Declaring Independence

The Declaration of Independence, proclaimed 227 years ago this week, depicted King George III as a dictator against whom rebellion was warranted. These days, some Americans are happy for Washington to dictate, and have turned their wrath on God for giving commandments that purportedly do not respect a diversity of lifestyle choices.

That view displays a misunderstanding of both human nature and the meaning of freedom, which is not “just another word for nothing left to lose,” as Janis Joplin sang before she drugged and drank herself to death. The word “free,” as Gregory Beabout of Saint Louis University showed, has an origin in family values — it stems from the Indo-European prijos (dear, beloved) and is related to the Sanskrit priya (wife, daughter).

“Freedom” is also connected to the Old English frigu (love); Germans and Celts used it to mean neither controlled from outside the household nor enslaved, but benevolent toward and intimate with those inside. In Danish, frie means “to make an offer of marriage,” which should be done both through free choice and love. The etymology explains why the goddess Frigg was the Old Norse equivalent of Venus, the goddess of love in Roman mythology. Perhaps Fridays (the name derived from Frigg) are for lovers — and marriage is an act of freedom that promotes true love.

In the movie “Braveheart,” when William Wallace (played by Mel
Gibson) under torture near the end yells, “Freedom,” and envisions his murdered wife, he is thinking as a Celt would have. Many other recent American movies have equated freedom with being unencumbered by family, completely at liberty to satisfy any desires at any time with anyone. The reality is different: Marriage contributes to freedom. Instead of being driven by loneliness to spend the evening with strangers, free people can enjoy each other. Husbands and wives fully enjoy the freedom of marital bonds if they exercise self-restraint in regard to others who could readily become objects of lust.

Civilization is passed on in part when parents teach children who want to be free that self-restraint is the key to true liberty. Teen-agers readily spot the flaws in parental tutelage. But if parents abdicate, children may never learn what real freedom is, and they’ll accept the new mythology that it means not having character, but being one.

Let’s turn for a moment now to liberty. We don’t have to delve back a millennium, only to the 18th century, when the term was often used in years leading up to the American Revolution. Connecticut minister Levi Hart was typical in his proclamation that man by nature is a captive of sin, and that “the whole plan of Redemption is comprised in procuring, preaching and bestowing liberty to the captives.” Liberty means the opportunity to do what we ought to do, not the liberty to do what we might desire at the moment. If we constantly indulge ourselves, we are slaves of our wants.

The expression “life, liberty and the pursuit of property” (or “happiness,” as the Declaration of Independence put it) involves not three goals thrown together but a plan whereby one leads to the next. When God gives us life, he also gives us liberty to choose an occupation to follow or (if we are constrained as well as supported by the existence of a family business) a way to pursue it. If we choose wisely, we will engage in activity that most likely leads to both property and happiness.

Political philosopher Michael Novak has pointed out that in the Anglo-American tradition, the goal has been liberty under law, not liberty from law. The 1904 version of “America the Beautiful” proclaims, “Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” Liberty, self-control and the external control of law all work together to keep us from being enslaved by our temporary desires. If we want to maintain independence, we should remember that.