July 4: 248 Years to be Grateful For

Of all the passages in my new novel Freedom’s Ghost, the one that readers have most often commented on is the scene in which an escaped slave is being offered his freedom and he recoils:

“My freedom ain’t yers to give,” he growls, “I have to earn it.”

It is a simple but profound sentiment, and one worth pondering as we celebrate the birth of our nation, the only one ever founded on freedom. In recent years, especially since the outbreak of protests after October 7, we have seen too many examples of those who take their freedom for granted, as if freedom were owed to them (and often as if their version of freedom empowered them to take it from others).

But their rights are not guaranteed simply by being present in America. Men and women with much more moral fiber and, I daresay, better knowledge of our country’s values and its value to the world, fought and died for those rights. Perhaps recent generations are too far removed from such struggles—today many never knew someone who fought in the great wars, let alone felt the
anguish of losing someone who died in the cause of liberty and democracy. Our affluence and shallow self-absorptions distance us from the challenges to liberty, and of liberty.

Freedom is not a jewel to be placed in some museum and admired from afar. It is a living thing, the prize possession of our country and its citizens. We need to take its responsibilities more personally. It is an affront to the noble freedom fighters of our past to assume we can simply let our military or government protect it. We will not value it if we do not nurture and defend it ourselves, in our personal niche of the country. It was why an escaped slave, despite being desperate for freedom, says it must be earned. It is why Franklin Roosevelt declared that “freedom cannot be bestowed, it much be achieved.”

Let us take time over this Fourth holiday to consider the special challenges that defending our freedoms, large and small, present these days, and give thanks to those who have protected them in the past. We should do more to deserve our ancestors.

Eliot Pattison