- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2000

Despite everything, there has been astonishing progress for liberty. As we approach our July Fourth celebration, we should give thanks not just to America's Founders but to all who struggled mightily for liberty, because it has been a very long journey.

Imagine, for a moment, what life was like a couple thousand years ago when nobody heard of individual rights. There was slavery throughout the ancient world. Freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of movement and freedom of trade were utterly unknown. In Rome, the most powerful politicians routinely murdered their opponents.

Much of the progress since then has occurred as resourceful, courageous individuals discovered the essentials of a free society, educated people and put ideas into action. These individuals came from the most unlikely places, the most humble circumstances. In my book, "The Triumph of Liberty," I chronicled the contributions of several, seemingly ordinary people, including two former slaves, an engineering draftsman, a onetime brewer, a hobo and dozens of others. They made themselves into writers, editors, educators and political leaders.

During the early 1500s, for example, the impoverished monk Desiderius Erasmus (1469?-1536) became the first great champion of toleration and peace. He persisted in denouncing the warmaking rulers of his day, although the pope ordered Catholics not to read Erasmus' writings, which were publicly burned. Americans did more than anyone else to fulfill his vision. As historian Paul Johnson wrote, "For the first time since the Dark Ages, a society came into existence in which institutional Christianity was associated with progress and freedom, rather than against them. The United States was Erasmian in its tolerance, Erasmian in its anti-doctrinal animus, above all Erasmian in its desire to explore, within a Christian context, the uttermost limits of human possibilities."

Like nobody before, Thomas Paine (1737-1809) stirred ordinary people to defend their liberty. He wrote the three top-selling literary works of the 18th century, which inspired the American Revolution, issued a historic battle cry for individual rights, and challenged the corrupt power of government churches. "Thomas Paine's 'Common Sense,' " reflected Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn, "is the most brilliant pamphlet written during the American Revolution, and one of the most brilliant pamphlets ever written in the English language. How it could have been produced by a bankrupt Quaker corset-maker, the sometime teacher, preacher and grocer and twice-dismissed excise officer who happened to catch Benjamin Franklin's attention in England and who arrived in America only 14 months before 'Common Sense' was published is nothing one can explain without explaining genius itself."

And what did we do to deserve Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)? Despite all his faults, in particular his failure to liberate many of his slaves, he expressed principles of natural rights with unsurpassed eloquence. He drafted more reports, resolutions, legislation and related official documents than any other Founding Father, and he offered sophisticated insights about liberty while corresponding with the greatest thinkers of his era. He helped inspire the movement to abolish American slavery and the movement to achieve equal rights for women.

Among his intellectual heirs was William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), whose father was a hard-drinking, out-of-work sea captain. Mr. Garrison never had much money, but from a tiny Boston office, which had room only for a desk, a table, two chairs and a mattress, he started the Liberator. He made it the most influential antislavery newspaper in the country, and its three decade publishing run only ended when the slaves were free. The Liberator "sent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as I had never felt before," recalled Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave turned advocate.

Another of Jefferson's intellectual heirs was Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), an English woman who was overwhelmed with tragedies. When she was a teen-ager, her mother died, and she assumed primary responsibility for the care of her alcoholic father. She twice tried to start a school, failing both times. She was "without a job or a reference; she had nothing to live on, and she was in debt to several people. She had no marriage prospects," reported biographer Claire Tomalin. Yet in 1793 she wrote "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman," which affirmed the principles of natural rights for women, including the right to own and inherit property, to enter into contracts and to share the custody of children. To help secure these rights, Miss Wollstonecraft demanded the right to vote. Her writings inspired New York housewife Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1820-1902) to launch the movement for women's suffrage, and with Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), Mrs. Stanton carried on for a half-century.

The German playwright Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) also contributed to freedom, and he did his best work while suffering from severe asthma, tuberculosis, liver and heart disease. The last nine years of his life, when he was practically an invalid, were his most productive. He wrote one play about liberating the Swiss ("Wilhelm Tell"), another about liberating the Dutch ("Don Carlos") and yet another about liberating the French ("The Maid of Orleans"). Mr. Schiller's plays were banned by both Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, and in 1946 the defeat of the Nazis was celebrated by 26 theatrical companies performing Schiller throughout Germany. "It is not easy to stop," wrote Thomas Mann, "once I have begun to speak of Schiller's special greatness: a generous, lofty, flaming, inspiring grandeur, Schiller's mighty talent, his libertarian sentiments. He is a poet who knows how to bring tears to our eyes while at the same time rousing us to indignation against despotism."

Then there is the restless Swede who couldn't find a place in his family's banking business. He tried his hand as an architect, but all his proposed plans for buildings were rejected. He hoped to make money as an importer of cheap Japanese zippers, but they didn't sell. He got involved with an invention called "Quick Cork" that supposedly could be extracted from a wine bottle without a corkscrew and it fizzled. He lost money speculating in coffee and sardines. His name was Raoul Wallenberg, born in 1912 and he joined the ranks of immortals by going to Nazi-controlled Budapest on July 9, 1944, and saving almost 100,000 Jews from death camps, although he operated within enemy territory where escape was impossible, and he was armed only with a pistol he never used.

There are so many more people who, like liberty itself, are wondrous to behold and must never be forgotten.

Jim Powell is a senior fellow of the Cato Institute, editor of Laissez Faire Books, editor of Libertystory.net and author of "The Triumph of Liberty" (Free Press, 2000).

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