberty so riveting, even as I already knew the ending.

The discussions since 9/11 about balancing liberty with safety are difficult ones, because the liberty we enjoy in America,  won so long ago, was hard won.  The stakes were high, the consequences of losing, for the colonists, unacceptable.

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