My mother is one of those women who relate through self effacement. For example, after being complemented on a wonderful Sunday dinner, she is likely to respond:
“I always serve peas with this meal; I don’t know why I served beans this time. Peas would have been much better don’t you think? Why didn’t I serve peas! ”
One of the things she regrets is that she passed up the opportunity to name me William Stark Stinson. In my family, William Stark is the name traditionally given to the first born male of each generation.
“Why didn’t I name you William Stark? I’m sure you would have appreciated it more than your cousin”.
Why William Stark?
Every New Hampshire school child learns the story of how on April 28, 1752 John Stark was captured by Indians while on a hunting trip near what is now Rumney, NH. He was used as bait to lure his brother, William, and William’s brother in-law David Stinson, into a trap. At the last minute, John broke free, knocked the Indians’ guns into the air just as they fired, saving his brother’s life.
But not, alas, Stinson’s.
Now some of you may be wondering how this event could result in a family name handed down through the generations, much less being taught to every school child.
How many of you know who John Stark is?
Still not ringing a bell?
Let me try another tack. How many of you know the NH state motto? It’s on all the license plates.
Yes, “Live Free or Die” was uttered by none other than John Stark!
(Actually he said “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils”.)
David did get a brook, a lake, and a mountain named after him. I am proud to share my surname with a mountain. A mountain memorializing my relative; the one famed for not being saved by John Stark, famous Revolutionary War hero!
Fortunately, there were other Stinsons around at the time, and one John Stinson became a local and state leader, one of NH’s first supporters of Thomas Jefferson and, according to the History of the Town of Dunbarton, a “strenuous advocate for religious freedom.”
The light of the “Founding Fathers” — Franklin, Adams, Madison, Jefferson — shines so bright it is difficult to remember they couldn’t have accomplished what they did without the support of men and women like John Stinson in all the towns and wilderness settlements of the 13 Colonies. By reading State Constitutions one can obtain an insight into the thinking of those lesser lights on a variety of topics, including religious freedom.
New Hampshire has the distinction of adopting an interim constitution on January 5, 1776, making NH the first of the Colonies to declare independence from Great Britain. They then argued for another 7 years (mostly about how to create a government without giving it any actual power) before adopting a final constitution in October 1783. You may think 7 years is a pretty long argument, but remember it was 8 more years before the Bill of Rights was adopted.
The NH constitution contains some remarkable statements. For example, Article 10 states that, should the government become tyrannical; the people have, not just the right, but the duty, to take up arms and overthrow the government. Beat that, Berkeley City Council!
Of more interest are Articles 1, 2 and 3. These declare that all people are born free and independent, and have inherent rights … not privileges granted by kings – or by the Constitution, but rights that are an intrinsic ingredient of being human. People may voluntarily surrender some of those rights to society in return for society’s protection of other rights, an idea known as the Social Contract, most famously explicated by John Locke.
But the epiphany comes in Article 4. Article 4 asserts that some rights cannot be surrendered to society, because there is nothing of equal value that society can return. The one such right listed is the Right of Conscience.
Think about that for a moment. The framers of this constitution are stating that there is NOTHING you can be given that is as valuable as your right to develop and hold personal beliefs of what is right and what is wrong. There is nothing as important as the freedom to pursue in your own way the answers to the ultimate questions of life and meaning. Not food, not shelter, not life itself. Nothing.
This is the meaning of “live free or die”.