Give Me Liberty…or Community
"Give me liberty or give me death." This is a powerful statement. Some may consider it extreme, while others may find it a valid rallying cry. In order to understand its intent, it needs context.
The original American colonies were gearing up for war in 1775. Brave armed citizens- - not paid soldiers , stood on battle lines, ready to stare down the King's military, willing to give their lives for independence. Independence. Freedom. Liberty. Not comfort. Given this, maybe Patrick Henry's sentiment wasn't too extreme as he made his case before fellow colonialists. Here is a bit more of his speech:
"Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
Henry's oratory to the Second Virginia Convention was an attempt to get Virginia to create and provide a formal military for defense against the British government. He gave this impassioned plea a few days before he and others gathered on a village knoll to shoot their muskets at professional, trained soldiers, who potentially wanted to take their homes, land, money, and more. The irony in the recent stay-at-home orders, when held up against these events, is this: Today, the "government" is asking us to stay in our homes, not coming to take them. Our communities are not being overrun by Redcoats.
Speaking of liberty and community, the two are inseparable. This is because liberty is relative to other people - or even one other person. What difference does it make if you have complete liberty if there is no one else around? In this regard, "Give me liberty or give me death" is an interesting goal. Complete liberty may as well be death, because you can only truly experience liberty in a society, with other people. It's all relative. Some degree of obligation to others makes absolute liberty impossible. That is, unless you only want to share it with the birds and the bees. Complete liberty would be very lonely.
How about this instead: "Give me liberty or give me love." In other words, one needs to choose between complete freedom and companionship. Could you make this absolute choice? Or would you rather have some liberty and some love? Because some degree of freedom is a price you pay for the connection and obligation to others. Liberty, love, death, and community are intricately intertwined.
So, let's try this one: "Give me kindness and I will give you kindness, so that liberty matters." This is the right order, because liberty does not exist without community. And community does not exist without kindness, consideration, accountability, respect, and trust. In other words, any individual freedom except absolute freedom must consider the wellbeing of community members and the community as a whole.
What does all of this mean for us today? Let's go back to context. If liberty only matters if there is a community, then the community comes first. Since we are not fighting another country for our true right to exist, then liberty or death as the choice does seem extreme. If we are fighting to survive economically and for our health, then let's balance this whole liberty and community thing. For example, if wearing a face mask in a public setting invalidates your idea of freedom, then remember that standing alone as the last warrior of liberty means absolutely nothing. So take care of you as a member of us, and take care of us as an extension of you.
Here is one last example of liberty being relative: Patrick Henry was a slave owner. Even he recognized that there are variations of liberty in the context of community. As his life wound down, he came to realize that importing people from Africa for enslavement was not a part of the culture that he could support. His understanding of liberty evolved. He saw that all members of a community matter on the scale of liberty. Henry recognized that without community, individual freedom has no reason to exist. If he was here now, speaking about community as integral to liberty and about today's relative comforts and security - without a foreign enemy bearing down on us - he might share these words: "Give me the healthy lives of others so that liberty matters."