THE COST OF POPULAR LIBERTY, A SPEECH BY BROOKS ADAMS, ESQ., DELIVERED AT THE CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION AT BINGHAM, MASS., JULY 4th, 1876. Youngest son of Charles Francis Adams, also great grandson of John Adams.
Fellow-citizens: On this solemn anniversary we do not come together—if I understand our feelings rightly—to indulge in vainglorious self-praise of our fathers or ourselves. Nor do we come here to lash ourselves once more into anger over the well known story of the wrongs our fathers suffered at the hands of the English people. We come here neither in pride nor bitterness. We bear malice towards none. We are at peace with all the world. What we do come for is to celebrate what we believe to have been a great era in the world’s history, to call to mind the principles which were declared one hundred years ago to-day, to rejoice over the blessings which this people have inherited through the patriotism and the wisdom of our forefathers, and above all to ask ourselves on this Centennial day whether we have been acting up to the standard they laid down for us, and whether we are doing our duty by our country and our age. That three millions of people should have been able to contend with the whole power of Great Britain, and to wring from her an acknowledgment of their independence, is indeed surprising, but that alone would throw but a comparatively feeble light upon the early patriots. Other colonies have also gained their independence, whose people have little reason to celebrate their nation’s birthday. What makes this day remarkable is not so much that on it our independence was declared as that on its birth was given to popular government, and the glory of our ancestors lies not so much in having waged a successful war as in having been the first to teach the lesson to mankind that institutions resting safely on the popular will can endure. Yet the men of that day were neither dreamers nor enthusiasts. They did not want independence for its own sake. They would have been perfectly content to have remained English subjects had they been allowed to manage their little governments as they had been accustomed, and to enjoy the rights they had always enjoyed. But they were not a race of men to endure oppression patiently. They loved liberty as they understood it, and as we understand it, more than anything on earth, and to preserve it they were willing to brave the greatest power of the world.
II. The Beginning of Government
We all know the history of the war, how it begun at Lexington and Concord and dragged through seven, bloody, weary years, and until it closed on the day when Gen. Lincoln, of Hingham, received the sword of Lord Cornwallis on the surrender of Yorktown. During those years this State and this town did their part, as they have always done in the time of trial, and as they probably always will do so long as the old Puritan stock remains. Meanwhile the colonies, having thrown off their old Government, went on to organize a new one. Peace found the country ravaged, war-worn, ruined, and under Confederation. The Declaration of Independence had boldly declared not only the right but the capacity of the people for self-government. The task yet remained before them of reconstructing their Government and thus redeeming the boast that had been made. For the first time in the world’s history popular institutions were really upon trial, and it seemed as though they were doomed to meet with disastrous failure. How can I describe that wretched interval, the gloomiest years in American history. The confederation hardly deserved the name of Government. There were enemies abroad, there was dissension at home. Congress had no power to levy taxes, so that not only the interest on the public debt, but the most ordinary expenses remained unpaid. There was a debased currency, there were endless jealousies between the States, there was mutiny in the army, imbecility in Congress—the people were poor and discontented, and at length a rebellion broke at her in Massachusetts which threatened to overthrow the foundation of society. The greatest and best of men—Washington, himself, was in despair. It was then that the intelligence and power of the American people showed itself, it was then that they justified the boast of the Declaration of Independene, it was then that they established Government.
No achievement of any people is more wonderful than this. “Without force or bloodshed, but by means of fair agreement alone difficulties were solved which had seemed to admit of no solution. At this distance of time we can look back calmly, and we can appreciate the wisdom and self-control of men who could endure such trials and pass through action without an appeal to arms. And they had their awards. Nothing has ever equaled the splendor of their success. From the year 1789 to the year 1860, no nation has ever known a more unbounded prosperity, a fuller space of happiness. In the short space of 70 years, within the turn of a single life, the nation, poor, weak and despised, raised itself to the pinnacle of power and of glory.
At the outbreak of the Revolution 3,000,000 of people, a far smaller number than the population of New York now, were scattered along the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Georgia. There were no interior settlements. Where the great cities of Buffalo and Rochester now are there were then only Indians and deer. Boston had but 14,000 inhabitants, there were no manufactures, everything was imported from abroad. Within those 70 or 80 years all changed as if by magic. Population increased ten-fold, cities sprang up in the wilderness, manufactures were established, wealth grew beyond all computation. And better than mere material prosperity, our history was stainad by no violence. We had no State executions, no reigning terror, no guillotine, no massacre. We tolerated all religious beliefs. There was perfect liberty and security for all men. Nor is this the highest praise to which our people are justly due. No purer men or greater statesmen ever lived than those whose lives adorn the early history of the Republic. Men who had never seen a great city, men whose whole experience had not extended further than the local assembly of their colony or the provincial corn-fields, wrote the Declaration of Independence, and framed the Constitution of our States. We read their writings now, we wonder at them, but we do not dream equaling them ourselves. There seemed no end to them. Orators, statesmen, judges, Washington and Jefferson, Franklin and Marshall, men who will be remembered and honored so long as our language shall endure.
But with all the blessings we inherited from our ancestors we, inherited a curse also—the curse of negro slavery. It is easy now to see how the bitterness of the South as we should wish to be received were we Southerners. Let us rather remember that they fought by our fathers’ side through seven long years in the war of the Revolution, and that a year ago Southern soldiers marched through the streets of Boston under the old flag to celebrate with us the victory of Bunker Hill. And now on this our nation’s birthday, in the midst of peace, with our country more wealthy and more populous than ever before, are we content? Can we look over the United States and honestly tell ourselves that all things are well within us? We cannot conceal from ourselves that all things are not well. For the last ten years a shameless corruption has gone on about us. We see it on every side. We read of it daily in the newspapers until we sicken with disgust. It has not been confined to any section or state, or city, to either political party, or to any department of Government. It has been all-pervading.
IV. Political Party
One hundred years ago to-day birth was given to this nation in its struggle for the rights of men. On this day, if on n0 other we can rise above our party ties, we can feel that we are all citizens of a common country striving for a common cause, members of a common party, all Republicans, all Democrats. We may differ as to the means but we agree upon the end. We all long for a great and respected country, for a happy and united people between the North and South slowly grew until it burst into civil war. And truly that war did continue until every drop of blood drawn by the lost had been repaid by another drawn by the sword. Though years have passed by, which of us does not remember the awful agony of that struggle, the joy at the news of victory, the gloom after defeat. Even now when we recall those days we feel the old rage arise within us, the old bitterness return. Not far from these doors stands the statue of Massachusetts’ greatest Governor—Mr. Andrews. Truly his life should teach us that as men are good and brave, so are they kind and forgiving. Surely he would not have cherished resentment toward a conquered foe. Surely he would have been the last to preach the doctrine of internal hate. Surely Mr. Lincoln was full of kindness toward the South. If ever we are again to have a united people, we must learn to feel as he felt. We must remember men will never be good citizens who are treated with suspicion and distrust. We must, above all things, teach ourselves to be just. We must remember that the foundation of this government is equal laws for all, and that there cannot be one law for Massachusetts and another for Virginia.
The issues of the war are dead; Slavery is abolished, never to be revived; it is forbidden by the Constitution, and we have the means to enforce obedience should any disobey. No State will ever again support the cause which has been trampled in the dust by national armies. Let us then remember this Centennial year by forgetting sectional differences. Let us receive them as brothers. There are certain duties which the citizen owes this country that cannot be thrown aside, and the first of these duties is to see that the Government is pure. The struggles of the Democrats and Federalists of three-quarters of a century ago no longer excites us. Yet we see two parties, each believing in themselves in the right, and each fighting fiercely for what they believe. We know what the Democrats were. “We know that under their will the country was prosperous and happy, and we are justified in believing that had victory been reversed, the country would have prospered still. What matters it to us to which political party Washington, Jefferson, Madison, or Jay belonged? We know that they were great and wise, and we honor them and love them as American citizens. What does it matter to us if the people and the men they chose to govern them were intelligent and honest, and made the American name feared and respected throughout the world.
There may not be among us men equal to the early patriots, men whose names will still be remembered when this nation has passed away, but we have men whose honor is as stainless, whose lives are as pure, and who, if they cannot bring genius, can at least bring integrity and devotion to the public service. We have no standing army, no aristocracy. The whole future of our society rests on the respect the people feel for law. Laws can only be respected when the laws themselves, the men who make them, and the men who administer them command our respect. If the time shall ever come when American judges shall habitually sell justice, when American legislators shall sell their votes, and the public servants the nation’s honor, all respect for our institutions will die in the minds of our people, and the Government born one hundred years ago to-day will be about to pass away.
V. Official corruption
The question even now forces itself upon us, what do the things that are about us portend? Is all that we have seen and heard, only the sign of a passing evil, which we may hope to cure, or does it show that we are already the victims of that terrible disease which has so often been the ruin of republics? Is the very glory and splendor of the nation to prevent its ruin, and do its wealth and prosperity bear out, then, the seeds of decay? Our fathers were small and scattered people—sober, frugal and industrious. There was no great wealth, nor was their extreme poverty. Most men were farmers, and had that best and most practical of all education —the management of their own property, the process of government comparatively simple, and the temptations comparatively small. In a century all this has changed; we are forty millions of people instead of three millions; we are crowded together in great cities; we have railways and manufactures; we have huge aspirations, vast wealth. But side by side with our beautiful churches and rich colleges there exists, where the population is dense, much poverty and ignorance. On the other hand, men are assailed by all the tempations of a rich and complex society. In the history of the past few years that evil has slowly gained strength; a class of men are beginning to hold office, with the approbation of the people, whose object is plunder; a class who look upon the public revenues as a fund from which to steal—nay, more, who seek public offices for motives of private gain by using their influence to make money for themselves.
VI. Necessity of Change
There we already see the beginning of the end. No popular government can endure which does not do justice, a much less one which is systematically perverted. No government can endure which allows the property of its citizens to be taken from them under the guise of taxes, not for profitable purposes, but to satisfy private greed. These abuses came with ring rule, and there is hardly a rich city or a great State in the Union which does not know the meaning of government by rings(1). Corrupt courts, enormous taxes, ruinous debts, impure politics, are the consequences, and the consequences we have seen. If we have now arrived at the point where we feel ring government gradually closing in upon us; if the majority of the people has not the power or the intelligence, or the will, not only to protect themselves against fresh assaults, but to purify society from taint, this is for us indeed a gloomy anniversary, and our hope can be but small. In such a struggle to stand still is to be conquered. Nothing in the world is stationary, and if government does not diminish it will assuredly increase.
I do not believe there is excuse for gloom. We know the people with whom we have always lived, and we know that they are neither dishonest nor ignorant, and I do not believe that the people of the other States in the Union are behind the people of Massachusetts. But there are also other better reasons for confidence. This the generation which carried through the war; no sterner test could be applied to any people. There was no constraint upon them; peace was always within their reach; it could have been attained at any time had the majority desired it.
After brief allusions to the prominent causes for hope, the speaker concluded as follows: Fellow-citizens, believing as I do that our institutions are wise and good, believing as I do that, properly administered, they yield to us the fullest measure of happiness, believing that our people are essentially the same as the people of one hundred years ago—equally honest, equally intelligent, equally self-sacrificing—I see no cause for despondency in the future, I see reason for brightest hope. Provided we remember that our responsibilities are as great now as they ever have been during our history—provided we keep in mind the warning of Washington, that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance—provided we are awake to the knowledge that abuses which are tolerated may in time overpower us—there lies before this Republic the happiest future which any nation has ever been permitted to enjoy; a future as happy and as glorious as its past. Let us then, in this centennial year, putting aside all personal ambition and all selfish aims, firmly resolve that we will strive honestly, patiently, humbly, in the position in which God has placed us, to regain that noble purity in which our nation was born, preeminent to the end that our children, at another centennial, may say of us that they too had their ink well in the world’s history, and through them this Government of the people for the people by the people still endureth.
“If ever time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.” – Samuel Adams
(1) Government by rings definition: Also called government by lottery, or convention system of government. That government where political bosses are in control and we the people have no real say in who is chosen to represent us, whether it be in the political offices and bureaucracies of nation, state or local. It is also where the seats of bureaucracy are filled by the winner of elections as in political appointees, where the reins of society and government are given over to lobbyists and special interests who have more sway with legislation than we the people do.
From the Journal of the Senate of the State of Michigan, Volume 2 (1879)
As illustrating the operations of the ring, I quote from the Buffalo Express, one of the ablest papers published in the United States:
“Books have been multiplied to serve the profits of publishers rather than the training of scholars, and every large city, where tens of thousands of children must have each a half-dozen or more of books, has become a gold-mine, to be worked to the utmost by the publishers who hold it, and to be strenuously fought for by the publishers whose works are now excluded. Any fair and unbiased opportunity to judge of text-books solely upon their merits, and adopt them because of those merits, is prevented by the manipulations of book agents, who push the works published by the houses in whose pay they are, in season and out of season, and too often bring to the notice of the officials interested arguments quite apart from any consideration of the contents of the book. According to the Detroit Free Press, the matter took this shape in a southern city:
“The Louisville, Ky., school-men have been grievously tempted by a geography agent. One member resigned because he had been offered $75 to vote for a particular geography,and he did not wish the offense repeated. Another said that §200 had been offered him to vote for the same work. Thus doth the great cause of education stride along.”
Who knows how soon such bribery may be resorted to in Buffalo and other cities? Could there be a grosser scandal than this making merchandise of the training, and therefore, to no trilling extent, of the future happiness of one’s children, the dearest interests that can appeal to the heart of man and woman?
Is it not about time that the people of this State, if not of the country, should adopt some settled, uniform, legalized method as to school-books which might better serve the training of pupils, might lessen the cost to parents, and might put an end to a great and growing scandal? Must it be admitted that no such plan can be devised, and that public education has become the foot-ball of the mercantile interests of publishers, beyond all remedy? That would be a humiliating confession—a confession, indeed, which would go far to cast doubt upon the boasted capacity of the American people for self-government. If we cannot protect ourselves from imposition and intrigue, in a matter as to which our love for our children and our regard for the future welfare of the country—two of the strongest sentiments of our being —conspire to quicken our invention and give decision to our action, then we might as well confess that government by rings is the normal condition of American society, and that we are helplessly given over to the spoiler.”
“Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.”- Thomas PaineSee also: Wide Spread And Growing Corruption In The Public Service Of The States And Nation The Practical Advance Of Human Freedom Under The Trumpet Call Made In 1776 by Charles F Adams WHAT HISTORY TEACHES US ABOUT AMERICAN DIPLOMACY Addressed in 1876 Corruption In Politics and Society: Corrupters Of America! by John Hancock 1770 Political Evils and the Remedy for them by Noah Webster 1834 Founders on the 2nd Amendment