Reflections on the Battle of Ideas

As nearly 500 Pennsylvanians gather in Harrisburg on April 15-16 to be part of the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the battle of ideas in which the Commonwealth Foundation engages on a daily basis.

We are not a political action committee, lobbying firm or special interest group seeking a hand-out or political favor. We endeavor to educate our policymakers and opinion leaders about the ideas and principles that animated our Founding Fathers to establish what would become the greatest nation mankind has ever known.

The following was a brief closing to a Commonwealth Foundation dinner with supporters in 2002 (with some minor updating—our family has been blessed with another child since then). I trust these words still ring true today as I believe they did three years ago.

For Liberty,
Matthew J. Brouillette

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If you love liberty as much as I do, you wake up everyday to a war—a war of ideas, a war of competing philosophies of freedom, a war on our basic human rights to life, liberty, and property.

And the truth is that it is a war that can be downright discouraging. If you’re keeping score—and I encourage you not to—the time-honored virtues that made this country the freest, most prosperous nation in history are taking hits on a daily basis.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am an optimist to the core of my being—I already know the end of the story. But I must admit that it is very easy to fall into the trap of pessimism.

Yet I can’t.

I have three small, smiling faces and a beautiful bride at home that force me to get up and fight every day. In fact, I even burdened my middle child with my cause by naming her Liberty!

But when I think about things in an historical perspective, I am reminded of those people who have gone before us in this fight for freedom. They most definitely had reasons to throw in the towel—but didn’t!

Consider William Lloyd Garrison. This man spent his entire life trying to abolish slavery in America. He never led or managed much more than a small band of followers. But it was his steadfast determination and passionate commitment to the cause of freedom that made him a catalyst of significant change.

For thirty-five years, Garrison published more than 1,800 issues of his anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator. And, today, I draw my inspiration from the editorial in the first issue of his paper on January 1, 1831—more than 30 years before Garrison’s dream of abolition would be realized.

His words encourage me in the justness and urgency of our own current struggle for freedom. Here’s what he wrote:

“I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard!”

In 2005, despite what may appear as insurmountable opposition to our cause, remember that we are on the winning side! Remember William Lloyd Garrison and stay the course.

Let me conclude with a quote from Samuel Adams—a man who many times, I am sure, felt like giving up in his struggle for freedom.

He reminds us that “It does not take a majority to prevail … but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.”

Do not equivocate, do not excuse, and do not retreat a single inch. And thank you for all you do to help us set “brushfires of freedom” in the minds of our fellow Pennsylvanians.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit research and educational public policy institute located at the foot of the Capitol in Harrisburg.