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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

Our Forefathers

By John Quincy Adams (1767–1848)

[An Eulogy on the Life and Character of James Madison. Delivered in Boston, 27 September, 1836.]

WE reverse the order of sentiment and reflection of the ancient Persian king—we look back on the century gone by—we look around with anxious and eager eye for one of that illustrious host of patriots and heroes under whose guidance the revolution of American Independence was begun and continued and completed. We look around in vain. To them this crowded theatre, full of human life in all its stages of existence, full of the glowing exultation of youth, of the steady maturity of manhood, the sparkling eyes of beauty, and the gray hairs of reverend age—all this to them is as the solitude of the sepulchre. We think of this and say, how short is human life! But then, then, we turn back our thoughts again, to the scene over which the falling curtain has but now closed upon the drama of the day. From the saddening thought that they are no more, we call for comfort upon the memory of what they were, and our hearts leap for joy that they were our fathers. We see them, true and faithful subjects of their sovereign, first meeting with firm but respectful remonstrance the approach of usurpation upon their rights. We see them, fearless in their fortitude and confident in the righteousness of their cause, bid defiance to the arm of power, and declare themselves Independent States. We see them waging for seven years a war of desolation and of glory, in most unequal contest with their own unnatural stepmother, the mistress of the seas, till under the sign-manual of their king their Independence was acknowledged—and last and best of all, we see them, toiling in war and in peace to perpetuate an union, under forms of Government intricately but skilfully adjusted so as to secure to themselves and their posterity the priceless blessings of inseparable Liberty and Law.

Their days on earth are ended, and yet their century has not passed away. Their portion of the blessings which they thus labored to secure, they have enjoyed—and transmitted to us their posterity. We enjoy them as an inheritance—won, not by our toils—watered, not with our tears—saddened, not by the shedding of any blood of ours. The gift of heaven through their sufferings and their achievements—but not without a charge of correspondent duty incumbent upon ourselves.

And what, my friends and fellow-citizens, what is that duty of our own? Is it to remonstrate to the adder’s ear of a king beyond the Atlantic wave, and claim from him the restoration of violated rights? No. Is it to sever the ties of kindred and of blood, with the people from whom we sprang: to cast away the precious name of Britons and be no more the countrymen of Shakspeare and Milton, of Newton and Locke—of Chatham and Burke? Or more and worse, is it to meet their countrymen in the deadly conflict of a seven years’ war? No. Is it the last and greatest of the duties fulfilled by them? Is it to lay the foundations of the fairest Government and the mightiest nation that ever floated on the tide of time? No! These awful and solemn duties were allotted to them; and by them they were faithfully performed. What then is our duty?

Is it to preserve, to cherish, to improve the inheritance which they have left us—won by their toils—watered by their tears—saddened but fertilized by their blood? Are we the sons of worthy sires, and in the onward march of time have they achieved in the career of human improvement so much, only that our posterity and theirs may blush for the contrast between their unexampled energies and our nerveless impotence? Between their more than Herculean labors and our indolent repose? No, my fellow-citizens—far be from us—far be from you, for he who now addresses you has but a few short days before he shall be called to join the multitudes of ages past—far be from you the reproach or the suspicion of such a degrading contrast. You too have the solemn duty to perform, of improving the condition of your species, by improving your own. Not in the great and strong wind of a revolution, which rent the mountains and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord—for the Lord is not in the wind—not in the earthquake of a revolutionary war, marching to the onset between the battle-field and the scaffold—for the Lord is not in the earthquake—not in the fire of civil dissension—in war between the members and the head—in nullification of the laws of the Union by the forcible resistance of one refractory State—for the Lord is not in the fire; and that fire was never kindled by your fathers! No! it is in the still small voice that succeeded the whirlwind, the earthquake, and the fire. The voice that stills the raging of the waves and the tumults of the people—that spoke the words of peace—of harmony—of union. And for that voice, may you and your children’s children, “to the last syllable of recorded time,” fix your eyes upon the memory, and listen with your ears to the life of James Madison.