Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Francis Marion: 'It is plainly the duty of government,' 1795

Sometimes a voice jumps off the page and demands to be heard, even from two centuries' distance.

So it is with Francis Marion, our historic Swamp Fox, who had a fortuitous last meeting with his biographer, Mason Locke Weems, in 1795. "Knowledge is wanting!" Marion declared to Weems. "Israel of old, you know, was destroyed for lack of knowledge; and all nations, all individuals, have come to naught from the same cause."

"If those that are free and happy, did but know their blessings, do you think they would ever exchange them for slavery? If the Carthagenians, for example, in the days of their freedom and self-government, when they obeyed no laws but of their own making; paid no taxes, but for their own benefit; and, free as air, pursued their own interest as they liked; I say, If that once glorious and happy people had known their blessings, would they have sacrificed them all, by their accursed factions, to the Romans, to be ruled, they and their children, with a rod of iron; to be burdened like beast, and crucified like malefactors?"

Weems allowed that surely the Carthagenians would not have, and Marion brought the subject home to South Carolina.

"Well, now to bring this home to ourselves. We fought for self-government; and God hath pleased to give us one, better calculated perhaps to protect our rights, to foster our virtues, to call forth our energies, and to advance our condition nearer to perfection and happiness, than any government that was ever framed under the sun."

"But what signifies even this government, divine as it is, if it not be known and prized as it deserves?"

Weems wrote that he asked Marion how the veteran proposed to bring such knowledge into widespread possession.

Marion replied, "Why certainly, by free schools."

Weems advised his host that the South Carolina legislature of the day would likely never support the expense of such a proposal. The thought drew Marion's tense response:

God preserve our Legislature from such penny wit and pound foolishness. What sir, keep a nation in ignorance, rather than vote a little of their own money for education! Only let such politicians remember what poor Carolina has already lost through her ignorance. What was it that brought the British, last war, to Carolina, but her lack of knowledge? Had the people been enlightened, they would have been united; and had they been united, they would never have been attacked a second time by the British. For after that drubbing they got from us at Fort Moultrie, in 1776, they would as soon have attacked the devil as attacked Carolina again, had they not heard that they were 'a house divided against itself'; or in other words, had amongst us a great number of tories; men who, through mere ignorance, were disaffected the cause of liberty, and ready to join the British against their own countrymen. Thus, ignorance begat toryism, and toryism begat losses in Carolina, of which few have any idea.

...the enormous price of public property, in the last war, being no more, as before observed, than the natural effect of public ignorance, ought to teach us that of alol sins, there is none so hateful to God as national ignorance; that unfailing spring of national ingratitude, rebellion, slavery, and wretchedness.

As proof that such hellish tragedies would never have been acted, had our state but been enlightened, only let us look at the people of New England. From Britain, their fathers had fled for religion's sake. Religion had taught them that God created men to be happy; that to be happy they must have virtue; that virtue is not to be attained without knowledge, nor knowledge without instruction, nor public instruction without free schools, nor free schools without legislative order.

Among a people who fear God, the knowledge of duty is the same as doing it. Believing it to be the first command of God, 'let there be light', and believing it to be the will of God that 'all should be instructed, from the least to the greatest,' these wise legislators at once set about public instruction. They did not ask, how will my constituents like this? Won't they turn me out? Shall I not lose my three dollars per day? No! But fully persuaded that public instruction is God's will, because the people's good, they set about it like the true friends of the people.

Now mark the happy consequence. When the war broke out, you heard of no division in New England, no toryism, nor any of its horrid effects; no houses in flames, kindled by the hands of fellow-citizens, no neighbors waylaying and shooting their neighbors, plundering their property, carrying off their stock, and aiding the British in the cursed work of American murder and subjugation. But on the contrary, with minds well informed of their rights, and hearts glowing with love for themselves and posterity, they rose up against the enemy, firm and united, as a band of shepherds against the ravening wolves.

In short, my dear sir, men will always fight for their government according to their sense of its value. To value it aright they must understand it. This they cannot do without education. And, as a large portion of the citizens are poor, and can never attain that inestimable blessing without the aid of government, it is plainly the duty of government to bestow it freely upon them. And the more perfect the government, the greater the duty to make it well known. Selfish and oppressive governments must 'hate the light and fear to come to it, because their deeds are evil.' But a fair and cheap government, like our republic, 'longs for the light and rejoices to come to the light, that it may be manifested to be from God,' and well worth all the vigilance and valor that an enlightened nation can rally for its defence. And, God knows, a good government can hardly ever be half anxious enough to give its citizens a thorough knowledge of its own excellencies. For, as some of the most valuable truths, for lack of promulgation, have been lost, so the best government on earth, if not widely known and prized, may be subverted. Ambitious demagogues will rise, and the people through ignorance, and love of change, will follow them.

In describing Marion's demeanor in this last conversation, Weems wrote that the hero's "agitation was great, his voice became altered and broken; and his face kindled over with that living fire with which it was wont to burn, when he entered the battles of his country."

As tremendous a strategist and soldier as he was in times of the American Revolution, Marion might have made one of South Carolina's greatest champions of public education had he lived in a later century. In his absence, who are the state's champions of public instruction today?

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