One of the most stirring records of a young person’s coming to understand the Declaration of Independence and the meaning of freedom as defined in the American experience comes from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town on the Prairie, from her series of children’s books based on her own childhood in the early days of the settlement of the prairie.
Laura and her sister Carrie hear the Declaration recited at the Fourth of July celebration in their prairie town. They knew it by heart, “of course,” we learn (“of course!). But now Laura has a sudden insight into the words as never before:
She thought: Americans won’t obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good. Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. This is what it means to be free. It means, you have to be good. “Our father’s God, author of liberty–” The laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.
“Our father’s God, author of liberty” is a line from “America,” by Samuel F. Smith, the patriotic hymn that begins “My country, ’tis of Thee,/Sweet Land of Liberty/Of thee I sing.”
I wonder if even a fraction of young people today possess such a deep understanding of freedom, or, on the other hand, would be able to give their own account of it, if they find they can’t agree with Laura’s God-centered interpretation.