If you have ever been to New Hampshire (I personally have not), a four-word phrase stamped on every license plate has probably caught your eye: Live free or die. 

Recognized by the state in 1945, “Live free or die” is the official motto of New Hampshire. Standing in stark contrast to the softer mottos of most other states, the one the Granite State has adopted is forceful and unforgettable. But while this sharp phrase might make you stop for a second, it is unquestionably a clear testament to the constant struggle for freedom in the United States. This country is not perfect, but since the American Revolution’s first shots were fired in 1775, our nation has been slowly progressing toward a republic that protects everybody’s freedom (an undertaking that has not been quick or easy). As current college students, we are the next generation that will continue the battle for freedom; we cannot falter and give up our great liberties. 

Our nation’s constant fight for freedom is embedded in the very fabric of our country, and all of the people who have been proud to call themselves Americans. In the 18th century, a group of British subjects in 13 distinct colonies adopted the radical ideas of liberty, independence and democracy — and created a country governed by “We the People.”

The U.S.’s struggle for freedom didn’t end with the ratification of the Constitution; rather, it was just beginning. Almost a full century later, our country went to the battlefield again to fight another war for freedom against itself, the Civil War. For four years, President Abraham Lincoln and many Union soldiers fought against the horrific institution of slavery and upheld the idea that all human beings are created equal. In the 1940s, American forces joined the Allied Powers in toppling Nazi Germany and ending the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II. And in the 1950s and 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets in the Civil Rights Movement, which directly ended the racist practice of Jim Crow segregation and paved the way for a society that was equal for all, regardless of race or background. Racism sadly didn’t end here, but every day men and women who fought tirelessly in the Civil Rights Movement made massive strides toward an equal and just society.

Since March, state governors and political leaders across the nation have imposed school and business closures, stay-at-home orders and lockdowns in an effort to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. These measures, while well-intentioned and founded in science, have led a subset of Americans, particularly those who may value individual rights and liberties, to take to the streets to express their discontent. 

Rather than see these protesters as citizens who neglect science and refuse to support public health efforts — sentiments that are absolutely accurate in most cases — perhaps we can see these people through a different lens. Of course, it is un-American to not wear a mask and refuse to follow health guidelines, but I can’t think of anything more American than standing up for freedom. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and case tallies surpass previous records from the spring, it is obvious that our country is well-positioned to strike a balance between improving our public health and exercising our individual liberties. These demonstrators, as wrong as their claims are, deserve praise for one thing; protesters are the force that puts a check on government power, which is particularly important in times of national emergencies like these.

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged over the summer, our nation fought for freedom on another front that we must also acknowledge: The fight against racism and for racial equality across America. On a scale that most people only remember from the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century, millions of Americans, from here in Ann Arbor to metropolises like Chicago and New York City, descended on streets to stand up against racism. 

This, again, falls directly in line with our country’s timeless struggle for freedom. Americans don’t just fight wars for freedom against the British in the Revolutionary War and Germany in World War II; we partake in the fight for liberty to ensure that everybody, regardless of background, is on equal footing in our country to succeed. While not everybody might consider this a fight for freedom in the traditional sense as “Live free or die,” we ought to. The U.S. stands up for liberty at every turn, and will continue to do so. 

Why must we recognize the constant efforts that Americans spanning generations have put forth in order to secure freedom? As former President Ronald Reagan famously said, “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people.” 

As firmly embedded as our country seems to be in the fight for liberty, our struggle is never finished. Our freedoms are never secure if we don’t keep fighting for them, regardless of the deceptive illusion of American life that appears so stable and unbreakable. As Reagan commanded us in his address, we can never grow weary in our battle for liberty or become complacent. We have freedoms today because past generations of Americans continued the fight, refusing to grow exhausted and abandon the battlefield.

More than ever before, as our freedom continues to come under constant fire, we must hold New Hampshire’s memorable motto dear and “Live free or die.” This nation was built on freedom, and with our steadfast commitment, nobody can take it.

Evan Stern can be reached at erstern@umich.edu

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