A RESUME OF AMERICAN HISTORY, An Oration by Lawrence A. Gobright , Esq., (1816-1881) Delivered At Washington D.C., (Ford’s Opera House), July 4th, 1876.
Ladies And Gentlemen, Fellow-members Of The Oldest Inhabitants Association, And Soldiers Of The War Of 1812:— Time was with some of us when on the Fourth of July revolutionary soldiers adorned the platform, and were objects of curiosity, but they have all passed away, leaving their works as our inheritance. At first they fought for their rights as British subjects, but these being denied, the Continental Congress in 1776 meditated a separation from British rule, and on the 7th of June, Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, introduced the following resolution:
Resolved that these united Colonies are, and of right ought to be. free and independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
Before the final discussion a committee, consisting of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert C. Livingston, was appointed to draft a Declaration of Independence. The Declaration having been reported to Congress by the committee, the resolution itself was taken up and debated on the first day of July, and again on the 2nd, on which latter day it was agreed to and adopted. Having thus passed the main resolution, Congress proceeded to consider the reported draft of the Declaration. It was discussed on the second, third, and fourth days of the month, and on the last of those days received the final approbation and sanction of Congress. It was ordered at the same time that copies be sent to the several States, and that it be proclaimed at the head of the army. The Declaration thus published did not bear the names of the members, for as yet it had not been signed by them. It was authenticated, like other papers of the Congress, by the signatures of the President and the Secretary. On the 19th of July, as appears by the Secret Journal, Congress resolved that the Declaration passed on the 4th be fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and style of “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America,” and the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress; and the 2nd day of August following, the Declaration being engrossed and compared with the original, was signed by the members.
Absent members afterwards signed as they came in, and it bears the names of some who were not chosen members of Congress until after the 4th of July.
“We must be unanimous,” said Hancock; “there must be no pulling different ways; we must all hang together.” “Yes.” replied Franklin, “we must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
On the 9th of July Washington caused the Declaration to be read at the head of each brigade of the army, “The General hopes,” he said in his orders, “that this important event will serve as a fresh incentive to every officer and soldier to act with fidelity, as knowing that now the peace and safety of the country depend, under God, solely on the success of our arms, and that he is now in the service of a State possessed of sufficient power to reward his merit and advance him to the highest honors of a free country.”
The people of the City of New York not only indulged themselves in the usual demonstrations of joy by the ringing of bells and the like, but also concluded that the leaden statue of his Majesty, George the Third, in the Bowling Green, might now be turned to good account. They therefore pulled down the statue, and the lead was run into bullets for the good cause.
Everywhere throughout the country the Declaration was hailed with joy. Processions were formed, bells were rung, cannon fired, orations delivered, and in every practicable way the popular approbation was manifested.
The causes which led to the Revolutionary War are sufficiently set forth in the Declaration of Independence, which has just been read in your hearing, and therefore need no elaboration. The result of the conflict is stated in the treaty of peace—1783— in which his Majesty the King of Great Britain acknowledges the American Colonies as free, sovereign, and independent States; “treats with them as such for himself, his heirs, and successors, and relinquishes all claims to the Government, proprietary and territorial rights of the same, and any part thereof.” After coming through the night of the Revolution,
“Our ancestors, with Joy, beheld’ the rays of freedom pour
O’er every nation, race, and clime—on every sea and shore;
Such glories as the patriarch viewed, when, ‘mid the darkest skies,
He saw, above a ruined world, the bow of promise rise.”
With a view of maintaining the Declaration of Independence a resolution was passed making an appropriation to the committee of safety for a supply of gun flints for the troops at New York, and the secret committee were instructed to “order the gun flints belonging to the continent and then at Rhode Island, to the commanding general at New York.” An agent was also sent to Orange county, New York, for a supply of flint-stone, and a board was empowered to “employ such number of men as they should think necessary to manufacture flints for the continent.”
Additional measures were also taken to arm the militia, provide flying camps, and to procure lead, to build ships, make powder, to manufacture cannon and small arms, and provide generally for vigorous warfare.
Colonel Washington had been appointed Commander-in-chief of the American forces in June, 1775, by the unanimous voice of the colonies. In accepting the trust, he declared, “with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command with which I am honored.” His modesty, perhaps, gentlemen, would not suit the fashion of the present time.
It is necessary merely to allude to the present appliances of war in contrast with the means then accessible, namely, the monster cannon; the giant powder, with shot and shell in proportion to the explosive power; the mailed ship, propelled by steam; the perfected rifle, with its percussion caps and longer range than the musket, and no anxiety about a plentiful supply of flints, such as exercised our patriotic sires.
You have often been told of the victory of this same American eagle over the British Lion, in a kind of allegorical description. But this was more poetic than historic. In the common-sense moments of the youngest as well as of the “oldest inhabitants,” we should not think the contest between two such forces exactly equal!
Tobias Smollett, the English novelist, reconciles the Lion with the Eagle thus:
“Thy spirit Independence let me share,
Lord of the Lion heart and Eagle eye.
Thy steps I follow with my bosom bare,
Nor heed the storm that howls along the sky.“
The eagle, no matter what may be said of his predatory habits, and of the scriptural expression that “where the carcass is there will the eagle be gathered together,” triumphs. He is seen on the buttons of our warriors, on our coin, and the seal of the United States, the last-named designed by a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Wilson, the American ornithologist, says of the bird: “Formed by nature for braving the severest cold, feeding equally on the produce of the sea and of the land, possessing powers of flight capable of outstripping even the tempests themselves, unawed by anything but man, and from the ethereal heights from which he soars, looking abroad at one glance on an immeasurable expanse of forests, fields, lakes, and ocean deep below him, he appears indifferent to the localities of change of seasons, as in a few minutes he can pass from summer to winter, from the lower to the higher regions of the atmosphere, and thence descend at will to the arctic, the abode of eternal cold, or to the torrid regions of the earth.”
Gentlemen, our Government has such veneration for the proud bird that it has three fine live specimens in our own Franklin Square, in a cage for public admiration! The eagle is one of our institutions, and therefore has our enforced respect.
The eagle, however, was not the only symbol recognized by our ancestors. The rattlesnake was displayed on many of their banners. One of the arrangements was a rattlesnake divided in thirteen parts, with the initial letters of the colonies to each, and the motto “Unite or Die!” And another, the rattlesnake, in the act of striking, the motto being, “Don’t tread on me!” The rattles were thirteen in number. This device, stranger than that of ” Excelsior,“was a favorite with the colonists, and was meant to signify retaliation for the wrong upon America:
“The snake was ready with his rattle.
To warning give of coming battle.”
Something may here be said about the American flag, the one that has taken the place of all others. It was not till the 14th of June, 1777, that the design of the flag was formally adopted by the Continental Congress, although it is said a similar flag flew over the headquarters at Cambridge more than a year before that time. The act of Congress thus described it: “The flag of the thirteen United States shall be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white, the Union thirteen stars, white, in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
This continued to be the flag until two new States were admitted into the Union, namely, Vermont, in March, 1791, and . Kentucky, in June, 1792, when Congress passed an act, June 13, 1794, making an alteration in the flag, which provided that from and after the first day of May, 1795, the flag of the United States shall be fifteen stripes, with fifteen stars. There seems to have been no further agitation of the subject until 1816, when a bill was introduced making another alteration in the flag. The number of stripes were restored to thirteen, the stars to correspond to the number of States in the Union, a new star to be added to the flag whenever a new State should be admitted, the star to be placed there on the 4th day of July thereafter.
Among the reasons for altering the flag was that “There was a prospect at no distant period that the number of States would be considerably multiplied, and this rendered it highly inexpedient to increase the number of stripes on each flag, which must be limited in size.” As a consequence of this arrangement we have now thirty-seven stars, with room for many more on the azure field; and additional brightness will be added this centennial year to our constellation by the silver beams of Colorado.
This flag has for it century “braved the battle and the breeze;”
A blazing light upon the land, a beacon on seas.
It would be a mistake to suppose that our forefathers conquered Great Britain. The question might be put in this way: Great Britain did not conquer them. She found, after experience, that, having to transport, at enormous expense, large bodies of troops across the ocean—three thousand miles, in sailing vessels—was very unprofitable, as they did not accomplish the desired object, namely, the subjugation of the Colonists, who, of determined spirit, and having resolved to be free and independent of British rule, were not to be frightened from their patriotic purpose by coats of red, typical of the fire that boomed from their unfriendly cannon, and, besides, Holland having joined the belligerents against England, and England having been humiliated by the crowning battle of the contest—the surrender of Cornwallis—she departed from our soil, leaving the Colonists in full possession.
It was not until 1789 that the General or Federal Government went into full operation. At that time the population was supposed to be three millions, but in the eighty-seven years past it has, from various causes, increased to forty millions. The American eagle, which could fly over our original country without stopping to drink or to rest, finds that he cannot now without frequent stoppages on his course for refreshments, owing to enlarged limits, accomplish the distance from ocean to ocean without complaining, in his own natural way, of a weary wing.
A hundred years ago the people never thought of railroads, the steam engine and the electric telegraph—those great revolutionizes in everything that pertains to individual and national comfort—or if they did, there is no record of the fact. The traveling was on horseback, in gigs, and wagons, and carryalls, and sailing vessels, and row boats. And think: the time between England and America was from six weeks to two months, the duration of the voyage depending upon the state of the weather and the temper of the sea. Steam now propels the magnificent steamer across the Atlantic in eight or nine days— 3,000 miles—and the same distance is traveled from Washington to the Pacific Ocean, by railroad, in seven days. An experimental trip recently showed that the journey from New York to San Francisco could be made in eighty-three hours and thirtyfour minutes, or at the rate of one thousand miles a day! And, instead of waiting for weeks or months to receive intelligence from remote parts of our own country, and the world at large, the path of the subtle fluid, electricity, affords an instantaneous means of intercommunication, and thus annihilates space!
If our Revolutionary sires could reappear on earth, and see these wondrous things, together with the results of inventive genius, and progression in the arts and sciences, their expressions of surprise would be equal to, if they did not exceed, those of the hero of the Catskill mountains—but in a more agreeable sense—when he awoke from his long slumber, to be startled by the actual changes which meanwhile had taken place! We ourselves can scarcely realize the growth of the infant Republic, from its cradle in Independence Hall to the present time, when it stands forth in the pride of manhood with unconquerable strength!
It may here be appropriately mentioned that the first voyage across the Atlantic in a steam vessel was performed by the steamship Savannah in 1819. She was built in New York the year previous. On nearing Liverpool she was discerned from a lookout, and, as nothing of that kind had been seen there before, supposing a ship was on fire, one of the King’s cruisers was sent to her relief.
An item of the past will not be uninteresting in connection with the subject of locomotion. The Pennsylvania Gazette, of Philadelphia, January 3, 1776, had the “latest dates,” namely: ten days from Boston, and five days from New York. The “freshest” foreign dates from London were sixty days old, and these contained “an humble address of the House of Commons to the King,” in which they say:
“No other use has been made of the moderation and forbearance of your Majesty and your Parliament but to strengthen the preparations of this desperate conspiracy, and that the rebellious war now levied is become more general, and manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire; and we hope and trust that we shall, by the blessing of God, put such strength and force into your Majesty’s hands as may soon defeat and suppress this rebellion, and enable your Majesty to accomplish your gracious wish of restoring order tranquility, and happiness through all the parts of your united empire.”
The King graciously returned his fervent thanks for this loyal address, saying: “I promise myself the most happy consequences from the dutiful and affectionate assurances of the support of my faithful Commons on this great and important conjuncture, and I have a firm confidence that by the blessing of God and the justice of the cause, and by the assistance of my Parliament, I shall be enabled to suppress this dangerous rebellion, and to attain the most desirable end of restoring my subjects in America to the free and happy condition and to the peace and prosperity which they enjoyed in their constitutional dependence before the breaking out of these unhappy disorders.”
The King and Commons not being as successful as they anticipated, his Majesty sent to this country Admiral Viscount Howe and General William Howe, general of his Majesty’s forces, as a commissioner in the interests of peace, and it is somewhat singular that their flag-ship bore the name of our national symbol the Eagle(1)—off the coast of the Province of Massachusetts. He declared the purpose of the King “to deliver all his subjects from the calamities of war and other oppressions they now undergo, and restore the colonies to peace;” and he was authorized by the King to “grant his free and general pardon to all those who in the tumult and disorders of the times may have deviated from their first allegiance, and who are willing by a speedy return to their duty to reap the benefits of the royal favor.”
But the Colonists or “conspirators” were not desirous of thus “reaping.” The seed they had themselves sown was to mature to a more precious harvest. They turned their plowshares into swords, and their pruning-hooks into spears, with the result of a fruitage beneficial to all mankind!
John Quincy Adams, in his oration delivered July 4, 1831, said “Frederick the First of Brunswick constituted himself King of Prussia, by putting a crown upon his own head. Napoleon Bonaparte invested his brows with the crown of Lombardy, and declared himself King of Italy. The Declaration of Independence was the crown with which the people of united America, rising in gigantic stature as one man, encircled their brows, and there it remains. There, long as this globe shall be inhabited by human beings, may it remain a crown of imperishable glory.”
My friends, it is a solemn truth that there is not now on earth an intelligent person who lived on the Fourth of July, 1776. We read of the heroic struggles of the Continental army; their want of discipline and poverty, and the scarcity of money with which to purchase the needed supplies, and of the many sacrifices they made in the cause to which the best men that ever lived consecrated their lives and fortunes, and all else they held’ dear of ease and comfort; men who set the world an example in the straggle for freedom, which they eventually established. Their Constitution and the laws they passed to put it into operation attest their wisdom and the knowledge of the needs of the people in their new condition.
My friends, in what condition will our country be one hundred years hence?—the fourth of July, 1976? Will the same form of government we now have be preserved? Will it afford the same protection of personal freedom, property and human rights? Will the proud banner still wave over a united and prosperous people V These are questions to be answered by succeeding generations. If they are true to the teachings and examples of our Revolutionary sires the Republic will endure. If not, than the bright, and we might say this haughty Republic will pass into history with that of Rome, and for similar causes. There can be no republic that is not founded on the virtue, intelligence, and assent of the people. Enforced government belongs to tyranny.
We have additional cause of rejoicing in the fact, that, although national encounters have cursed the world ever since nations have had an existence, there is now no war between any nations. This is an era of peace. Even the oldest nations, including China and Japan, and others of the East, come will those of Europe to the happy centennial greeting. They bring with them, to exhibit near our own, their useful and ornamental products; all compatible with peace, and calculated to stimulate a beneficial rivalry.
Not far from where we are assembled lie the ashes of one whose character the entire world admires.
His name is seldom heard, excepting when it is uttered to designate the city which he founded. There was a time when it was more publicly honored than it is now; but still his memory is cherished by many patriotic hearts. Whatever may be the mutations in public affairs—whosoever may, for the time being, occupy the larger share of public attention, either as a warrior or as a statesman, the name of Washington, with its patriotic associations, will always be precious to the lover of liberty. But, alas! his teachings are too often disregarded, and we have not yet completed the monument to his memory. We may, however, without a dissenting voice, on this Centennial day, the first that we have seen, and the last that We shall ever see, recall a few words from his Farewell Address, although it was written eighty years ago. He said:
“The unity of government which constitutes us one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence; the support of your tranquility at home, and your peace abroad; of your safety, of your prosperity;- of that very liberty which you so highly prize.”
And the Father of his Country further advised “his friends and fellow-citizens” to “indignantly frown upon the first dawning of every attempt, to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.”
He counseled: “Towards the preservation of your Government and the permanency of your present happy State, it is requisite not only that you steadily discountenance irregular opposition to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretext.”
And again: “It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free government . Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric. Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”
My friends, let us cherish the heavenly principle of “Peace on earth, good will to man,” and by word and example endeavor to cultivate in the hearts of those who are taking our places in the active scenes of life a love for law and liberty—a respect for the institutions of others, while preferring our own— and the enforcement of the duty of elevating the best men only to office, those who will see that the Republic suffers no detriment, for the acts of the public agent should be the reflex of the will of the constituency. A few should not plunder the many. To permit such practices is to sanction them. And let all wrongdoers be punished either by public opinion or by the criminal court, and public agents remember that the Government is for the people and not for themselves.
It was said aforetime, “Power is always stealing from the many to the few;” therefore if we would continue free we must guard against every encroachment on our liberties. And then there can be no doubt the Republic will endure, strengthened in population with the corresponding prosperity, presenting an example to the world at large for emulation, and conferring the richest blessings on the entire human race!