Benson John Lossing.

Harper's encyclopdia of United States history from 458 A.D. to 1905 (Volume 3) online

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whose fathers had followed the white
plume of Henry of Navarre and in an age
of bigotry, intolerance, and the deification
of absolutism had secured the great edict
of religious liberty from French despot
ism; and who had become a people with
out a country, rather than surrender their
convictions and forswear their consciences.
In this Congress were those whose ances
tors were the countrymen of William of
Orange, the Beggars of the Sea, who had
survived the cruelties of Alva, and broken
the proud yoke of Philip of Spain, and
who had two centuries before made a
declaration of independence and formed
a federal union which were models of
freedom and strength.

These men were not revolutionists,
They were the heirs and the guardians of
the priceless treasures of mankind. The
British King and his ministers were the
revolutionists. They were reactionaries,
seeking arbitrarily to turn back the hands
upon the dial of time. A year of doubt
and debate, the baptism of blood upon bat
tle-fields, where soldiers from every colony
fought, under a common standard, and
consolidated the Continental army, grad
ually lifted the soul and understanding of
this immortal Congress to the sublime
declaration : " We, therefore, the repre
sentatives of the United States of Amer
ica, in general Congress assembled, a-ppeal-
ing to the Supreme Judge of the World
for the rectitude of our intentions, do,
in the name and by the authority of the
good people of these colonies, solemnly
publish and declare that these united



colonies are, and of right ought to be,
free and independent States."

To this declaration John Hancock, pro
scribed and threatened with death, affixed
a signature which stood for a century like
the pointers to the north star in the fir
mament of freedom; and Charles Carroll,
taunted that among many Carrolls, he,
the richest man in America, might escape,
added description and identification with
" of Carrollton." Benjamin Harrison, a
delegate from Virginia, the ancestor of
the distinguished statesman and soldier
who to-day so worthily fills the chair of
Washington, voiced the unalterable de
termination and defiance of the Congress.
He seized John Hancock, upon whose head
a price was set, in his arms, and placing
him in the Presidential chair, said : " We
will show Mother Britain how little we
care for her by making our President a
Massachusetts man, whom she has excluded
from pardon by public proclamation " ;
and when they were signing the declara
tion, and the slender Elbridge Gerry ut
tered the grim pleasantry, " We must hang
together or surely we will hang separate
ly," the portly Harrison responded with
a more daring humor, " It will be all over
with me in a moment, but you will be
kicking in the air half an hour after I
am gone." Thus flashed athwart the
great charter, which was to be for the
signers a death-warrant or a diploma of
immortality, as with firm hand, high pur
pose and undaunted resolution, they sub
scribed their names, this mockery of fear
and the penalties of treason.

The grand central idea of the Declara
tion of Independence was the sovereignty
of the people. It relied for original power,
not upon States or colonies, or their citi
zens as such, but recognized as the au
thority for nationality the revolutionary
rights of the people of the United States.
It stated with marvellous clearness the
encroachments upon liberties which
threatened their suppression and justified
levolt, but it was inspired by the very
genius of freedom, and the prophetic pos
sibilities of united commonwealths cover
ing the continent in one harmonious re
public, when it made the people of the
thirteen colonies all Americans and de
volved upon them to administer by them
selves, and for themselves, the preroga

tives and powers wrested from crown and
parliament. It condensed Magna Charta,
the Petition of Rights, the great body of
English liberties embodied in the common
law and accumulated in the decisions of
the courts, the statutes of the realm, and
an undisputed though unwritten constitu
tion; but this original principle and dy
namic force of the people s power sprang
from these old seeds planted in the virgin
soil of the New World.

More clearly than any statesman of the
period did Thomas Jefferson grasp and
divine the possibilities of popular govern
ment. He caught and crystallized the
spirit of free institutions. His philosophi
cal mind was singularly free from the
power of precedents or the chains of preju
dice. He had an unquestioning and abid
ing faith in the people, which was ac
cepted by but few of his compatriots.
Upon his famous axiom, of the equality
of all men before the law, he constructed
his system. It was the trip-hammer es
sential for the emergency to break the
links binding the colonies to imperial au
thority, a>nd to pulverize the privileges
of caste. It inspired him to write the
Declaration of Independence, and per
suaded him to doubt the wisdom of
the powers concentrated in the Con
stitution. In his passionate love of
liberty he became intensely jealous of au
thority. He destroyed the substance
of royal prerogative, but never emerged
from its shadow. He would have the
States as the guardians of popular rights,
and the barriers against centralization,
and he saw in the growing power of the
nation ever - increasing encroachments
upon the rights of the people. For the
success of the pure democracy which must
precede presidents and cabinets and con
gresses, it was, perhaps, providential that
its apostle never believed a great people
could grant and still retain, could give
and at will reclaim, could delegate and
yet firmly hold the authority which ulti
mately created the power of their re
public and enlarged the scope of their
own liberty.

Where this master-mind halted, all
stood still. The necessity for a permanent
union was apparent, but, each State must
have hold upon the bowstring which en
circled its throat. It was admitted that



union gave the machinery required sue- temporary strength to the Confederation,
cessfully to fight the common enemy, but peace developed this fatal weakness. It
yet there was fear that it might become derived no authority from the people, and
a Frankenstein and destroy its creators, could not appeal to them. Anarchy
Thus patriotism and fear, difficulties of threatened its existence at home, and con-
communication between distant com- tempt met its representatives abroad,
munities, and the intense growth of " Can you fulfil or enforce the obliga-
provincial pride and interests, led this tions of the treaty on your part if we
Congress to frame t-he Articles of Con- sign one with you?" was the sneer of the
federation, happily termed the League of courts of the Old World to our ambassa-
Friendship. The result was not a govern- dors. Some States gave a half-hearted
ment, but a ghost. By this scheme the support to its demands; others defied
American people were ignored and the them. The loss of public credit was
Declaration of Independence reversed. The speedily followed by universal bankruptcy.
States, by their legislatures, elected dele- The wildest fantasies assumed the force
gates to Congress, and the delegate rep- of serious measures for the relief of the
resented the sovereignty of his common- general distress. States passed exclusive
wealth. All the States had an equal and hostile laws against each other, and
voice without regard to their size or popu- riot and disorder threatened the disin-
lation. It required the vote of nine States tegration of society. " Our stock is stolen,
to pass any bill, and five could block the our houses are plundered, our farms are
wheels of government. Congress had none raided," cried a delegate in the Massa-
of the powers essential to sovereignty. It chusetts Convention ; " despotism is better
could neither levy taxes nor impose duties than anarchy!" To raise $4,000,000 a
nor collect excise. For the support of year was beyond the resources of the gov-
thc army and navy, for the purposes of eminent, and $300,000 was the limit of the
war, for the preservation of its own func- loan it could secure from the money-lend-
tions, it could only call upon the States, ers of Europe. Even Washington ex-
but it possessed no power to enforce its claimed in despair : " I see one head
demands. It had no president or executive gradually changing into thirteen ; I see
authority, no supreme court with gen- one army gradually branching into thir-
eral jurisdiction, and no national power, teen ; which, instead of looking up to Con-
Each of the thirteen States had seaports gress as the supreme controlling power,
and levied discriminating duties against are considering themselves as depending
the others, and could also . tax and thus on their respective States." And later,
prohibit interstate commerce across its when independence had been won, the
territory. Had the Confederation been a impotency of the government wrung from
union instead of a league, it could have him the exclamation: "After gloriously
raised and equipped three times the num.- and successfully contending against the
ber of men contributed by reluctant States, usurpation of Great Britain, we may fall
and conquered independence without for- a prey to our own folly and disputes."
eign assistance. This paralyzed govern- But even through this Cimmerian dark-
ment, without strength, because it could ness shot a flame which illuminated the
not enforce its decrees ; without credit, coming century and kept bright the beacon
because it could pledge nothing for the fires of liberty. The architects of constitu-
payment of its debts; without respect, tional freedom formed their institutions
because without inherent authority; with wisdom which forecasted the future,
would, by its feeble life and early death, They may not have understood at first the
have added another to the historic trag- whole truth, but, for that which they
edies which have in many lands marked knew, they had the martyrs spirit and the
the suppression of freedom, had it not crusaders enthusiasm. Though the Con-
been saved by the intelligent, inherited, federation was a government of checks
and invincible understanding of liberty without balances, and of purpose without
by the people, and the genius and pa- power, the statesmen who guided it
triotism of their leaders. demonstrated often the resistless force of

But while the perils of war had given great souls animated by the purest pa-



triotisiu, and united in judgment and
effort to promote the common good, by
lofty appeals and high reasoning, to ele
vate the masses above local greed and
apparent self-interest to their own broad

The most significant triumph of these
moral and intellectual forces was that
which secured the assent of the States to
the limitation of their boundaries, to the
grant of the wilderness beyond them to
the general government, and to the in
sertion in the ordinance erecting the
Northwest Territories, of the immortal
proviso prohibiting " slavery or invol
untary servitude" within all that broad
domain. The States carved out of this
splendid concession were not sovereign
ties which had successfully rebelled, but
they were the children of the Union, born
of the covenant and thrilled with its life
and liberty. They became the bulwarks
of nationality and the buttresses of free
dom. Their preponderating strength first
checked and then broke the slave power,
their fervid loyalty halted and held at
bay the spirit of State rights and seces
sion for generations; and when the crisis
came, it was with their overwhelming as
sistance that the nation killed and buried
its enemy. The corner-stone of the edifice
whose centenary we are celebrating was
the ordinance of 1787. It was constructed
by the feeblest of Congresses, but few en
actments of ancient or modern times have
had more far-reaching or beneficial in
fluence. It is one of the sublimest para
doxes of history that this weak confed
eration of States should have welded the
chain against which, after seventy-four
years of fretful efforts for release, its
own spirit frantically dashed and died.

The government of the republic by a
Congress of States, a diplomatic con
vention of the ambassadors of petty com
monwealths, after seven years trial was
falling asunder. Threatened with civil
war among its members, insurrection and
lawlessness rife within the States, foreign
commerce ruined and internal trade para
lyzed, its currency worthless, its mer
chants bankrupt, its farms mortgaged, its
markets closed, its labor unemployed, it
was like a helpless wreck upon the ocean,
tossed about by the tides and ready to be
engulfed by the storm. Washington gave


the warning and called for action. It was
a voice accustomed to command, but now
entreating. The veterans of the war and
the statesmen of the Revolution stepped
to the front. The patriotism which had
been misled, but had never faltered, rose
above its interests of States and the
jealousies of jarring confederates to find
the basis for union. " It is clear to
me as A B C," said Washington, "that
an extension of federal powers would
make us one of the most happy, wealthy,
respectable, and powerful nations that
ever inhabited the terrestrial globe. With
out them we should soon be everything
which is the direct reverse. I predict the
worst consequences from a half-starved,
limping government, always moving upon
crutches, and tottering at every step."
The response of the country was the con
vention of 1787, at Philadelphia. The
Declaration of Independence was but the
vestibule of the temple which this illustri
ous assembly erected. With no successful
precedents to guide, it auspiciously
worked out the problem of constitutional
government, and of imperial power and
home rule, supplementing each other in
promoting the grandeur of the nation and
preserving the liberty of the individual.

The deliberations of great councils have
vitally affected, at different periods, the
history of the world and the fate of em
pires, but this congress builded, upon
popular sovereignty, institutions broad
enough to embrace the continent, and
elastic enough to fit all conditions of race
and traditions. The experience of a hun
dred years has demonstrated for us the
perfection of the work, for defence against
foreign foes and for self-preservation
against domestic insurrections, for limit
less expansion in population and material
development, and for steady growth in
intellectual freedom and force. Its con
tinuing influence upon the welfare and
destiny of the human race can only be
measured by the capacity of man to culti
vate and enjoy the boundless opportuni
ties of liberty and law. The eloquent
characterization of Mr. Gladstone con
denses its merits: "The American Consti
tution is the most wonderful work ever
struck off at a given time by the brain
and purpose of man."

The statesmen who composed this great


senate were equal to their trust. Their lender the advantage of their position,

conclusions were the result of calm de- and the smaller States saw the danger to

bate and wise concession. Their character their existence. Roman conquest and as-

and abilities were so pure and great as similation had strewn the shores of time

to command the confidence of the country with the wrecks of empires, and plunged

for the reversal of the policy of the in- civilization into the perils and horrors of

dependence of the State of the power of the dark ages. The government of Crom-

the general government, which had well was the isolated power of the might-

hitherto been the invariable practice and iest man of his age, without popular au-

almost universal opinion, and for the thority to fill his place or the hereditary

adoption of the idea of the nation and its principle to protect his successor. The

supremacy. past furnished no light for our State

Towering in majesty and influence builders, the present was full of doubt
above them all stood Washington, their and despair. The future, the experiment
President. Beside him was the vener- of self-government, the perpetuity and
able Franklin, who, though eighty-one development of freedom, almost the
years of age, brought to the deliberations destiny of mankind, was in their hands,
of the convention the unimpaired vigor At this crisis the courage and confi-
and resources of the wisest brain, the dence needed to originate a system
most hopeful philosophy, and the largest weakened. The temporizing spirit of
experience of the times. Oliver Ells- compromise seized the convention with
worth, afterwards chief-justice of the the alluring proposition of not proceed-
United States, and the profoundest juror ing faster than the people could be edu-
in the country; Robert Morris, the won- cated to follow. The cry, "Let us not
derful financier of the Revolution, and waste our labor upon conclusions which
Gouverneur Morris, the most versatile will not be adopted, but amend and ad-
genius of his period; Roger Sherman, one journ," was assuming startling unanim-
of the most eminent of the signers of ity. But the supreme force and majestic
the Declaration of Independence; and sense of Washington brought the assem-
John Rutledge, Rufus King, Elbridge blage to the lofty plane of its duty and
Gerry, Edmund Randolph, and the Pinck- opportunity. He said: "It is too prob-
neys, were leaders of unequalled patriot- able that no plan we propose will be
ism, courage, ability, and learning; while adopted. Perhaps another dreadful con-
Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, flict is to be sustained. If, to please the
as original thinkers and constructive people, we offer what we ourselves dis-
statesmen, rank among the immortal few approve, how can \ve afterwards defend
whose opinions have for ages guided our work? Let us raise a standard to
ministers of state, and determined the which the \vise and honest can repair:
destinies of nations. the event is in the hands of God." " 1

This great convention keenly felt, and am the state," said Louis XIV., but his

with devout and serene intelligence met, line ended in the grave of absolutism,

its tremendous responsibilities. It had " Forty centuries look down upon you,"

the moral support of the few whose aspi- was Napoleon s address to his army in

rations for liberty had been inspired or the shadow of the Pyramids, but his

renewed by the triumph of the American soldiers saw only the dream of Eastern

Revolution, and the active hostility of empire vanish in blood. Statesmen and

every government in the world. parliamentary leaders have sunk into

There were no examples to follow, and oblivion or led their party to defeat by

the experience of its members led part of surrendering their convictions to the

them to lean towards absolute central- passing passions of the hour; but Wash-

ization as the only refuge from the an- ington in this immortal speech struck

archy of the confederation, while the rest the keynote of representative obligation,

clung to the sovereignty of the States, for and propounded the fundamental prin-

fear that the concentration of power ciple of the purity and perpetuity of

would end in the absorption of liberty, constitutional government.

The large States did not want to sur- Freed from the limitations of its en-


vironment, and the question of the adop- and yet enlarge its scope and broaden its

tion of its work, the convention erected powers, and to make the name of an

its government upon the eternal foun- American citizen a title of honor through-

dations cf the power of the people. It dis- out the world, came complete from this

missed the delusive theory of a compact great convention to the people for adop-

between independent States, and derived tion. As Hancock rose from his seat in

national power from the people of the the old Congress, eleven years before, to

United States. It broke up the ma- sign the Declaration of Independence,

chinery of the Confederation and put in Franklin saw emblazoned on the back of

practical operation the glittering gener- the President s chair the sun partly above

alities of the Declaration of Independence, the horizon, but it seemed setting in a

From chaos came order, from insecurity blood-red sky. During the seven years of

came safety, from disintegration and civil the Confederation he had gathered no

war came law and liberty, with the prin- hope from the glittering emblem, but now,

ciple proclaimed in the preamble of the as with clear vision he beheld fixed upon

great charter: "We, the people of the eternal foundations the enduring struct-

United States, in order to form a more ure of constitutional liberty, pointing to

perfect union, establish justice, insure the sign, he forgot his eighty-two years,

domestic tranquillity, provide for the com- and with the enthusiasm of youth elec-

mon defence, promote the general welfare, trifled the convention with the declara-

and secure the blessings of liberty to our- tion: "Now I know that it is the rising

selves and our posterity, do ordain and sun."

establish this Constitution for the United The pride of the States and the am-

States." With a wisdom inspired of God, bition of their leaders, sectional jealousies,

to work out upon this continent the lib- and the overwhelming distrust of central-

erty of man, they solved the problem of ized power, were all arrayed against the

the ages by blending and yet preserving adoption of the Constitution. North

local self-government with national au- Carolina and Rhode Island refused to join

thority, and the rights of the States with the Union until long after Washington s

the majesty and power of the republic, inauguration. For months New York was

The government of the States, under the debatable ground. Her territory, extend-

Articles of Confederation, became bank- ing from the sea to the lakes, made her

rupt because it could not raise $4,000,000; the keystone of the arch. Had Arnold s

the government of the Union, under the treason in the Revolution not been foiled

Constitution of the United States, raised by the capture of Andre, England would

$6,000,000,000, its credit growing firmer have held New York and subjugated the

as its power and resources were demon- colonies, and in this crisis, unless New

strated. The Congress of the Confed- York assented, a hostile and powerful

eration fled from a regiment which it commonwealth dividing the States made

could not pay; the Congress of the Union the Union impossible.

reviewed the comrades of 1,000,000 of Success was due to confidence in Wash-
its victorious soldiers, saluting, as they ington and the genius of Alexander Ham-
marched, the flag of the nation, whose ilton. Jefferson was the inspiration of
supremacy they had sustained. The independence, but Hamilton was the in-
promises of the confederacy were the scoff carnation of the Constitution. In no age
of its States; the pledge of the republic or country has there appeared a more
was the honor of its people. precocious or amazing intelligence than
The Constitution, which was to be Hamilton. At seventeen he annihilated
straightened by the strains of a century, the president of his college upon the ques-
to be a mighty conqueror without a sub- tion of the rights of the colonies in a series
ject province, to triumphantly survive of anonymous articles which were credited
the greatest of civil wars without the con- to the ablest men in the country; at
fiscation of an estate or the execution of forty-seven, when he died, his briefs had
a political offender, to create and grant become the law of the land, and his
home rule and State sovereignty to fiscal system was, and after 100 years re-
twenty-nine additional commonwealths, mains, the rule and policy of our govern-



rnent. He gave life to the corpse of ra
tional credit, and the strength for self-
possession and aggressive power to the
federal union. Both as an expounder of
the principles and an administrator of
the affairs of government he stands su
preme and unrivalled in American his
tory. His eloquence was so magnetic, his
language so clear and his reasoning so
irresistible, that he swayed with equal
ease popular assemblies, grave senates,
and learned judges. He captured the peo
ple of the whole country for the Constitu
tion by his papers in The Federalist, and
conquered the hostile majority in the New

Online LibraryBenson John LossingHarper's encyclopdia of United States history from 458 A.D. to 1905 (Volume 3) → online text (page 15 of 76)