Lessons in Liberty From Laura Ingalls Wilder
America is a nation obsessed with its founders. Histories of the Revolution and biographies of its leaders have been consistent bestsellers for decades; a few years ago, HBO’s miniseries on the life of John Adams was an unlikely pop-culture craze. The most relevant form of this founder-worship is surely the Tea Party: From Gadsden-flag bumper stickers to lawmakers’ frequent homages to the founding era, the movement has rekindled in some corners of our politics a devotion to the Constitution and its framers.
This popular enthusiasm for the revolutionary era is surely salutary. The men who forged our nation exhibited extraordinary courage and a genius that has stood the test of time; their accomplishments are worthy of remembrance and honor. Yet there is a risk in our veneration of the founders as well: They are the easy Americans to love, having thrown off the yoke of a detested oppressor and insisted on the promise of liberty. And at a moment when our own government seems to overstep its proper bounds, we have come to think that our time demands the type of response theirs did — and so look to the revolutionary model to guide our actions today.
But the task before today’s Americans is not to launch a new order. We are called, rather, to live out the liberty the founders made possible for us. The challenge of self-government, after all, is a long-term one: Simply to shake off tyranny — be it hard or soft — is not enough. As Edmund Burke noted in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, “The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations which may be soon turned into complaints.” In other words, attaining — or reclaiming — freedom is only the beginning of the story. The founders themselves understood as much; Benjamin Franklin famously told a woman who asked what type of government had been settled upon at the Constitutional Convention, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.” The essence of our freedom, then, is the task of maintaining it — exercising liberty constructively, responsibly, in order to preserve it for ourselves and our heirs