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A Lesson on Liberty from the Little House on the Prairie

One of America’s greatest children’s authors has become the latest casualty of our peculiar project of damnatio memoriae.
Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) on June 23 announced that the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award would now officially be called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. This, the ALSC announced, is due to the “inconsistency between Wilder’s legacy and its core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness through an award that bears Wilder’s name.” Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie novels feature characters with intense prejudice against American Indians, depict minstrel shows, and portray parental acts of corporal punishment. One of America’s greatest children’s authors has thus become the latest casualty of our peculiar project of damnatio memoriae, a society-wide condemnation of those Americans, no matter how noble or important, who violate our 21st century moral sensibilities regarding pluralism and tolerance. This is unfortunate, not only because of the literary power and inspiration of her books for generations of Americans (particularly young girls), but for her frequently mature, sophisticated reflections on the fundamental character of America.

Consider Laura’s reflection on Independence Day as recorded in Little Town on the Prairie:

The crowd was scattering away then, but Laura stood stock still. Suddenly she had a completely new thought. The Declaration and the Song came together in her mind, and she thought: God is America’s king. She thought: Americans won’t obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t anyone else to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.

Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. This is what it means to be free. It means, you have to be good. “Our Father’s God, author of Liberty—” The Laws of Nature and Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only law that gives you a right to be free.

What a young Wilder has acutely described, albeit inchoately, is a truth about liberty with ancient pedigree, yet perceived by many of the founders of our nation. We would be wary to forget it.

Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, authored more than 2000 years before Little House on the Prairie, argued that societies must engender virtue in their citizens so that they are able to perform their civic duty. He explains:  “the end of politics is the best of ends; and the main concern of politics is to engender a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions.” The end of politics—which for Aristotle is more comprehensive and is perhaps better translated “participation in the public sphere”—is the “good of man.” Elsewhere in his Politics, Aristotle similarly argues, “the political community must be set down as existing for the sake of noble deeds and not merely for living together.” Man is free precisely to be good, for his own betterment, and for that of society at large.

What will a life of virtue provide the citizen? Happiness, which Aristotle observes is what man chooses “as an end in itself and never for the sake of something else.” Though he refrains from connecting this happiness with the divine principle, such a relationship is not difficult to discern, when he terms happiness “an end which determines all our other desires… the highest good.” Elsewhere in his Physics and Metaphysics, Aristotle approaches this idea of God when he discusses the “unmoved mover,” who is pure act, perfect, and eternal contemplation—and something man in political society should seek to emulate.

St. Thomas Aquinas, writing a millennia-and-a-half after Aristotle, yet relying upon Aristotelian doctrines, similarly argues in his Commentary on the Politics that society exists for the sake of men “living well.” Aquinas then unites Christian theology with Aristotle’s political theory, defining man’s happiness as ultimately found in God. The actions of men and their political societies should thus reflect the goodness and justice of God. Their happiness and that of their nation will be in direct relationship to their faithfulness to the natural law established by their creator.

Many of the Founding Fathers likewise accepted the Aristotelian and Thomistic tenet that the preservation of our nation requires citizens perform virtuous behavior, informed by religious belief. Consider the following reflections from our first four presidents.

George Washington:

Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

John Adams:

Republican governments could be supported only by pure Religion or Austere Morals. Public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private Virtue, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

Thomas Jefferson:

Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?

James Madison:

Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks — no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea, if there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men. So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.”

Even visiting French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, could recognize the fact that the unique character of the United States, perhaps more than other nations, requires a virtuous people. He reflected in his prescient Democracy in America:

Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. Religion is much more necessary in the republic…than in the monarchy…How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?

What little Laura discovered that Fourth of July in late-19th century Midwest America was a doctrine present not in any founding document of our nation, but etched into the very essence of our national being. Freedom, contra certain libertarian or Leftist strains of American thought, cannot be unlimited in scope. For liberty to be, as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy famously defined it, “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” is to embolden a devolution of ethics and personal responsibility that is societally suicidal. Liberty must be checked and oriented by virtuous behavior obedient to the natural law and God’s law, lest it degenerate into chaos. Without this necessary formation, society veers in strange, self-destructive behaviors, evidenced in our sexual libertinism, narcotic addictions, and digital escapism, among others. Such behaviors, which necessarily weaken our bodies and bonds to community, also enfeeble our civic potential, making us more reliant on a state that is prone to totalitarian tendencies.

Does the Little House on the Prairie contain content that should make Americans ashamed of our historical sins? Absolutely. Laura’s mother’s explicit prejudice towards Native Americans is heinous and unacceptable. Yet those impulses are also moderated by the opinions of her father, who frequently expresses trust and admiration for the indigenous peoples they encounter. Were the Ingalls prone to excessive forms of discipline upon their children? Certainly. Yet for anyone who has read the books, the family exemplifies hard work, sacrifice, and love. The answer to our checkered historical past isn’t to blot it out or engage in a naive, short-sighted shaming of our ancestors. Rather we must routinely return to the past, wrestle with it, and learn from it.

Moreover, what narrative has our pluralist, progressivist society suggested we place in Little House’s stead? Only one based on a subjective utilitarian calculus that prioritizes human sense-based happiness, an amorphous criterion belied by our increasing unhappiness; only one based on Kant’s “categorical imperative,” another subjective criterion marked by a “defining deviancy down” as we limit those things we wish to be a universal law. Tolerating—or ignoring—our fellow citizens who make foolish, self-destructive decisions because of a refusal either to impede their sensual happiness or judge others’ behavior is hardly a civic virtue to run up the flagpole and salute. We need something more robust, more inspiring, and more transcendent. Pace our progressivist cultural demagogues, the wisdom of Laura Ingalls Wilder lights the way.

Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion for TAC.



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