John Quincy Adams
July 04, 1837
Why is it, Friends and Fellow Citizens, that you are here assembled? Why is it, that, entering upon the sixty-second year of our national existence, you have honored with an invitation to address you from this place, a fellow citizen of a former age, bearing in the records of his memory, the warm and vivid affections which attached him, at the distance of a full half century, to your town, and to your forefathers, then the cherished associates of his youthful days? Why is it that, next to the birth day of the Savior of the World, your most joyous and most venerated festival returns on this day?—And why is it that, among the swarming myriads of our population, thousands and tens of thousands among us, abstaining, under the dictate of religious principle, from the commemoration of that birth-day of Him, who brought life and immortality to light, yet unite with all their brethren of this community, year after year, in celebrating this the birthday of the nation?
Is it not that, in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior? That it forms a leading event in the progress of the gospel dispensation? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon the earth? That it laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity, and gave to the world the first irrevocable pledge of the fulfilment of the prophecies, announced directly from Heaven at the birth of the Savior and predicted by the greatest of the Hebrew prophets six hundred years before?
Cast your eyes backwards upon the progress of time, sixty-one years from this day; and in the midst of the horrors and desolations of civil war, you behold an assembly of Planters, Shopkeepers and Lawyers, the Representatives of the People of thirteen English Colonies in North America, sitting in the City of Philadelphia. These fifty-five men on that day, unanimously adopt and publish to the world, a state paper under the simple title of ’A Declaration’.
The object of this Declaration was two-fold.
First, to proclaim the People of the thirteen United Colonies, one People, and in their name, and by their authority, to dissolve the political bands which had connected them with another People, that is, the People of Great Britain.
Secondly, to assume, in the name of this one People, of the thirteen United Colonies, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station, to which the Laws of Nature, and of Nature’s God, entitled them.
With regard to the first of these purposes, the Declaration alleges a decent respect to the opinions of mankind, as requiring that the one people, separating themselves from another, should declare the causes, which impel them to the separation.—The specification of these causes, and the conclusion resulting from them, constitute the whole paper.
The Declaration was a manifesto, issued from a decent respect to the opinions of mankind, to justify the People of the North American Union, for their voluntary separation from the People of Great Britain, by alleging the causes which rendered this separation necessary.
The Declaration was, thus far, merely and occasional state paper, issued for a temporary purpose, to justify, in the eyes of the world, a People, in revolt against their acknowledged Sovereign, for renouncing their allegiance to him, and dissolving their political relations with the nation over which he presided.
For the second object of the Declaration, the assumption among the powers of the earth of the separate and equal station, to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitled them, no reason was assigned,—no justification was deemed necessary.
The first and chief purpose of the Declaration of Independence was interesting to those by whom it was issued, to the people, their constituents in whose name it was promulgated, and to the world of mankind to whom it was addressed, only during that period of time, in which the independence of the newly constituted people was contested, by the wager of battle. Six years of War, cruel, unrelenting, merciless War,—War, at once civil and foreign, were waged, testing the firmness and fortitude of the one People, in their inflexible adherence to that separation from the other, which their Representatives in Congress had proclaimed. By the signature of the Preliminary Articles of Peace, on the 30th of November 1782, their warfare was accomplished, and the Spirit of the Lord, with a voice reaching to the latest of future ages, might have exclaimed, like the sublime prophet of Israel,—”Comfort ye, comfort ye my people. saith your God.” (Isaiah 40:1)
But, from that day forth, the separation of the one People from the other was a solitary fact in their common history; a mere incident in the progress of human events, not more deserving of special and annual commemoration by one of the separated parts, than by the other. Still less were the causes of the separation subjects for joyous retrospection by either of the parties.—The causes were acts of misgovenment committed by the King and Parliament of Great Britain. In the exasperation of the moment they were alleged to be acts of personal tyranny and oppression by the King. George the third was held individually responsible for them all. The real and most culpable oppressor, the British Parliament, was not even named, in the bill of pains and penalties brought against the monarch. – They were described only as “others” combined with him; and, after a recapitulation of all the grievances with which the Colonies had been afflicted by usurped British Legislation, the dreary catalogue was closed by the sentence of unqualified condemnation, that a prince, whose character was thus marked by every act which might define a tyrant, was unworthy to be the ruler of a free people.
The King, thus denounced by a portion of his subjects, casting off their allegiance to his crown, has long since gone to his reward. His reign was long, and disastrous to his people, and his life presents a melancholy picture of the wretchedness of all human grandeur; but we may now, with the candour of impartial history, acknowledge that he was not a tyrant. His personal character was endowed with many estimable qualities. His intentions were good; his disposition benevolent; his integrity unsullied; his domestic virtues exemplary; his religious impressions strong and conscientious; his private morals pure; his spirit munificent, in the promotion of the arts, literature and sciences; and his most fervent wishes devoted to the welfare of his people. But he was born to be a hereditary king, and to exemplify in his life and history the irremediable vices of that political institution, which substitutes birth for merit, as the only qualification for attaining the supremacy of power. George the third believed that the Parliament of Great Britain had the right to enact laws for the government of the people of the British Colonies in all cases. An immence majority of the people of the British Islands believed the same. That people were exclusively the constituents of the British House of Commons, where the project of taxing the people of the Colonies for a revenue originated; and where the People of the Colonies were not preresented. The purpose of the project was to alleviate the burden of taxation bearing upon the people of Britain, by levying a portion of it upon the people of the Colonies.—At the root of all this there was a plausible theory of sovereignty, and unlimited power in Parliament, conflicting with the vital principle of English Freedom, that taxation and representation are inseparable, and that taxation without representation is a violation of the right of property. Here was a conflict between two first principles of government, resulting from a defect in the British Constitution: the principle that sovereign power in human Government is in its nature unlimited; and the principle that property can lawfully be taxed only with the consent of its owner. Now these two principles, carried out into practice, are utterly irreconcileable with each other. The lawyers of Great Britain held them both to be essential principles of the British Constitution.—In their practical application, the King and Parliament and people of Great Britain, appealed for the right to tax the Colonies to the unlimited and illimitable sovereignty of the Parliament.—The Colonists appealed to the natural right of property, and the articles of the Great Charter. The collision in the application of these two principles was the primitive cause of the severance of the North American Colonies, from the British Empire. The grievances alleged in the Declaration of Independence were all secondary causes, amply sufficient to justify before God and man the separation itself; and that resolution, to the support of which the fifty-five Representatives of the One People of the United Colonies pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, after passing through the fiery ordeal of a six years war, was sanctioned by the God of Battles, and by the unqualified acknowledgement of the defeated adversary.
This, my countrymen, was the first and immediate purpose of the Declaration of Independence. It was to justify before the tribunal of public opinion, throughout the world, the solemn act of separation of the one people from the other.
But this is not the reason for which you are here assembled. The question of right and wrong involved in the resolution of North American Independence was of transcendant importance to those who were actors in the scene. A question of life, of fortune, of fame, of eternal welfare. To you, it is a question of nothing more than historical interest. The separation itself was a painful and distressing event; a measure resorted to by your forefathers with extreme reluctance, and justified by them, in their own eyes, only as a dictate of necessity.—They had gloried in the name of Britons: It was a passport of honour throughout the civilized world. They were now to discard it forever, with all its tender and all its generous sympathies, for a name obscure and unknown, the honest fame of which was to be achieved by the gallantry of their own exploits and the wisdom of their own counsels.
But, with the separation of the one people from the other, was indissolubly connected another event. They had been British Colonies,—distinct and separate subordinate portions of one great community. In the struggle of resistance against one common oppressor, by a moral centripetal impulse they had spontaneously coalesced into One People. They declare themselves such in express terms by this paper.—The members of the Congress, who signed their names to the Declaration, style themselves the Representatives, not of the separate Colonies, but of the United States of America in Congress. No one Colony is named in the Declaration, nor is there anything on its face, indicating from which of the Colonies, any one of the signers was delegated. They proclaim the separation of one people from another.—They affirm the right of the People, to institute, alter, and abolish their government:—and their final language is, “we do, in the name, and by the authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare that these United Colonies, are and of a right ought to be FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES.” The Declaration was not, that each of the States was separately Free and Independent, but that such was their united condition. And so essential was their union, both in principle and in fact, to their freedom and independence, that, had one of the Colonies seceded from the rest, and undertaken to declare herself free and independent, she could have maintained neither her independence nor her freedom.
And, by this paper, this One People did notify the world of mankind that they thereby did assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station, to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitled them.
This was indeed a great and solemn event. The sublimest of the prophets of antiquity with the voice of inspiration had exclaimed, “Who hath heard such a thing? Who hath seen such things? Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? Or shall a nation be born at once?” (Isaiah 66:8) In the two thousand five hundred years, that has elapsed since the days of that prophecy, no such event had occurred. It had never been seen before. In the annals of the human race, then, for the first time, did one People announce themselves as a member of that great community of the powers of the earth, acknowledging the obligations and claiming the rights of the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God. The earth was made to bring forth in one day! A Nation was born at once!
Well, indeed, may such a day be commemorated by such a Nation, from year to year! But whether as a day of festivity and joy, or of humiliation and mourning,—that fellow-citizens,—that, In the various turns of chance below, depends not upon the event itself, but upon its consequences; and after threescore years of existance, not so much upon the responsibilities of those who brought the Nation forth, as upon the moral, political, and intellectual character of the present generation,—of yourselves. In the common intercourse of social life, the birth-day of individuals is often held as a yearly festive day by themselves, and their immediate relatives; yet, as early as the age of Solomon, that wisest of men told the people of Jerusalem, that, as a good name was better than precious ointment, so the day of death was better than the day of one’s birth. (Ecclesiastes 7:1)
Are you then assembled here, my brethren, children of those who declared your National Independence, in sorrow or in joy? In gratitude for blessings enjoyed, or in affliction for blessings lost? In exultation at the energies of your fathers, or in shame and confusion of face at your own degeneracy from their virtues? Forgive the apparent rudeness of these enquiries:—they are not addressed to you under the influence of a doubt what your answer to them will be. You are not here to unite in echoes of mututal gratulation for the separation of your forefathers from their kindred freemen of the British Islands. You are not here even to commorate the mere accidental incident, that, in the annual revolution of the earth in her orbit round the sun, this was the birthday of the Nation. You are here, to pause a moment and take breath, in the ceaseless and rapid race of time;—to look back and forward;—to take your point of departure from the ever memorable transactions of the day of which this is the anniversary, and while offering your tribute of thanksgiving to the Creator of all worlds, for the bounties of his Providence lavished upon your fathers and upon you, by the dispensations of that day, and while recording with filial piety upon your memories, the grateful affections of your hearts to the good name, the sufferings, and the services of that age, to turn your final reflections inward upon yourselves, and to say:—These are the glories of a generation past away,—what are the duties which they devolve upon us?
The Declaration of Independence, in announcing to the world of mankind, that the People comprising the thirteen British Colonies on the continent of North America assumed, from that day, as One People, their separate and equal station among the powers of the earth, explicitly unfolded the principles upon which their national association had, by their unanimous consent, and by the mutual pledges of their faith, been formed. It was an association of mutual covenants. Every intelligent individual member of that self-constituted People did, by his representative in Congress, the majority speaking for the whole, and the husband and parent for the wife and child, bind his and their souls to a promise, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of his intentions, covenanting with all the rest that they would for life and death be faithful members of that community, and bear true allegiance to that Sovereign, upon the principles set forth in that paper. The lives, the fortunes, and the honour, of every free human being forming a part of those Colonies, were pledged, in the face of God and man, to the principles therein promulgated.
My countrymen!—the exposition of these principles will furnish the solution to the question of the purpose for which you are here assembled.
In recurring to those principles, let us remark,
First, that the People of the thirteen Colonies announced themselves to the world, and solemnly bound themselves, with an appeal to God, to be One People. And this One People, by their Representatives, declared the United Colonies free and independent States.
Secondly, they declared the People, and not the States, to be the only legitimate source of power; and that to the people alone belonged the right to institute, to alter, to abolish, and to re-institute government. And hence it follows, that as the People of the separate Colonies or States formed only parts of the One People assuming their station among the powers of the earth, so the People of no one State could separate from the rest, but by a revolution, similar to that by which the whole People had separated themselves from the People of the British Islands, nor without the violation of that solemn covenant, by which they bound themselves to support and maintain the United Colonies, as free and independent States.
An error of the most dangerous character, more than once threatening the dissolution by violence of the Union itself, has occasionally found countenance and encouratement in several of the States, by an inference not only unwarranted by the language and import of the Declaration, but subversive of its fundamental principles. This inference is, that because by this paper the United Colonies were declared free and independent States, therefore each of the States, separately, was free, independent and sovereign. The pernicious and fatal malignity of this doctrine consists, not in the mere attribution of sovereignty to the separate States; for within their appropriate functions and boundaries they are sovereign;—but in adopting that very definition of sovereignty, which had bewildered the senses of the British Parliament, and which rent in twain the Empire;—that principle, the resistance to which was the vital spark of the American revolutionary cause, namely, that sovereignty is identical with unlimited and illimitable power.
The origin of this error was of a very early date after the Declaration of Independence, and the infusion of its spirit into the Articles of Confederation, first formed for the government of the Union, was the seed of dissolution sown in the soil of that compact, which palsied all its energies from the day of its birth, and exhibited it to the would only as a monument of impotence and imbecility.
The Declaration did not proclaim the separate States free and independent; much less did it announce them as sovereign States, or affirm that they separately possessed the war-making or the peace-making power. The fact was directly the reverse.
The Declaration was, that the United Colonies, forming one People, were free and independent States; that they were absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown; that all political connection, between them and the State of Great Britaink, was and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent States, they had full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and do all other acts and things, which independent States may of right do. But all this was affirmed and declared not of the separate, but of the United States. And so far was it from the intention of the Congress, or of the One People whom they represented, to declare that all the powers sovereignty were possessed by the separate States, that the specification of the several powers of levying war, concluding peace, contracting alliances, and establishing commerce, was obviously introduced as the indication of powers exclusively possessed by the one People of the United States, and not appertaining to the People of each of the separate States. This distinction was indeed indispensable to the necessitites of their condition. The Declaration was issued in the midst of a war, commenced by insurrection against their common sovereign, and until then raging as a civil war. Not the insurrection of one of the Colonies; not the insurrection of the organized government of any one of the Colonies; but the insurrection of the People of the whole thirteen. The insurrection was one. The civil war was one. In constituting themselves one People, it could not possibly be their intention to leave the power of concluding the peace to each of the States of which the Union was composed. The war was waged against all. The war itself had united the inhabitants of the thirteen Colonies into one People. The lyre of Orpheus was the standard of the Union. By the representatives of that one People, and by them alone, could the peace be concluded. Had the people of any one of the States pretended to the right of concluding a separate peace, the very fact would have operated as a dismembermant of the Union, and could have been carried into effect only by the return of that portion of the People to the condition of British subjects.
Thirdly, the Declaration of Independence announced the One People, assuming their station among the powers of the earth, as a civilized, religious, and Christian people,—acknowledging themselves bound by the obligations, and claiming the rights to which they were entitled by the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.
They had formed a subordinate portion of an European Christian nation, in the condition of Colonies. The laws of social intercourse between sovereign communities constitute the laws of nations, all derived from three sources:—the laws of nature, or in other words the dictates of justice; usages, sanctioned by custom; and treaties, or national covenants. Superadded to these the Christian nations, between themselves, admit, with various latitudes of interpretation, and little consistency of practice, the laws of humanity and mutual benevolence taught in the gospel of Christ. The European Colonies in America had all been settled by Christian nations; and the first of them, settled before the reformation of Luther, had sought their justification for taking possession of lands inhabited by men of another race, in a grant of authority from the successor of Saint Peter at Rome, for converting the natives of the country to the Christian code of religion and morals. After the reformation, the kings of England, substituting themselves in the place of the Roman Pontiff, as heads of the Church, granted charters for the same benebolent purposes; and as these colonial establishments successively arose, worldly purposes, the spirit of adventure, and religious persecution took their place, together with the conversion of the heathen, among the motives for the European establishments in this Western Hemisphere. Hence had arisen among the colonizing nations, a customary law, under which the commerce of all colonial settlements was confined exclusively to the metropolis or mother country. The Declaration of Independence cast off all the shackles of this dependency. The United States of America were no longer Colonies. They were an independent Nation of Christians, recognizing the general principles of the European law of nations.
But to justify their separation from the parent State, it became necessary for them to set forth the wrongs which they had endured. Their colonial condition had been instituted by charters from the British kings. These they considered as compacts between the King as their sovereign and them as his subjects. In all these charters, there were stipulations for securing to the colonists the enjoyment of the rights of natural born Englishmen. The attempt to tax them by Act of Parliament was a violation of their charters. And as the Parliament, to sustain the right of taxing the Colonies had appealed to the prerogative of sovereign power, the colonists, to refute that claim, after appealing in vain to their charters, and to the Great Charter of England, were obliged to resort to the natural rights of mankind;—to the laws of nature and of Nature’s God.
And now, my friends and fellow citizens, have we not reached the cause of your assemblage here? Have we not ascended to the source of that deep, intense, and never-fading interest, which, to your fathers, from the day of the issuing of this Declaration,—to you, on this sixty-first anniversary after that event,—and to your children and theirs of the fiftieth generation,—has made and will continue to make it the first and happiest of festive days?
In setting forth the justifying causes of their separation from Great Britain, your fathers opened the fountains of the great deep. For the first time since the creation of the world, the act, which constituted a great people, laid the foundation of their government upon the unalterable and eternal principles of human rights.
They were comprized in a few short sentences, and were delivered with the unqualified confidence of self evident truths.
“We hold,” says the Declaration, “these truths to be self-evident:—that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
It is afterwards stated to be the duty of the People, when their governments become incorrigibly oppressive, to throw them off, and to provide new guards for their future security; and it is alleged that such was the condition of the British Colonies at that time, and that they were constrained by necessity to alter their systems of government.
The origin of lawful government among men had formed a subject of profound investigation and of ardent discussion among the philosophers of ancient Greece. The theocratic government of the Hebrews had been founded upon a covenant between God and man; a law, given by the Creator of the world, and solemnly accepted by the people of Israel. It derived all its powers, therefore, from the consent of the governed, and gave the sanction of Heaven itself to the principle, that the consent of the governed is the only legitimate source of authority to man over man.
But the history of mankind had never before furnished an example of a government directly and expressly instituted upon this principle. The association of men, bearing the denomination of the People, had been variously formed, and the term itself was of very indefinite signification. In the most ordinary acceptation of the word, a people, was understood to mean a multitude of human beings united under one supreme government, and one and the same civil polity. But the same term was equally applied to subordinate divisions of the same nation; and the inhabitants of every province, county, city, town, or village, bore the name, as habitually as the whole population of a kingdom or an empire. In the theories of government, it was never imagined that the people of every hamlet or subordinate district of territory should possess the power of constituting themselves an independent State; yet are they justly entitled to the appellation of people, and to exemption from all authority derived from any other source than their own consent, express or implied.
The Declaration of Independence constituted all the inhabitants of European descent in the thirteen English Colonies of North America, one People, with all the attributes of rightful sovereign power. They had, until then, been ruled by thirteen different systems of government; none of them sovereign; but all subordinate to one sovereign, separated from them by the Atlantic Ocean. The Declaration of Independence altered these systems of government, and transformed these dependant Colonies into united, free, and independent States.
The distribution of the sovereign powers of government, between the body representing the whole People, and the municipal authorities substituted for the colonial governments, was left for after consideration. The People of each Colony, absolved by the People of the whole Union from their allegiance to the British crown, became themselves, upon the principles of the Declaration, the sovereigns to institute and organize new systems of government, to take the place of those which had been abolished by the will of the whole People, as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.
It will be remembered, that, until that time, the whole movement of resistance against the usurpations of the British government had been revolutionary, and therfore irregular. The colonial governments were still under the organization of their charters, except that of Massachusetts-Bay, which had been formally vacated, and the royal government was administered by a military commander and regiments of soldiers. The country was in a state of civil war. The people were in revolt, claiming only the restoration of their violated rights as subjects of the British king. The members of the Congress had been elected by the Legislative assemblies of the Colonies, or by self-constituted popular conventions or assemblies, in opposition to the Governors. Their original mission had been to petition, to remonstrate; to disclaim all intention or purpose of independence; to seek, with earnest entreaty, the redress of grievances, and reconciliation with the paarent State. They had received no authority, at their first appointment, to declare independence, or to dissolve the political connection between the Colonies and Great Britain. But they had petitioned once and again, and their petitions had been slighted. The had remonstrated, and their remonstrances had been contemned. They had disclaimed all intention of independence, and their disclaimer had been despised. They had finally recommended to the People to look for their redemption to themselves, and they had been answered by voluntary and spontaneous calls for independence. They declarred it, therefore, in the name and by the authority of the People, and their declaration was confirmed from New-Hampshire to Georgia with one universal shout of approbation.
And never, from that to the present day, has ther been one moment of regret, on the part of the People, whom they thus declared independent, at this mighty change of their condition, nor one moment of distrust, of the justice of that declaration. In the mysterious ways of Providence, manifested by the course of human events, the feeble light of reason is often at a loss to discover the coincidence between the laws of eternal justice, and the decrees of fortune or of fate in the affairs of men. In the corrupted currents of this world, not only is the race not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, (Ecclesiastes 9:11) but the heart is often wrung with anguish at the sight of the just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and of the wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness. (Ecclesiastes 7:15) Far different and happier is the retrospect upon the great and memorable transaction. Every individual, whose name was affixed to that paper, has finished his career upon earth; and who, at this day would not dream it a blessing to have had his name recorded on that list? The act of abolishing the government under which they had lived,—of renouncing and abjuring the allegiance by which they had been bound,—of dethroning their sovereign, and of discarding their country herself,—purified and elevated by the principles which they proclaimed, and by the motives which they promulgated as their stimulants to action,—stands recorded in the annals of the human race, as one among the brightest achievements of human virtue: applauded on earth, ratified and confirmed by the fiat of Heaven.
The principles, thus triumphantly proclaimed and established, were the natural and unalienable rights of man, and the supreme authority of the People, as the only legitimate source of power in the institution of civil government. But let us not mistake the extent, nor turn our eyes from the limitations necessary for the application, of the principles themselves. Who were the People, thus invested by the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, with sovereign powers? And what were the sovereign powers thus vested in the People?
First, the whole free People of the thirteen United British Colonies in North America. The Declaration was their act; prepared by their Representatives; in their name, and by their authority. An act of the most transcendant sovereignty; abolishing the governments of thirteen Colonies; absolving their inhabitants from the bands of their allegiance, and declaring the whole People of the British Islands, theretofore their fellow subjects and countrymen, aliens and foreigners
Secondly, the free People of each of the thirteen Colonies, thus transformed into united, free, and independent States. Each of these formed a constituent protion of the whole People; and it is obvious that the power acknowledged to be in them could neither be co-extensive, nor inconsistent with, that rightfully exercised by the whole People.
In absolving the People of the thirteen United Colonies from the bands of their allegiance to the British crown, the Congress, representing the whole People, neither did nor could absolve them, or any one individual among them, from the obligation of any other contract by which he had been previously bound. They neither did nor could, for example, release any portion of the People from the duties of private and domestic life. They could not dissolve the relations of husband and wife; of parent and child; of guardian and ward; of master and servant; of partners in trade; of debtor and creditor;—nor by the investment of each of the Colonies with sovereign power could they bestow upon them the power of dissolving any of those relations, or of absolving any one of the individual citizens of the Colony from the fulfilment of all the obligations resulting from them.
The sovereign authority, conferred upon the People of the Colonies by the Declaration of Independence, could not dispense them, nor any individual citizen of them, from the fulfilment of all their moral obligations; for to these they were bound by the laws of Nature’s God; nor is there any power upon earth capable of granting absolution from them. The People, who assumed their equal and separate station among the powers of the earth by the laws of Nature’s God, by that very act acknowledged themselves bound to the observance of those laws, and could neither exercise nor confer any power inconsistent with them.
The sovereign authority, conferred by the Declaration of Independence upon the people of each of the Colonies, could not extend to the exercise of any power inconsistant with that Declaration itself. It could not, for example, authorize any one of the United States to conclude a separate peace with Great Britain; to connect itself as a Colony with France, or any other European power; to contract a separate alliance with any other State of the Union; or separately to establish commerce. These are all acts of sovereignty, which the Declaration of Independence affirmed the United States were competent to perform, but which for that very reason were necessarily excluded from the powers of sovereignty conferred upon each of the separate States. The Declaration itself was at once a social compact of the whole People of the Union, embracing thirteen distinct communities united in one, and a manifesto proclaiming themselves to the world of mankind, as one Nation, posessed of all the attributes of sovereign power. But this united sovereignty could not possibly consist with the absolute sovereignty of each of the separate States.
“That were to make Strange contradiction, which to God himself Impossible is held, as argument Of weakness, not of power.” (Milton. Paradise Lost.)
The position, thus assumed by this one People consisting of thirteen free and independent States, was new in the history of the world. It was complicated and compounded of elements never before believed susceptible of being blended together. The error of the British Parliament, the proximate cause of the Revolution, that sovereignty was in its nature unlimited and illimitable, taught as a fundamental doctrine by all the English lawyers, was too deeply imprinted upon the minds of the lawyers of our own country to be eradicated, even by the civil war, which it had produced. The most celebrated British moralist of the age, Dr. Samuel Johnson, in a controversial tract on the dispute between Britain and her Colonies, had expressly laid down as the basis of his argument, that—”All government is essentially absolute. That in sovereignty there are no gradations. That there may be limited royalty; there may be limited consulship; but there can be no limited government. There must in every society be some power or other from which there is no appeal; which admits no restrictions; which pervades the whole mass of the community; regulates and adjusts all subordination; enacts laws or repeals them; erects or annuls judicatures; extends or contracts privileges; exempts itself from question or control; and bounded only by physical necessity.” (Johnson’s Taxation no Tyranny)
The Declaration of Independence was founded upon the direct reverse of all these propositions. It did not recognize, but implicitly denied, the unlimited nature of sovereignty. By the affirmation that the principal natural rights of mankind are unalienable, it placed them beyond the reach of organized human power; and by affirming that governments are instituted to secure them, and may and ought to be abolished if they become destructive of those ends, they made all government subordinate to the moral supremacy of the People.
The Declaration itself did not even announce the States as sovereign, but as united, free and independent, and having power to do all acts and things which independent States may of right do. It acknowledged, therefore, a rule of right, paramount to the power of independent States itself, and virtually disclaimed all power to do wrong. This was a novelty in the moral philosophy of nations, and it is the essential point of difference between the system of government announced in the Declaration of Independence, and those systems which had until then prevailed among men. A moral Ruler of the universe, the Governor and Controller of all human power is the only unlimited sovereign acknowledged by the Declaration of Independence; and it claims for the United States of America, when assuming their equal station among the nations of the earth, only the power to do all that may be done of right.
Threescore and one years have passed away, since this Declaration was issued, and we may now judge of the tree by its fruit. It was a bold and hazardous step, when considered merely as the act of separation of the Colonies from Great Britain. Had the cause in which it was issued failed, it would have subjected every individual who signed it to the pains and penalties of treason; to a cruel and ignominious death. But, inflexible as were the spirits, and intrepid as were the hearts of the patriots, who by this act set at defiance the colossal power of the British Empire, bolder and more intrepid still were the souls, which, at that crisis in human affairs, dared to proclaim the new and fundamental principles upon which their incipient Republic was to be founded. It was an experiment upon the heart of man. All the legislators of the human race, until that day, had laid the foundations of all government among men in power; and hence it was, that, in the maxims of theory, as well as in the practice of nations, sovereignty was held to be unlimited and illimitable. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed another law. A law of resistance against sovereign power, when wielded for oppression. A law ascending the tribunal of the universal lawgiver and judge. A law of right, binding upon nations as well as individuals, upon sovereigns as well as upon subjects. By that law the colonists had resisted their sovereign. By that law, when that resistance had failed to reclaim him to the rule of right, they renounced him, abjured his allegiance, and assumed the exercise of rightful sovereignty themselves. But, in assuming the attributes of sovereign power, they appealed to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of their intentions, and neither claimed nor conferred authority to do any thing but of right.
Of the war with Grest Britain, by which the independence thus declared was maintained, and of the peace by which it was acknowledged, it is unnecessary to say more. The war was deeply distressing and calamitous, and its most instructive lesson was to teach the new confederate Republic the inestimable value of the blessings of peace. When the peace came, all controversy with Great Britain, with regard to the principles upon which the Declaration of Independence had been issued, was terminated, and ceased forever. The main purpose for which it had been issued was accomplished. No idle exultation of victory was worthy of the holy cause in which it had been achieved. No ungenerous triumph over the defeat of a generous adversary was consistent with the purity of the principles upon which the strife had been maintained. Had that contest furnished the only motives for the celebration of the day, its anniversary should have ceased to be commerated, and the Fourth of July would thenceforward have passed unnoticed from year to year, scarcely numbered among the dies fasti of the Nation.
But the Declaration of Independence had abolished the government of the thirteen British Colonies in North America. A new government was to be instituted in its stead. A task more trying had developed upon the people of the Union than the defence of their country against foreign armies; a duty more arduous than that of fighting the battles of the Revolution.
The elements and the principles for the formation of the new government were all contained in the Declaration of Independence; but the adjustment of them to the condition of the parties to the compact was a work of time, of reflection, of experience, of calm deliberation, of moral and intellectual exertion; for those elements were far from being homogeneous, and there were circumstances in the condition of the parties, far from conformable to the principles procliamed. The Declaration had laid the foundation of all civil government, in the unalienable natural rights of individual man, of which it had specifically named three:—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,—declaring them to be among others not enumerated. The revolution had been exclusively popular and democratic, and the Declaration had announced that the only object of the institution of governments among men was to secure their unalienable rights, and that they derived their just powers from the consent of the governed. The Declaration proclaimed the parties to the compact as one People, composed of united Colonies, thenceforward free and independent States, constrained by necessity to alter their former systems of government. It would seem necessarily to follow from these elements and these principles, that the government for the whole People should have been instituted by the whole People and the government of each of the independent States by the People of that State. But obvious as that conclusion is, it is nevertheless equally true, that it has not been wholly accomplished even to this day.
On the tenth of May preceding the day of the Declaration, the Congress had adopted a resolution, which may be considered as the herald to that Independence. After its adoption it was considered of such transcendent importance, that a special committee of three members was appointed to prepare a preamble to it. On the fifteenth of May this preamble was reported, adopted, and ordered to be published, with the resolution, which had been adopted on the tenth. The preamble and resolution are in the following words:
“Whereas his Britannic Majesty, in conjunction with the Lords and Commons of Great Britain, has, by a late Act of Parliament, excluded the inhabitants of these United Colonies from the protection of his crown; and whereas no answer whatever to the jumble petitions of the Colonies, for redress of grievances and reconciliation with Great Britain, has been or is likely to be given, but the whole course of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, is to be exerted for the destruction of the good people of these Colonies; and whereas it appears absolutely irreconcileable to reason and good conscience for the people of these Colonies now to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain, and it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted under the authority of the people of the Colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as for the defence of their lives, liberties, and properties, against the hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies:—Therefore, Resolved,
“That it be recommended to the respective assemblies and conventions of the United Colonies, where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs hath been hitherto established, to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the Representatives of the People, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.”