"It is strangely absurd to suppose that a million of human beings, collected together, are not under the same moral laws which bind each of them separately." ~ Thomas Jefferson
Within You Without You
To live outside the law, you must be honest. ~ Bob Dylan, Absolutely Sweet Marie
You never know where, when, why, or even if a bolt of enlightenment might strike you. You never know what you might be doing when, suddenly, you experience an epiphany, when a veil that you didn't even know you had on suddenly lifts and you can, for the first time, see.
I had such an experience two years ago next week when my wife and I traveled to Colonial Williamsburg. While we certainly never planned or anticipated it, our visit opened my eyes to things and ideas that hadn't really occurred to me before and perhaps would not have occurred to me had we not gone there. It helped me see, for the first time, perhaps, what freedom requires.
Williamsburg , as you may know, served as the capital of Virginia in the 1700's before it moved a little farther north to Richmond . As their website says, 'For 81 formative years, from 1699 to 1780, Williamsburg was the political, cultural, and educational center of what was then the largest, most populous, and most influential of the American colonies. It was here that the fundamental concepts of our republic ' responsible leadership, a sense of public service, self-government, and individual liberty ' were nurtured.' Thomas Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary there. George Washington's wife Martha grew up there and met her husband at a dance there. Patrick Henry said, 'Give me liberty or give me death' there. Until the 1920s, it remained essentially just another small college town until a local minister convinced John Rockefeller Jr. to invest in restoring Williamsburg as a living museum. When you visit Williamsburg , you not only see painstaking renovations or reconstructions of the original buildings, but you also see, thanks to their re-enactors, the way people dressed, lived, and interacted with one another.
I don't exactly know why we decided to go there. Only a few weeks earlier we had gone on our first such trip in the 30 years we've lived together and we enjoyed ourselves so much that we wanted to go on another one before my fall classes started. We only knew that something, somehow, appealed to us about Williamsburg, especially when we thought of combining it with a visit to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home near Charlottesville.
We stopped at Monticello first, arriving in the early afternoon of a beautiful August day and taking the tour of his magnificent home. Standing where Jefferson stood, seeing the things he saw and the land from which he drew life, got me thinking about the specifics, the details, of how he lived and how that affected him. It got me thinking about what kind of thoughts and experiences might have coursed through his consciousness to give rise to the three things he had mentioned on his tombstone, all of which pertain to political, religious, or intellectual freedom: the Declaration of American Independence, the Statute for Virginia on Religious Freedom, and the University of Virginia (interestingly, he omits his Presidency).
Afterwards we headed for Williamsburg. I thought as we drove about Jefferson making this same trip and how differently he must have experienced it. We figured it would take us about two hours. But of course, we had modern technology at our disposal. We had an automobile and interstate highways. We could travel at 65 or more miles per hour. We could pull off the highway at any number of intersections and get pretty much anything we wanted to eat. And certainly it wouldn't take us very long to get there. How many days would it have taken Jefferson? Under what conditions? What did he think as he rode alone on horseback at the age of 18 heading for his first year of study at William and Mary? What might he have eaten on his trip? Where might he have rested? Did he feel the same anxiousness, the same impatience, to arrive as I did? Or did traveling on horseback under conditions we might now call 'primitive' perhaps encourage a calm and a patience, even a thoughtfulness and perhaps a reverence, almost unimaginable to us today?
We went that first night in Williamsburg to a program at the old Capitol Building called 'Dance, Our Dearest Diversion.' Candles provided the only light and a sole fiddler the only music as the costumed professionals demonstrated Eighteenth Century dances and then encouraged us spectators to join in. I found fascinating the interplay among the dancers, the way they weaved in and out among one another, and as I watched the obvious physical contact among them in the gentle candlelight I thought of the rarity of music back them, what it must have meant to people to have it and to hear it, and of how such contact, such dancing, must have brought the community together in mutual exertion and joy. And as we walked to our room down the Duke of Gloucester Street through the dark, silent evening, I felt a sense of calm and of peace that I rarely feel walking down the bright, noisy streets of modern cities.
That night we stayed at Market Square Tavern, where Jefferson often stayed, and I thought more about him, about his times, and about the city, the tavern, and even perhaps the room that we now had in common. How did his world affect his thoughts on liberty?
The next day, we did a fair amount of walking all over Williamsburg, visiting everything we could. I did my best to ignore the Twenty-first Century visitors and instead concentrated on the various Eighteenth Century 'interpreters' ' those in colonial dress portraying various characters. Some, of course, portrayed the famous, but many more took on the characters of regular everyday common people: from maids and shopkeepers to farmers and their wives, tradesmen, and, yes, slaves. And, as it had the night before, the interplay of these people ' the seeming formality of it, the respect and courtesy they showed one another ' totally captivated me. I thought of my trips to New York City, of the crudity and lack of regard, let alone respect, people seemed to have for one another there. I wondered about the connection between their dress, their manners, and the consideration, even their awareness, of others. I asked myself: 'If people used manners and dress like this back then, when there were so few of them, to help manage their personal relations, wouldn't it become that much more important now that we have so many people?'
Now, certainly, what I saw in Williamsburg was an interpretation, an idealized re-enactment, just as the streets, which were remarkably clean and free of horse manure, were an idealized re-enactment. But just as certainly, it all had an element of truth to it. People did indeed treat one another differently then. They thought differently of themselves, of others, and of the world, which was indeed a very different place than it is today.
I thought, too, about how our American traditions of freedom had derived from this time ' how in some ways they had derived from this very city. I tried to identify as best I could the assumptions about life, about community, and about people that Jefferson might have had in mind when he wrote the Declaration. What held their society together? How did they deal with crime? How did they define crime? What did they do with the poor, the halt, the blind, the unfortunate? How did they feed the hungry? They had much more freedom than we did ' didn't they? They certainly had fewer laws. And if they did have more freedom than we do now, where did those freedoms go? Surely to say simply that 'the government took them away' is much too glib, much too facile. If we accept that as an answer, we must then ask, 'why did it take them?' and 'why did we let them?' and 'why can't we get them back?' But then, maybe we sense the danger to ourselves in such follow-up questions. Maybe, if we actually think honestly and objectively, we'll find that we have only ourselves to blame. Maybe we'll find that we just gave those freedoms back ' or that we gave them up. Maybe we'll find that we did neither, that instead we traded them in for something we liked better, like ease and comfort, and we blindly, stubbornly, childishly refuse to accept that we can't have everything we want, that we can't have both our comforts and our freedoms . . . .
Later in the day, we visited Bruton Parish Church, which has been in use since 1715. Such men as Jefferson, Washington, Richard Henry Lee, George Wythe, Patrick Henry, and George Mason attended services there. As we walked through and I saw the famous names on the sides of the pews, I began thinking of the role of religion, of a sense of God and of morality, of right and wrong, in the lives and in the thinking of those men. I began to see more clearly than ever the necessity of morality ' that without it, freedom cannot and will not exist.
As modern members of the Twenty-first Century, however, we no longer believe in morality. We call ourselves enlightened, intelligent, scientific and progressive. We believe in matter, not spirit ' in technology, not God. Indeed, we sneer knowingly, condescendingly, at the very mention of God and of morality. We consider ourselves beyond it, superior to it, rejecting in our supreme arrogance anything that even threatens to limit us in any possible way ' in dress, in speech, in conduct ' as a threat to our personal, individual freedom. Others, we think, especially those in government, should have boundaries and restrictions, but never us! We no longer believe in the very existence of right and wrong.
But our impulses, our desires, our hungers, our lives, have to come under some form of control, and we all know this. To say you have the right to do whatever you want whenever you want only disrespects others. We need some kind of rules of conduct in order to live together. Right and wrong do exist just as surely as life and death. But how do we determine right and wrong? What rules should we have? Who should determine them? Who should enforce them, and how?
We must have some kind of discipline. But does it come from within or from without? We must realize that if we don't discipline ourselves, someone else will do it for us. In rejecting morality, we inevitably choose law ' and don't for a second think that the State has no awareness or understanding of this.
The last 40 years have seen a disastrous decay, a terrible decline in both public and private morality. We no longer as individuals have either the strength or the desire to limit or to control ourselves in any way, large or small. We live like greedy, half-wit children, totally without regard for others. We weave in and out of traffic, risking the lives of ourselves and others in our desperation to beat the other guy to the next red light. We pick our noses and fart in public without a shred of embarrassment. We burp without excusing ourselves. We dress like total slobs. Obscenities pour from our mouths and litter what little reading we're still capable of. We become grotesquely fat by consuming everything in sight with no regard for, or even any comprehension of, the life it once possessed ' of the Power it once had that we have now appropriated for our own. We buy bigger televisions, faster computers, and require more and bigger explosions at the movies. We divorce and we breed almost indiscriminately without any regard to what it might do to the children or to society as a whole. We either ignore or excuse the mass murder we euphemistically call 'abortion.' We know next to nothing about anything at all and then we laugh at our ignorance. Meanwhile, we worry about the war, about taxes, about money and 'the economy,' mostly because we fear something might interrupt or interfere with our mindless, insatiable consumption of everything we can get our fat grubby little hands on. We complain about and criticize the government and blame it for everything that's wrong in our world. 'If only we could get rid of it,' we tell ourselves, 'if only we were free again . . . .'
Well, we won't be free again until each of us finds the courage and makes the effort to look life and reality objectively in the eye and see it plain and simple. We won't be free again until we accept total, unwavering responsibility for ourselves and our actions. We won't be free again until we realize that the dishonest, the immoral, can never live outside, or without, the law. The question, in the end, comes down to a choice between morality or law: will control over your life come from within you, or from without you?
Photos by Craig Russell.