from Red Cross Magazine
Billy Brad, the Free and Equal
by Ellis Parker Butler
When Billy Brad was six years old, one of the things of which he was proudest was his garden, because it was his very own garden and he had hoed it and raked it and planted it himself and all the vegetables in it were growing nicely. Often, in the afternoon, he took Uncle Peter Henry's hand and led Uncle Peter Henry to the garden, so that he might see it.
It was not a large garden. It was one of forty or fifty gardens in a single vacant lot near the schoolhouse and each garden was about the size of a large tablecloth. Each garden had a large stake at each corner and a small stick at the head of each row of beans or radishes or beets, and on each stick was the empty seed envelope, with the picture of beans or radishes or beets in gay colors.
All the children who farmed these little farms were proud of their own and each child was eager to have every seed become a strong, healthy plant and produce fine vegetables and, at recess and after school, they hoed and pulled weeds and watered their little farms with great eagerness. Each wanted to grow the best vegetables.
Thus it happened that one fine June morning Billy Brad thought he would not go to school. He thought he would work in his garden and pull every weed and water every plant and make his garden as neat and tidy as it could possibly be.
So he did just that. He played truant and he did not go to school. He went to the garden lot and worked in his garden. He worked for almost an hour but it seemed much longer than that because he was all alone in the garden lot, with no one else working there. By ten o'clock, he was quite sure it must be noon and ten minutes later he was quite positive it must be noon and, five minutes later, although he saw no children going home from school, he was absolutely certain it was noon and that he must have been mistaken in the day; that this day must be Saturday.
Billy Brad dropped the watering can he had been using and started for home.
He was so sure he would be late for luncheon that he took the shortest cut and ran across the garden lot without caring where he put his feet.
He ran right across the little farms, stepping on the rows of radishes and beets and peas, and suddenly a loud voice said:
"Hey, you! What are you doing? Come out of there!"
Billy Brad stopped short. On the sidewalk stood the truant officer in his blue uniform, with his silver badge on the coat, and the truant officer was looking very cross and provoked.
"Come out of there now!" shouted the truant officer and Billy Brad walked toward him. He was a badly frightened Billy Brad.
"What do you mean, ruining those gardens?" the truant officer asked. "Don't you know any better? Where were you going?"
"I was going home," Billy Brad said. "I was working in my garden, and I was through working in my garden, and I was going home."
"Oh, ho!" said the truant officer. "So you have one of those gardens! Then you go to school, do you? Then why are you not in school? Tell me that!"
Billy Brad did not know what to say, he was so badly frightened.
"Playing truant, are you?" said the truant officer unpleasantly. "Playing truant and tramping down the other kids' gardens, are you? Well, I guess you'd better come along with me this time! What's your name?"
It was at that moment Uncle Peter Henry came around the corner and saw Billy Brad and the truant officer. He hurried up and asked the truant officer all about it.
"I'm sorry to hear such things about William Bradley, Junior, Mr. Truant Officer," Uncle Peter Henry said, "But I think this time you can leave Billy Brad to me, in view of the -- ah -- extreme youth of the culprit and his former good behavior. He has no past record of crime, I imagine?"
"Well, no, sir," said the truant officer, grinning. "This is his first offense, so far as I know. Take him along with you, and see that he ruins no more gardens and plays truant no more. Good day to you!"
Uncle Peter Henry looked at Billy Brad through his big spectacles with the tortoise-shell rims and then he looked at the garden lot across which the deep prints of Billy Brad's feet made an ugly track.
"You came straight across all the gardens, didn't you, Billy Brad?" Uncle Peter Henry asked. "Why did you?"
"I was going home," Billy Brad said. "I wanted to go home quick! It was quicker that way, Uncle Peter Henry."
"I see!" said Uncle Peter Henry. "You are a free American and you go where you please; is that it? Freedom is a great word, Billy Brad; we Americans believe in freedom. Those wise old forefathers who made America a nation told us we should always have freedom. Freedom and equality -- that was what they fought for, Billy Brad. Can you remember that?"
"Yes, Uncle Peter Henry," said Billy Brad.
"Why did you not go to school today?" Uncle Peter Henry asked.
"I -- I wanted to work in my garden," said Billy Brad. "I -- I wanted to pull out the weeds. And hoe it! And sprinkle some water on it!"
"I see!" Uncle Peter Henry said. "But why are not the other little boys and girls working in their gardens this morning?"
"They -- they're in school," said Billy Brad. "They had to go to school. It's Friday."
"Oh, yes!" said Uncle Peter Henry. "It is Friday and so they have to go to school. Let me see -- in this state the law says all children must go to school, doesn't it?"
"Yes, sir," said Billy Brad meekly.
"All children except Billy Brad; is that it?" asked Uncle Peter Henry.
"No, sir," said Billy Brad, still more meekly, "I have to go to school too."
"Is -- it -- possible!" exclaimed Uncle Peter Henry, as if surprised to hear it. "Is -- it -- possible! Can it be that the Constitution of the United States guarantees everyone freedom and equality, and still Billy Brad has to go to school whether he wants to or does not want to? Can it be that 'freedom' is the great word in this nation and still Billy Brad cannot do as he pleases?"
"I don't know," said Billy Brad. "I ask you," said Uncle Peter Henry, setting his tortoise-shell glasses more firmly on his nose, and looking at Billy Brad severely, "if it can be possible that the truant officer can arrest you and take you back to school when you don't want to go? Can it be possible that -- if your parents don't care whether you go to school or not, and you play truant every day -- the government can take you and put you in a school where you will have to stay? Can this be possible, Billy Brad, in a land of freedom and equality?"
"Yes, sir," said Billy Brad doubtfully. "Or, anyway, Uncle Peter Henry, there was a boy in our school, and -- and --"
"They took him!" Uncle Peter Henry finished. "They took him and sent him to a school where he had to learn his lessons. Billy Brad, do you know what would happen if all the boys and all the girls and all the men and all the women walked wherever they pleased -- all over this garden lot, for example?"
"They -- they would spoil all the gardens," said Billy Brad promptly. "They would spoil everybody's gardens."
"And if everyone lived exactly as they pleased?" asked Uncle Peter Henry. "If Mr. Smith shot Mr. Brown's cow when he wanted meat, and Mr. Green stole Mrs. Murphy's chickens when he wanted poultry, and Mr. Brown burned down your father's house when he wanted to be warm? What then, Billy Brad?"
"Why -- why --" said Billy Brad.
"Exactly!" said Uncle Peter Henry. "You say it would spoil everything for everybody. Every life would be spoiled. It would be a terrible world to live in. Is that it? Is that what you say?"
"Yes sir," said Billy Brad softly.
"But," said Uncle Peter Henry, "if everyone did exactly as he pleased, everyone would be free, wouldn't he? And if everyone had the right to do exactly as he pleased all would be equal, wouldn't they?"
"Yes, Uncle Peter Henry," said Billy Brad, "but --"
"But the big boys could walk over your garden; and you could not stop them, while they could pound you and kill you if you tried to walk on their gardens; is that it? You would not be free and you would not be equal, if you were as free and equal as all that, would you?"
"No, sir," said Billy Brad, quite sure, this time, he was saying the right thing, because now he understood what Uncle Peter Henry meant.
"Well," asked Uncle Peter Henry, "why don't the big boys spoil your garden? Why don't Mr. Smith shoot Mr. Brown's cow? Why don't Mr. Brown burn your father's house?"
"The policemen would arrest them, wouldn't they?" asked Billy Brad timidly.
"What right have the policemen to do that?" Uncle Peter Henry asked.
"Why -- why -- because it's against the law to spoil my garden," said Billy Brad.
"And the law protects you," said
Uncle Peter Henry. "It protects you and me and Mr. Smith and Mr. Brown and Mrs. Murphy and your father and everyone. It says you must go to school but it says everybody must go to school. It says I must not steal but it says no one may steal. Equality, Billy Brad, means that it is the duty of one and all to obey the same law. Can you say that? Say it: Equality; the duty of one and all to obey the same law!"
"Equality; the duty of one and all to obey the same law!" repeated Billy Brad.
"And freedom," said Uncle Peter Henry, "does not mean that any one may do as he pleases, injuring every other person. Freedom, in America, means that no one person can tell me what to do. No king can order me about; no baron can take my property; no sultan can take my wife. I do not have to obey any king or baron or sultan. Freedom is the right to obey only the law. Can you say that, Billy Brad? Say it: Freedom; the right to obey only the law."
"Freedom; the right to obey only the law," Billy Brad repeated. "But Uncle Peter Henry --", he said.
"Yes, Billy Brad."
"But I have to obey -- the truant officer, too, don't I?"
Uncle Peter Henry laughed
"No; you don't have to obey the truant officer," he said.
"But I do have to," Billy Brad insisted.
"No, Billy Brad," Uncle Peter Henry said, "you have to obey the law and nothing but the law, and I have to obey the law and nothing but the law."
"But the truant officer arrested me," said Billy Brad.
"Why?" asked Uncle Peter Henry, and Billy Brad did not answer.
"Because you had not obeyed the law and were not in school, and because you had not obeyed the law and were spoiling the school gardens. Billy Brad, you may be too young yet to understand it fully but this is the land of the greatest freedom and the greatest equality to be found in the world. No man has to obey any other man. I do not have to 'obey' the President of the United States, or the Governor of New York, or the Mayor, or the Judge, or the Policeman or any other man; I need obey only the law and, if I do obey the law, no President or Governor or Mayor or Policeman can order me to do any other thing. So I am free. And the laws I must obey all others must obey, so we are all equal. And the laws I must obey and that others must obey are made by us who must obey them (or by those we ask to make them for us, which is the same thing) and that is democracy. And, Billy Brad, in a world that is yearly and daily and hourly becoming more and more crowded, a democracy, with all men and women free and equal under the law, is the only form of government sanely possible. Do you know why?"
For a moment Billy Brad rubbed the dust out of a crack in the walk with the toe of his shoe, and then he looked up at Uncle Peter Henry's tortoise-shell glasses.
"Because -- because we don't want to spoil each others' gardens, Uncle Peter Henry!" Uncle Peter Henry clapped him approvingly on the back.
"You've hit it, Billy Brad!" he said heartily; "You've hit it right spang in the bull's-eye!"