The Blood of Liberty

When Thomas Jefferson penned: “The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” he could hardly have guessed the myriad ways that would be done. Even now, long after our national anthem first celebrated not the Constitution crafted in peaceful discourse but the blood-striped emblem of battle-won liberty, we can‘t be sure when more hemorrhaging is needed.

These thoughts were stirred up by viewing once again the 1962 John Ford directed film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Lee Marvin appears in the title role, a mean hombre who terrorizes a town in a southwestern territory on the verge of statehood. Naming a villain for one of America’s most cherished ideals is only the first irony in this thoughtful variation of the standard Hollywood Western morality play.

The main target of Valance’s abuse is Ransom Stoddard, played by James Stewart, an eastern lawyer zealous to bring justice to the lawless frontier. The only man who can stand up to Valance with a gun is rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) who remains aloof from other people’s quarrels. Doniphon and Stoddard love the same girl, Hallie (Vera Miles) although Doniphon sees that she prefers Stoddard.

In the climactic gunfight, Stoddard is wounded and Valance is killed. The deed makes Stoddard so famous that he is urged to run for Congress. He feels guilty about starting a political career on an act of violence, until Doniphon tells him that he wasn’t the killer. He, Doniphon, shot Valance from a dark alley to save Stoddard‘s life.

“It was cold-blooded murder,” Doniphon says grimly. “But I can live with it.”

Stoddard must live with it, too, so that he can be a good husband to their girl and give their state honest representation in Washington.

With the killing of Liberty to preserve liberty, we get into the story’s real ironies. In previous Westerns, the cowboy hero nobly upheld righteousness by shooting the bad guys and was rewarded by the townspeople’s gratitude, a kiss from the leading lady and the audience’s cheers as he rode off into the sunset.

Doniphon forfeits all that by violating his gunfighter code of meeting an opponent boldly in a face-to-face fair contest. For a dubious noble cause, he sacrifices everything -- the woman he loves, his self-respect, and perhaps even his nobility. Knowing that he was an ignoble back-shooter is indeed a lot to live with.

As an added touch in keeping with the movie’s time period, Doniphon is a racist. He refers to his black employee, played by the great athlete and actor Woody Strode, as “My boy Pompey.” 1962 may have been the last year a Caucasian with a tinge of white supremacy could be admired for his other qualities.

In Tom Doniphon Ford and Wayne created the prototype antihero of such complex depth that later models like Clint Eastwood were paper-thin caricatures. He gives us a glimpse of reality’s frustrating contradictions, for he can’t be sure that Stoddard will be worthy of his sacrifices. No more than the Founding Fathers were guaranteed that risking their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor would inspire their posterity to fulfill the America they envisioned.

The road of life is so obscure and sketchy, so full of dangerous potholes and sharp curves and dotted with misleading signposts that traveling it requires faith in a higher power -- call it God, Fate, Karma, the Force or whatever -- to guide us from the little known past and present to the unknowable future. Conservatives accept that.

Liberals encounter no hazardous side roads or dead-ends on their grand highway to perfection. From claiming that Social Security funds are safe in a lockbox to insisting that government control of the medical system will provide superior health care to arguing that throwing money at climate change will make it stop changing, they can’t foresee that attempting to solve one problem can lead to more problems. When new problems arise, they blame conservatives.

They can scoff at conservative faith because they have “science.”  They are certain that performing certain acts will cause desired effects -- merely because they desire them, not because they have conducted experiments to test their theories. And hell hath no fury like that of liberals who don’t get what they desire.

Yet we are told that long, long ago there was something wonderful called Classical Liberalism that became corrupted over the years. But how could something so good become so bad, unless there was something bad in it from the beginning? Perhaps the Classical Liberals had some of their modern avatars’ egotism but didn’t make public displays of it. And there is little in their biographical records to indicate that they acted as today’s conservatives do.   

It’s hard to imagine such paragons as Milton, Locke, and John Stuart Mill coming down from their philosophical ivory towers to make the snap judgment to shoot Liberty. They relied on Shakespeare’s men of coarser blood (like Tom Doniphon) to charge unhesitatingly into the breach. Beyond the breach might be the glory of Agincourt or the anguish of Vietnam.

That’s just the way it is.

If you can’t live with it, you can’t live. You can only dangle in liberal half-life sneering down at those whose sanguine nourishment of the Liberty Tree keeps its branches strong enough to support your weight.

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