This column by Associate Professor of Journalism Amanda Sturgill was distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate and published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Burlington Times-News, the Greenville (N.C.) Daily Reflector and other media outlets.
By Amanda Sturgill
For our summer vacation this year, we got ready for Independence Day by visiting Thomas Jefferson’s home of Monticello and monuments in Washington, D.C. In both places, I was struck by the power of words so meaningful they were literally inscribed on the walls. The people being commemorated were known as great thinkers and communicators, and I think they still have a lot to say for Americans today.
The Fourth of July celebrations we have every year commemorate the passage of the Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson was key in writing. According to the instructions he left for his tombstone, it was one of his proudest achievements.
The first part of that declaration mentions rights everyone has: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Boy, have we been talking about liberty in America lately.
What does liberty mean to you?
You might say it’s the ability to do what you please. That quickly becomes a problem if you want to live around other people. My desire to drive without stopping conflicts with people wanting to cross the street.
Another definition might be the ability to decide what is best for you and yours, a definition I believe Jefferson had in mind in when he used the word in the declaration.
One of his 19,000 letters, written to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1800, is inscribed in the rotunda in his memorial in D.C.: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Liberty results when tyranny is overcome, and liberty of mind would be the freedom to learn for yourself and then make your own decisions.
Liberty’ sister word, liberal, comes from the same roots and can mean something that enables you to be free. In my world at the university, we talk about the liberal arts and sciences. They are fields of study that enable to you understand your world well enough to make good decisions for yourself.
Another Jefferson letter, this one to Richard Price in 1789, states that knowledge matters. “Whenever the people are well informed,” he wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”
As Americans, we are entrusted with our own government, but we have a problem we need to fix so that we can enjoy the benefits of liberty.
Another D.C. memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, is inscribed with the text of the Gettysburg Address, which ends “… we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain ~ that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom ~ and that government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
People is plural. The work of democracy is hard work that we share. It requires dialogue and negotiation. This work is impossible when we don’t all define the terms in the same way. If we talk about liberty, about racism, about the environment, about the right to bear arms, about patriotism or about any of the other thorny issues in the national debate, we can’t do so in good faith if we don’t seek to understand what people mean when they say those words.
One may think patriotism is agreeing with elected leaders. Another may think patriotism is questioning them. One may think systemic racism is having laws that discriminate, while another may think that it is the effects of being discriminated against, even if the discrimination isn’t any official policy.
Some public figures aren’t helping when they act in bad faith and stoke outrage, using words with multiple meanings to make you think one thing when they mean another. Confused, we rally behind labels, us vs. them, and we are unable to see that fundamentally, we agree more often than we do not.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
As you celebrate American independence, remember: We have the liberty to self-govern. We have the liberty to become informed on the issues of the day. That’s powerful stuff. As Jesus, numerous statesmen and Spider-Man have all noted, having power means having responsibility.
Simply asking “what do you mean when you say that?” can be a good place to start.
Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.