Every morning I awaken to the sound of my alarm. I reach down, slide my finger across the glossy surface of my iPhone, and listen as the sound fades away. As it does, I bring my phone towards my weary eyes and I observe two things: first, the bright light emanating from its screen, and second, the word “Liberty.”
Two-hundred thirty-nine years ago fifty-six brave and revolutionary men put ink to parchment and pledged, “To each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor,” as they signed their names on the Declaration of Independence proclaiming for all of time that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Historians and critics alike have accurately noted that a number of the signatories were hypocritical for signing a document making such a proclamation while simultaneously owning slaves and relegating women to a lesser station within society. However, it can also be said that their pledge was far from hollow. For as soon as they declared independence and started down the path towards what would become the United States of America, they risked losing the exact things they had pledged.
While there were those who escaped rather lightly having lost hardly anything or only material possessions, others fared much worse. Some were captured, tortured, or beaten severely. Although terrifying to imagine, their fates were still an insignificant cost to pay compared to that which other cosigners paid. Many would come to pay the ultimate price for their pledge, that being their lives. Though the cost may have been their lives, they died knowing that the cause for which they lost their lives was just. They knew that future generations would enjoy the liberties they had proclaimed as natural human rights because of the courageous sacrifices they made.
It is a testament to those fifty-six men, to their courage, to their fortitude, and to their foresight, that to this day the parchment on which they signed their most sacred of pledges still exists. It can be viewed by all of those who wish within the capitol city of the country whose independence they declared. Should one travel to Washington, D.C. and ascend the 39 steps of the National Archives, proceed through the doors and across the Rotunda, nothing more than a pane of glass will separate them from the now scarcely visible words inscribed on the Declaration of Independence. It is, much to the disdain of all of those who stand in the way of liberty and progress, the greatest irony of all, that a document whose words can barely be read today still shines through the ages as a guiding light in the name of liberty for all. While the elements of time have taken their toll on the boldness with which our founders wrote, there is absolutely nothing capable of diminishing the boldness of the declaration that they made.
The struggles of the past two centuries in the name of progress and the unyielding pursuit of the purest and most universal form of America’s most important founding principle is the brand that has forever seared liberty into the soul of this country. It is the bedrock from which everything that defines the American way of life emanates. Liberty has been fought for and defended by generation after generation, borne upon the backs of citizens and soldiers alike, on far off inhospitable lands and upon our own tranquil plains.
It is in the name of liberty, that of our own and of our allies, that over a million American soldiers have perished in battle. Americans have sacrificed their lives on battlefields stretching from the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg to the banks of the Marne River, from the beaches of Normandy to the cliffs of Nam Dong, and most recently in the streets of Baghdad and the mountains of Kabul. It is because of those brave souls that we continue to live the lives we do and enjoy the liberties we all too often take for granted.
While military battles in defense of American liberty have raged on battlefields for over two hundred years, there has been a different struggle, of distinctly different means but no less importance, raging within the confines of our own borders in the pursuit of liberty for all. It is a battle that has ushered in wave after wave of generational change and progress. A continuos tide moving towards the inclusion of all of those who the promise of liberty was shallow when that declaration was signed.
When faced with seemingly insurmountable forces of the status quo and obstruction, leaders of this movement have stayed steadfast on their path, unyielding to the hindrance of the moment. They have taken comfort in the knowledge that the path on which they walk has been paved by the progress of those who walked there before. Inspired by the sobering sacrifices their predecessors made, they have carried on undiminished in their resolve.
Liberty was the driving force of abolitionists who risked persecution and death in order to assist slaves on their journey towards freedom along the Underground Railroad. Liberty for all was the rally cry of such Americans as Lincoln, Douglass, Garrison, Tubman, and Stowe, who’s literary works implored America that the time had come for everyone to enjoy the same freedoms. They spoke for those who could not speak for themselves, giving voice to the injustice, abuse, and dehumanization slaves had endured. They were the leading voices of their generation. A group of leaders who joined moral argument with social and political activism in the pursuit of liberty for the disadvantaged.
These were the people who provided inspiration to leaders who carried forth the cause into the next century. The continuous pursuit of liberty for all would eventually culminate in the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century. The fight for the liberty of slaves would eventually evolve into a wider societal struggle. One that was waged for all groups whose diminished liberty was a stain on the fabric of America’s core values. The wider struggle would expand and encompass groups ranging from homosexuals, to women, and to workers as well.
It was within the ever expanding fight for liberty and civil rights that straight men would someday fight so that openly gay men could freely serve. For the liberty of women Seneca convened and Susan, Elizabeth, and Lucy refused to be silenced. For the liberty of worker’s unions formed and Cesar starved. For the liberty of African-Americans Martin dreamed, preached, and eventually died, Rosa refused to give up her seat and was arrested, citizens boycotted buses, students sat when they were told to stand, and for liberty Selma marched to Montgomery.
After nearly two centuries, the painful, unacceptably slow, and arduous progress of liberty as promised by the Declaration of Independence and affirmed by the U.S. Constitution would finally accelerate. The country could wait no longer. For the toll of refusing to change had costed too many lives, broken too many dreams, and severely damaged America’s image as the land of the free. It was only through exhaustive effort, sheer determination, personal sacrifice, and unimaginable courage that a century and a half of leaders finally delivered liberty for most disenfranchised and disaffected groups within America. In the face of the status quo, police brutality, murder, raging dogs, fire hoses, intimidation, discrimination, segregation, disenfranchisement and false recrimination, expanded liberty would ultimately prevail.
In 1919 women were finally given the liberty to vote. Forty-five years later the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and provided new protections for the liberties of numerous groups of citizens. On January 23, 2015, Alabama became the 37th state to end restrictions on same-sex marriages. In June of this year the Supreme Court may bring a final and definitive end to the debates about whether homosexual individuals shall be granted the legal liberty to marry one another. While the struggle for liberty may never be fully won, America has come so far.
The river of liberty that flows through our states is long, winding, and painstakingly slow at times but it nonetheless continuously flows towards a more free and just destination. It is reality that the struggle for truly universal liberty will continue as long as our society refuses to accept that we are all equal and therefore entitled to the same freedoms, but much progress has been made. We are better for the fights that have been waged in the name of Liberty and will continue to defend it at all costs. Be the threats foreign or domestic, American liberty shall never perish from this Earth. Of this we must ensure for liberty is not guaranteed to endure.
However long the journey ahead may be, we must fight to ensure that at the very minimum the same liberties we have been afforded will be passed on to our children. As Americans that is our most important civic responsibility and we should not take it lightly nor shy away from it. It is essential for us all to realize what liberties we have and what the cost of those liberties has been. We must reflect and analyze what our lives might be like in the absence of liberty.
We are a nation defined by what we can do, not by what we cannot, by liberty and not tyranny. Our destiny is not defined for us, but instead is shaped by us. In this country our votes are cast and counted by us, not for us. We are free to express ourselves through speech, and press, through religion, assembly and yes, petition too. We may bear guns if we choose, refuse troops from entering our homes, and we do not worry about being searched without just cause. We are believed to be innocent until proven otherwise, afforded a lawyer should we not be able to afford one, tried by a jury of our peers if needed, and should we be found guilty we will not be subjected to punishment that is cruel or unusual.
If we fail to cherish these rights and do not continuously reaffirm these liberties we may ultimately fail in convincing future generations to carry on and protect that most precious gift of liberty. If we do fail in doing so, may we be judged as harshly by future generations as those who stood in the way of past progress. For in failure we will have negligently forfeited what our ancestors valiantly fought and died for. We cannot be complacent, we cannot lose sight of what liberty means to America.
Each and every American owes those brave generations who came before an invaluable debt of gratitude for giving us the freedom to live the lives we want to live. It is a debt that can never be fully repaid but is best honored by never forgetting what was sacrificed in the pursuit of liberty and a more perfect union. The only way to truly honor those generations who delivered to us a higher degree of liberty than any generation before is to never take for granted the freedoms we enjoy. Everyday each of us enjoy freedoms that someone paid the ultimate sacrifice for and it is right to give thanks for that.
In those waking moments, when the glare of my phone reaches my gaze, I cast my eyes lower waiting for them to adjust, and it as that moment I see the word “Liberty” tattooed on my wrist. It is a constant reminder to help ensure that I will never forget and never fail to give thanks for all of those who came before and paved the liberated paths on which we now walk.
The liberties we enjoy as Americans are the type of liberties that people from Tiananmen to Damascus would give, and have given, their lives in pursuit of. We cannot ever forget this. On July 4, 2012, two-hundred thirty-six years after those fifty-six brave and revolutionary men put ink to parchment and made that most consecrated of pledges by signing the Declaration of Independence and proclaiming that most fundamental and self-evident truth that all people are born with an unalienable right to liberty, a tattoo artist put ink to my skin so that I would never forget or take for granted that most sacred gift of liberty.