Give Me Liberty

A History of America's Exceptional Idea


By Richard Brookhiser

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An award-winning historian recounts the history of American liberty through the stories of thirteen essential documents

Nationalism is inevitable: It supplies feelings of belonging, identity, and recognition. It binds us to our neighbors and tells us who we are. But increasingly — from the United States to India, from Russia to Burma — nationalism is being invoked for unworthy ends: to disdain minorities or to support despots. As a result, nationalism has become to many a dirty word.

In Give Me Liberty, award-winning historian and biographer Richard Brookhiser offers up a truer and more inspiring story of American nationalism as it has evolved over four hundred years. He examines America’s history through thirteen documents that made the United States a new country in a new world: a free country. We are what we are because of them; we stay true to what we are by staying true to them.

Americans have always sought liberty, asked for it, fought for it; every victory has been the fulfillment of old hopes and promises. This is our nationalism, and we should be proud of it.


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NATIONALISM IS ALL THE RAGE. IT IS TRUE IN THE world’s oldest democracies. Donald Trump has made securing America’s borders and protecting its industries top priorities. “From this moment on,” he said in his 2017 inaugural address, “it’s going to be America first.”1 Half a year earlier, Britain voted to leave the European Union.

It takes sinister forms elsewhere. Narendra Modi conflates Indian nationalism with Hinduism, to the consternation of India’s other religions. Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan invoke nationalism to make their countries one-party states. Xi Jinping invokes it to guarantee his own power for life. Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, invokes it to ethnically cleanse the Muslim minority of Myanmar.

Nationalism is a given in human society. It supplies feelings of belonging, identity, and recognition. It binds us to our neighbors, tells us who we are, and makes others notice us. But it takes different forms from country to country and from era to era.2

The unique feature of America’s nationalism is its concern for liberty. We have been securing it, defining it, recovering it, and fighting for it for four hundred years. We have been doing it since we were a floundering settlement on a New World river, long before we were a country. We do it now on podiums and battlefields beyond our borders.

Our concern for liberty shapes how we live in society and what we know ourselves to be in the order of things: how we relate to each other and what God has made us. Americans are free and equal men and women, marked for liberty at birth. Ignorance and vice may obscure and sometimes even steal our birthright, but we work, stolidly or heroically, to reclaim it.

American liberty is liberty of the person. If liberty is applied to collections of persons, its meaning changes. When a country liberates itself from a colonial or imperial overlord (as dozens have since we did), it wins independence. When the machinery of the state liberates itself from incompetence or customary restraints, it may achieve efficiency or despotism. When a mob liberates itself from habits of good behavior, it produces chaos. American liberty is about Americans—you, me, her, him.

But this liberty is plural; it cannot be experienced alone. If one person living in a tyrannical state were somehow freed from all its supervision and punishments, he or she would experience the immunity of an alien or practice the duplicity of a spy. That person would not enjoy liberty. My liberty as an American is also yours; ours is others’.

We claim it for no other reason than we are persons, and America recognizes the sovereign importance of this fact. We enjoy liberty not because we are people and: people who have the right ancestors, people who practice the approved creed, or people who spend the most money. We enjoy it because we are men and women.

As Americans we claim to have a uniquely clear understanding of human nature and to act in accordance with it. But a desire for liberty asserts itself in other countries, too. The two with which our history is most bound enjoy elements of liberty, as we understand it. We inherited much from our mother country, Britain, and France’s revolution and republics have mirrored, and fun house–mirrored, our own. But Britain’s liberty is deeply rooted in a mold of custom, while France’s is buffeted by storms of passion. Britain still has a crown and classes; France every so often produces a new constitution. This is not a book about almost liberty elsewhere; it is a book about the real thing, here in America.

A complete history of liberty in America would be a complete history of America. This book focuses instead on thirteen documents, from 1619 to 1987, that represent snapshots from the album of our long marriage to liberty. They say what liberty is. They show who asked for it, when, and why. Since no marriage is ever simple, they track its ups and downs. These thirteen liberty documents define America as the country that it is, different from all others.

Six of the liberty documents are speeches or addresses—one delivered in writing, one over the radio, four to live audiences (a courtroom, a political convention, and two outdoor events). Five are collective statements, written by an individual or a committee, but endorsed by a group. One is the minutes of an assembly; one is a poem on a statue.

The documents vary in length: the assembly met over five days, the briefest speech lasted two or three minutes, and the poem is a sonnet. Some of the liberty documents are official pronouncements; others are appeals to, or by, the marginalized. Some are so famous they are ubiquitous; others are little known. Some are clumsy but earnest, others eloquent. All are important. We are what we are because of them, and we made them because of who we are. We stay true to what we are by staying true to them.

All of them are public statements, making a case to the world—the opinion of mankind, as the Declaration of Independence puts it—or to a relevant public official—“Right Honorable,” begins the Flushing Remonstrance, addressing Dutch governor-general Peter Stuyvesant. None of them is absorbed with personal details or written in a way that is willfully oblique. But standing alone, they would be naked, so I have clothed them with context: who wrote or spoke them, where, and when. You have to know something about the economy of the late nineteenth century to understand William Jennings Bryan or something about the politics of early eighteenth-century New York to understand the trial of John Peter Zenger.

Something isn’t everything. From one document to the next, years, sometimes decades, pass. One speech here was given in Berlin, another in Chicago, the rest on or near the East Coast, but none in California or Hawaii. Whole swaths of the American experience are missing. But I keep a forward momentum.

Two of the liberty documents, and the important part of a third, are about foreign affairs—what America promises, threatens, or fears from other countries. This may seem surprising in a book about liberty, especially in a book about liberty conceived as the essence of our nationalism. But the world is always close at hand. America began as a collection of colonies and won its independence in a revolution against an imperial master. We live among neighbors and wars. Even when we are not interested in them, they may be interested in us.

Several of the liberty documents are accompanied by lists of names—of signers, audiences, or participants; delegates, jurors, or burgesses. Some of the lists are quite long, with many or most of the names obscure. Read them all. Whether these people were already famous, became famous, or are known only for being there at one moment of history, they all contributed to their liberty and ours. Remembering them is a duty and a pleasure. As a witness to one of the liberty documents said, “How sweet it is to speak of good men!”—and women.3

Two of my linguistic choices in this book require explanation. I use America as a synonym for the United States, even at the risk of confusion when the story overlaps with other countries in the Americas—Mexico, Brazil, Argentina. I do it despite the boisterous stadium chant, USA! USA! I use America partly because one-quarter of my story (and more than a quarter of our history) occurs in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, before there was a United States. I do it because every country in this hemisphere, from Canada to Chile, has its own story, with its own America. Let them tell theirs. I will tell ours.

I also use words like ours, our, we, and us to refer to actions, things, or people that no living American has done, possessed, or known. But that is what a nation is: a many-headed, centuries-old being that embraces the living, the dead, and the still to be born. Before battles, George Washington exhorted his soldiers to fight as if “the fate of unborn millions” depended on their efforts—because it did.4 As he looked ahead, so we must look behind—and see ourselves.

Where are the dark chapters documenting oppression, brutality, injustice? Americans—we—are human, and the heart—yours and mine—is desperately wicked. There are dark pages aplenty in our story, when the light of liberty was unlit or eagerly blown out. Sometimes liberty’s enemies have been foreigners, careless colonizers, or bloody monsters; sometimes they have been all-American. This book is not about them. They loom, of course, since any account of brave men and women—and many of the authors and signers of these documents put their reputations or their lives on the line—must include who and what they struggled against. You cannot read about Abraham Lincoln or John Murray without reading about slavery, about Tobias Feake or Andrew Hamilton without reading about oppression, about Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Rhoda Palmer without reading about inequity. But this book is about what prompted men and women to resist: to think, speak, and sometimes fight for what was right.

My authority for telling this story is my career as a historian and a journalist. For over twenty years, I have been engaged with American lives, particularly those of the founders. I have studied the greatest Americans, describing their achievements (and failures), explaining their beliefs. I know what they worked for. For fifty years I have been writing about contemporary American politics, covering men and women—usually less great than the founders, though sometimes they hit their mark—writing about how they have maintained, advanced, or manhandled their predecessors’ handiwork.

The need for telling this story now is what I see around me. This is the most confused historical moment I have lived in. Between a haggard establishment, a perverse intelligentsia, and an inchoate populist pushback, America’s national essence is being ignored, trampled, or distorted. Those who remember the right words and principles repeat them as platitudes; others spurn them or offer substitutes, do-it-yourself or imported from abroad. Because the people offering substitutes are either less intelligent or less virtuous than the authors and original audiences of the liberty documents, their alternatives are worse.

We always have been a free country; our advances are fulfillments of old promises, not lunges in the direction of new ones. This is our nationalism, and we should be proud of it.

The epigraph of this book is a famous exclamation about American liberty. I did not give it a chapter, so let me quickly tell the story here.

British troops occupying Boston, a disorderly colonial city, set out in April 1775 on a police action to round up troublemakers said to be lurking in the countryside nearby. The mission spiraled out of control, however, when one group of locals, then a second, fired back, then swarms of them sniped at the troops as they returned to base.

News of the clashes spread as fast as horses could convey it. In Richmond, hundreds of miles to the south, an extralegal assembly of colonials met in an Anglican church to debate how they should respond. Patrick Henry, a thirty-nine-year-old attorney and planter, was one of those who spoke. He had a reputation for being ambitious, lazy, and vain. He deplored slavery but owned slaves. One modern historian accuses him of self-interest bordering on corruption, opposing political reform because it queered a land deal he was invested in. He was also the best speaker on the continent. Thomas Jefferson, who disliked him, said simply that he spoke as Homer wrote.

Henry’s speech was not recorded until 1817, when a biographer printed it, which gave rise to the presumption that the biographer, though he interviewed surviving witnesses, had rewritten it himself. Maybe, maybe not. Many of the biographer’s own speeches survive, and they are nothing like this one.

It is short: twelve hundred words, three printed pages. It is urgent: almost a third of its sentences are questions—Is it? Have we? But when? Shall we? It is desperate: Americans everywhere had to support the liberty of Americans in Boston or all our liberty would be undone.

“Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains, and of slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!—I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”5

Read on.

chapter one




Three ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery, sailed from London on December 20, 1606, carrying 144 passengers and crew, bound for Virginia. After being held off the coast of England for six weeks by contrary winds, they crossed the Atlantic by a southerly route, reprovisioned in the West Indies, then headed north, expecting landfall in the third week of April 1607. Instead they found themselves in a tempest. For four days they sounded, seeking offshore shallows in vain. Then, at four o’clock in the morning of April 26, they saw land. The ships sailed into Chesapeake Bay and found, in the words of one voyager, “fair meddowes and goodly tall Trees, with such fresh waters running through the woods, as I was almost ravished at the first sight thereof.”1 They picked an island in a river for a settlement and named it for their king, James.

The English were latecomers to the New World. Although their sailors had explored the western Atlantic for more than a hundred years, the home country, preoccupied by the upheavals of the Reformation and the feral family politics of the Tudors, had followed none of its discoveries with colonies; efforts to settle Newfoundland and North Carolina sputtered out. (Spain, by contrast, built an empire from its colonies spanning two continents, ornamented with cathedrals and universities.)

At the turn of the seventeenth century, however, England was ready to try colonization in earnest. A group of merchant investors, salted with noblemen, called the London Company received a charter from King James I allowing them to develop a swath of the North American coast named Virginia, after his late unmarried predecessor, Elizabeth I.

The promoters of the scheme expected economic benefits. A transatlantic colony would be a haven and a workshop for England’s surplus poor. As Richard Hakluyt, England’s premier geographer, put it, “Valiant youths rusting [from] lack of employment” would find it building a life for themselves overseas. The crops they would grow and the items they would make, Hakluyt went on, could be sold back home, “yield[ing] unto us all the commodities of Europe, Africa and Asia”—the entire rest of the world, no less.2 With luck, the valiant youths might strike it rich. Spain had discovered mother lodes of precious metals in its colonies; why not England? A 1605 comic play, Eastward Ho!, described Virginia colonists using golden chamber pots.

God would be served as well as mammon. Spain was shepherding its indigenous overseas populations into Roman Catholicism (hence its colonial cathedrals). England could convert native Virginians to the true—Anglican—faith.

What the Jamestown colonists found, however, was hardship. In their first year, they took their drinking water from the James River, which resulted in many succumbing to typhoid, dysentery, and (since the stream was tidal) salt poisoning. Once they had dug a well, they were able to drink safely, but growing enough edibles was another trial. Modern studies of tree rings preserved in old logs show that during the first seven years of the colony’s existence, the Chesapeake Bay area was baked by a drought, making gardening and farming virtually impossible. This left the English dependent on bartering for supplies with local natives, whose own stores were depleted. Settlers who died of starvation or disease had to be replaced by new settlers from England, who arrived once or twice a year (the pioneers had been heavily male, but the newcomers increasingly included women).

The colonists were capable of hard work. One month after landing, they built a palisade to protect themselves from possible attack. Over nineteen hot June days, they cut and split more than six hundred trees weighing four hundred to eight hundred pounds each and set them in a triangular trench three football fields long and two and a half feet deep. Four hundred years later, the makers of a Hollywood film about Jamestown built a replica of the fort in about the same amount of time—using power tools.

But forts were not an exportable product. The settlers found a few semiprecious stones—garnets, amethysts, quartz crystals—but no silver or gold. One resupply ship brought German and Polish glassmakers, meant to generate local manufacturing; most of them ran off to live with the natives.

Relations between the settlers and local natives were the most significant variable in Jamestown’s early history. The western Chesapeake was ruled by Wahunsonacock, chief of the Powhatan. He was an expansionist, no less than James I, having brought thirty local tribes under his sway in an empire of fifteen thousand people. Capt. John Smith, one of the early leaders of the Jamestown colony, described Wahunsonacock’s royal state: “He sat covered with a great robe, made of raccoon skins, and all the tails hanging by,” flanked by “two rows of men, and behind them as many women, with all their heads and shoulders painted red.”3 The settlers hoped to make him a tributary of their king; conversely, Wahunsonacock hoped to make the settlers his allies. Sometimes they fought (hence the palisade); sometimes they traded. Wahunsonacock wanted the copper the settlers offered in exchange for food, and he very much wanted their swords and firearms: muzzle-loaded long guns, their charges ignited by matchlocks—clumsy and dangerous to use but deadly, especially when fired in volleys.

But when the Powhatan refused to trade for food, Jamestown’s colonists died horribly. The winter of 1609 was the “starving time.” The colonists ate horses, dogs, vermin, boot leather, even (it was said) corpses. In June 1610 the survivors staggered onto their ships and sailed into the bay, either looking for help or intending to sail home. Help came: the London Company, reorganized as the Virginia Company, had sent three resupply ships from England, which met the despairing colonists in the nick of time.

In a desperate effort to extend the life of the shattered colony, it was put under strict martial law. Men farmed in work parties supervised by overseers, for the common good. Runaways, if captured, were shot, hanged, burned, or beaten to death.

Such a ferocious regime could only be an emergency measure; if word of it got out in England, who would come willingly to live in such a place? Three changes began to improve Jamestown’s prospects.

In 1612 the colonists acquired a marketable crop when one of their number, John Rolfe, introduced seeds of Nicotiana tabacum from Spain’s colonies in South America. The Powhatan smoked a crude local weed, but South American tobacco was sweeter in the mouth; smoking it was already a craze in England. Now the home market would not have to buy from foreigners. By 1620 Jamestown was shipping almost fifty thousand pounds of tobacco across the Atlantic. Fifty years later, Virginia and Maryland, its neighboring colony, would ship fifteen million pounds.

Rolfe gave the colony another benefit—publicity—when he married one of Wahunsonacock’s daughters, Matoaka, better known to history by her childhood nickname, Pocahontas (meaning playful one). She was captured as a teenager during a bout of native-settler strife. She converted to Christianity, was baptized as Rebecca, and married Rolfe in 1614; two years later, she accompanied her husband to England, where she was depicted in a Virginia Company advertisement and presented to the king. The couple set sail for Virginia in 1617, but Rebecca died, age twenty or twenty-one, before their ship exited the Thames River.

A third substantial change was the introduction and regularization of private property. The colony could not flourish as an agricultural garrison state. Beginning in 1616, settlers who had survived there for seven years or more were awarded fifty acres; newcomers were promised fifty, plus an additional fifty for each additional person they brought with them.

What the colony most needed, though, was stable government. Since its inception it had been ruled by a shifting cast of governors, picked and sent out by the London Company (and later by the Virginia Company). Though the governors were assisted by a council of advisors, their own decisions were final, and they could pick and dismiss the members of their council at will. They were not supposed to do anything contrary to the laws of England, but that left much room for improvisation. Wide powers and uncertain tenure, combined with difficult circumstances, led to disagreement and recrimination. The typical firsthand account of early Jamestown argues that everything would have gone well if everyone besides the author had not done wrong. Acrimony in Virginia was matched by squabbles among the company’s investors back in London.

In 1618 a newly dominant faction within the Virginia Company tapped a new governor, George Yeardley, with a mandate for comprehensive reform in the colony. Yeardley was a veteran who had fought against Spain in the Netherlands, survived a shipwreck in Bermuda, and lived at Jamestown for seven years. Before taking up his new job, he had an audience with the king, who knighted him, “to grace him the more.”4 In Virginia he would be assisted by John Pory, a man whose various careers—diplomatic secretary, author, would-be silkworm breeder—included six years’ service in Parliament.

Scholars debate whether Yeardley and his council of advisors meant to liberalize the regime of the colony in the interests of the common good or simply to make it more profitable.5 Their reforms, whether intentional or otherwise, had the former effect.

By 1618 the colony was composed of two dozen settlements spread over seventy miles from the mouth of the James River on Chesapeake Bay to the fall line; Jamestown lay along the north shore about a third of the way in. Under the new dispensation, the colony was divided into four boroughs—an old English unit of government between a town and a county in size—as well as seven plantations, the estates of investors that had been granted quasi-autonomous status (how autonomous was still to be determined). This domain was to be ruled, as before, by the parent company in London, with its day-to-day operations overseen by a governor (now Yeardley).

Yeardley would not rule alone. He was seconded by a Council of State, appointed not by him but by the company. He had another body of helpers too, whose composition marked an epoch in American history.

In June 1619 Yeardley, newly arrived in Virginia from visiting the king, called on the colony’s freemen to elect “by a pluralitie of voices” two burgesses from each borough and plantation. They were to join with him and the Council of State in a “general Assemblie” which would have “free power to treat, consult & conclude… all emergent occasions concerning the publique weale.”6

Since the burgesses would establish such an important precedent, let us record their names.

The four boroughs sent eight burgesses.

(James City, the borough of Jamestown) Capt. William Powell, Ensign William Spense

(Charles City) Samuel Sharpe, Samuel Jordan

(Henricus City) Thomas Dowse, John Polentine

(Kiccowtan) Capt. William Tucker, William Capp

Seven plantations sent fourteen.

(Martin Brandon) Mr. Thomas Davis, Mr. Robert Stacy

(Smythe’s Hundred—not a numeral but an English geographical term) Capt. Thomas Graves, Mr. Walter Shelley

(Martin’s Hundred) Mr. John Boys, John Jackson

(Argall’s Gift) Mr. Pawlett, Mr. Gourgainy

(Flowerdew Hundred) Ensign Roffingham, Mr. Jefferson

(Capt. Lawne’s Plantation) Capt. Christopher Lawne, Ensign Washer

(Capt. Warde’s Plantation) Capt. John Warde, Lt. Gibbes

The first meeting of the General Assembly convened on July 30, 1619, in Jamestown’s church, a wooden building fifty by twenty feet, with plastered walls and a roof of wood or thatch. (Only the foundation survives; the seventeenth-century brick church tower that stands at Jamestown today is the remnant of a later construction.) Yeardley and his Council of State sat in the chancel, the portion of the church nearest the altar. Pory sat in front of them, acting as Speaker or secretary. A sergeant at arms stood by, ready to maintain order. The burgesses sat alongside the chancel in the choir. The Rev. Richard Buck, the cleric who had married Rolfe and Rebecca/Pocahontas, said a prayer (since, as Pory wrote, “men’s affaires doe little prosper where God’s service is neglected”).7 The burgesses were then asked to step into the nave, or body of the church, to swear their loyalty, one by one, to James I. This done, they returned to their seats in the choir, and the General Assembly turned to business.

The business of the first legislature in America began with disputes over credentials. Capt. John Warde was a burgess from his own plantation, fifteen miles upriver. He had, however, settled in the colony without the permission of the Virginia Company; should he be allowed a role in the deliberations of a body that the company had created? Another controversy concerned the two burgesses representing Martin’s Hundred, a plantation ten miles east of Jamestown. But the patent or charter issued to Capt. John Martin, the plantation’s absent master, exempted him and his hundred from the colony’s laws. Governor Yeardley himself objected to the presence of Martin’s burgesses. There was another problem with Martin: a boatload of his men stood accused of stopping Indians in a canoe on the bay and seizing their corn. The settlers had given trinkets in return, but the Indians had not been willing sellers. Relations with the Powhatan had been peaceful since Rolfe’s wedding, but this was not the way to maintain them.

The General Assembly seated Captain Warde on the grounds that he had behaved as a model settler, with the understanding that he procure a commission from the company as soon as possible, which he promised to do. A message addressed to “our very loving friend” Captain Martin ordered him to come to Jamestown to explain himself.

The assembly next formed into committees. Pory explained their business. They were to examine all the instructions that the company had sent to the colony and decide which should become laws (“putt on the habite [clothing] of lawes” was how Pory phrased it). They were also to make their own suggestions for legislation (“what lawes might issue out of the private conceipte [thought] of any of the Burgesses”).8


  • "Smart...As historian, Mr. Brookhiser understands the varied standards and qualities of the American experience and interprets its growth with skill and understanding. And as journalist, he performs a key service: joining the ideals and episodes together, defining the theme that makes the United States exceptional."—Wall Street Journal
  • "[Brookhiser] writes today with the same assurance, intelligence, clarity and directness that characterized his first cover article for National Review."—Washington Times
  • "Subtle, economic, and gripping...[An] original reflection on the nature of our American experiment, the work of a man who has for many years immersed himself in the minds of those who forged our freedom."—Michael Knox Beran, National Review
  • "Brookhiser grounds his spirited argument for American exceptionalism in the idea of liberty...An engaging history of admirable episodes from America's past."—Kirkus
  • "An elegant and lyrical case for the ideal that has shaped America."—Mona Charen
  • "A collection of profiles that should ignite the spark of national pride and patriotism. Give Me Liberty is an exceptional study of America's 'exceptional idea.'"—Roanoke Times
  • "Rather than offering a polemic...Brookhiser uses history to make his case...An important text."—Winston-Salem Journal
  • "In our deeply divided America, Richard Brookhiser goes back in search of our roots, and finds them in that many-headed idea called 'liberty.' In his signature style, he wastes no words, defies the conventional political categories, and invites us to join him in recovering a series of inspirational moments when we all felt the same future in our hearts and minds."—Joseph J. Ellis, author of American Dialogue: The Founders and Us
  • "With his characteristic combination of elegance and shrewdness, Richard Brookhiser gives us another insightful account of what makes us the nation we are. Give Me Liberty is intellectual history at its riveting best."—H.W. Brands, author of Heirs of the Founders and Dreams of El Dorado

On Sale
Nov 5, 2019
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Richard Brookhiser

About the Author

Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and the author of thirteen books, including John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court, Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, and James Madison. He lives in New York City.

Learn more about this author