"And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice," Benjamin Franklin asked at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, "is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?" Franklin invoked the sparrow in service of his argument that the convention should open each day with a prayer. He didn't convince his fellow delegates, but his turn of phrase took its place in history: This year's holiday greeting card from Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne quotes it as a message for the season.

Perhaps the Cheneys were merely expressing their appreciation for God and faith. But coming from an administration that has invaded Afghanistan and occupied Iraq, the message might be read as suggesting a divine purpose for the United States as it assumes the burdens of "empire."

In either case, the sparrow's journey through literary and political history is more subtle and varied. It stretches back to the Bible, and makes stops along the way, including in the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope, as well as in a popular Negro spiritual. During World War II, it emerged as a central image in perhaps the greatest American meditation on the meaning of liberty, an essay by Judge Learned Hand.

All these allusions to the sparrow draw their inspiration from the Bible, specifically Matthew 10: 29-31. Jesus charges the 12 apostles to cast out evil spirits and heal sickness and disease. He warns that some people will oppose them, but assures his disciples that they need not be afraid:

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.

But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.

Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.

The sparrow here is evidence of God's omniscience and omnipotence. If the fate of the sparrow -- a symbol of the inconsequential -- is known and controlled by God, surely the disciples need not fear.

Shakespeare is more ambiguous. He introduces the sparrow in "Hamlet," just before the fateful duel between the prince and Laertes. Moments before, Horatio, sensing Hamlet's foreboding, urges him to withdraw. But Hamlet presses forward:

Not a whit, we defy augury; there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.

Here, while Hamlet pays homage to the Biblical sparrow in a fatalistic sense -- both sparrow and man will fall when "special providence" dictates -- the focus is what man makes of that condition, whether he has achieved "readiness" by defining his life's meaning. Like the play as a whole, it is a profoundly existential statement.

By contrast, in his philosophical poem "An Essay on Man," written more than a century after "Hamlet," Alexander Pope declares his purpose to be to "vindicate the ways of God to man." As the Norton Anthology puts it, he seeks to assert "the essential order and goodness of the universe and the rightness of man's place in it."

The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed today, Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?

Pleased to the last, he crops the flowery food And licks the hand just raised to shed his blood.

O blindness to the future! kindly given, That each may fill the circle marked by Heaven:

Who sees with equal eye, as God of all, A hero perish, or a sparrow fall, . . .

Rather than "readiness" being all as it is for Hamlet, "blindness" is central for Pope. Only if an omnipotent and omniscient God shields us from knowing the particulars of our fate in this life and the next, Pope writes in the next stanza, can it be that "Hope springs eternal in the human breast."

Reassurance is very much the spirit of the 1905 Negro spiritual entitled "His Eye is on the Sparrow." The chorus says:

I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free, For His eye is on the sparrow, And I know He watches me.

The words, by Civilla D. Martin, urge the listener to put aside fears and doubts, for the all-seeing and all-knowing God will protect.

The sparrow soared again in Learned Hand's May 21, 1944, speech at "I Am An American Day" in New York City's Central Park. That annual occasion -- wildly popular during wartime -- featured successive patriotic orations leading up to a climactic event, here a mass recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. On this particular day, Central Park bulged with 150,000 new citizens and nearly 1.5 million celebrants. Hand's speech immediately preceded the Pledge, which he led.

At age 72, Hand had served with distinction for 35 years as a federal judge, including 20 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (five as its chief). Though Hand's judicial opinions upholding free speech were well-known among lawyers, nothing he had written to that point or would write later received as much attention as this elegant little essay.

"What then is the spirit of liberty?" Hand asked. "I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned but has never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest."

The best-known line from the speech -- "the spirit which is not too sure that it is right" -- directly echoes a Franklin thought that did not make the Cheneys' card. Franklin remarked in his closing address to the 1787 Convention that "the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others." (Indeed, given current events, perhaps this Franklin quote would have been a more instructive adornment for the Cheneys' Christmas card.) Hand was an avowed atheist, and though he linked his sparrow to the divine -- to "Him who . . . taught mankind that lesson . . . " -- Hand's sparrow has little to do with omnipotent God. Nor does it relate to anything existential. Rather, Hand's sparrow is a symbol of the downtrodden and of the "lesson" to care for the neediest. Further, the sparrow is the vehicle for evoking an earthly kingdom, unattainable but nonetheless worth pursuing, where "the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest." The sparrow can also be seen as liberty itself: inspirational and, like all creative notions, powerful and fragile at the same time.

Hand's essay was later printed in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Life, and Reader's Digest. The Hand Papers at Harvard Law School contain hundreds of letters praising the essay, asking for reprints. No comment captures its essence better than that by the Italian translator who wrote in an English introduction: "The speech reveals the peculiar traits of the American mind; that is, lack of rhetoric, a spirit of tolerance, respect for other peoples, and solidarity (symbolized by the image of the fallen sparrow)."

Hand's sparrow is a messenger for all seasons, in wartime and in peace. And it carries a message befitting a kingdom or an empire -- or should we say a Republic? -- that values, in the words of the Declaration, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind."

Author's e-mail:

jeffrey.liss@piperrudnick.com

Jeffrey Liss is partner and chief operating officer of the law firm Piper Rudnick.