The Roots of the Tree of Liberty in America

The Roots of the Tree of Liberty in America
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Watching fireworks on the Fourth of July is the traditional way to celebrate the great cause of freedom. Another important way is to look at the even more magnificent religious roots of our nation’s founding.

When Father Andrew White and company boarded the Ark and the Dove back in England in November 1633 on a voyage to establish the colony of Maryland, what they had in mind was freedom, not gold or conquest. They simply wanted the opportunity to live and practice their faith openly without constraint or domination, and to build a better life for themselves, their families. They didn’t envision this simply for Catholics, however. In fact Lord Baltimore, who founded the Maryland colony and who was Catholic, did so on the idea of freedom of conscience and religion for all.

Many other colonies were also originally established as “plantations of religion.” The Calvinist Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth, the Quakers who journeyed to Pennsylvania, the settlers who came to what became Rhode Island, and more – although they differed some in their particular tenets, all came to these lands seeking a place of refuge and new beginnings where they could live freely according to those religious beliefs.

Many would follow them to these shores, each attracted by the freedom of opportunity, action and belief offered in America. These intrepid pioneers believed, against the actual experience of much of human history, that the natural state of humanity as created by God was to be free.

“The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth [and] the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom,” wrote John Locke, who strongly influenced the founding fathers (Second Treatise on Civil Government, 22, 57 (1690)). Said John Adams, “Liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker” (Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765)). Thomas Jefferson concurred, asserting that our rights and freedom are not given to us at the beneficence of some worldly ruler, but rather, “God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time” (The Rights of British America (1774)).

It is remarkable how comfortable the founders were in recognizing God as an integral necessity for a free nation. In declaring us to be a free and independent nation, they affirmed that freedom is endowed to us by our Creator, expressing also their “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence” in securing our independence.

The founders uniformly agreed that freedom would be in grave danger if people were to live as if God did not exist or if God were to otherwise be excluded from the life of the nation. Asked Jefferson, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?” (Notes on the State of Virginia, XVIII). President George Washington attested as well in his Farewell Address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

When he first arrived here, the French philosopher and observer Alexis de Tocqueville was particularly struck by the religious aspect of America and by how, with its transcendent moral order, religion helped to lift up and preserve free society. “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society,” he wrote, “but nevertheless it must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it” (Democracy in America, vol. I, ch. 17 (1835)).

The conviction that we are by nature free, recognizing the sovereignty of God and his law in our personal and societal life, has long been a cornerstone of the American experience. “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,” declared Thomas Paine in arguing for independence (Common Sense). As Americans and as people of faith, this is our cause too, this is our calling: to bear witness to the freedom given us by God.

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