Two hundred and forty-four years ago, this nation’s founders affixed their names to the Declaration of Independence, asserting themselves to the cause of liberty that had been under attack for decades by the British Crown. They pledged their reputations, fortunes and lives in defense of this inalienable right. Before the war’s end, many were forced to pay that price. 

Today, we as a nation and as a species are engaged in a great war against a new and formidable enemy. The world has never engaged in such a protracted battle against a threat as dangerous and enigmatic as COVID-19. As such, our governments have resorted to taking unparalleled actions to combat this virus, shutting down entire swaths of the economy and ordering people to remain in their homes.  

It is no surprise that in the light of these unprecedented actions, many people in this country feel as if their inalienable right to liberty is under attack. It is true that some of the stories from across the country are grim, such as the surfer being fined in California for surfing alone, the students who have been suspended from their schools for inviting their friends into their homes or the faithful who have been forbidden from congregating in their preferred places of worship. These anecdotal cases call into question whether the government’s true motives are to safeguard the public’s health or if their intentions are much more sinister. 

But before we can discuss whether our government has willfully chosen to trample our liberty, we must first discuss whether the prevailing understanding of what liberty means is in fact sound, or if it has been bastardized over the past two centuries by the entitlement that so often comes with a life absent true adversity.

James Wilson was a distinguished Pennsylvanian immortalized in the annals of American history for being a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, an influential craftsman of the Constitution and one of the six original justices of the Supreme Court, appointed by President George Washington. In a 1788 speech delivered in celebration of Independence Day and the ratification of the new constitution, Wilson cautions that other nations, even those with the noblest foundations, have sunk into tyranny when the people failed to uphold their virtue and sense of duty: “the enemies of liberty are artful and insidious. A counterfeit steals her dress, imitates her manner, forges her signature, assumes her name. But the real name of the deceiver is Licentiousness.”

Licentiousness is the selfish pursuit of personal autonomy without restraint or concern for one’s fellow citizens. It is unbridled self-indulgence that easily impersonates liberty when the understanding of liberty is not tempered by an equal understanding of justice. Wilson warns that unchecked licentiousness always leads to despotism. However, a dutiful citizen can stand watchful guard and endeavor to preserve justice and liberty through their individual actions: “in battle, every soldier should consider the public safety as depending on his single arm. At an election, every citizen should consider the public happiness as depending on his single vote.” It is not difficult to imagine that if Wilson were to give this speech today, he would say that in a pandemic, every person should consider public health as depending on his single mask.

As all of those reading this are acutely aware, a movement has risen in opposition to the mask mandates enacted by governors across the country. Its most vocal proponents loudly assert that these mandates are an affront to their liberty and are tantamount to tyranny. But when we consider what Wilson warned us of in his speech, it is clear that those who subscribe to this outlook have been duped by that beguiling and dangerous counterfeit that he so feared. All true lovers of liberty should steadfastly reject her siren song or we will surely be devoured. To preserve our beloved liberty, we must not forget that our duty is first to each other. It is only when people forget this that a pathway opens for a true tyrant to walk in. We must not allow this to happen. We must all wear our masks.

BRENDEN FEINGERTS is a graduate student in the Yale School of Medicine’s Physician Associate program. He has a bachelor’s degree in American history from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Contact him at brenden.feingerts@yale.edu.