Of Rebellion: Observations on the Boston Port-Bill by John Q. Adams 1774

JohnQuincyAdamsQuotesAmericans

Of Rebellion; Resistance to Oppression:

To complain of the enormities of power, to expostulate with over-grown oppressors, hath in all ages been denominated sedition and faction; and to turn upon tyrants, treason and rebellion. But tyrants are rebels against the first laws of Heaven and society: to oppose their ravages is an instinct of nature, the inspiration of God in the heart of man. In the noble resistance which mankind make to exorbitant ambition and power, they always feel that divine afflatus which, paramount to everything human, causes them to consider the Lord of Hosts as their leader, and his angels as fellow soldiers. Trumpets are to them joyful sounds, and the ensigns of war the banners of God. Their wounds are bound up in the oil of a good cause; sudden death is to them present martyrdom, and funeral obsequies resurrections to eternal honour and glory, — their widows and babes being received into the arms of a compassionate God, and their names enrolled among David’s worthies: greatest losses are to them greatest gains; for they leave the troubles of their warfare to lie down on beds of eternal rest and felicity.

There are other parts of the Act now before us which merit notice, particularly that relative to the prosecution of suits in the ordinary courts of law, ” for anything done in pursuance of the Act;” by which the defendant is enabled ” to plead the general issue, and give the Act, and the general matter, in evidence;” whereupon it follows that, “if it shall appear so to have been done, the jury shall find for the defendant,” who, by an after clause, is to ” recover treble costs.” From this passage some have been led to conclude that the appearance of this matter was to be to the judge; and that if it had that appearance to him, and he should direct the jury accordingly, however it might appear to the jury, they must follow the directions of the judge, and acquit the defendant. But this is a construction which, as the words do not necessarily carry that meaning, I will not permit myself to suppose the design of the law. However, the late donations of large salaries by the crown to the justices of our superior courts, who are nominated by the Governor, and hold their commission durante beneplacito, have not a little contributed to the preceding apprehension.

Another passage makes provision for “assigning and appointing such and so many open places, quays, and wharfs, within the said harbour, creeks, havens, and islands, for the landing, discharging, lading, and shipping of goods, as His Majesty, his heirs, or successors, shall judge necessary and expedient;” and also for “appointing such and so many officers of the customs therein as His Majesty shall think fit; after which, it shall be lawful for any person or persons to lade or put off from, or to discharge and land upon, such wharfs, quays, and places, so appointed within the said harbour, and none other, any goods, wares, and merchandise whatsoever.” By which the property of many private individuals is to be rendered useless, and worse than useless, as the possession of a thing aggravates the misfortune of those who are deprived of a capacity to enjoy. But if the property of some few is to be rendered nothing worth, so that of many others is to be openly invaded. But why should we dwell upon private wrongs, while those of the multitude call for all our attention?

If any should now say, we are a commercial people, commercial plans can only save us; if any think that the ideas of the merchant are at this day to give spring to our nerves and vigour to our actions; if any say that empire in this age of the world is only founded in commerce, let him show me the people emancipated from oppression by commercial principles and measures. let him point me that unexplored land where trade and slavery flourish together, Till then, I must hold a different creed; and believe that though commercial views may not be altogether unprofitable, that though commercial plans may do much, they never can do all. With regard, then, to how much the merchant, the artificer, the citizen, and the husbandman may do, let us no longer differ. But let everyone apply his strength and abilities to that mighty burden which, unless removed, must crush us all. Americans have one common interest to unite them: that interest must cement them. Natural allies, they have published to the world professions of reciprocal esteem and confidence, aid and assistance; they have pledged their faith of mutual friendship and alliance. Not only common danger, bondage, and disgrace, but national truth and honour, conspire to make the colonists resolve to — stand or fall together.

Americans never were destitute of discernment; they have never been grossly deficient in virtue. A small share of sagacity is now needful to discover the insidious art of our enemies; the smallest spark of virtue will on this occasion kindle into flame.

Will the little temporary advantage held forth for delusion seduce them from their duty? Will they not evidence at this time how much they despise the commercial bribe of a British ministry; and testify to the world that they do not vail to the most glorious of the ancients, in love of freedom and sternness of virtue? But as to the inhabitants of this Province, how great are the number, how weighty the considerations to actuate their conduct? Not a town in this colony but have breathed the warmest declarations of attachment to their rights, union in their defence, and perseverance to the end. Should any one maritime town (for more than one I will not believe there can be), allured by the expectations of gain, refuse to lend their aid; entertaining the base idea of building themselves upon the ruins of this metropolis, and, in the chain of future events, on the destruction of all America, — what shall we say? — hours of bitter reflection will come, when their own feelings shall excite consideration; when remembrance of the past, and expectation of the future, shall fill up the measure of their sorrow and anguish. But I turn from the idea, which blasts my country with infamy, my species with disgrace.

The intelligent reader must have noticed that, through the whole of the Act of Parliament, there is no suggestion that the East India Company had made any demand for damage done to their property: if the company supposed they had received injury, it doth not appear whom they consider as guilty, and much less that they had alleged any charge against the town of Boston. But I presume that if that company were entitled to receive a recompense from the town, until they prosecuted their demand they are supposed to waive it. And we cannot but imagine that this is the first instance where Parliament hath ordered one subject to pay a satisfaction to another, when the party aggrieved did not appear to make his regular claim; and much more uncommon is it for such recompense to be ordered without ascertaining the amount to which the satisfaction shall extend.

But if the East India Company were now made easy, and Boston reduced to perfect silence and humiliation, how many “others” are there who would suggest that they ” suffered by the riots and insurrections abovementioned,” and demand “reasonable satisfaction” therefore. The singular texture, uncertainty, looseness, and ambiguity of this phrase in the statute seems so calculated for dispute, such an eternal bar to a full compliance with the requisitions of the Act, and of course to render permanent its evils, that I cannot speak upon the subject without trespassing upon those bounds of respect and decency, within the circle of which I have endeavoured to move.

Here, waiving further particular consideration of that subject which gave origin to this performance, I shall proceed to an equally interesting subject, — that of standing armies and civil society.

The faculty of intelligence may be considered as the first gift of God: its due exercise is the happiness and honour of man; its abuse, his calamity and disgrace. The most trifling duty is not properly discharged without the exertion of this noble faculty; yet how often does it lie dormant, while the highest concernments are in issue? Believe me, my countrymen, the labor of examining for ourselves, or great imposition must be submitted to; there is no other alternative: and, unless we weigh and consider what we examine, little benefit will result from research. We are at this extraordinary crisis called to view the most melancholy events of our day: the scene is unpleasant to the eye, but its contemplation will be useful, if our thoughts terminate with judgment, resolution, and spirit, worst and most unprofitable of the species. Against this exertion, and the principle which originates it. no vigilance can be too sharp, no determination too severe.

If at this period of public affairs, we do not think, deliberate, and determine like men, — men of minds to conceive, hearts to feel, and virtue to act, — what are we to do? — to gaze upon our bondage? While our enemies throw about firebrands, arrows, and death, and play their tricks of desperation with the gambols of sport and wantonness.

The proper object of society and civil institutions is the advancement of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” The people (as a body, being never interested to injure themselves, and uniformly desirous of the general welfare) have ever made this collective felicity the object of their wishes and pursuit. But, strange as it may seem, what the many through successive ages have desired and sought, the few have found means to baffle and defeat. The necessity of the acquisition hath been conspicuous to the rudest mind; but man, inconsiderate that “in every society there is an effort constantly tending to confer on one part the height of power, and to reduce the other to the extreme of weakness and misery,” hath abandoned the most important concerns of civil society to the caprice and control of those whose elevation caused them to forget their pristine equality, and whose interest urged them to degrade the best and most useful below the worst and most unprofitable of the species. Against this exertion, and the principle which originates it, no vigilance can be too sharp, no determination too severe.

But alas! as if born to delude and be deluded, to believe whatever is taught, and bear all that is imposed, successive impositions, wrongs, and insults awaken neither the sense of injury nor spirit of revenge. Fascinations and enchantments, chain and fetters, bind in adamant the understanding and passions of the human race. Ages follow ages, pointing the way to study wisdom; but the charm continues.

Sanctified by authority and armed with power, error and usurpation bid defiance to truth and right, while the bulk of mankind sit gazing at the monster of their own creation, — a monster, to which their follies and vices gave origin, and their depravity and cowardice continue in existence.

“The greatest happiness of the greatest number” being the object and bond of society, the establishment of truth and justice ought to be the basis of civil policy and jurisprudence. But this capital establishment can never be attained in a state where there exists a power superior to the civil magistrate, and sufficient to control the authority of the laws. Whenever, therefore, the profession of arms becomes a distinct order in the state, and a standing army part of the constitution, we are not scrupulous to affirm that the end of the social compact is defeated, and the nation called to act upon the grand question consequent upon such an event.

The people who compose the society (for whose security the labour of its institution was performed, and of the toils its preservation daily sustained), — the people, I say, are the only competent judges of their own welfare, and therefore are the only suitable authority to determine touching the great end of their subjection and their sacrifices. This position leads us to two others, not impertinent on this occasion, because of much importance to Americans: —

That the legislative body of the commonwealth ought to deliberate, determine, and make their decrees in places where the legislators may easily know from their own observation the wants and exigencies, the sentiments and will, the good and happiness of the people; and the people as easily know the deliberations, motives, designs, and conduct of their legislators, before their statutes and ordinances actually go forth and take effect; —

That every member of the legislature ought himself to be so far subject in his person and property to the laws of the state as to immediately and effectually feel every mischief and inconvenience resulting from all and every act of legislation.

The science of man and society, being the most extended in its nature, and the most important in its consequences, of any in the circle of erudition, ought to be an object of universal attention and study. Was it made so, the rights of mankind would not remain buried for ages under systems of civil and priestly hierarchy, nor social felicity overwhelmed by lawless domination.

Under appearances the most venerable and institutions the most revered, under the sanctity of religion, the dignity of government, and the smiles of beneficence, does the subtle and ambitious make their first encroachments upon their species. Watch and oppose ought therefore to be the motto of mankind. A nation in its best estate — guarded by good laws, fraught with public virtue, and steeled with martial courage — may resemble Achilles; but Achilles was wounded in the heel. The least point left unguarded, the foe enters: latent evils are the most dangerous; for we often receive the mortal wound while we are flattered with security.

The experience of all ages shows that mankind are inattentive to the calamities of others, careless of admonition, and with difficulty roused to repel the most injurious invasions. “I perceive,” said the great patriot Cicero to his countrymen, “an inclination for tyranny in all Caesar projects and executes.” Notwithstanding this friendly caution, not” till it was too late did the people find out that no beginnings, however small, are to be neglected.”  For that Caesar, who at first attacked the commonwealth with mines, very soon opened his batteries. Encroachments upon the rights and property of the citizen are like the rollings of mighty waters over the breach of ancient mounds,— slow and unalarming at the beginning; rapid and terrible in the current; a deluge and devastation at the end. Behold the oak, which stretcheth itself to the mountains, and overshadows the valleys, was once an acorn in the bowels of the earth. Slavery, my friends, which was yesterday engrafted among you, already overspreads the land, extending its arms to the ocean and its limbs to the rivers. Unclean and voracious animals, under its covert, find protection and food; but the shade blasteth the green herb, and the root thereof poisoneth the dry ground, while the winds which wave its branches scatter pestilence and death.

Regular government is necessary to the preservation of private property and personal security. Without these, men will descend into barbarism, or at best become adepts in humiliation and servility; but they will never make a progress in literature or the useful arts. Surely a proficiency in arts and sciences is of some value to mankind, and deserves some consideration. What regular government can America enjoy with a legislative a thousand leagues distant, unacquainted with her exigencies, militant in interest, and unfeeling of her calamities? What protection of property, when ministers under this authority shall overrun the land with mercenary legions? What personal safety, when a British administration (such as it now is, and corrupt as it may be) pour armies into the capital and senate-house, point their artillery against the tribunal of justice, and plant weapons of death at the posts of our doors?

Thus exposed to the power, and insulted by the arms! All this, and much more, hath Boston been witness to of Britain, standing armies become an object of serious attention. And, as the history of mankind affords no instance of successful and confirmed tyranny without the aid of military forces, we shall not wonder to find them the desiderata of princes, and the grand object of modern policy. What though they subdue every generous passion, and extinguish every spark of virtue, all this must be done, before empires will submit to be exhausted by tribute and plundered with impunity.

Amidst all the devices of man to the prejudice of his species, the institution of which we treat hath proved the most extensively fatal to religion, morals, and social happiness. Founded in the most malevolent dispositions of the human breast, disguised by the policy of state, supported by the lusts of ambition, the sword hath spread havoc and misery throughout the world. By the aid of mercenary troops, the sinews of war, the property of the subject, the life of the Commonwealth, have been committed to the hands of hirelings, whose interest and very existence depend on an abuse of their power. In the lower class of life, standing armies have introduced brutal debauchery and real cowardice; in the higher orders of state, venal haughtiness and extravagant dissipation. In short, whatever are the concomitants of despotism, whatever the appendages of oppression, this armed monster hath spawned or nurtured, protected or established, — monuments and scourges of the folly and turpitude of man.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s