An Oration in Commemoration of the Anniversary of American Independence Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

It is the glory of nations, as it is of individuals, to increase in wisdom, as they advance in age, and to guide their concerns, not so much by the result of abstract reasonings, as by the dictates of experience. But this glory is no more the uniform felicity of ancient states, than of their ancient citizens. In the eighteenth century, the British nation had existed thirteen hundred years; seen ages roll away with wrecks of empires; marked thousands of experiments in the science and the art of civil government; and had risen to a lofty height of improvement, of freedom, and of happiness. It was yet the misfortune and the disgrace of this kingdom, so famous in the annals of modern Europe, to war with the principles of her own constitution, and to tread, with presumptuous step, the dangerous path of innovation and unrighteousness.

This sentiment will be vindicated by considering, as on this occasion we are bound “to consider, the feelings, manners, and principles, which led to the declaration of American independence, as well as the important and happy effects, whether general, or domestick, which have already flowed, or will forever flow, from the auspicious epoch of its date.”

In assisting your performance of this annual duty, my fellow-citizens, I claim the privilege, granted to your former orators, of holding forth the language of truth; and I humbly solicit a favour, of which they had no need, the most liberal exercise of your ingenuousness and benevolence.

The feelings of Americans were always the feelings of freemen. Those venerable men, from whom you boast your descent, brought with them to these shores an unconquerable sense of liberty. They felt, that mankind were universally entitled to be free; that this freedom, though modified by the restrictions of social compact, could yet never be annulled; and that slavery, in any of its forms, is an execrable monster, whose breath is poison, and whose grasp is death.

Concerning this liberty, however, they entertained no romantick notions. They neither sought nor wished the freedom of an irrational, but that of a rational being; not the freedom of savages, not the freedom of anchorites, but that of civilized and social man. Their doctrine of equality was admitted by sober understandings. It was an equality not of wisdom, but of right; not a parity of power, but of obligation. They felt and advocated a right to personal security; to the fruits of their ingenuity and toil; to reputation; to choice of mode in the worship of God; and to such a liberty of action, as consists with the safety of others, and the integrity of the laws.

Of rights like these, your ancestors cherished a love bordering on reverence. They had inhaled it with their natal air: it formed the bias and the boast of their minds, and indelibly stamped the features of their character. In their eyes honour had no allurement, wealth no value, and existence itself no charms, unless liberty crowned the possession of these blessings. It was for the enjoyment of this ecclesiastick and political liberty, that they encountered the greatest dangers, and suffered the sharpest calamities. For this they had rived the enchanting bonds, which unite the heart to its native country; braved the terrour of unknown seas; exchanged the sympathies and intercourse of fondest friendships, for the hatred and wiles of the barbarian; and all the elegancies and joys of polished life, for a miserable sustenance in an horrible desert.

It was impossible for descendants of such men not to inherit an abhorrence of arbitrary power. Numerous circumstances strengthened the emotion. They had ever been taught, that property acquires title by labour; and they were conscious of having expended much of the one for little of the other. They were thence naturally tenacious of what they possessed, and conceived, that no human power might legally diminish it without their consent. They had also sprung from a commercial people; and they inhabited a country, which opened to commerce the most luxuriant prospects. Of course, property with them was an object of unusual importance. Inhabitants of other regions might place their liberty in the election of their governours; but Americans placed it in the control of their wealth: and to them it was a matter of even less consequence, who wore the robes of office, or held the sword of justice, than who had the power of filling the treasury, and appropriating its contents.

The resolves and attempts, therefore, of the British government to raise an American revenue, they viewed as a thrust at their liberties. By these measures, they felt themselves wronged, vilified, and insulted. If they acknowledged the pretended right of parliament to bind them in all cases whatever, it cleft, like a ball of lightning, the tree of colonial liberty, giving its foliage to the winds, and its fruit to the dust. There was no joy, which it did not wither; no hope, which it did not blight. An angry cloud of adversity hung over every department of social life. Demands of business, offices of love, and rites of religion, were, in some sort, suspended, and the earliest apprehensions of the American infant were those of servitude and wretchedness. . . .

Here, then, you find the principles, which produced the event, we this day commemorate. They were the principles of common law and of eternal justice. They were the principles of men, who sought not to subvert the government, under which they lived, but to save it from degeneracy; not to create new rights, but to preserve inviolate such, as they had ever possessed, rights of the same sort, by which George III then sat, and still sits, on the throne of England, the rights of prescription.

Hence, through the progress of our revolution, these principles continued their operation. Armed in the uprightness of your cause, you disdained an appeal to those ferocious passions, which commonly desolate society in times of commotion. No man lost his life for resisting the general opinion. Instruction maintained its influence, law its terrours, and religion its divine and powerful authority. Property was secure, and character sacred; and the condition of the country was as remote from a savage democracy, as from a sullen despotism.

Such was the American revolution. It arose not on a sudden, but from the successless petitions and remonstrance of ten long years. It was a revolution, not of choice, but of necessity. It grew out of the sorrows and unacknowledged importance of the country; and having to obtain a definite object by definite means, that object being obtained, was gloriously terminated.

As evidence, that I have not misrepresented the “feelings, manners, and principles,” which gave birth to your independence, recollect the early, regular, and effectual methods adopted by the United States, to form a national constitution of civil government.

That continental patriotism, which, in a time of war, was able to bend individual interest to the common benefit, proved sluggish, precarious, and totally inadequate to the purposes of union and order in the season of peace. There lacked a principle of cohesion, springing from the certain tendencies of human passion, which should compel the knowledge, industry, and emulation of every citizen to promote the opulence and power of the country.

Such a cement was recognized in the federal constitution. Its healthful operations, guided by its celebrious framers and friends, revived the languishing spirit of Columbia. Our consequent rapid population had scarcely a parallel in history. Individuals suddenly multiplied into families, families into towns, and towns into populous and flourishing states. What liberty was to the people of Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, government was now to this country. It patronized genius and learning, gave stimulus to enterprize, and reward to labour. It encouraged agriculture and manufactures; unfurled the sails of commerce; lifted publick credit out of the mire of contempt; and placed America on a dignified eminence among the nations of the earth.

These are among the important and happy effects of a domestick nature, which have already flowed from our national independence.

There is, moreover, a general effect, which will forever flow from the auspicious epoch of July 4, 1776. As often, as the sun shall enlighten this day, in each successive revolution of our orb, it will admonish the rulers of mankind of the folly and danger of innovations in government. . . .

Be such national perverseness and instability far from Americans! The dust of Zion was precious to the exiled Jew, and in her very stones and ruins he contemplated the resurrection of her walls, and the augmented magnificence of her towers. A new glory, too, shall yet overspread our beloved constitution. The guardian God of America, he, who heard the groans of her oppression, and led her hosts to victory and peace, has still an ear for her complaints, and an arm for her salvation. That confidence in his care, which consists in steadfastness to his eternal statutes, will dispel the clouds, which darken her hemisphere.

Ye, therefore, to whom the welfare of your country is dear, unite in the preservation of the christian, scientifick, political, and military institutions of your fathers. This high tribute is due to those venerable sages, who established this Columbian festival, to the surviving officers and soldiers of that army, which secured your rights with the sword, and to the memory of their departed brethren. You owe it to the ashes of him, who, whether considered as a man among men, an hero among heroes, or a statesman among statesmen, will command the love and admiration of every future age. Yes, immortal Washington, amidst all the rancour of party, and war of opinions, we will remember thy dying voice, which was raised against the madness of innovation! “We will cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to our national union; accustoming ourselves to think and speak of it, as of the palladium of our political safety and prosperity.” You owe it to his great successor, who has now carried into retirement the sublime and delightful consciousness of having been an everlasting benefactor to his country. Enjoy, illustrious man, both here and hereafter, the recompense of the wise and good! And may the principles of free government, which you have developed, and the constitutions which you have defended, continue the pride of America, until the earth, palsied with age, shall shake her mountains from their bases, and empty her oceans into the immensity of space! You owe it to the civil fathers of this commonwealth, and in particular to him, who, thrice raised to its highest dignity, watches over its immunities with painful diligence, and governs it with unrivalled wisdom, moderation, and clemency. You owe it, in fine, Americans, to yourselves, to your posterity, and to mankind.

With daily and obstinate perseverance perform this momentous duty. Preserve unchanged the same correct feelings of liberty, the same purity of manners, the same principles of wisdom and piety, of experience and prescription, the same seminaries of learning, temples of worship, and castles of defence, which immortalize the memory of your ancestors. You will thus render yourselves worthy of their names and fortunes, of the soil which they watered with the sweat of their brows, and of the freedom, for which their blood was the sacrifice. You will thus give consistence, vigour, beauty, and duration to the government of your country; and, rich reward of your fidelity! you will witness a reign of such enlightened policy, firmness of administration, and unvaried justice, as shall recal and prolong to your enraptured eyes the age of Washington and of Adams.

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