This past Fourth of July, the two hundred and twenty-fourth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, I had the happy occasion to observe from the western shore of Lake Champlain in upstate New York one of our county's great traditions — the small town Fourth of July parade. Actually, the parade I observed with my wife and our two young children was the joint effort of Essex and Willsboro, two towns on the Lake that are so small that they must collaborate on the parade, alternating every year between each town's small stretch of main street.
Watching such a parade, in a place so steeped in the history of the Revolutionary War, one cannot help but think of our forefathers' vision for America. Willsboro and Essex are just up the road from Fort Ticonderoga, for example, which lies on the point where the southern tip of Lake Champlain flows into the Hudson River. Fort Ticonderoga was captured from British forces by Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen in 1775, even before the Declaration of Independence was signed, the document which declared our freedom from Britain and by which the founders of this nation pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
Sacred honor was unfortunately not to be Benedict Arnold's legacy. Further down the Hudson River Benedict Arnold committed treason against the new American republic, attempting to turn over West Point to the British in 1780. His ship, the Spitfire, sunk near Schyler Island, in the middle of Lake Champlain within eyesight of Willsboro and Essex. What is it that turns a one-time patriot like Arnold to treason? How can we as a people foster the kind of virtue that gives us George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns instead of Benedict Arnolds?
These thoughts lingered in my mind as the Willsboro & Essex Independence Day parade passed by. The local high school band marched in the parade, of course, and the local politicians rode in vintage automobiles, waving to the assembled crowd of current and future voters. The ladies guild of one of the local churches rode by on a hay wagon, singing "God Bless America," probably an infringement of the First Amendment's proscription against the establishment of religion, as that provision of the Constitution has been misinterpreted in recent years. The fire and police departments rolled out their equipment, from the most modern hook and ladder to the positively ancient, 19th century horse-drawn fire truck. And the local Boy Scout troop and Cub Scout pack were also there, marching in uniforms laden with merit badges, testament to the boys' work learning the skills of camping, hiking, and fishing, and learning as well the craft of citizenship.
As the parade wound its way down Essex's Main Street, the town seemed oblivious to the hue and cry that had been raised just the week before over the Supreme Court's decision recognizing that the Boy Scouts had a constitutionally-protected right to exclude an avowed homosexual activist from its ranks as an adult scoutmaster. But the town may not be able to avoid the controversy for long. Already litigation is underway elsewhere in the country that would cut off public support for that venerable institution. In Essex, the Fish & Game Department sponsors the local Cub Scout pack, and although the Methodist Church sponsors the local Boy Scout troop, the troop often meets in the town hall or the old fire hall — public buildings. The Boy Scouts' liberty to define its membership and to foster the moral views it holds will undoubtedly remain under attack, therefore, despite the recent Supreme Court ruling.
Another kind of liberty was also evident that weekend on Lake Champlain. On the opposite shore of the Lake from Willsboro and Essex lies Vermont, which on July 1 became the first state in the country legally to recognize same-sex unions. Supporters of the Vermont law claim that the law recognizes and protects the same right to choose one's sexual partner that has long been available to heterosexual couples, and therefore advances the cause of liberty. Many of the most ardent supporters of the Vermont law, however, would at the same time restrict the liberty of the Boy Scouts to choose its own leaders and to define its own membership, siding instead with the liberty of a gay scoutmaster to define his own sexual morality.
What would the American founders have thought about these very different visions of liberty? It seems fairly clear that would have applauded the efforts by groups such as the Boy Scouts to foster moral virtue in the next generation of citizens, but would not have countenanced the unbounded liberty that underlies the Vermont law. In his First Annual Message to Congress in 1790, for example, President George Washington urged the Congress to foster knowledge among the citizenry because knowledge contributes to the security of a free constitution by teaching people "to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness — cherishing the first, avoiding the last."
Samuel West, a leading spokesmen for the cause of freedom in Massachusetts, more fully elaborated on the theme in a sermon before the Massachusetts legislature in 1776. "The most perfect freedom consists in obeying the dictates of right reason, and submitting to natural law," he said. "When a man goes beyond or contrary to the law of nature and reason, he becomes the slave of base passions and vile lusts; he introduces confusion and disorder into society, and brings misery and destruction upon himself." For West and other members of the founding generation, liberty was not the same thing as licentiousness. "Where licentiousness begins, liberty ends," concluded West.
The remarks of President Washington, Samuel West, and others of the founding era are available on the internet at founding.com. A reflection on their understanding of liberty should be as much a part of the Fourth of July as parades and fireworks.