An oration delivered on the 4th of July, 1826, at Northampton, Massachusetts by George Bancroft

EagleFlag1Our act of celebration begins with God. To the eternal Providence, on which states depend, and by whose infinite mercy they are prospered, the nation brings its homage and the tribute of its gratitude. From the omnipotent Power, who dwells in the unclouded serenity of being without variableness or shadow of change, we proceed as from the Fountain of good, the Author of hope, and the Source of order and justice, now that we assemble to commemorate the revolution, the independence, and the advancement of our country. No sentiments should be encouraged on this occasion, but those of patriotism and philanthropy.

When the names of our venerated Fathers were affixed to the instrument which declared our independence, an impulse and confidence were imparted to all efforts at improvement throughout the world. The festival which we keep is the festival of freedom itself; it belongs not to us only, but to man; all the nations of the earth have an interest in it, and humanity proclaims it sacred. In the name of liberty, therefore, I bid you welcome to the celebration of its jubilee; in the name of our country I bid you welcome to the recollection of its glories and joy in its prosperity; in the name of humanity I welcome you to a festival, which commemorates an improvement in the social condition; in the name of religion I welcome you to a profession of the principles of public justice, which emanate directly from God.

These principles are eternal, not only in their truth, but in their efficacy. The world has never been entirely without witnesses to them; they have been safely transmitted through the succession of generations; they have survived the revolutions of individual states; and their final success has never been despaired of. Liberty has its foundation in human nature; and some portion of it exists, wherever there is a sense of honor. Are proofs of its existence demanded? As the mixture of good and evil is the condition of our earthly being, the efficient agency of good must be sought for even in the midst of evil; the impulse of free spirits is felt in every state of society and in spite of all constraint. There may have been periods in which the human mind has sunk into slothful indifference; the arm of exertion been paralyzed; and every noble aspiration hushed in the tranquility of universal submission. But even in such periods the world has never been left utterly without hope; and when the breath of tyranny has most effectually concealed the sun of liberty, and shrouded in darkness the magnificence of his beams, it has been but for a season.

Tomorrow he repairs the golden flood,
And gilds the nations with redoubled ray.

TETRRF-00024113-001Nature concedes to every people the right of executing whatever plans they may devise for their improvement, and the right of maintaining their independence. Of the exercise of these rights there have always been examples. The innate love of national liberty proceeds from an impulse and waits only for an opportunity to demonstrate its power. It has aroused the brave and generous from the first periods of history to the present moment, and has been a principle of action under every form of government; it was this, which made Marathon the watch-word of those who fight for their country; this pointed the arrows of the Parthian; this lent an air of romance to the early history of the Swiss and gained the battles of Morgarten and Sempach; this inspirited the Dutch, when their freedom was endangered by the arms of Louis XIV, and could be secured by no smaller sacrifice, to lay the soil of Holland beneath the ocean; this blessed the banners that waved on Bunker Hill and canonized the memory of those who fell as the elect martyrs and witnesses to their country’s independence; this made the French republic invincible when it stood alone against the world; this, which formerly at Pultowa had taught the Russians to fight, sacrificed Moscow, a splendid victim, on the altar of national existence; this united the mangled limbs of Germany, breathed a spirit once more into the long divided members, and led them against the French, as if impelled by the throbbings of one mighty heart. What need of many words? This made New Orleans a place of proud recollections, and still more recently has raised its boldest standard under the Southern sky, and finished a career of victory in the field of Ayacucho.

The exercise of free principles in the internal improvement of states is more difficult and more rare; for it requires the continued efforts of prudence, favored by the possession of power; a clear insight into the relations and wants of social life; an enlightened age and a persevering policy. Yet almost the first demand of civilized man has been a legislation, founded on the principles of justice; and the Roman law is still in force as the guarantee of private possessions in many of the most despotic countries of Europe. Some fixed constitution men have always claimed; and wherever codes have been established, their tendency has been favorable to individual rights, personal security, and intellectual liberty.

The general sentiment of mankind is expressed by the master spirits in the works, which are as monuments of the knowledge and aspirations of departed ages. Here there exists no difference of feeling; liberty may have been contemplated under different aspects, but honor has never been refused to the celestial visitant. Milton, than whom no man ever enjoyed clearer revelations of the light of poetry, appeals to the greatest bards, from the first to his own time, as the lovers and eulogists of liberty. Do you ask after the reasonings of mankind? To the contemplative man there is no equivalent for freedom of thought and expression; freedom to follow the guidance of reason wherever she may lead; freedom to make an open profession of all deliberate convictions. The historians, the orators, the philosophers, are the natural advocates of civil liberty. From all countries and all ages we have the same testimony; it is the chorus of the whole family of nations.

The events of the last fifty years lead us to hope, that liberty, so long militant, is at length triumphant. From our own revolution the period derives its character. As on the morning of the nativity the astonished wizards hastened with sweet odors on the Eastern road, our government had hardly come into being and the star of liberty shed over us its benignant light, before the nations began to follow its guidance and do homage to its beauty. The French revolution followed our own; and new principles of action were introduced into the politics of Europe. The melancholy events, which ensued, must be carefully distinguished from the original resistance to unlimited monarchy. The evils, which resulted from anarchy in the royal councils, should not be referred to the influence of national principles. The popular effort, which abolished the system of absolute rule and feudal subjection, which maintained the equal rights of man, which reclaimed the sovereign power for the people and established the responsibility of all public officers, a revolution which at once annihilated the distinctions of birth and gave a free course to the principles of liberty, to industry, and to truth, was worthy of the enthusiasm which it excited in the lovers of freedom. The representatives of the people were true, while the nobles were false and the king prevaricated; and, but for the coalition of the foreign powers against France, there is reason to believe the French revolution would have been consummated with so much order and followed by so much prosperity and happiness, that the neighboring nations must have been incited to imitate the example and peacefully reform their institutions.

The wars which followed were not without their use; for though they were conducted by an exasperated nation, whose generous passion for liberty had become a frenzy, the armies of the republic were still arrayed against tyranny. The torch of freedom was in their hands, though it had been seized with profane recklessness. The light did indeed glare with a wild and terrific splendor; yet, as it waved round the continent of Europe, its beams reached the furthest kingdoms and startled tyranny in its securest recesses. Germany awakened as if to a new consciousness of being; Poland caught a momentary hope of restoration; Bohemia, Hungary, and the furthest East lifted up their heads and listened for a season to the strains that told of independence, before they relapsed again into their ancient lethargy.

A permanent consequence of the French revolution has been, the establishment of representative governments in some of the states of Europe. France may modify her institutions, but never will resign them; the free states of Germany may be overawed by surrounding power, and so fail of developing their public life by the strict rules of liberty; but they will never part with their political knowledge. You might as well endeavor to tear the plough from their peasant^, as the principles of freedom from their intelligent men. But whatever may be the chances, that popular sovereignty will finally prevail in Europe, that continent is no longer to the world what she once was. She has fulfilled her high destiny; she has been for many centuries the sole depositary and guardian of all that is most valuable in government, letters, and invention, in present enjoyment and religious hope. But human culture has at length been transplanted to other climes, and already grown to a more beautiful maturity. Whatever destiny may hang over Europe, mankind is safe. Intelligence and religion have found another home; not only in our own free states, the cross is planted on each side the Andes, and the rivers which empty into either ocean fertilize the abodes of civilization.

July4th2A more admirable and cheering spectacle, therefore, than Europe can offer, is exhibiting in our own hemisphere. A family of Free states has at once come into being, and already flourishes on a soil, which till now had been drooping under colonial thraldom. Our happiness is increased by the wide diffusion of the blessings of free institutions; and it is a pleasing consciousness, that the example of our Fathers taught these new republics, what were their rights, and how they might assert them. Their final success we regard as certain, believing that the freedom of inquiry and of action will ensure the triumph of reason and the establishment of wise constitutions. Be it that .the new aspirants after liberty are impeded by the relics of colonial bondage; the influence of pernicious forms, which rested for support on the dominion of the mother country, cannot long survive the end of that dominion; be it that the literature of Spain contains no eloquent exposition of the principles of liberty; they will find a good interpreter of them in their own breasts; be it that clear views of public economy and administration are not yet commonly diffused; the people soon learn to understand their interests, and to devise the best means of advancing them; be it that their religion partakes of bigotry and an exclusive spirit; bigotry will yield to light, and far be it from us to condemn wantonly a form of Christianity, which is adopted by half the Christian world; be it that their social life has not yet assumed a form, corresponding with their political condition; the natural operation of civil equality and the success of unrestricted enterprise will remove all injurious distinctions; be it that they are taunted with extravagance and denounced as drunk with liberty; it is a very safe intoxication and would to God all the nations of the earth might drink deeply of that cup; be it that they have consistently practiced in the faith of man’s natural equality; there is no reason to apprehend a confusion of justice from those who guarantee the rights of all the members of their community; and, finally, be it that they who are now beginning to enjoy free constitutions, are partly of mixed descent; will you not all coincide with me when I say, we feel for man, not for a single race of men, and wherever liberty finds followers, as wherever Christ has disciples, be it that English or Indian, Spanish or African blood pours in their veins, we greet them as brethren.

I have glanced at the leading events in the history of the last half-century, and their aspect on the progress of mc free institutions. Time will not permit, nor does our purpose lead us to enumerate all the states which were doomed to perish, or those which were to rise from their ruins. No so short period of history ever presented so many or so mighty revolutions, such grand displays of national force; armies so numerous and yet so well disciplined; battles so skillfully conducted and decisive of such vast interests. The stream of time, which flowed through so many of the past centuries with a lazy current, has at last rushed onwards with overwhelming fury, leaping down one precipice after another, destroying all barriers in its ungovernable swiftness, hurrying states and empires and nations along its current, while the master minds were driven they knew not whither, on waters through which they vainly endeavored to direct their course,

The age has been fertile in strange contrasts, in unforeseen and unparalleled events. Europe is filled with the shadows of departed states and the graves of ruined republics. In the North, an adventurer of fortune has succeeded to the Swedish throne, and the legitimate king lives quietly in exile; while in the rest of Europe the doctrine of the divine right has been revived. Rome was once more made the head of a republic; the secular power of the Pope, annihilated for a season, was restored by the help of Turks, Russians, and English, Infidels, Schismatics, and Heretics. An army of Europeans, having in its train a band of scientific men, pitched its victorious camp at the foot of the Pyramids; the solitary banks of the Nile again became the temporary abode of glory and civilization; and again the bands of armed men poured through the hundred gates of the long deserted Thebes. An empire, which sends its caravans into Tartary and China, exerts its influence in Paris and Madrid, and has its envoy at Washington. The whole East has been a scene of continued turbulence, till at last a corporation of merchants, residing in a distant island, has reduced seventy millions of people to subjection. And, finally, to notice a singular fact in our own history, he, whose eloquent pen gave freedom its charter in the declaration of our independence; he, who was the third to receive the greatest honor ever awarded by public suffrage; he, who in the course of his administration doubled the extent of our territory by a peaceful treaty; he, whose principles are identified with the character of our government, and whose influence with the progress of civil liberty throughout the world, after declining to be a third time elected to the highest station in the service of his country, has not preserved on his retirement, I will not say fortune enough to bury him with honor, has not saved the means of supporting the decline of life with decency. The system of states, now united by diplomatic relations or commerce, embraces the world. The productions and the manufactures of all climes, the advances of intelligence and all useful inventions, are made universal benefits; the thoughts of superior men find their way over every ocean and through every country; civilization has its messengers in all parts of the world, and there is a community of feeling among the lovers of truth, however widely their abodes may be separated.

And in this system of states an experiment is simultaneously making of the most various forms of government and all within the reach of mutual observation. While the United States show to what condition a nation is carried by establishing a government strictly national, we have in Russia and in Haiti examples of a military despotism; in England a preponderating aristocracy; in France a monarchy with partial limitations; in Prussia an absolute monarchy, yet dependent for its strength on the spirit of the people; in Naples the old-fashioned system of absolute caprice. Let men reason if they will on the different systems of government; the history of the age is showing from actual experiment which of them best promotes the ends of the social compact.

Thought has been active in our times, not with speculative questions; but in devising means for improving the social condition. Efforts have been made to diffuse Christianity throughout the world. The cannibal of the South Sea forgets his horrid purpose and listens to the instructions of religion; the light of the Sabbath morn is welcomed by the mild inhabitants of the Pacific islands; and Africa and Australasia have not remained unvisited. Colonies, which were first established on the Guinea coast for the traffic in slaves, have been renewed for the more effectual suppression of that accursed trade. A curiosity, which will not rest unsatisfied, perseveres in visiting the unknown parts of the earth; the oceans have been so carefully explored by skilful navigators, that we are well acquainted with all their currents and their paths; and the regions, which lie furthest from the ancient abodes of civilization, have at last received its colonies.

Not only the advancement of knowledge characterizes the age, but its wide diffusion throughout all classes of society. The art of printing, which has been in use less than four hundred years and which, vast as its influence has already been, is just beginning to show how powerfully it can operate on society, offers such means of extending knowledge, that national education becomes every where possible; and while before this invention it was impracticable to impart literary culture but to a few, the elements of science can now be made universally accessible.

The facts, to which I have rapidly alluded, show a gradual amelioration of the human condition and the more complete development of the social virtues. And where is it, that the hopes of philanthropy are most nearly realized? I turn from the consideration of foreign revolutions to our own condition, and meet with nothing but what may animate our joy and increase our hopes. The visions of patriotism fall short of the reality. He, who observes the air of cheerful industry and successful enterprise, the sobriety of order, the increasing wealth of our cities, the increasing productiveness of our lands, our streams crowded with new establishments, and the appearance of entire success, stamped on every part of our country, will yet be amazed at the official documents, in which the elements of this success are analyzed, and its amount made the subject of cool calculation.

In whatever direction we turn our eyes, we find one unclouded scene of prosperity, everywhere marks of advancement and increasing opulence. While the population of the United States is doubled in less than twenty four years, its capital is doubled in less than eleven. At the beginning of the war the manufactures of the country could hardly be said to have had any considerable value; during the last twelve-month the value of goods manufactured in the United States has probably exceeded three hundred millions of dollars. The commerce of the country soon after the revolution extended, it is true, to every important mart, though it was but the first effort of a nation without capital; but now, when a large part of the commerce of the world is done by American merchants, our internal commerce surpasses our foreign even in tonnage, and still more in its value to the nation. Our thriving agriculture gives an air of magnificence to our lands, and, after supplying our domestic wants, leaves a large surplus for exportation. All our rural towns have an aspect of ease and comfort and prosperity. On our seaboard the wealth and population are advancing with a rapidity, surpassing the most sanguine expectations; and the prospect, that lies before us, seems too brilliant to be realized, when we observe a city like New York, already one of the largest on earth, and yet so new, its crowded wharves, its splendid walk by the ocean-side, its gay and busy streets so remarkable for the beautiful neatness of the buildings; its industry; its moral order; and its rapid growth, proceeding from causes that still operate with undiminished force.

These grand results are visible in the oldest part of our country, where the trees are older than the settlements, and men are older than the bridges and the roads. The changes in the West are known to be still more amazing. The hunter finds his way through a fertile region, and hardly has his good report been heard, before it is gemmed with villages; and all the intelligence and comforts of cultivated life are at once introduced into the new haunts of civilization. The voice of Christian worship is heard to rise from crowded assemblies in regions, which have been first visited within our memories. Domestic trade is extending itself in every direction; steam-boats ascend even the most rapid rivers, whose banks have been but recently explored, and as they pass through the lonely scenes, now first enlivened by the echoes of social cheerfulness, the venerable antiquity of nature bends from her awful majesty, and welcomes the fearless emigrant to the solitudes, where the earth has for centuries been hoarding fertility.

I have spoken to you of the condition of our country at large; I have called on you to observe its general prosperity. I will now limit the sphere of our view; I will ask you to look around at your own fields and firesides; your own business and prospects. There is not one desirable privilege, which we do not enjoy; there is not one social advantage, that reason can covet, which is not ours. I speak not merely of our equal rights to engage in any pursuit, that promises emolument or honor; I speak, also, of the advantages which we are always enjoying; security in our occupations; liberty of conscience; the certain rewards of labor. While there is general ease, the distribution of wealth has led to no great inequalities; all our interests are thriving; the mechanic arts are exercised with successful skill; improved means of communication with the sea-board are opening to our trade; the waters of our abundant streams are continually applied to new branches of business; an equal interchange of kindness is the general custom; moral order pervades an industrious population; intelligence is diffused among our yeomanry; the plough is in the hands of its owner; and the neat aspect of our farm-houses proves them the abode of contentment and successful diligence. Nor are we without our recollections. I never can think without reverence of the spirited veteran, who, on the morning of the seventeenth of June, in the seventieth year of his age, was hastening on horseback as a volunteer to Bunker Hill; but, coming to Charlestown neck and finding the fire from the British ships so severe, that crossing was extremely dangerous, coolly sent back the animal which he had borrowed of a friend and, shouldering his musket, marched over on foot. When the Americans saw him approach they raised a shout, and the name of Pomeroy ran along the lines. Since the ashes of the gallant soldier do not rest among us, let us the more do honor to his memory. We have raised a simple monument to his name in our grave-yard; but his body reposes, where he breathed out life on his country’s service, in the maturity of years, and yet a martyr. Even before that time and before the hour of immediate danger, when the boldest spirits might have wavered in gloomy uncertainty, and precious moments were wasting in indecision, one of our own citizens, my friends, his memory is still fresh among us, had been the first to cry in a voice, which was heard beyond the Potomac, we must fight; and when some alternative was desired, and reconciliation hoped from inactivity and delay, clearly saw the absolute necessity of the case, and did but repeat, we must fight. It was in front of the very place, where we are now assembled, that the hearts of our Fathers were cheered and their resolution confirmed by the eloquence of Hawley. And what is the cause and the guarantee of our happiness? What but the principles of our constitution. When our fathers assembled to prepare it, the genius of history admitted them to the secrets of destiny, and taught them by the failures of the past to provide for the happiness of future generations. No model was offered them, which it seemed safe to imitate; the constitution established a government on entirely liberal principles, such as the world had never beheld in practice.

The sovereignty” of the people is the basis of the system. With the people the power resides, both theoretically and practically. The government is a democracy, a determined, uncompromising democracy; administered immediately by the people, or by the people’s responsible agents. In all the European treatises on Political Economy and even in the state-papers of the holy alliance, the welfare of the people is acknowledged to be the object of government. We believe so too; but as each man’s interests are safest in his own keeping, so in like manner the interests of the people can best be guarded by themselves. If the institution of monarchy were neither tyrannical nor oppressive, it should at least be dispensed with, as a costly superfluity.

We believe the sovereign power should reside equally among the people. We acknowledge no hereditary distinctions and we confer on no man prerogatives, or peculiar privileges. Even the best services, rendered the state, cannot destroy this original and essential^ equality. Legislation and justice are not hereditary offices; no one is born to power, no one dandled into political greatness. Our government, as it rests for support on reason and our interests, needs no protection from a nobility; and the strength and ornament of the land consist in its industry and morality, its justice and intelligence.

The states of Europe are all intimately allied with the church and fortified by religious sanctions. We approve of the influence of the religious principle on public not less than on private life; but we hold religion to be an affair between each individual conscience and God, superior to all political institutions and independent of them. Christianity was neither introduced nor reformed by the civil power; and with us the modes of worship are in no wise prescribed by the state.

Thus then the people governs, and solely; it does not divide its power with a hierarchy, a nobility, or a king. The popular voice is all powerful with us; this is our oracle; this, we acknowledge, is the voice of God. Invention is solitary; but who shall judge of its results? Inquiry may pursue truth apart; but who shall decide, if truth is overtaken? There is no safe criterion of opinion but the careful exercise of the public judgment; and in the science of government as elsewhere, the deliberate convictions of mankind, reasoning on the cause of their own happiness, their own wants and interests, are the surest revelations of political truth.

The interests of the people are the interests of the individuals, who compose the people. If we needed no general government for our private success and happiness, we should have adopted none. It is created to supply a want and a deficiency; it is simply a corporation, invested with limited powers for accomplishing specific purposes.

Government is based upon population, not upon property. If they, who possess the wealth, possessed the power also, they would legislate in such a way, as to preserve that wealth and power; and this would tend to an aristocracy. We hold it best, that the laws should favor the diffusion of property and its easy acquisition, not the concentration of it in the hands of a few to the impoverishment of the many. We give the power to the many, in the hope and to the end, that they may use it for their own benefit; that they may always so legislate, as to open the fairest career to industry, and promote an equality founded on the safe and equitable influence of the laws. We do not fear, we rather invite the operation of the common motives, which influence humanity. If the emperor of Austria takes care to do nothing against his trade as a king, if the Pope administers his affairs with reference to his own advantage and that of the Romish church, if the English Aristocracy provides for the secure succession of hereditary wealth and power; so too we hope, where the power resides with the many, that the many will be sure to provide for themselves; magistrates be taken from the bosom of the people to which they return; the rights of those who have acquired property sacredly regarded; the means of acquiring it made common to all; industry receive its merited honors; morality be preserved; knowledge universally diffused; and the worth of naked humanity duly respected and encouraged.

The laws of the land are sacred; they are established by the majority for the general good. Private rights are sacred; the protection of them is the end of law and government. When the rules of justice are trampled on, or the power of maintaining it wrested from the hands of its appointed guardians, there is tyranny, let it be done where and by whom it may, in the old world or in the new, by a monarch or by a mob. Liberty frowns on such deeds, as attacks on her safety. For liberty knows nothing of passion; she is the daughter of God, and dwells in unchanging tranquility beside his throne; her serene countenance is never ruffled by excitement; reason and justice are the pillars of her seat, and truth and virtue the angels that minister unto her. When you come with violence and angry fury, do you pretend to come in her name? In vain; she is not there; even now she has escaped from among you.

Thus then our government is strictly national, having its origin in the will of the people, its object in their happiness, its guarantee in their morality; a government, essentially radical, in so far as it aims to facilitate the prompt reform of abuses; and essentially leveling, as it prohibits hereditary distinctions, and tends to diminish artificial ones.

Our government is called weak and said to rest on an insecure foundation; while in truth it is established on the firmest. It is the deliberate preference of all its citizens; and, self-balanced, rests securely on its own strength. Our confidence in its durability is equal to our confidence, that the people will always find such a system for their interests; and that liberty and intelligence will always be respected by a majority of mankind. The will of the people created our constitution; and not prescriptive right, not the condescension of an individual, not the terrors of religion, as interpreted by a priesthood, not the bayonets of a standing army, not the duplicity of diplomatic chicanery, not the lure of mitres, coronets, and artificial distinctions,—the wisdom of the people is our only, our sufficient, constitutional frank-pledge. Our moral condition is, then, indeed superior to that of the old world in the present, or in any former age. We have institutions more free, more just, and more beneficent, than have ever before been established. And that our glory as a nation might in nothing be wanting, the men, to whom the people first confided their interests, they, whose names stand highest in the annals of our glory, the statesmen, by whose voice the pure spirit of the country expressed its desires, the leaders, by whose bravery and skill our citizens were conducted to success in the contest for their rights, were of undoubted integrity and spotless patriotism, men, in whom the elements of human greatness were so happily mixed, that as their principles were generous and elevated, so their lives were distinguished by a course of honorable action, and the sacrifice of private advantage to the public good. They united the fervor of genius with the magnanimity of character; and the luster of their brilliant career was tempered by the republican simplicity of their manners. The names of Washington and Franklin recur, as often as examples are sought of enlightened philanthropy and a virtue, almost superhuman. The political privileges of the people correspond with the moral greatness of our illustrious men. Greece and Rome can offer no parallel to the one or the other. In possession of complete personal independence, our religious liberty is entire; our press without restrictions; the channels of wealth and honor alike open to all; the cause of intelligence asserted and advanced by the people; in our houses, our churches, our halls of justice, our legislatures, everywhere there is liberty. The sublimest views of superior minds are here but homely truths, reduced to practice, and shedding a beneficent influence over all the daily operations of life. Soul is breathed into the public administration by the suffrages of the people, and the aspect of our policy on the world is favorable to universal improvement. The dearest interests of mankind were entrusted to our country; it was for her to show, that the aspirations of former ages were not visionary; that freedom is something more than a name; that the patriots and the states, that have been martyrs in its defense, were struggling in a sacred cause and fell in the pursuit of a real good. The great spirits of former times looked down from their celestial abodes to cheer and encourage her in the hour of danger; the nations of the earth turned towards her as to their last hope. And the country has not deceived them. With unwavering consistency she has pursued the general good and confirmed the national sovereignty; she has joined a decided will to a clear perception of her rights and duties; she has had courage to regulate her course by free principles, wherever they might guide; and has proclaimed them to the world as with the voice of an inspired man. Resolutely developing her resources and perfecting her establishments by the light of her own experience, she stands in the eye of Heaven and the world in all the comeliness and strength of youth, yet swayed by a spirit of mature wisdom, exemplifying in her public capacity the virtues and generous affections of human nature, a light to the world, an example to those who would be free, already the benefactress of humanity, the tutelary angel of liberty. She advances in her course with the energy of rectitude and the calmness of justice. Liberty is her device; liberty is her glory; liberty is the American policy. This diffuses its blessings throughout all our land; this is cherished in our hearts, dearer than life and dear as honor; this is imbedded in our soil more firmly than the ancient granite in our mountains; this has been bequeathed to us by our fathers; and, whatever may befall us, we will transmit the heritage unimpaired to the coming generation.

Our service began with God. May we not believe, that He, who promises assistance to the humblest of us in our efforts to do His will, regards with complacency the advancement of the nation, and now from his high abode smiles on us with favoring benignity/ Trusting in the Providence of Him, the Universal Father, let the country advance to the glory and prosperity, to which, mindful of its exalted privileges, it aspires; wherever its voice is heard, let it proclaim the message of liberty, and speak with the divine energy of truth; be the principles of moral goodness consistently followed in its actions; and while the centuries, as they pass, multiply its population and its resources, let it manifest in its whole history a devoted attachment to public virtue, a dear affection for mankind, and the consciousness of its responsibility to the God of nations.

The Greatest Speech in American History (Give me Liberty or Give me Death)

To avoid interference from Lieutenant-Governor Dunmore and his Royal Marines, the Second Virginia Convention met March 20, 1775 inland at Richmond–in what is now called St. John’s Church–instead of the Capitol in Williamsburg. Delegate Patrick Henry presented resolutions to raise a militia, and to put Virginia in a posture of defense. Henry’s opponents urged caution and patience until the crown replied to Congress’ latest petition for reconciliation.

On the 23rd, Henry presented a proposal to organize a volunteer company of cavalry or infantry in every Virginia county. By custom, Henry addressed himself to the Convention’s president, Peyton Randolph of Williamsburg. Henry’s words were not transcribed, but no one who heard them forgot their eloquence, or Henry’s closing words: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”

St. John’s Church, Richmond, Virginia
March 23, 1775.

patrick-henry-give-me-liberty-of-give-me-death

MR. PRESIDENT: No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.

Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves, and the House? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask, gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending²if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!

They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
—Patrick Henry

See also: Patrick Henry may well be proved a Prophet as well as a Statesman
Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry and Henry’s Virginia Resolutions of 1765