What would Patrick Henry say to coronavirus restrictions?
I live in the city where Patrick Henry gave his fiery speech demanding freedom from the tyrannical King George III: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” he posited. “Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Richmond, Virginia, is a bastion of revolutionary spirit. St. John’s Church presents regular reenactments of the 1775 Virginia Convention, where the gentry discussed Virginia’s proper response to the British monarchy.
“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience,” Patrick Henry told his fellow Virginians. “I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves?”
The reality of British rule
I appreciate that this gentleman lawyer from Hanover County was basing his judgments on the facts. The British offered no hope, he pointed out, merely more aggression. At St. John’s Church, he turned his listeners’ attention to the British troops that were mobilizing throughout the colonies. “Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love?” he asked. “Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us.”
This Virginian showcased the spirit upon which the United States of America was founded. “It is not now easy to say what we should have done without Patrick Henry,” Thomas Jefferson later wrote. “He was before us all in maintaining the spirit of the Revolution.”
Which brings to mind the 2020 question: what do the principles of liberty and freedom have to say about wearing masks?
The realities in 1775
When Patrick Henry spoke at St. John’s Church, King George III had not responded kindly to the colonists’ requests for fair taxes, representation in Parliament, or recognition of their rights as British subjects. Instead, the British monarchy was all in for controlling the colonies.
In 1774, Patrick Henry and other colonial leaders at the Continental Congress had issued a declaration of the rights due to every citizen, including life, liberty, and property, trial by a jury of their peers, and right to assemble. These were among the rights that the crown had been regularly violating. Instead of honoring the Americans’ demands, the monarch was preparing forces to combat their rebellion. Indeed, American blood had already been shed and lives taken by British troops.
Patrick Henry and other patriots had had enough. “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Personal liberty in 2020
In 2020, face masks have become a symbol of individual rights and personal liberty. “The right to bodily integrity and autonomy is the most fundamental of all human rights — and these tyrannical politicians have infringed upon it,” one reader of Tampa Bay Times wrote in a letter to the editor regarding mask mandates.
Are the realities of the coronavirus and the individual rights of modern-day Americans at odds? Four “revolutionary” philosophers addressed principles that relate to wearing masks.
- Enlightenment philosopher John Locke provided one of the greatest inspirations for America’s founders. Locke wrote: “Reason … teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” [Italics added.]
- Adam Smith, another Enlightenment thinker, inspired advocates of limited government and is called the Father of Capitalism. Smith said, “He is certainly not a good citizen who does not wish to promote, by every means in his power, the welfare of the whole of society of his fellow-citizens. [Italics added.]
- Several centuries later came another major proponent for individual rights and limited government, Ayn Rand. “Thus, for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive — of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice,” said Rand. “As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.” [Italics added.]
- And perhaps the most important quote of all, from Jesus Christ: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” [New International Version]
Health experts have told us that masks prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which travels from one person to another through the air. They noted early on that masks keep an infected person — including those who don’t realize they are infected — from spreading the virus to others.
People who don’t wear masks are exercising their freedom to live their own lives. But their decisions can impact others: the store clerk they interact with; the clerk’s 75-year-old father who lives under the same roof; an immunocompromised child or adult; a teacher, nursing home worker, or physician.
The impact of infection includes minor illness, miserable illness, long-term health effects, and death — which has struck more than 250,000 Americans.
The impact of coronavirus spread also includes economic fallout, especially for small businesses. The more quickly we get the pandemic under control, the more quickly businesses can recover. The more quickly businesses recover, the more requickly lower- and middle-income Americans climb out of financial insecurity and distress.
When Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty, or give me death,” he was proclaiming his willingness to sacrifice his own life for the cause of freedom.
Whether or not a local, state, or federal mandate instructs us to wear masks, moral and ethical responsibility mandates that we should. Our liberty as free Americans equals our responsibilities as human beings.