The World’s Famous Orations.
America: I. (1761–1837). 1906.
The Issue in the Revolution
The march of both divisions of the royal army on the memorable 19th of April was through the limits of Cambridge; in the neighboring towns of Lexington and Concord the first blood of the Revolution was shed; in West Cambridge the royal convoy of provisions was, the same day, gallantly surprised by the aged citizens who stayed to protect their homes while their sons pursued the foe.
Here the first American army was formed; from this place, on the 17th of June, was detached the Spartan band that immortalized the heights of Charlestown and consecrated that day with blood and fire to the cause of American liberty. Beneath the venerable elm which still shades the southwestern corner of the common, General Washington first unsheathed his sword at the head of an American army, and to that seat was wont every Sunday to repair to join in the supplications which were made for the welfare of his country.
How changed is now the scene! The foe is gone! The din and the desolation of war are passed; science has long resumed her station in the shades of our venerable university, no longer glittering with arms; the anxious war council is no longer in session, to offer a reward for the discovery of the best mode of making saltpeter—an unpromising stage of hostilities when an army of twenty thousand men is in the field in front of the foe; the tall grass now waves in the trampled sallyport of some of the rural redoubts that form a part of the simple lines of circumvallation within which a half-armed American militia held the flower of the British army blockaded; the plow has done what the English batteries could not do—has leveled others of them with the earth; and the men, the great and good men, their warfare is over and they have gone quietly down to the dust they redeemed from oppression.
At the close of a half century since the declaration of our independence we are assembled to commemorate that great and happy event. We come together, not because it needs, but because it deserves these acts of celebration. We do not meet each other and exchange our felicitations because we should otherwise fall into forgetfulness of this auspicious era, but because we owe it to our fathers and to our children to mark its return with grateful festivities.
The major part of this assembly is composed of those who had not yet engaged in the active scenes of life when the Revolution commenced. We come not to applaud our own work but to pay a filial tribute to the deeds of our fathers. It was for their children that the heroes and sages of the Revolution labored and bled. They were too wise not to know that it was not personally their own cause in which they were embarked; they felt that they were engaging in an enterprise which an entire generation must be too short to bring to its mature and perfect issue.
The most they could promise themselves was, that, having cast forth the seed of liberty, having shielded its tender germ from the stern blasts that beat upon it, having watered it with the tears of waiting eyes and the blood of brave hearts, their children might gather the fruit of its branches, while those who planted it should molder in peace beneath its shade.
Nor was it only in this that we discern their disinterestedness, their heroic forgetfulness of self. Not only was the independence for which they struggled a great and arduous adventure, of which they were to encounter the risk and others to enjoy the benefits, but the oppressions which roused them had assumed in their day no worse form than that of a pernicious principle. No tolerable acts of oppression had ground them to the dust. They were not slaves rising in desperation from beneath the agonies of the lash, but free men, snuffing from afar “the tainted gale of tyranny.”
The worse encroachments on which the British ministry had ventured might have been borne consistently with the practical enjoyment of many of the advantages resulting from good government. On the score of calculation alone that generation had much better have paid the duties on glass, painter’s colors, stamped paper, and tea, than have plunged into the expenses of the Revolutionary War.
But they thought not of shuffling off upon posterity the burden of resistance. They well understood the part which providence had assigned to them. They perceived that they were called to discharge a high and perilous office to the cause of freedom; that their hands were elected to strike the blow for which nearly two centuries of preparation—never remitted, tho often unconscious—had been making on one side or the other of the Atlantic. They felt that the Colonies had now reached that stage in their growth when the difficult problem of colonial government must be solved—difficult I call it, for such it is to the statesman whose mind is not sufficiently enlarged for the idea that a wise colonial government must naturally and rightfully end in independence; that even a mild and prudent sway on the part of the mother country furnishes no reason for not severing the bands of the colonial subjection; and that when the rising State has passed the period of adolescence the only alternative which remains is that of a peaceable separation or a convulsive rupture.
The British ministry, at that time weaker than it had ever been since the infatuated reign of James II., had no knowledge of political science but that which they derived from the text of official records. They drew their maxims, as it was happily said of one of them that he did his measures, from the file. They heard that a distant province had resisted the execution of an act of Parliament. Indeed, and what is the specific in cases of resistance?—a military force; and two more regiments are ordered to Boston. Again they hear that the general court of Massachusetts Bay has taken counsels subversive of the allegiance due to the Crown. A case of a refractory corporation; what in to be done? First try a mandamus, and if that fails seize the franchises into his majesty’s hands.
They never asked the great questions: whether nations, like men, have not their principles of growth; whether providence has assigned no laws to regulate the changes in the condition of that most astonishing of human things, a nation of kindred men. They did not inquire, I will not say whether it were rightful and expedient, but whether it were practicable, to give law across the Atlantic to a people who possessed within themselves every imaginable element of self-government—a people rocked in the cradle of liberty, brought up to hardship, inheriting nothing but their rights on earth and their hopes in heaven.
But tho the rulers of Britain appear not to have caught a glimpse of the great principles involved in these questions, our fathers had asked and answered them. They perceived with the rapidity of intuition that the hour of separation had come; because a principle was assumed by the British government which put an instantaneous check to the further growth of liberty. Either the race of civilized man happily planted on our shores, at first slowly and painfully reared, but at length auspiciously multiplying in America, is destined never to constitute a free and independent State, or these measures must be resisted which go to bind it in a mild but abject colonial vassalage.
A mighty question of political right was at issue between the two hemispheres. Europe and America in the face of mankind are going to plead the great cause on which the fate of popular government for ever is suspended. One circumstance, and one alone, exists to diminish the interest of the contention—the perilous inequality of the parties—an inequality far exceeding that which gives animation to a contest, and so great as to destroy the hope of an ably waged encounter.
On the one side were arrayed the two houses of the British Parliament, the modern school of political eloquence, the arena where great minds had for a century and a half strenuously wrestled themselves into strength and power, and in better days the common and upright chancery of an empire on which the sun never set.
Upon the other side rose up the colonial assemblies of Massachusetts and Virginia, and the Continental Congress of Philadelphia, composed of men whose training had been within a small provincial circuit; who had never before felt the inspiration which the consciousness of a station before the world imparts; who brought no power into the contest but that which they drew from their cause and their bosoms.
It is by champions like these that the great principles of representative government, of chartered rights and constitutional liberty are to be discussed; and surely never in the annals of national controversy was exhibited a triumph on complete of the seemingly weaker party, a rout so disastrous of the stronger. Often as it has been repeated, it will bear another repetition; it never ought to be omitted in the history of constitutional liberty; it ought especially to be repeated this day; the various addresses, petitions, and appeals, the correspondence, the resolutions, the legislative and popular debates, from 1764 to the Declaration of Independence, present a maturity of political wisdom, a strength of argument, a gravity of style, a manly eloquence, and a moral courage, of which unquestionably the modern world affords no other example.
This need of praise, substantially accorded at the time by Chatham, in the British Parliament, may well be repeated by us. For most of the venerated men to whom it is paid it is but a pious tribute to departed worth. The Lees and the Henrys, Otis, Quincy, Warren, and Samuel Adams, the men who spoke those words of thrilling power which raised and ruled the storm of resistance and rang like the voice of fate across the Atlantic, are beyond the reach of our praise.