Written by William Faulkner
Years ago our fathers founded this nation on the premise of the rights of man. As they expressed it, "the inalienable right of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
In those days they knew what those words meant, not only the ones who expressed them, but the ones who heard and believed and accepted and subscribed to them. Because until that time, men did not always have those rights. At least, until that time, no nation had ever been founded on the idea that those rights were possible, let alone inalienable. So not only the ones who said the words, but the ones who merely heard them, knew what they meant. Which was this: "Life and liberty in which to pursue happiness. Life free and secure from oppression and tyranny, in which all men would have the liberty to pursue happiness."
And both of them knew what they meant by "pursue." They did not mean just to chase happiness, but to work for it. And they both knew what they meant by "happiness" too: not just pleasure, idleness, but peace, dignity, independence and self-respect; that man's inalienable right was the peace and freedom in which, by his own efforts and sweat, he could gain dignity and independence, owing nothing to any man.
We knew what the words meant then, because we didn't have these things. And, since we didn't have them, we knew their worth. We knew that they were worth suffering and enduring and, if necessary, even dying to gain and preserve. We were willing to accept even the risk of death for them, since even if we lost them ourselves in relinquishing life to preserve them, we would still be able to bequeath them intact and inalienable to our children.
Which is exactly what we did, in those old days. We left our homes, the land and graves of our fathers and all familiar things. We voluntarily gave up, turned our backs on, a security which we already had and which we could have continued to have, as long as we were willing to pay the price for it, which price was our freedom - of liberty of thought and independence of action and the right of responsibility. That is, by remaining in the old world, we could have been not only secure, but even free of the need to be responsible. Instead, we chose the freedom, the liberty, the independence and the inalienable right to responsibility.
Almost without charts, in frail wooden ships with nothing but sails and our desire and will to be free to move them, we crossed an ocean which did not even match the charts we did have; we conquered a wilderness in order to establish a place, not to be secure in because we did not want that, we had just repudiated that, just crossed three thousand miles of dark and unknown sea to get away from that; but a place to be free in, to be independent in, to be responsible in.
And we did it. Even while we were still battling the wilderness with one hand, with the other we fended and beat off the power which would have followed us even into the wilderness we had conquered, to compel and hold us to the old way. But we did it. We founded a land, and founded in it not just our right to be free and independent and responsible, but the inalienable duty of man to be free and independent and responsible. What I am talking about is responsibility. Not just the right but the duty of man to be responsible, the necessity of man to be responsible if he wishes to remain free; not just responsible to and for his fellow man, but to himself; the duty of a man, the individual, each individual, every individual, to be responsible for the consequences of his own acts, to pay his own score, owing nothing to any man.
We knew it once, had it once. Because why? Because we wanted it above all else, we fought for it, endured, suffered, died when necessary, but gained it, established it, to endure for us and then to be bequeathed to our children.
Only, something happened to us. The children inherited. A new generation came along, a new era, a new age, a new century. The times were easier; the life and future of our nation as a nation no longer hung in balance; another generation, and we no longer had enemies, not because we were strong in our youth and vigor, but because the old tired rest of earth recognized that here was a nation founded on the principle of individual man's responsibility as individual man.
But we still remembered responsibility, even though, with easier times, we didn't need to keep the responsibility quite so active, or at least not so constantly so. Besides, it was not only our heritage, it was too recent yet for us to forget it, the graves were still green of them who had bequeathed it to us, and even of them who had died in order that it might be bequeathed. So we still remembered it, even if a good deal of the remembering was just lip-service.
Then more generations; we covered at last the whole face of the western earth; the whole sky of the western hemisphere was one loud American affirmation, one vast Yes; we were the whole world's golden envy; never had the amazed sun itself seen such a land of opportunity in which all a man needed were two legs to move to a new place on, and two hands to grasp and hold with, in order to amass to himself enough material substance to last him the rest of his days and, who knew? Even something over for his and his wife's children.
And still he paid lip-service to the old words "freedom" and "liberty" and "independence"; the sky still rang and ululated with the thunderous affirmation, the golden Yes. Because the words in the old premise were still true, for the reason that he still believed they were true. Because he did not realize yet that when he said "security," he meant security for himself, for the rest of his days, with perhaps a little over for his children; not for the children and the children's children of all men who believed in liberty and freedom and independence, as the old fathers in the old strong, dangerous times had meant it.
Because somewhere, at some moment, something had happened to him, to us, to all the descendants of the old tough, durable, uncompromising men, so that now, in 1952, when we talk of security, we don't even mean for the rest of our own lives, let alone that of our and our wife's children, but only for so long as we ourselves can hold our individual place on a public relief roll or at a bureaucratic or political or any other organization's gravy trough. Because somewhere, at some point, we had lost or forgot or voluntarily rid ourselves of that one other thing, lacking which, freedom and liberty and independence cannot even exist.
That thing is the responsibility, not only the desire and the will to be responsible, but the remembrance from the old fathers of the need to be responsible. Either we lost it, forgot it, or we deliberately discarded it. Either we decided that freedom was not worth the responsibility of being free, or we forgot that, to be free, a man must assume and maintain and defend his right to be responsible for his freedom.
Maybe we were even robbed of responsibility, since for years now the very air itself - radio, newspapers, pamphlets, tracts, the voices of politicians - has been loud with talk about the rights of man - not the duties and obligations and responsibilities of man, but only the "rights" of man; so loud and so constant that apparently we have come to accept the sounds at their own evaluation, and to believe too that man has nothing else but rights: not the right to independence and freedom in which to work and endure in his own sweat in order to earn for himself what the old ancestors meant by happiness and the pursuit of it, but only the chance to swap his freedom and independence for the privilege of being free of the responsibilities of independence; the right not to earn, but to be given, until at last, by simple compound usage, we have made respectable and even elevated to a national system, that which the old tough fathers would have scorned and condemned: charity.
In any case, we no longer have responsibility. And if we were robbed of it by such as this which now seems to have taken over responsibility, it was because we were vulnerable to that kind of ravishment; if we simply lost or forgot responsibility, then we too are to be scorned. But if we deliberately discarded it, then we have condemned ourselves, because I believe that in time, maybe not too long a time, we will discover that, as was said about one of Napoleon's acts, what we have committed is worse than a crime: it was a mistake.
Two hundred years ago, the Irish statesman, John Curran, said, "God hath vouchsafed man liberty only on condition of eternal vigilance; which condition if he break it, servitude is the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt." That was only two hundred years ago.
Our own old New England and Virginia and Carolina fathers knew that three hundred years ago, which was why they came here and founded this country. And I decline to believe that we, their descendants, have really forgotten it. I prefer to believe rather that it is because the enemy of our freedom now has changed his shirt, his coat, his face.
He no longer threatens us from across an international boundary, let alone across an ocean. He faces us now from beneath the eagle-perched domes of our capitals and from behind the alphabetical splatters on the doors of welfare and other bureaus of economic or industrial regimentation, dressed not in martial brass but in the habiliments of what the enemy himself has taught us to call peace and progress, a civilization and plenty where we never before had it as good, let alone better. His artillery is a debased and respectless currency which has emasculated the initiative for independence by robbing initiative of the only mutual scale it knew to measure independence by.
The economists and sociologists say that the reason for this condition is too many people. I don't know about that, myself, since in my opinion I am even a worse sociologist and economist than a farmer. But even if I were a sociologist or economist, I would decline to believe this. Because to believe this, that man's crime against his freedom is that there are too many of him, is to believe that man's sufferance on the face of the earth is threatened, not by his environment, but by himself: that he cannot hope to cope with his environment and its evils, because he cannot even cope with his own mass.
Which is exactly what those who misuse and betray the mass of him for their own aggrandizement and power and tenure of office, believe: that man is incapable of responsibility and freedom, of fidelity and endurance and courage, that he not only cannot choose good from evil, he cannot even distinguish it, let alone practice the choice. And to believe that, you have already written off the hope of man, as they who have reft him of his inalienable right to be responsible have done, and you might as well quit now and let man stew on in peace in his own recordless and oblivious juice, to his deserved and ungrieved doom.
I, for one, decline to believe this. I decline to believe that the only true heirs of Boone and Franklin and George and Booker T. Washington and Lincoln and Jefferson and Adams and John Henry and John Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed and Lee and Crockett and Hale and Helen Keller, are the ones denying and protesting in the newspaper headlines over mink coats and oil tankers and Federal indictments for corruption in public office. I believe that the true heirs of the old tough, durable fathers are still capable of responsibility and self-respect, if only they can remember them again.
What we need is not fewer people, but more room between them, where those who would stand on their own feet, could, and those who won't, might have to. Then the welfare, the relief, the compensation, instead of being nationally sponsored cash prizes for idleness and ineptitude, could go where the old independent uncompromising fathers themselves would have intended it and blessed it.
William Faulkner (1897-1962) was the third American to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. This was in 1949 and came after many years of novel writing, beginning with "The Marble Faun" in 1924. Most of Faulkner's works are set in his native state of Mississippi. He is considered one of the most important Southern writers along with Mark Twain, Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams. See William Faulkner's article archives. Comment on the blog.
This article was originally published as "The Duty to be Free" in The Freeman, January 26, 1953.