Author: Timothy Sandefur
We spend a lot of time calling attention to injustices committed by governments all across this country—taking people’s property, depriving them of economic liberty, judging them by the color of their skin. Sometimes it can get you down about the state of things, and it doesn’t help that political rhetoric sometimes gets so heated that a stranger newly arrived in the United States might think our country teeters on the edge of civil war. So we are fortunate that with Thanksgiving, we have a moment to stop, put things in perspective, and count our blessings.
We are an unbelievably fortunate people. The great thing about knowing history is that it helps us keep things in perspective, and in the scope of human history, there has never been a people with as many advantages, material, intellectual, psychological, as we enjoy. Thanks to those who went before us, who struggled in ways we cannot even really imagine, we live today in the freest, most prosperous nation on earth—a nation where every one of us still has the right to stand up and speak his mind, where we can petition the government for a redress of grievances, where our lives, liberties, and right to pursue happiness are more secure than they have been in just about any other nation in human experience. Sometimes we bemoan how superficial modern life can be—but think for a moment how fortunate we are that Americans can afford to spend their time getting in a fuss about Dancing With The Stars! We live in a nation where the biggest health problem is not starvation, but obesity! Indeed, the United States has never suffered a famine, thanks to our almost unmatched economic freedom.
A century ago, in the early 1900s, there was approximately one lynching every other day in the southern states. A century and a half ago—a blink of an eye in historical terms—a large proportion of all Americans were enslaved. Segregation barred the doors of opportunity to black Americans only decades ago. The idea of a black man being president? Laughable. It was less than a century ago that women could not vote, could not hold many jobs, could only very rarely obtain higher education, or speak their minds on political issues. (Even the abolitionists, by far the most liberal group of their age, segregated themselves by sex.) Today’s Americans will—let us hope—never know what it is like to be legally segregated in this way. Today’s civil rights struggles, crucial and noble as they are, pale in comparison with what Frederick Douglass, Charles Sumner, William Lloyd Garrison, Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lydia Maria Child, and others faced.
And in other countries—where the smoke of World War II has still not quite settled; in nations still haunted by the hundreds of millions of ghosts of the victims of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and others…. Americans have experienced and committed horrific acts, of course—but nothing like that. Our forefathers laid down their lives to protect us from such fates. For that, we will all be endlessly grateful.
In his very last letter, Thomas Jefferson said that the general spread of the light of science had laid open to every eye the fact that the mass of man was not born with saddles upon their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them by the grace of God. Almost two centuries later, today’s Americans have, in general, unprecedented opportunities to obtain an education; to access the world’s great works of literature and art and music and science; to speak their minds on any subject and to be heard; to chase down their dreams and become what they want to be; to live their lives as they see fit—not as the servant of some king or dictator or race or “society as a whole”—but as an individual whose life is worthy for its own sake.
Notwithstanding the TSA’s patdown searches, we can go where we please, say what we please, write what we please, buy and sell and own and use what we please; do what we please; be what we please. Obviously, things are very far from ideal—much of what government does today violates the Constitution and is unjust. We will continue to fight against these things—it is right that we do so, for in so doing we honor the memory of those who went before and bequeathed to us the blessings of liberty. But it is also right that we pause a moment to reflect, and to experience the gratitude for those brave men, living and dead, who struggled that this nation of liberty would not perish, but rather that the countless possibilities of freedom might be open to all.
Let me end with the words of Frederick Douglass; he was speaking on a very different occasion, one that only highlights again why we should be so grateful.
[Your forefathers] loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited, it ought to command respect. He who will, intelligently, lay down his life for his country, is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.
They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final;” not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation…. How circumspect, exact and proportionate were all their movements! How unlike the politicians of an hour! Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future. They seized upon eternal principles, and set a glorious example in their defense. Mark them!