Peggy Garner had a deeper and different understanding of liberty than Patrick Henry—he who famously shouted “Give me liberty or give me death.” Peggy Garner had no liberty. She was a slave.
Patrick Henry detested taxation—without representation—by a distant British Parliament. Peggy Garner paid no taxes and had no liberty. Imprisoned on a plantation and a black female, she had perhaps the least liberty of all.
But when Peggy Garner escaped across a frozen river to Ohio—with her four children—perhaps she faintly heard Patrick Henry when hunted down by slave catchers. “Give me liberty or give me death?” Peggy chose death, wanting to kill her children and herself rather than be returned to slavery. She had killed just one child, slitting her throat, before being restrained.
Opposites help define each other, much as the meaning of light resides in total darkness. Peggy Garner’s act of desperation tells us what liberty means in a deeper and different way than even Jefferson’s majestic claim that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
We get a deeper sense of the gradual, grinding progression of actualizing Jefferson’s bold claim for all Americans when two centuries elapsed between a colonial editor’s shutting down his paper rather than pay the Stamp Act tax of 1764 and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s soaring words on the national mall in 1963. “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
And while black females were perhaps last in line for liberty—and white males, particularly wealthy ones, first in line—our liberty largely started with wealthy white males claiming those rights and then, with commoner whites and free blacks and some courageous women, fighting with guns, guts, and French help to secure freedom from British rule.
Two people illustrate the gradual “trickle down” progression of liberty over the next several centuries. David Acheson immigrated to America from northern Ireland in 1788 with the clothes on his back and a letter of introduction from his minister. Nine years later he was a successful banker, businessman, and politician who was invited to dine with President George Washington. The vast expanse of our new country—soon from sea to shining sea—opened up opportunities for those with ambition and talent to pursue their dreams, the “American dream.”
No one really wanted war. But Lincoln knew it was coming, perhaps unavoidable due to historical circumstance and economic pressures. Julia Ward Howe awakened around dawn at her Washington hotel and peered out the window. Having watched Union troops parade the day before, new words came to her for the rhythmic music of “John Brown’s Body.”
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on.”
David Acheson’s grandson of like name marched to those stirring words on his way to Gettysburg. He fell in battle a few hours later, giving his life that others might be free to live theirs more fully. His blood sacrifice and that of thousands more fulfilled the last verse of The Battle Hymn of the Republic—“As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”
Julia Ward Howe fought for women’s rights and emancipation from a paternalistic culture—her own husband was something of a tyrant—for the next fifty years, being a fighting feminist before the phrase existed. Deep in her heart, she knew that one eternal truth that was marching on was that none of us are truly free until we all are free—free to fully develop our God-given talents as both an act of self-fulfillment and a contribution to our national welfare.
For, as Peggy Garner, David Acheson, Julia Ward Howe, and many others knew, the freedom we celebrate on the Fourth of July must be for all people and for as long as we are willing to sacrifice blood and treasure to preserve it. God bless America and let us not let our liberty slip away. Many paid a high price for us to have it.
James F. Burns, a native Ohioan, is a retired professor at the University of Florida.