Thanksgiving Day is celebrated in the United States as a reminder of the 1621 feast the Pilgrims hosted to celebrate having survived their first year in the New World. Of the 102 people who arrived on the Mayflower in December 1620, 46 died that first year. The survivors, to show their gratitude to God for a successful harvest, invited local Indians who had helped them weather that first miserable, tragic year. After wresting their survival from the virgin forest, the Pilgrims knew what they were thankful for. How many of us can say the same today?
As families and friends gather around tables in eastern New Mexico today, many will take the time to give thanks for specific things in their lives: new jobs, loved ones, opportunities, the food before them, etc. We’d wager few will acknowledge the thing that makes all the others possible — liberty.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The god who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.” Jefferson knew that man is born with rights. Those rights come from God, not government.
Our liberty allows us to live where we wish, work at whatever job we can get, travel when and where our desires take us, go to the church of our choice (or none at all) and associate with the people we’re most comfortable with. We’re also free to challenge those who disagree with us and try to persuade them to come over to our side or at least acknowledge our arguments.
Our liberty allows us, to paraphrase the Declaration of Independence, to pursue our own happiness in whatever way we see fit, so long as we don’t interfere with the liberty of others. It’s our freedom to change our lives that makes the United States a destination for immigrants in search of a better future for their families. They realize freedom is a necessary first step toward that future.
And it’s not only immigrants who wish to use freedom to improve themselves. Our inner cities are full of young people who know they are not condemned to a life of poverty if they are willing to work hard for their chance to grab the brass ring. They do not sit around lamenting their lot, they go out and make their own opportunities.
Few Americans are unaware of Oprah Winfrey’s real-life Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story. Born into poverty, she overcame many personal tragedies to become one of the richest, most powerful women in the country. Her story should be an inspiration to anyone looking to improve their own circumstances. All they need is the desire; they have the freedom.
There are many values and rights we have to thank for our blessings and bounty. These include the Puritan work ethic; a belief in equality before the law; First Amendment guarantees of freedom of expression and freedom of the press; and the competitive, entrepreneurial spirit that fuels capitalism, to name just a few.
But giving thanks for these values is not enough to preserve them, or to guarantee future generations of Americans will share in the blessings and bounties we have. We must not only remember and recognize these liberties, values and rights, but constantly recommit ourselves to defending them, expanding them, and perfecting them, lest they be incrementally undermined and destroyed — and with them, this nation’s unique place in the world.