Voting isn’t enough.
Thomas Paine said, “What we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly.” Our citizenship certainly seems to be one of those things we esteem too lightly, and we take it for granted every day. Being an American isn’t a birthright though. Citizenship is a duty, and that duty requires effort: effort to learn, effort to educate, effort to discuss, effort to act. Lots and lots of effort, and the effort never, ever ends until the day you die.
The flame of freedom has burned throughout the history of mankind, from the first day a person walked the earth and was bound by nothing but nature to the very moment you read these words. Humanity has seen some dark times; indeed, the flame has been reduced to nothing but a smoldering ember, from time to time, a single breath away from being blown out. Yet despite wars and oppression down through the ages, here we are.
The ancient Greeks are usually credited for being the first people to add fuel to freedom’s flame, to stoke it ablaze. And burn brightly the flame did for a time 2,400 years ago, only to be allowed to die down once more by human calamities, where it smoked and smoldered all those years, waiting for the moment when fuel was added again and human action coaxed the flame back from the ashes.
Hundreds, thousands of years went by, and freedom was flirted with here and there, but always it was trampled out before it could catch and spread. Then, 237 years ago, men who were tired of being oppressed met their oppressors in a green, grassy field one foggy Massachusetts morning.
Militia Capt. John Parker, a farmer whose monument was featured so prominently in my column yesterday, said “If [the British] mean to have a war, let it begin here!” He and only 76 other men, who at that moment became the first true Americans in history, stood scared as hell before 400 British infantrymen, saying to the world, “This far, and no farther, for our liberty starts today.”
Imagine it. Can you feel the terror they must have felt? Can you understand the breadth and depth of the sacrifice those farmers, blacksmiths, leatherworkers, bar keeps, husbands, brothers and sons were willing to make — and did make — that day? Smell the gunpowder smoke, hear the roar of the muskets, the screams of the officers yelling orders to their men and the pleas for help from the wounded.
You, American, have a history. Take hold of it, and make it part of you. You own this heritage, and dear God, what a gift. But ask yourself: Do I deserve it? Have I earned it? What have I done for my country and for my fellow Americans today?
The flame of freedom is never gone really, even in the darkest times. It burns within our hearts and can never be taken away by any means of tyranny. So long as people live, so shall the existential space of liberty, even should people forget about it as we seem to have.
The Puritan pilgrims understood this and brought the flame here, where it burned until it was eventually passed down to America’s Founding Fathers for safe keeping a hundred years later. They fought a war, created peace and codified the ancient principles of freedom, laying them down in elegant words that endure still and hopefully forever shall ... so long as we do our duty as citizens.
Those men, this nation’s founders, didn’t create freedom for America, for freedom always existed. Rather, they created America for freedom. They created America for you, within whom freedom lives.
Like freedom, being an American is a state of mind much more than a geographical and political distinction. Being an American is a set of principles and ideals of attitudes and actions. In this column, I can tell you about your rights, as protected by the Bill of Rights, over and over again, and you can practice them as part of your daily lives. But until you understand that freedom is a challenge and that greatness only comes from people who are personally invested in their citizenship, it’s all for naught.
Thomas Paine also said, “When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.” Virtue. Duty. Sacrifice. These words I’ve used writing this column, and I’ve used others in past columns, such as honor, integrity, honesty, love, and courage. We do not inherit them from our forefathers; they must be cultivated anew within each of us.
The ancient Greeks thought that a person had a natural state of being and that unless a person lived up to his nature by doing what came naturally, such as being political, he was not living a good and righteous life. If the principles listed above are, in part, what makes an American an American, and America was created for freedom, a natural element of our being, then what are we if we are not virtuous? What are we if we fail to do our duty as citizens?
What are we if we fail at these principles? Can we even call ourselves Americans anymore?
Forget about Republicans and Democrats. Want to be an American? Know your rights and know your duties, and do them. Be a good person and the rest will take care of itself.