THE BEACON FIRES OF LIBERTY by Hon. George Lear July 4, 1876

George Lear 1818-1884The Ship of Liberty on which we embarked 1776!

An Oration By Hon. George Lear (1818-1884), Delivered At Doylestown, Pa., July 4th, 1876.

Ladies And Gentlemen: When the merchant turns his attention to foreign commerce, he designs a craft for ocean navigation, and addresses himself to the task of procuring sound materials and the most approved plans of naval architecture. The skeleton of a ship is erected on the stocks, and its ribs covered with oak or iron, well secured with bolts, having neither flaw nor blemish. The hull is finished with all the qualities of strength and symmetry, and, upon an appointed day, in the presence of invited guests, with a virgin stationed on the bow with a bottle containing something similar “to the nectar which Jupiter sips,” the hawsers are cast loose, the blocks and wedges are removed, and as the ponderous craft glides down the inclined plane, the bottle is broken as the name is pronounced in baptismal solemnity, and, with a rush and a plunge, she enters the water, and floats high upon its surface, uncontrolled and uncontrollable except by extrinsic agencies.

But being in its proper element, the next care is to fit it for navigation by the addition of masts and spars, booms and yards, ropes and sails, until the unmanageable hulk becomes a full rigged ship, with her sails bent and her pennons flying, and “she walks the water like a thing of life.” Friends are again invited, viands are prepared, and the trial excursion takes place. She sails gaily down the bay to the strains of inspiring music, the sails swell with the freshening breeze, and the pennons wave graceful in the wind as she approaches the waters of the broad ocean. Fearlessly she essays the navigation of the billowy deep; and for the first time she is “afloat on the fierce rolling tide.” she is pronounced staunch and sea-worthy, and returns to ship her first cargo, and enter upon the practical business for which she was designed and constructed.

One hundred years ago a band of patriots known by the name of the Continental Congress, unskilled and inexperienced in State craft, with fearless and almost reckless disregard of consequences, launched their bark upon the unknown and turbulent sea of revolution. Not lured like Jason by the hope of the recovery of the Golden Fleece, or like the merchant by the prospect of wealth—not investing their private fortunes only in the prospect of private gain or personal ambition—but in the cause of human freedom and the rights of man they “mutually pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.” It was not the mere question of the sacrifice of a fortune, or, in the event of success, untold wealth. It was the launch of the ship of State upon an unknown sea, with fortunes, lives and honor aboard, the venture being the establishment of a nation based on the principle of human equality; or, in the event of a failure, the loss of fortune, life and honor. Without any prospect of personal gain under any circumstances, the stake was a nation to freedom or halters to the projectors.

After years of untold sacrifices and privations, a nation was organized, and human freedom as the basis of a government was established. But the mere military success of the Revolution was not the end. Martial courage, heroic endurance and unselfish patriotism could trample kingly crowns in the dust, and tear the purple robes from the shoulders of royalty, but the destinies of a nation of people, covering almost a continent, were left in their hands, with no one born to govern, and with no experience in any one in the art of government.

The ship of State had made a successful trial trip, and had weathered the gale of military contention and strife; but her crew was composed of men accustomed to obey and not to rule. The nations of the earth pronounced her staunch and seaworthy, and recognized her as a co-ordinate existence. But the question constantly recurred, can she sustain herself in midocean in the long voyage of national existence, with an untrained and undisciplined crew, in the calms of financial depression, and among the rocks and shoals of mutiny and internal dissension? We are here to-day, as a portion of the passengers who sailed on that good craft, to answer that question. We have withstood the shock of battle, the ocean’s storm, the tropic’s calm, “the broadside’s reeling rack,” the crew’s rebellion, and the hidden dangers of the deep, and with all hands on deck and the flag flying at the fore, we dance over the waves and ride into the harbor at the end of a voyage of a hundred years, with the ease and grace of excursionists on a summer sea.

With all our opening disadvantages, with fortunes broken and general financial prostration, the nation entered upon a career of self-government, then a doubtful experiment, and this is the only republic in the history of the world which has lived to celebrate the centenary of its birth. The problem of government by the people was looked upon as the fond dream of visionaries and theorists designed to captivate the ear of the multitude by the resounding periods of the rhetorician, and shed a glamour over the resonant numbers of the poet’s songs of liberty; but practically an impossible hope not to be realized in human society.

When the united colonies struck their blow for independence and in the cause of human freedom, the population of the whole country was not equal to that of Pennsylvania to-day. And in useful productions and the multifarious industries which render a people self-sustaining, they were far behind the present resources of this great State. They were not only dependent politically upon the mother country, and governed by laws in the enactment of which they had no voice, but they were commercially dependent . They depended on other countries for many of the necessaries of life. They had a vast territory and a soil of great natural fertility, but its products had to be shipped to other countries to be put into the forms and fabrics for the use of the people. Under such circumstances, the declaration of independence was an act like that of a commander landing his army on a hostile coast, and burning his ships to cut off the possibility of retreat . It was a bold act, but it was not done recklessly, under a temporary excitement, by men who were ambitious to perform a dramatic act of evanescent courage before the eyes of the world, but by men who were brave, prudent, patriotic and wise.

There is a system of compensation which runs through all human transactions, and it often happens that what seems an element of weakness is a bulwark of strength. The comparative poverty and helpless dependence of the colonies was a bond of union and strength when the connection with Great Britain was once severed. Having to rely upon themselves, they became more firmly knitted together, and this self-dependence increased their trust and confidence in each other. While their privations were greater, their patriotism burned the brighter, and they vied with each other in acts of unselfish heroism, and in the darkest hours of the protracted struggle, the gloom was illuminated by deeds of fortitude, endurance and valor which filled the land with their glory, and challenged the admiration of the world.

But this is not a time nor a place for a history of that war, or a recapitulation of its conspicuous events. The pledge of the colonists to each other and to mankind was faithfully redeemed. The scattered colonies became the nucleus of a great nation. But war leaves its scars as well upon the body politic as upon the warrior. The new government was bankrupt. The currency of the country was worthless. The new system of government was to be organized by men who were without experience in the art of government, with large debts and an empty treasury. Here again, more conspicuously than in the war, the poverty of the colonists was an element of strength, and the nursery of patriotism. With no money in the treasury and few resources to raise revenue to pay their debts and carry on the public business, they had their compensation in the fact that there was nothing to steal, and consequently the new government did not beget a race of thieves. Men who were conspicuous for the purity of their lives, their sterling integrity and patriotism and their exalted abilities were sought for and placed in the highest positions of political trust. In those days, it was the belief of the people that the true way to get money was to earn it; that the acquisition of wealth was a slow and toilsome process; and that the evidence of it was the possession and ownership of substantial property, or the glittering cash, and not a man’s ability to place on the market and keep afloat the largest amount of commercial paper.

With these homely but sound notions of political and personal economy, the people addressed themselves to the task of repairing their fortunes and building up the industries of the country on a firm and substantial bases. Economy in the household and in the government was the rule, and no luxuries were indulged in until the money was earned to pay for them. The habits of the people under a government of and by the people stamped their impress upon the administration of public affairs. Honesty, economy, and public and private virtue were essential elements of respectability, and the general rule of action in public and private life; and profligacy the exception. Cultivating such principles, with a boundless territory, of teeming soil and a free government, we could not fail to be a prosperous and a happy people.

“There is no poverty where Freedom is—
The wealth of nature is affluence to us all,”

Having started our ship of State under these auspices, we have tided over the first century of our national existence. On this glad day of our hundredth anniversary, while celebrating the most important event in the history of human governments which has ever shed its influence on surrounding nations, and lighted up the dark places of the world, let us like true sailors take our reckoning, and improve the occasion of our rejoicing in this year of jubilee, by ascertaining whether our good ship is on her true course, and to so trim her sails, repair her hull, lay her fairly before the wind, and replenish her stores, that she may live through the calms of financial and business depressions, weather the gales of internal strife, avoid the rocks and shoals of foreign and domestic wars, and repel the attacks of all piratical crafts at home and abroad, during the future progress of her voyage over an unexplored and unknown sea; for our future course is not to be a return, and we are not to he listlessly on the water to be borne back by the refluent tide to the harbor whence we sailed. Our course is not backward but forward and onward.

And what are the conclusions from our observations? What do tho soundings indicate? What is the outlook from the binnacle? Does the gallant craft still respond to the turn of the helmsman’s wheel like a thing of intelligence? Do the “waves bound beneath her like a steed that knows his rider?” Is she followed by hungry sharks ready to devour her crew, or cheered by the presence of the graceful sea gull, with his wavy motion and virgin plumage?

These questions are asked more to excite reflection than for answers; but it may not be amiss to answer so far as can be done by general conclusions. The stability of the present and the hope of the future are found in the underlying principles of our government—the universal equality and inalienable rights of all men. Human rights arc the rights of all men, and of each man, and they cannot be taken away except so far as he surrenders them. Governments are organized for the protection of human society, but they derive all “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” To this extent a man may surrender his natural rights. The government is from an internal, and not an external source. Man rules himself under our system, and for convenience may do it by a delegated power, to be conferred and resumed at stated intervals. His laws, therefore, axe of his own making, and while it is his duty as a member of society to obey them, he has the power of revocation whenever he finds them unjust or oppressive.

Under such a form of government, the light of armed revolution does not exist. That is only justifiable against a power which he did not create, and which seeks to control or disregard his rights without his consent. The theory of government based upon an hereditary succession of rulers is not only subversive of the rights of man, but is an irreverent usurpation of divine power. The nurture of a sovereign in the cradle, destined while a puling infant to be the ruler of a nation, whether an idiot, a tyrant, a statesman, or a fool, is as impious as it is absurd. In organized society man is the source of political power for self-government, although we all acknowledge “a higher law;” and however much the term may be abused by speculative theorists, and however much the expression may be distorted by or in the interests of political mountebanks, all jurists and law makers recognize a law above human laws, the leges legem, to which all human laws must conform and be made subservient. But that law does not take away any human rights. It fosters and protects them; and, therefore, it cannot confer the right to rule on hereditary sovereigns. And this principle of equality in rights is universal, and applies to all men, without regard to nationality, creed or color. Whether Caucasian, Teuton, Celt, African, or Mongol, this question is equally applicable, and it cannot be abrogated by any power beneath that which thundered the laws from Mount Sinai. Man may forfeit his right to life and liberty by his crimes, but this can be done only by the laws in which he has a voice in making. The stability of the present and the hopes of the future are based upon the maintenance of this principle in its integrity; but it is so firmly seated and so interwoven with every fibre of our existence, that the faith and the hope seem to be well founded.

While it is true that there does not seem to be that rigid economy, and unselfish patriotism which characterized the founders of the government, I do not belong to the croakers who believe that all public and private virtue, wisdom and patriotism died with the past. It is an unfortunate disposition, and leads to much unhappiness, to be constantly distrusting every one in public and in private life. I would prefer to be occasionally cheated rather than deal with every man as if I believed him to be a rogue. Under our system, the government will be as good as the people, and the evils which creep into the administration of public affairs begin at the root.

People and rulers have departed to some extent from that simplicity which should be the characteristic of a republic; and by extravagance and luxury—if not riotous living—indulge in expenditures and incur heavy liabilities, to meet which they indulge in speculation, and essay to make money of each other, where there is no money, their efforts to grow rich by a short and rapid process result in bankruptcy. They then blame the government, and clamor for legislation to cure the evil, when they can get none from that source. Their remedy is in their own hands, and no where else; but public officials and ambitious men speculate upon their anxiety, flatter their hopes, spend their money and lead them astray. In one view, the people give too much attention to their government. In another, not enough. They depend too much upon the government to mend their broken fortunes. They give too little attention to the kind of men they select, and depend too much upon creeds and platforms.

The evil will go on until it will cure itself in the end. I can lay down a rule which, if rigidly followed, would cure many of the evils which are now charged upon the government. Let every man attend diligently to his own business. Earn the money upon which he lives, and earn it before he expends it. Risk no money in a speculation which he cannot afford to lose, and place none in a doubtful venture but his own. If this course be strictly followed by every man, we will scarcely know we have a government, it will sit so lightly upon our shoulders, and we will soon discover that our business and our fortunes do not depend so much upon the government as upon ourselves. There are more people than is generally supposed who pursue this course; but they are very much hindered in their slow but certain progress by the large class who pursue a different course. Men who spend money they never earned, or owned, must spend that which belongs to others. For many live on what others have toiled to earn. This is one of the great causes of the crippled condition of the industries of our State.

But while these things retard our prosperity periodically, they do not shake the foundation principles of our government, or endanger its permanency. The wrecks which float upon the surface are but the broken fragments of the argosies which have been drawn into the insatiate whirlpool of mad speculation, dashed in pieces on the rocks beneath, and cast up by the restless waters, a warning to reckless adventurers.

The system of fast living and the appropriation of trust funds for private use, which ultimately leads to the theft of public money, are the crying evils of the times. While bolts, and bars, and locks can protect us against common thieves and burglars, we have no security against official thieves except care in the selection of men for official positions of trust and confidence, and the rigid and inexorable enforcement of the law against its infractors, with a merciless punishment of criminals who betray their trusts. And the country is waking up to the importance of this subject and a better era is dawning. “It is always the darkest the hour before day.”

But this particular manifestation of crime is not peculiar to our times, and does not touch the fundamental principles of our government.

The Great Master was betrayed for a bribe, but Christianity still lives; there was treason in the army of the Revolution, and yet the colonists triumphed; and there have been defaulters among public officials and corruption in high places in all ages of the world. In our country the remedy against it is in the hands of the people. In nearly all others they have little, if any, control over the public servants. There is, therefore, no reason to despair of our institutions in view of certain manifestations of corruption among those in positions of trust and confidence. When the crime becomes intolerable the people will rise to the necessity of the occasion, and apply the remedy which they hold in their hands.

But the question arises, are we in, worse condition in this respect than we were in what we regarded as the balmy days of the Republic? We have more facilities for obtaining news than formerly. With our telegraphs and railroads, news travels with great rapidity, and especially bad news; and our innumerable newspapers gather that which is the most sensational and exciting. The quiet deeds of charity and benevolence, the self sacrificing act of heroism, and the thousands of events in private life which ennoble human actions are unknown to the public. The turbulent elements of society come to the surface. The agents of crime get into the courts, and their deeds are heralded everywhere, and newspapers containing the revolting details are constantly thrust before our eyes. “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” We hear and read all that is evil, but little of the good.

And when we take into consideration the difference in the population of this country between this day and a hundred years ago, being a difference of at least twelve to one, and the fact that evil makes more noise in proportion than the good, it becomes a very doubtful question whether criminals and crimes have more than kept pace with the population. That certain offenses against law have assumed a grave magnitude is a thing to be deplored, but in the presence of the good which emanates from our beneficent government they are but as the spots on the disk of the sun, which mellow the light by breaking the fierce rays of its overpowering effulgence.

But there is no reason to believe that the world is retrograding in morals or honesty. Such a concussion would be an admission that civilization, intelligence and Christianity impede the progress of the world and are disadvantageous to mankind; for there are more schools and seminaries, more books to read; more people to read and understand them, more acts of benevolence and charity, more culture and refinement, and more people who worship God to-day than at any other period since the “morning stars sang together” at man’s creation. That there are base, gross and wicked people is no new phenomenon. They have infested society accursed the world since the day when our original progenitor partook of “that forbidden fruit whose mortal taste brought death into the world and all our woe, with loss of Eden.

But the beacon fires of liberty burn as brightly to-day as they did on the morning of the Fourth of July, 1776, and the people of the country cherish the principles upon which the brave old patriots of that day established us as a free and independent nation. This morning has been ushered in over this broad land with the booming of cannon, the chimes of bells, the blare of the bugle, and the joyful greetings and proud huzzas of the people. These demonstrations are hearty, earnest and profound. They are the spontaneous outbursts of patriotism—the grand anthems bursting from the full hearts of a free, loyal and intelligent people.

Why should we not look forward to the future with wellfounded hopes, inspired by the success of the past? The staunch ship of State cannot encounter more difficult navigation in the coming century than in the past. She has encountered foes from without and enemies within. She has lain within the trough of the sea, and withstood the earth-shaking broadside; and while she trembled in every timber and groaned throughout her hull at the “diapason of the cannonade,” after the blue smoke of battle had drifted away in curling clouds on the breeze, we looked aloft, and joyfully exclaimed that “our flag is still there!” When the waves of rebellion, with fearful fury crashed upon her in mid-ocean, they were broken and scattered in foam on her hull, and died away in eternal silence at her keel. In calm and storm, in peace and war, our goodly craft has braved a hundred years “the battle and the breeze.

To-day all hands are piped on deck to receive instructions and inspiriting encouragement for a continuance of the voyage for another century. The winds and tides are fair, the skies are bright, and the sails are set. Gently swaying to the billows motion, we round the headland, and boldly enter upon the broad expanse of waters. The world of old dynasties, which jeered when we essayed our first voyage, became astonished at our progress, and their astonishment turned into amazement as we pursued our successful course. That amazement, as we boldly head out for the open sea on the second century, assumes the aspect of awe. Such a craft, manned by such a crow, carrying a flag which is known and recognized as the emblem of freedom everywhere, is a dangerous emissary among the subjects of kings, emperors, and despots of every form. Wherever that flag floats, whether waving languidly in the gentle zephyr of the tropics, or fluttering amid the ice crags of arctic desolation, it is hailed as the emblem of freedom and the symbol of the rights of man.

To show our influence on the people in the remote corners of the earth, a citizen of the United States, during the trying times of the rebellion, was traveling on the northern coast of Norway; and, landing from a small steamer at a trading town in the early morning, before the inhabitants were astir, found three fishermen from Lapland waiting at the door of a store to do some small business in trade. The fishermen appeared to be a father and two sons. They were dressed in skins of the reindeer, and appeared to be half barbarian, illiterate people. They were introduced to the American, and when the older of the Laplanders learned that the distinguished stranger was a citizen of this country, his countenance lighted up with an expression of eager intelligence as he asked: “Are you from beyond the great sea?” Upon being answered in the affirmative, he exclaimed: “Tell me, tell me, does liberty still live?” He expressed great satisfaction upon being assured that it did.

If on the coasts of the northern frozen seas, in a land of almost perpetual night, an illiterate fisherman feels such an eager interest in the question of the continued vitality of liberty, what a dangerous messenger will be that ensign of the Ship of State flashing “its meteor glories” among the thrones, crowns, and sceptres of the world. The subjects and victims of oppression will catch “inspiration from its glance,” and learning that liberty still lives, will pass the inspiring watchword from man to man. And the cry that “Liberty still lives” will be the world’s battle shout of freedom, and the rallying watchword of deliverance.

“And the dwellers in the rocks and in the Tales,
Shall about It to each other, and the mountain tops
From distant mountains catch the flying joy,
“Till nation after nation taught the strain,
Earth rolls the rapturous hosanna round.”

And in the land of liberty’s birth the fires of patriotism will be kept aflame by the iteration and reiteration of the answer to the fisherman’s question, that “Liberty still lives.” And from the hearts of the crowded cities, from the fireside of the farmer, and from the workshop of the mechanic, in the busy hamlets of labor, and in the homes of luxury and ease, the hearts of freemen will be cheered as our noble craft sails on, with the inspiriting assurance that “Liberty still lives.” The burden of that cry will float upon the air wherever our banner waves, and its resonant notes will fill the land with a new inspiration as the joyful assurance is heard.

“Coming up from each valley, flung down from each height)
Our Country and Liberty, God for the right.”

See also: Advice to Young People from Noah Webster Father of American Education
The Wisdom and Love of God as Shown by His Creation by Noah Webster
COURAGE! A Poem by Bryan Waller Procter 1787-1874
AIM HIGH! An Address by President Benjamin Harrison 1893
A GOOD NAME by Joel Hawes 1789-1867
PATRIOT SONS OF PATRIOT SIRES by Rev. Samuel Francis Smith 1808-1895
TRUE FREEDOM! A Poem by James Russell Lowell 1819-1891
The Relationship Between a Man and Woman