When the Fourth of July comes around each year it is quite common to hear quotes, passages, and speeches that invoke the name of Thomas Jefferson the American statesman, diplomat, lawyer, architect, philosopher, and Founding Father who helped draft the Declaration of Independence and later served as the 3rd president of the United States. He wrote a plethora of letters, essays, and more over the course of his life. As you might expect he is a quotable person. In a 1787 letter to William Stephens Smith, the son-in-law of John Adams, Jefferson wrote. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” It is oft quoted by ultra-right groups that are willing to take up arms against the federal government – all in the name of freedom. Interestingly, in the same letter, Jefferson writes that such actions most often “were founded in ignorance” He goes on to say that, “The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive.”
An equally quoted Jeffersonian phrase is, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” But he never wrote that one. The internet is quite good at creating phrases and ascribing them to famous people. The research department at Monticello maintains a webpage of spurious quotes and this quote is on the page. But that does not mean it wasn’t said! The exact phrasing has alluded even Google-fueled search capabilities. But the ultimate origins of this quote is attributed to a speech by John Philpot Curran, given in Dublin in 1790. “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” Not the same words, but the meanings align well. But what was Curran’s content for his phrase?
Curran was an Irish orator, politician, wit, lawyer, and judge. He was renowned for his 1780 representation of Father Neale, a Catholic priest horsewhipped by the Anglo-Irish Lord, Viscount Doneraile. He was even more widely known for his 1790 defense of United Irishmen facing capital charges of sedition and treason in the period of Irish history known as the Catholic Emancipation. This was a long-fought battle to reduce and remove many of the restrictions on Roman Catholics introduced by the Act of Uniformity, the Test Acts and the penal laws. This includes requirements to renounce the temporal and spiritual authority of the pope, submit to the spiritual leadership of the King or Queen of England, and publicly renounce tenants of the Faith, such the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. It was not until 1920 that Irish Catholic Emancipation was realized.
This makes me think we need a new quote: “The price of freedom is perseverance.” This potential quote aligns well with the Bible: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 9:62)
On January 27, 1956, a young pastor sat in his kitchen in Montgomery, Alabama holding a cup of coffee, unable to sleep. The bus boycott seemed to be collapsing. His own life had been repeatedly threatened. Earlier in the evening, a caller had warned, “If you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.” Then, as Martin Luther King, Jr. later recounted:
. . . I bowed down over that cup of coffee . . . I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.” He needed the word of this proverb. “Keep your hand on the plow…” (Samuel Freeman, Upon This Rock, 143)
During a long and arduous struggle, we often reach the point where we are spent, our energy exhausted, and it is just not possible to keep on plowing, keep on proclaiming the kingdom of God without looking back. The costs seem too high. It is at these moments that we are called to keep our hands on the plow Because as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote to a community ready to turn back, “Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope, for He who made the promise is trustworthy.” (Heb. 10:23) The young pastor sitting at his kitchen table in the middle of a threatening night, praying to God for the gift of perseverance, felt another hand steadying his grasp on the plow.
And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone. (Freeman, Upon This Rock, 173)
Do not grow weary in doing what is right. Hold fast to the confession of Faith without wavering. It is in perseverance one finds true freedom to stand before God and truly be free at last.