Sunday, October 4, 2009

Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death

Patrick Henry did indeed say this (there is an "unconfirmed quotation" of Henry's that begins with "it cannot be emphasized..." that Henry did NOT say).

Henry was (most scholars agree) an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, indeed one who believed in a pretty close connection between Church & State (Jefferson and Madison fought against HIS assessment bill to fund teachers of the Christian religion in VA).

However, the Bible really doesn’t stand for the proposition of “give me political liberty or give me death,” but rather “give me spiritual liberty or give me death.” Political liberty is alien to the Bible. The “liberty” to which the Bible speaks is freedom in Christ (or from the bondage of sin). St. Paul was clear that one could be a chattel slave qua chattel save and “free” in this sense.

The line “give me liberty or give me death” was lifted from Joseph Addison’s play Cato, about a noble pagan figure from antiquity who committed suicide rather than submit to the tyranny of Caesar.

Where I am going with this? Christian Nationalists often claim that the overwhelming majority of FFs were “Christians” and even the “non-Christians” like Franklin and Jefferson were influenced by a “Christian worldview.” And no doubt, there is a kernel of truth there. Many of the FFs were orthodox Christians and Franklin and Jefferson were indeed influenced by Christianity.

However the converse is true as well: Many of the “orthodox Christians” like Patrick Henry were influenced by an Enlightenment and noble pagan-Greco-Roman worldview.

You can read more about the background of the play Cato here and also learn more about how the play influenced other FFs.


Brad Hart said...

In addition, many have argued that Henry held a letter opener while making the "Give me liberty or give me death" speech and that he actually pretended to drive it into his heart upon uttering the "death" part. If true, that would add credence to your Cato connection.

I do have one point of dispute: Henry's speech is delivered almost like a sermon. He mentions God throughout the short speech and refers to Heaven's constant intervention in the affairs of nations. Just prior to the "Liberty or death" finale, Henry States:

"There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable--and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace-- but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!"

I think, in Henry's mind at least, that the Revolution symbolized a heaven v. hell type battle. It was more than an earthy struggle for men like Henry, which is why I think the Bible DID play an influential least in this instance for Henry.

Tom Van Dyke said...

However the converse is true as well: Many of the “orthodox Christians” like Patrick Henry were influenced by an Enlightenment and noble pagan-Greco-Roman worldview.

Well, since Aquinas used the Aristotelian philosophical framework back in the 1200s, and Christian thought flowed therefrom, the Greco-Roman part is accounted for. [Not to mention that the Stoic account of "natural law" was compatible with Aquinas' and Christianity's.]

As for the Enlightenment, which Enlightenment? Not Hume's and Voltaire's, but the "Common Sense Scottish Enlightenment" of Thomas Reid.

You may find this article interesting or amusing:

It should really come as no surprise that [John] Witherspoon adopted the Jesuit Bellarmine’s political philosophy of revolution, having already adopted many other aspects of humanistic Romish ideology.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

You are correct, as the Bible does not grant political liberty, as political liberty were only for certain classes. Therefore, it is dangerous to literalize or even assume the text is for today, as it is written. To our American ears, slaves, patronage, Kings, theocracy, Caesars, etc. are foreign. And those that are under persecution from their government, should not sit idly by and allow "evil to rule".

Submission to government should be only to "good government" that respects the individual. This seems to be Cato's response.

But, Witherspoon appealed to authorities to change legislation (from what I remember). And it took him years. But, he persevered.

So, which one, revolution, or reform? That is always the question.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ms. VDM, it's quite true that the Bible is not a document containing political liberty, especially universal suffrage. [Even Greek "democracy" was for the elites, men, and only free men at that.]

However, since today we enjoy universal suffrage [the poor, minorities, females, everybody], we are now all citizen-rulers.

Therefore if we're to look for guidance in the Bible or in the wisdom of the ancient Greco-Roman philosophers, it seems logical we should be far less concerned about our "rights" as citizens and more about our duties as rulers.

What good king, or just ruler, would be more concerned about his own prerogatives than with the welfare of his people?

As always, thx for yr comment, Angie. You continue to ask all the right questions, and make me wonder about possible answers.

(Re your final question, as an Edmund Burke liberal-conservative, my preference is always for reform [if possible], which is a positive act. Revolution is inherently destructive, and as the Reign of Terror proved Burke to be correct, is far more vulnerable to the Law of Unintended Consequences.)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I am reading a book, "Democracy and Dictatorship" by Zevedeu Barbu. His thesis is that dictatorship's are based on a rigid form of governing...Facism on an emotionally base and Communism on a reason base. Both err on extremes as to human atributes. Democracy allows for freedom of expression and novelty.

As to rulers ruling justly, yes, this is the responsibility, but if one is under an unjust ruler, then what? Are we to wait for a Witherspoon? Take our life? or create a consensus movement that brings about change?

Marxism is based on an economic revolution. Weber is based on a religious revolution. Neither address a balance between the sacred and secular, which is why the FF had a separation of Church and State. Both needed one another, but in balance.

Tom Van Dyke said...

You keep asking interesting questions, Angie. I have no idea who Zevedeu Barbu is, and neither can Google tell me anything of value about him.

I'd rather take my chances with Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Kant, Mills, Rawls, Rush Limbaugh or Barack Obama, rather than whoever this fucking guy is.


Fascism on emotionally base and Communism on a reason base.

makes some sense. Tribe vs. Universalism. But each rises and falls on "unity."

Both err on extremes as to human attributes. Democracy allows for freedom of expression and novelty.

Exactly. They both err on the same side of human attributes, then, that of a belief in mankind's affinity for "unity."

And actually, "democracy" shares the same flaw, that 51% rules the other 49.

Republicanism, or US constitutionalism, is what actually allows for "freedom of expression."

You keep asking the right questions, tho. You keep questioning whether the same "solutions" apply to New York, London, Beijing, Rio, Mumbai, and Arkansas, West Virginia, Oaxaca, Newfoundland, New Zealand, Tibet, Soweto, Luxembourg, Sri Lanka, and Vatican City.

I dunno either.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Barbu is a Romanisn philosopher/educator/diplomat. He applies psychology and sociology to political systems.

I just heard on NPR today that this Supreme Court will be discussing the 1st and 2nd Amendements and "Bill of Rights" in general, in regards to citizenship and state. You ask the question as to international law. This is what disturbs me about Obama's thinking at the "U.N." and our "treaty" with other nations coming "before" the Citizen rights of our Constitution? At least this is what I understood.

I don't think submitting our liberties to other national interests, or to other nation's laws, is very wise. Law has to define differences in values, and changing our values will change our "way of life". Perhaps this is the whole point. But, I can't imagine that life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness is to be undermined, unless one wants to go back to tribalistic universalism...that would be a crude way of life, for sure...

Tom Van Dyke said...

I agree. However, treaties are law the same as legislation.

Which is why treaties should be looked at carefully. Right now, we're [supposedly] bound by the Geneva Convention but our enemy, al-Qaeda, is not.

This makes zero sense to me.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Wasn't it the "Cap and Trade" treaty that China and India wouldn't agree to? And yet, America will "take the rap" and forego her interests, as well as her citizens interest, for what? Environmental purity, that scientists still cannot agree on. Wny base our policy on such wobbly facts?

Our nation's debt is gong to destroy us. So, we cannot allow ourselves to take all the blame and all the "costs" in the world. We cannot "save the planet" by ourselves.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I share your distaste for ceding our sovereignty to international bodies.

Scalia is quite good on the subject of why our laws fit us.

* * *

"I hope I have made it clear that my belief that the use of foreign law in our constitutional decisions is the wave of the future does not at all suggest that I think it's a good idea. I do not. The men who founded our republic did not aspire to emulating Europeans, much less the rest of the world."

Pinky said...

The American Creation, in retrospect, presents us with a coming together of the streams of history all converging in our Founding Fathers' generation.

What we think is the best thinking regarding the best ideas upholding the sanctity of life not only for the individual; but, more so, for society itself are articulated in America's Creation.

It's hard to say what Patrick Henry meant with his statement; but, it certainly had to do with man's conscience and the tyranny of the monarchy. I see it more as supporting the revolutionary movement than as something Henry felt for his own being.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Christians were the "lower, and unempowered" classes of society. They did not have the power to do things in the political realm, so they focused on individual virtues, and boundary-making lines defined by a sectarian view of reality.

This contiues to be the case today in some denominations.

America is the highest form of government, as it allows individuality, which I continue and will continue to say is important. Why? Because it allows for diversity and development.

I believe that without individual liberty, then the society as a whole does not flourish, because government will then be established and defined by "Power". And we all know that the lack of balancing power is what the Founders resisted in the Revolution.

The question today is; can we 'balance power' across nation states, when it has become hard to do so in our domestic policy? Obama thinks so. I think this breaches one of the mainstays of American ideals, which is liberty and justice. How do we define liberty and justice, when multiculturalism affirms diversity at the costs of reasonable dissent?

Human rights are based on political freedom from oppressive regimes. And that means that one cannot reform oppressive regime, as there is no means to do this, unless "Power" is open to diplomacy. And these nations do not have the means of balancing power, do they?

Diplomatic efforts have not worked in the past, when two sides are vying for different interests, or their interests are conflicting altogether.

The West has been built upon the "rule of law" which protects the values that we hold; life, liberty adn the pursuit of happiness. As laws do define what is of 'interest" to every nation, in the form of treaties, then how do we define law in a way that is agreeable to all parties? This seems like an "ideal" that will never happen. And history has born that out. And in the meantime, we risk opening ourselves to "power" that is anarchial and disrepectful of our values of life and liberty.

I am no historian, diplomat, or "powerful" person, so I am limited in my understanding. This is why I read this blog and find it fascinating. And I thank each and every one of you for eduating me. I know your time is important and yet, you take the time to answer and encourage me. I appreciate that.

RonofAmerica said...

I've read that General Washington loved Addisons' drama "Cato" so much that he commissioned a troupe of actors to perform it over 40 times for his officers.

Equally noteworthy is Nathan Hale's valediction: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country" which also has its origin in "Cato."

After 40 performances, it's easy to understand why these most memorable quotes were indelibly written in the minds of our FF.

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