Friday, July 4, 2008

In honor of the day, an excerpt from Little Town on the Prairie

Laura Ingalls would have been about 14, so this would have been about 1881. On the Fourth of July, Pa, Laura and Carrie were in town for the celebration. Carrie was wishing they could buy some firecrackers, but Laura told her they couldn't afford them. A little while later, their father came to them with some firecrackers. When Carrie, delighted, asked how much they cost, he said, "Didn't cost me a cent. Lawyer Barnes handed them to me, said to give them to you girls." Laura had never heard of the man and asked why he should do them this favor. "Oh, he's going in for politics, I guess," Pa replied. "He acts that way, affable and agreeable to everybody."

A little while later, a man stands up on something and gives a jingoistic speech before reading the Declaration of Independence out loud. The book says, "Laura and Carrie knew the Declaration by heart, of course…." Carrie was about eleven. When I was eleven, the teachers made us memorize the first three sentences. We never read the whole thing in school, nor did we read any of the Constitution; most of us had a general idea of the Bill of Rights from television. It wasn't until I was an adult that I read the entire things through on my own. Oh, and by the way? The girls also knew long sections of the Bible by heart. This is a digression, but at this time, there were only two requirements for teachers: they had to pass a written exam, and they had to be at least sixteen. Laura Ingalls had her first teaching job at the age of 15 because no one thought to ask her age. And they produced children who knew important documents by heart and could diagram sentences. I challenge any of today's college-graduate teachers to pass the exam she passed at 15. I bet hardly any of them could. One of my high school English teachers had to look it up before settling a dispute between two students about whether the past tense of sneak is "sneaked" or "snuck". I swear on a Torah scroll that I am not making this up. And people wonder why I don't believe children learn anything in school.

Back on topic: after the reading, the crowd sings "My Country, 'Tis of Thee", and then:

The crowd was scattering away then, but Laura stood stock still. Suddenly she had a completely new thought. The Declaration and the song came together in her mind, and she thought: God is America's king.

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.

Can you imagine any American today seriously thinking that "no one" has a right to give them orders? Just today I've taken orders from the DMV, the FDA, the state legislators who decided how dark my car's windows can be tinted, and probably a pile of others to boot.

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