The Amend Corner

Give me liberty or …

By Don Amend
Posted 9/23/21

I would guess that just about any American with some education about our nation’s history can complete that directive voiced by a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses (that’s …

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The Amend Corner

Give me liberty or …

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I would guess that just about any American with some education about our nation’s history can complete that directive voiced by a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses (that’s what they called their legislature), back in the bad old days when Americans were being oppressed by our colonial rulers, the British.

As any good American knows, this man was Patrick Henry, who, according to his speech, was ready to die before giving up his liberty, which presumably was being threatened by the British. But exactly what was the liberty that Henry was concerned about losing?

Like a lot of other Americans, he opposed restrictions put on the colonies by Britain, especially when it came to taxation and restricting colonial trade. That’s understandable, since it limited American liberty to prosper economically. 

But there’s another issue that makes one wonder just what liberty meant to Americans back then. Henry was part of the plantation economy in Virginia, which meant that he owned many slaves. It seems his concept of liberty was limited to himself and people like him — that is, white plantation owners. 

Now, one might wonder how people like Henry justified owning slaves while agitating for their own liberty, but it really isn’t so hard to understand. A key element in Henry’s idea of liberty was the right to own property, and to him and others of his class, slaves were not people; they were property, so he had the liberty to own them. 

I have just about finished reading a long history of the United States that begins with the transition from colonial status into an independent nation. We are different from other nations in that our nation is not defined by the territory it occupies, as Spain or France are, nor by the ethnicity of its people, as Britain or Germany are. What ties us together as a nation is a principle, one we recognize every time we swear allegiance to our flag and our country: liberty and justice for all. 

Because the United States is different, this history I’ve been reading is different. Very little ink is used explaining the various wars and other conflicts we have experienced as a nation. Instead the author centers his history around the concept of liberty, what it means and how it has developed and changed over our nearly 450 years as a nation. He recounts the careers of numerous Americans, some of them famous, some not, and relates how they contributed to our national history and, in some cases, how their actions changed our concept of liberty. 

There is a problem with liberty, though, and Patrick Henry illustrates the problem. He demands to be left alone by the government, whether it is the British government or the government created by his fellow Americans at the Constitutional Convention. But where is liberty for his slaves? He opposed the Constitution’s ratification, and a major reason for his opposition was that he felt it gave the government powers he believed would allow for the outlawing of slavery. 

And even though many Americans opposed slavery during the “four score and seven years” between the adoption of the Constitution and Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech at Gettysburg, many of those same Americans paid no attention to the loss of liberty suffered by the many tribes that called the continent home prior to the European invasion of their homeland.

The truth is, sometimes what one person desires for liberty conflicts with the liberties of his neighbors, and that reminds me of a situation that exists right now in America. It centers on the question of whether or not the government can mandate masks and vaccinations in an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

My grandson, Arun, found himself in the middle of this discussion. Arun, who always follows the rules and is careful not to disturb those around him, had just turned 12 — the age when vaccination is authorized. However, it takes a few weeks for the vaccination to do its work, so he needed to wear a mask in order to go to school.

Well, someone came to school with neither a vaccination nor a mask. That person turned out to be infected and had been in close contact with Arun, so Arun was sent home to quarantine, and will have to undergo tests to come back to school. 

This morning, I read about a couple who were kicked out of a restaurant because they were wearing masks. They explained that their son, who was with them, suffers from cystic fibrosis, and they need to take extra precautions because if he contracts the virus, it will kill him. But that meant nothing to the owner, who says he bans masks because someone might, under cover of a mask, rob his business.

Well, I can’t understand this reluctance to take steps that can protect the health of me or the people around me. Nor do I understand the reluctance to submit to the vaccination. There is nothing in the Bill of Rights that permits me to endanger my neighbors, and when I was vaccinated there was no pain — even when they jabbed the needle into my arm — and I had no side effects.

Those precautions meant I could hug my grandchildren when we visited them in Minnesota, something I hadn’t been able to do for the last two years. In addition, it allowed me to cross South Dakota and most of northern Wyoming — two states that have low vaccination rates and relatively high infection rates — without worrying about getting sick.

So which liberty is more important? Does your reluctance to be vaccinated or masked count more than my family’s freedom to protect ourselves from this disease?

You decide, but either way, someone will probably give you a hard time about it.

That’s America for you.

The Amend Corner

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