On the bleak and chill morning of December 31st, 1776, the men of the 13 colonies’ freedom fighting army prepared to lay down their arms, end the fight, and return home to their families. Their enlistment was up. They were freezing, exhausted, and ready to see the ones that they loved. These men had sacrificed so much, leaving not only their blood but their friends in the snow. After so much sacrifice, the cold, the hunger, the fatigue began to cast a shadow over the cause for which they had so long fought: the cause of freedom.
As they prepared to leave, General George Washington called on these men to say a final goodbye. He looked over them with respect and love in his eyes and somberly began a 52-word impromptu speech, commiserating with their hardships and earnestly asking that they stay for their wives, for their country, for their freedom. The men stood in silence as the reason they had started the fight became clear once again. One by one they stepped forward, committing themselves to continue the fight. The shadow lifted from their eyes, replaced with the light of future freedom and a resolve to make a difference.
These brave men changed the world. They fought for and earned their freedom, establishing a nation under God that would provide liberty and justice for all: The United States of America. Weapons were used to fight the war, but it was words that sparked it. It was words on the peace treaty, and it was words that were the driving force to victory.
On the relatively less bleak and chill evening of July 4th, 2021, I am living in a nation under God, which provides liberty and justice for all. I am living in the United States of America. And while I am not leaving bloody footsteps in the snow, am not ravaged by hunger, thirst, fatigue, or cold, I—along with the youth of my generation—have a choice to make and a battle to face.
To set the scene, imagine a blank canvas sprawled out over the face of our country. Every word we speak, every idea we put into the world is a splash of paint on this canvas. Most splashes are subtle and overlooked but beautiful nonetheless. Some are majestic and grand, grabbing the attention of thousands. And others are splotches on the face of the canvas, painful to look at and created with ugly intentions—intentions to harm, to hurt. The artists, you and I, see these ugly splotches and condemn them; we try to outweigh the ugly with the beautiful.
But there are others who, in an attempt to remove these splotches, propose we wipe the canvas clean and prevent future painting. In other words, there are those who, in an attempt to halt hateful speech, call for limiting our ability to speak. This is evidenced by the fact that over 40% of millennials in the U.S. call for limited speech according to the Pew Research Center. This is the battle my peers and I have to face. This is the choice we have to make: the choice between voiceless servitude and beautiful, dangerous freedom.
We alone must determine the future of this canvas, the future of our nation. The United States was founded on principles of freedom, specifically the freedoms found in the first amendment of the United States Constitution. The freedom to religion, to press, to protest, the freedom to speak. Without these freedoms, our country would not be. Our first president’s words to a beaten, battered group of men created our country. The words we speak now to our peers will save it or break it.
The end of a speech must have a call to action, and this is no exception. But in this case, it is not a call to action, it is the call to action. Youth of my generation, artists of the future, take up the brushes of your words and paint. Paint things of love, beauty, majesty! Outpaint the splotches, outshine in glory their attempts to create fear. Paint a masterpiece across the canvas of our country, of our world, with your words! Paint and never let your ability to paint, to speak be taken away from you. Take up your brushes, take up your words, and never let go.
Speech delivered by Abraham D. Olenslager at America’s Freedom Festival at Provo’s Patriotic Service on July 4, 2021