Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Men of the Revolution

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Men of the Revolution

By Jared Sparks (1789–1866)

[Remarks on American History. 1837.]

THE ACTS of the Revolution derive dignity and interest from the character of the actors, and the nature and magnitude of the events. It has been remarked, that in all great political revolutions, men have arisen, possessed of extraordinary endowments, adequate to the exigency of the time. It is true enough, that such revolutions, or any remarkable and continued exertions of human power, must be brought to pass by corresponding qualities in the agents; but whether the occasion makes the men, or men the occasion, may not always be ascertained with exactness. In either case, however, no period has been adorned with examples more illustrious, or more perfectly adapted to the high destiny awaiting them, than that of the American Revolution.

Statesmen were at hand, who, if not skilled in the art of governing empires, were thoroughly imbued with the principles of just government, intimately acquainted with the history of former ages, and, above all, with the condition, sentiments, and feelings of their countrymen. If there were no Richelieus nor Mazarines, no Cecils nor Chathams, in America, there were men, who, like Themistocles, knew how to raise a small state to glory and greatness.

The eloquence and the internal counsels of the Old Congress were never recorded; we know them only in their results; but that assembly, with no other power than that conferred by the suffrage of the people, with no other influence than that of their public virtue and talents, and without precedent to guide their deliberations, unsupported even by the arm of law or of ancient usages—that assembly levied troops, imposed taxes, and for years not only retained the confidence and upheld the civil existence of a distracted country, but carried through a perilous war under its most aggravating burdens of sacrifice and suffering. Can we imagine a situation, in which were required higher moral courage, more intelligence and talent, a deeper insight into human nature and the principles of social and political organizations, or, indeed, any of those qualities which constitute greatness of character in a statesman? See, likewise, that work of wonder, the Confederation, a union of independent states, constructed in the very heart of a desolating war, but with a beauty and strength, imperfect as it was, of which the ancient leagues of the Amphictyons, the Achæans, the Lycians, and the modern confederacies of Germany, Holland, Switzerland, afford neither exemplar nor parallel.

In their foreign affairs those same statesmen showed no less sagacity and skill, taking their stand boldly in the rank of nations, maintaining it there, competing with the tactics of practised diplomacy, and extorting from the powers of the old world not only the homage of respect, but the proffers of friendship.

The military events of the Revolution, which necessarily occupy so much of its history, are not less honorable to the actors, nor less fruitful in the evidences they afford of large design and ability of character. But these we need not recount. They live in the memory of all; we have heard them from the lips of those who saw and suffered; they are inscribed on imperishable monuments; the very hills and plains around us tell of achievements which can never die; and the day will come, when the traveller, who has gazed and pondered at Marathon and Waterloo, will linger on the mount where Prescott fought and Warren fell, and say—here is the field where man has struggled in his most daring conflict; here is the field where liberty poured out her noblest blood, and won her brightest and most enduring laurels.

Happy was it for America, happy for the world, that a great name, a guardian genius, presided over her destinies in war, combining more than the virtues of the Roman Fabius and the Theban Epaminondas, and compared with whom, the conquerors of the world, the Alexanders and Cæsars, are but pageants crimsoned with blood and decked with the trophies of slaughter, objects equally of the wonder and the execration of mankind. The hero of America was the conqueror only of his country’s foes, and the hearts of his countrymen. To the one he was a terror, and in the other he gained an ascendancy, supreme, unrivalled, the tribute of admiring gratitude, the reward of a nation’s love.

The American armies, compared with the embattled legions of the old world, were small in numbers, but the soul of a whole people centred in the bosom of these more than Spartan bands, and vibrated quickly and keenly with every incident that befell them, whether in their feats of valor, or the acuteness of their sufferings. The country itself was one wide battle-field, in which not merely the life-blood, but the dearest interests, the sustaining hopes, of every individual, were at stake. It was not a war of pride and ambition between monarchs, in which an island or a province might be the award of success; it was a contest for personal liberty and civil rights, coming down in its principles to the very sanctuary of home and the fireside, and determining for every man the measure of responsibility he should hold over his own condition, possessions, and happiness. The spectacle was grand and new, and may well be cited as the most glowing page in the annals of progressive man.

The instructive lesson of history, teaching by example, can nowhere be studied with more profit, or with a better promise, than in this revolutionary period of America; and especially by us, who sit under the tree our fathers have planted, enjoy its shade, and are nourished by its fruits. But little is our merit, or gain, that we applaud their deeds, unless we emulate their virtues. Love of country was in them an absorbing principle, an undivided feeling; not of a fragment, a section, but of the whole country. Union was the arch on which they raised the strong tower of a nation’s independence. Let the arm be palsied, that would loosen one stone in the basis of this fair structure, or mar its beauty; the tongue mute, that would dishonor their names, by calculating the value of that which they deemed without price.

They have left us an example already inscribed in the world’s memory; an example portentous to the aims of tyranny in every land; an example that will console in all ages the drooping aspirations of oppressed humanity. They have left us a written charter as a legacy, and as a guide to our course. But every day convinces us, that a written charter may become powerless. Ignorance may misinterpret it; ambition may assail and faction destroy its vital parts; and aspiring knavery may at last sing its requiem on the tomb of departed liberty. It is the spirit which lives; in this are our safety and our hope; the spirit of our fathers; and while this dwells deeply in our remembrance, and its flame is cherished, ever burning, ever pure, on the altar of our hearts; while it incites us to think as they have thought, and do as they have done, the honor and the praise will be ours, to have preserved unimpaired the rich inheritance, which they so nobly achieved.