Lessons in Liberty from Laura Ingalls Wilder
June 28, 2012
America is a nation obsessed with its founders. Histories of the Revolution and biographies of its leaders have been consistent bestsellers for decades; a few years ago, HBO’s miniseries on the life of John Adams was an unlikely pop-culture craze. The most relevant form of this founder-worship is surely the Tea Party: From Gadsden-flag bumper stickers to lawmakers’ frequent homages to the founding era, the movement has rekindled in some corners of our politics a devotion to the Constitution and its framers.
This popular enthusiasm for the revolutionary era is surely salutary. The men who forged our nation exhibited extraordinary courage and a genius that has stood the test of time; their accomplishments are worthy of remembrance and honor. Yet there is a risk in our veneration of the founders as well: They are the easy Americans to love, having thrown off the yoke of a detested oppressor and insisted on the promise of liberty. And at a moment when our own government seems to overstep its proper bounds, we have come to think that our time demands the type of response theirs did — and so look to the revolutionary model to guide our actions today.
But the task before today’s Americans is not to launch a new order. We are called, rather, to live out the liberty the founders made possible for us. The challenge of self-government, after all, is a long-term one: Simply to shake off tyranny — be it hard or soft — is not enough. As Edmund Burke noted in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, “The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations which may be soon turned into complaints.” In other words, attaining — or reclaiming — freedom is only the beginning of the story. The founders themselves understood as much; Benjamin Franklin famously told a woman who asked what type of government had been settled upon at the Constitutional Convention, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.” The essence of our freedom, then, is the task of maintaining it — exercising liberty constructively, responsibly, in order to preserve it for ourselves and our heirs.
This is a much more subtle and difficult challenge. Success in this endeavor doesn’t involve spectacular gestures like throwing tea into Boston Harbor or signing a Declaration. It isn’t marked by a clear beginning and end. And it isn’t carried out by a small band of extraordinary heroes whose antics are well-sung. Rather, it happens, for the most part, invisibly, almost unconsciously — in the quiet patterns of the everyday lives of free, self-governing people.
In America, the essential ingredient for preserving and living out our freedom has been self-reliance — the heart and soul of self-government. Critics since the ancient Greek philosophers have warned of democracy’s tendency to enable the many to take from the few and, in the process, to undermine citizens’ capacities for virtuous independence. Throughout our history, however, Americans have insisted that our peculiar spirit of self-reliance would counteract that tendency, and so make possible a virtuous republic. The maintenance of our liberty has therefore rested on each citizen’s striving to provide for himself and his family through his own labor; at the same time, it has rested on citizens’ coming together to provide directly, and of their own initiative, for common needs and wants. In our society rooted in the promise of self-government, the endurance of freedom depends on each citizen’s deep desire to avoid being beholden to, reliant on, and thus reigned over by others.
Unfortunately, in America today, self-reliance is in short supply. The staggering statistics on government expenditures and welfare-stateredistribution offer powerful evidence of this fact, as does the scale of dependence on public support. More than 50 million Americans receive Medicaid benefits, 48.7 million are on Medicare, more than 50 million are on Social Security, and 45 million receive food stamps or other nutrition benefits. In 2010, according to an analysis by USA Today, “[a] record 18.3% of the nation’s total personal income was a payment from the government for Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, unemployment benefits and other programs….Wages accounted for the lowest share of income — 51.0% — since the government began keeping track in 1929.” According to the Census Bureau, in the first quarter of 2011, 49.1% of the population lived in a household in which at least one member received some type of government benefit.
More subtle forms of dependency are no less damaging. Consider the implications of government’s growing entanglement in ever more numerous and important aspects of our lives — from the provision of food and shelter to higher-order concerns like finance, education, charity, and even leisure and culture. The result is an unhealthy shift in Americans’ attitudes toward the state: We have been cowed into thinking that reductions in government’s activity and scope would spell disaster, as no other agent — certainly not uncredentialed, unregulated individuals acting on their own initiative and relying on their own skills — could keep our economy and society humming along.
In the face of these trends, how can we recover the habits of self-reliance — or, at the very least, an appreciation for our ability as free people to survive and flourish without utter dependence on government and its associated agents? We can begin by borrowing a page from the millions of Americans obsessed with the founders, and seek to be instructed by models of lived liberty. After all, as the Tea Party has sagely realized, the heroes of the past whom we choose to elevate and imitate can shape our understanding of our own responsibilities, of our own strengths, and of our own place in history.
Who in America’s past, then, can show us the way to a mature, sustainable democratic life — one defined not by the rebellious seizure of liberty, but by the consistent and wise exercise of it through a dedication to self-reliance? The answer is the men and women who extended the freedoms articulated in Philadelphia and secured at Yorktown out to the Pacific Coast: the pioneers.
Their history has, sadly, been under-appreciated. This is due in part to the fact that the academy — which does most of the work of professional history — dismisses them as plunderers and marauders, despoilers of pristine environments and native civilizations. But it is also because the pioneers’ history is complicated, and does not lend itself to easy summary through the deeds of a few extraordinary figures. The history of the pioneers is, for the most part, the story of average people who pursued typical American desires: greater prosperity, breathing room, adventure, religious liberty. In fact, it is their very ordinariness that makes them such promising examples for today’s Americans seeking models of self-reliance and self-government.
Fortunately, there is one pioneer life that has been preserved in exhaustive detail — a life with which many Americans, though not enough, are already familiar. This life belongs not to someone known for authoring a governing document, achieving heroic feats on the battlefield, or amassing a staggering fortune. Rather, she is known and beloved precisely for giving Americans a sense of ordinary pioneer lives through the example of her own.
Through the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Americans have access to the history of the pioneers, and of one pioneer family in particular that exemplified the connection between self-reliance and the preservation of freedom. Were more Americans — especially the young audiences for whom the books were intended — to become familiar with Wilder’s works, and through them the example of the pioneers, the cultural effects would surely be beneficial. Much as the Tea Party renewed Americans’ appreciation of the freedoms that are our birthright, a historical-appreciation movement built around Wilder and her fellow pioneers could help Americans recover the habits of self-reliance that, in their waning, have put those freedoms in jeopardy…