Memorial Day: for the Love of Liberty

This was originally posted on Memorial Day 2006.

As writer Andrew Stevenson observed in 1913, "Life, in its gradual, relentless passing, compels us from time to time to revise our notions of truth, our standards of beauty, our whole scale of values." Perhaps anyone of any age can relate to the fact that what moves us at age 8 is not often what moves us at age 18 or 80. Memorial Day is often one of those events that spark this valuable inward analysis.

If it does nothing else, Memorial Day causes us to consider what has inspired Americans to leave their homes and families for nearly 230 years to fight our nation’s enemies and why we so cherish those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

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The self-interested among us may simply say that we value those who serve because they protect us and those we love. But most Americans, we can hope, take their inward analysis to a deeper level. In looking beyond the immediate, they see that when America was formed as a nation, it was not for safety and protection — England was the most powerful nation on earth — but for a way of life, for a love of liberty.

This love of liberty, of course, is the stated theme of our founding documents. It binds the Michigander with our American brethren from Alabama to Wyoming. This principle was so essential to Patrick Henry — whose birthday coincides with Memorial Day this year — that he declared, "Give me liberty or give me death." It was also the driving force moving the skirmishers at Lexington, the artillery at Bunker Hill and thousands of other battles where brave Americans have fought and died for an idea. So, as we pause to reflect on Memorial Day, we must ask ourselves, What is so special about liberty?

Is the value of liberty in its demonstrated ability to generate wealth and societal advancement through the principles of a free economy and individual responsibility? Is the allure of liberty found in the happiness of man, most adequately expressed in the freedom to make choices regarding one’s life? Does its supremacy lie in the observation that its absence is tyranny? Or is it to be found in the spiritual realm, where liberty sets the framework wherein humanity can rise to new levels of awareness and action?

Liberty’s power and appeal can be found in all these things. This is why the reference in the Declaration of Independence to humanity’s "right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" resounds like a Bach masterpiece. This is why for thousands of years people have read with interest the book of Leviticus’ call, "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." It is also the reason why men like Patrick Henry and scores of American patriots can say, "Give me liberty or give me death," and why we today remember the hundreds of thousands who have put their lives behind their beliefs.

I am sure that those who serve in our armed forces could have chosen — and been wildly more successful from a worldly perspective — to be employed in other endeavors. Indeed, a more conventional career would most certainly have been better for their health and welfare. But thank God they did not.

The fight for liberty is as old as mankind. But when we pause to consider the history of America, what lies at its root and what is at stake, we will find much more motivation for memorializing those who have fallen than our own personal peace and prosperity. We instead find hope for a world that again and again must beat back the forces of tyranny. For this we can be truly thankful to those who paid for our liberty with their lives.


Thomas W. Washburne was director of labor policy from 2005 to 2007 at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.