Benson John Lossing.

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

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his merit in composing it, by denying to lucid intervals, and pruned and polished

it the merit of originality. For example, by Samuel Adams."

Richard Henry Lee sneered at it as a Perhaps nowhere in our literature

thing " copied from Locke s Treatise on v/ould it be possible to find a criticism



brought forward by a really able man opinions as to men and as to events in all

against any piece of writing less appli- that ugly quarrel, their notions of justice,

cable to the case, and of less force and of civic dignity, of human rights; finally,

value, than is this particular criticism by their memories of wrongs which seemed

John Adams and others, as to the lack of to them intolerable, especially of wrongs

originality in the Declaration of Inde- inflicted upon them during those twelve

pendence. Indeed, for such a paper as years by the hands of insolent and brutal

Jefferson was commissioned to write, the men, in the name of the King, and by his

one quality which it could not properly apparent command?

have had, the one quality which would Moreover as the nature of the task laid
have been fatal to its acceptance either upon him made it necessary that he should
by the American Congress or by the thus state, as the reasons for their in-
American people is originality. They tended act, those very considerations both
were then at the culmination of a tre- as to fact and as to opinion which had
mendous controversy over alleged griev- actually operated upon their minds, so
ances of the most serious kind a con- did it require him to do so, to some ex-
troversy that had been steadily raging tent, in the very language which the
for at least twelve years. In the course people themselves, in their more formal
of that long dispute, every phase of it, and deliberate utterances, had all along
whether as abstract right or constitu- been using. In the development of po-
tional privilege or personal procedure, had litical life in England and America, there
been presented in almost every conceiv- had already been created a vast literature
able form of speech. At last, they had of constitutional progress a literature
resolved, in view of all this experience, no common to both portions of the English
longer to prosecute the controversy as race, pervaded by its own stately tra-
members of the empire; they had resolved ditions, and reverberating certain great
to revolt, and, casting off forever their phrases which formed, as one may say,
ancient fealty to the British crown, to almost the vernacular of English justice,
separate from the empire, and to estab- arid of English aspiration for a free,
lish themselves as a new nation among manly, and orderly political life. In this
the nations of the earth. In this emer- vernacular the Declaration of Indepen-
gency, as it happened, Jefferson was called dence was written. The phraseology thus
upon to put into form a suitable state- characteristic of it is the very phrase-
ment of the chief considerations which ology of the champions of constitutional
prompted them to this great act of revolu- expansion, of civic dignity and progress,
tion, and which, as they believed, justified within the English race ever since Magna
it. What, then, was Jefferson to do? Was Charta; of the great state papers of Eng-
he to regard himself as a mere literary lish freedom in the seventeenth century,
essayist, set to produce before the world particularly the Petition of Right in 1629,
a sort of prize dissertation a calm, ana- and the Bill of Rights in 1789; of the
lytic, judicial treatise on history and poli- great English charters for colonization in
tics with a particular application to Anglo- America; of the great English exponents
American affairs one essential merit of of legal and political progress Sir Ed-
which would be its originality as a con- ward Coke, John Milton, Sir Philip Sid-
tribution to historical and political lit- ney, John Locke ; finally, of the great
erature? Was he not, rather, to regard American exponents of political liberty,
himself as, for the time being, the very and of the chief representative bodies,
mouthpiece and prophet of the people whether local or general, which had con-
whom he represented, and as such required vened in America from the time of the
to bring together and to set in order, in Stamp Act Congress until that of the
their name, not what was new, but what Congress which resolved upon our in-
was old; to gather up into his own soul, dependence. To say, therefore, that the
as much as possible, whatever was then official declaration of that resolve is a
also in their souls, their very thoughts and paper made up of the very opinions, be-
passions, their ideas of constitutional liefs, unbeliefs, the very sentiments, prej-
law, their interpretations of fact, their udices, passions, even the errors in judg-



ment and the personal misconstructions
if they were such which then actually
impelled the American people to that
mighty act, and that all these are ex
pressed in the very phrases which they
had been accustomed to use, is to pay
to that state paper the highest tribute as
to its fitness for the purpose for which it
was framed.

Of much of this, also, Jefferson him
self seems to have been conscious; and
perhaps never does he rise before us with
more dignity, with more truth, than when,
late in his lifetime, hurt by the .captious
and jangling words of disparagement then
recently put into writing by his old com
rade, to the effect that the Declaration
of Independence " contained no new ideas,
that it is a commonplace compilation, its
sentences hackneyed in Congress for two
years before, and its essence contained in
Otis s pamphlet," Jefferson quietly re
marked that perhaps these statements
might "all be true: of that I am not
to be the judge. . . . Whether I had
gathered my ideas from reading or re
flection, I do not know. I only know that
I turned to neither book nor pamphlet
while writing it. I did not consider it
as any part of my charge to invent new
ideas altogether and to offer no senti
ment which had ever been expressed be

Before passing from this phase of the
subject, however, it should be added that,
while the Declaration of Independence
lacks originality in the sense just indi
cated, in another and perhaps in a higher
sense, it possesses originality it is in
dividualized by the character and by the
genius of its author. Jefferson gathered
up the thoughts and emotions and even
the characteristic phrases of the people
for whom he wrote, and these he per
fectly incorporated with what was al
ready in his mind, and then to the music
of his own keen, rich, passionate, and en
kindling style, he mustered them into that
stately triumphant procession wherein, as
some of us still think, they will go march
ing on to the world s end.

There were then in Congress several
other men who could have written the
Declaration of Independence, and written
it well notably Franklin, either of the
two Adamses, Richard Henry Lee, William


Livingston, and, best of all, but for his
own opposition to the measure, John
Dickinson; but had any one of these other
men written the Declaration of Indepen
dence, while it would have contained, doubt
less, nearly the same topics and nearly
the same great formulas of political state
ment, it would yet have been a wholly dif.
ferent composition from this of Jeffer
son s. No one at all familiar with his
other writings, as well as with the writ
ings of his chief contemporaries, could
ever have a moment s doubt, even if the
fact were not already notorious, that this
document was by Jefferson. He put into
it something that was his own, and that
no one else could have put there. He put
himself into it his own genius, his own
moral force, his faith in God, his faith in
ideas, his love of innovation, his passion
for progress, his invincible enthusiasm,
his intolerance of prescription, of injus
tice, of cruelty; his sympathy, his clarity
of vision, his affluence of diction, his
power to fling out great phrases which
will long fire and cheer the souls of men
struggling against political unrighteous

And herein lies its essential original
ity, perhaps the most precious, and, in
deed, almost the only, originality ever
attaching to any great literary product
that is representative of its time. He
made for himself no improper claim,
therefore, when he directed that upon the
granite obelisk at his grave should be
carved the words : " Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declara
tion of Independence."

If the Declaration of Independence is
now to be fairly judged by us, it must
be judged with reference to what it was
intended to be namely, an impassioned
manifesto of one party, and that the
weaker party, in a violent race-quarrel ;
of a party resolved, at last, upon the
extremity of revolution, and already
menaced by the inconceivable disaster of
being defeated in the very act of armed
rebellion against the mightiest military
power on earth. This manifesto, then, is
not to be censured because, being avow
edly a statement of its own side of the
quarrel, it does not also contain a mod
erate and judicial statement of the op
posite side; or because, being necessarily


partisan in method, it is likewise both fact, when he should make his first at-

partisan and vehement in tone; or be- tempt to gain a-11 power over his people,

cause it bristles with accusations against by assuming the single power to take

the enemy so fierce and so unqualified their property without their consent,

as now to seem in some respects over- Hence it was, as Edmund Burke pointed

drawn; or because it resounds with cer- out in the House of Commons only a

tain great aphorisms about the natural few weeks before the American Revolution

rights of man, at which, indeed, political entered upon its military phase, that:

science cannot now smile, except to its " The great contests for freedom . . .

own discomfiture and shame aphorisms were from the earliest times chiefly upon

which are likely to abide in this world as the question of taxing. Most of the con-

the chief source and inspiration of heroic tests in the ancient commonwealths turned

enterprises among men for self-deliver- primarily on the right of election of mag-

ance from oppression. istrates, or on the balance among the sev-

Taking into account, therefore, as we eral orders of the state. The question
are bound to do, the circumstances of its of money was not with them so immediate,
origin, and especially its purpose as a But in England it was otherwise. On
solemn and piercing appeal to mankind on this point of taxes the ablest pens and
behalf of a small and weak nation against most eloquent tongues have been ex-
the alleged injustice and cruelty of a ercised, the greatest spirits have acted
great and powerful one, it still remains and suffered. . . . They took infinite pains
our duty to inquire whether, as has been to inculcate, as a fundamental principle,
asserted in our time, history must set that in all monarchies the people must in
aside either of the two central charges effect, themselves, mediately or immediate-
embodied in the Declaration of Inde- ly. possess the power of granting their own
pendence. money, or no shadow of liberty could sub-

The first of these charges affirms that sist. The colonies draw from you, as

the several acts complained of by the with their life-blood, these ideas and prin-

colonists evinced " a design to reduce ciples. Their love of liberty, as with you,

them under absolute despotism," and had fixed and attached on this specific point

as their " direct object the establishment of taxing. Liberty might be safe or might

of an absolute tyranny " over the Ameri- bo endangered in twenty other particulars

can people. Was this, indeed, a ground- without their being much pleased or

less charge, in the sense intended by alarmed. Here they felt its pulse, and as

the words " despotism " and " tyranny " they found that beat, they thought them

that is, in the sense commonly given selves sick or sound."

to those words in the usage of the Eng- Accordingly, the meaning which the
lish - speaking race? According to that English race on both sides of the Atlantic
usage, it was not an Oriental despotism were accustomed to attach to the words
that was meant, nor a Greek tyranny, nor " tyranny " and " despotism," was a mean-
a Roman, nor a Spanish. The sort of ing to some degree ideal; it was a meaning
despot, the sort of tyrant, whom the drawn from the extraordinary political
English people, ever since the time of sagacity with which that race is- endow-
King John, and especially during the ed, from their extraordinary sensitive-
period of the Stuarts, had been accus- ness as to the use of the taxing-power
tomed to look for and to guard against, in government, from their instinctive per-
was the sort of tyrant or despot that could ception of the commanding place of the
be evolved out of the conditions of Eng- taxing-power among all the other forms
lish political life. Furthermore, he was of power in the state, from their perfect
not by them expected to appear among assurance that he who holds the purse
them at the outset in the fully developed with the power to fill it and to empty it,
si-ape of a Philip or an Alva in the holds the key of the situation can main-
Netherlands. They were able to recog- tain an army of his own, can rule without
nize him, they were prepared to resist consulting Parliament, can silence criti-
him, in the earliest and most incipient cism, can crush opposition, can strip his
stage of his being at the moment, in subjects of every vestige of political life;



in other words, he can make slaves of
them, he can make a despot and a tyrant
of himself. Therefore, the system which
in the end might develop into results so
palpably tyrannic and despotic, they
bluntly called a tyranny and a despotism
in the beginning. To say, therefore, that
the Declaration of Independence did the
same, is to say that it spoke good Eng-
lish. Of course, history will be ready to
set aside the charge thus made in language
not at all liable to be misunderstood, just
so soon as history is ready to set aside the
common opinion that the several acts of
the British government, from 1764 to
1776, for laying and enforcing taxation in
America., did evince a somewhat particu-
lar and systematic design to take away
some portion of. the property of the Amer-
ican people without their consent.

The of the two great charges
contained in the Declaration of Indepen-
dence, while intimating that some share
in the blame is due to the British Par-
liament and to the British people, yet
fastens upon the King himself as the one
person chiefly responsible for the scheme
of American tyranny therein set forth,
and culminates in the frank description
of him as " a prince whose character is
thus marked by every act which may de-
fine a tyrant." Is this accusation of
George III. now to be set aside as unhis-
toric? Was that King, or was he not,
chiefly responsible for the American policy
of the British government between the
years 1764 and 1776? If he was so, then
the historic soundness of the most im-
portant portion of the Declaration of In-
dependence is vindicated.

Fortunately, this question can be an-
swered without hesitation, and in a few
words ; and for these few words, an
American writer of to-day, conscious of
his own basis of nationality, will rightly
prefer to cite such words as have been
uttered upon the subject by the ablest
English hi3torians of our time. Upon
their statements alone it must be con-
eluded that George III. ascended his
throne with the fixed purpose of resum-
ing to the crown many of those powers
which, by the constitution of England, did
not then belong to it, and that in this
purpose, at least during the first twenty-
five years of his reign, he substantial-


ly succeeded himself determining what
should be the policy of each administra-
tion, what opinions his ministers should
advocate in Parliament, and what meas-
ures Parliament itself should adopt. Says
Sir Erskine May:

" The King desired to undertake per-
sonally the chief administration of public
affairs, to direct the policy of his minis-
ters, and himself to distribute the patron-
age of the crown. He was ambitious not
only to reign, but to govern." " Strong
as were the ministers, the King was re-
solved to wrest all power from their
hands, and to exercise it himself." " But
what was this in effect but to assert that
the King should be his own minister? . . .
The King s tactics were fraught with dan-
ger, as well to the crown itself as to the
constitutional liberties of the people."

Already, prior to the year 1778, accord-
ing to Lecky, the King had " laboriously
built up " in England a " system of per-
sonal government " ; and it was because
he was unwilling to have this system dis-
turbed that he then refused, " in defiance
of the most earnest representations of his
own minister and of the most eminent
politicians of every party ... to send
for the greatest of living statesmen at the
moment when the empire appeared to be
in the very agonies of dissolution. . . .
Either Chatham or Rockingham would
have insisted that the policy of the coun-
try should be directed by its responsible
ministers and not dictated by an irrespon-
sible sovereign."

This refusal of the King to pursue the
course which was called for by the con-
stitution, and which would have taken the
control of the policy of the government
out of his hands, was, according to the
same great historian, an act " the most
criminal in the whole reign of George III.
... as criminal as any of those acts
which led Charles I. to the scaffold."

Even so early as the year 1768. accord-
ing to John Richard Green, "George
III. had at last reached his aim. . . .
In the early days of the ministry "
(which began in that year) "his in-
fluence was felt to be predominant. In
its later and more disastrous days it was
supreme; for Lord North, who became the
head of the ministry on Grafton s retire-
ment in 1770, was the mere mouthpiece


of the King. Not only did he direct the
minister, a careful observer tells us, in
all important matters of foreign and do
mestic policy, but he instructed him as
to the management of debates in Parlia
ment, suggested what motions should be
made or opposed, and how measures should
be carried. He reserved for himself all
the patronage, he arranged the whole cast
of the administration, settled the relative
place and pretensions of ministers of
state, law officers, and members of the
household, nominated and promoted the
English and Scotch judges, appointed and
translated bishops and deans, and dis
pensed other preferments in the Church.
He disposed of military governments,
regiments, and commissions, and himself
ordered the marching of troops. He gave
and refused titles, honors, and pensions.
All this immense patronage was steadily
used for the creation of a party in both
Houses of Parliament attached to the King
himself. . . . George was, in fact, sole
minister during the fifteen years which fol
lowed ; and the shame of the darkest hour
of English history lies wholly at his

Surely, until these tremendous verdicts
of English history shall be set aside, there
need be no anxiety in any quarter as to
the historic soundness of the two great
accusations which together make up the
principal portion of the Declaration of
Independence. In the presence of these
verdicts also, even the passion, the in
tensity of language, in which those ac
cusations are uttered, seem to find a per
fect justification. Indeed, in the light of
the most recent and most unprejudiced
expert testimony, the whole document,
both in its substance and in its form,
seems to have been the logical response of
a nation of brave men to the great words
of the greatest of English statesmen, as
spoken in the House of Commons precise
ly ten years before :

" This kingdom has no right to lay a
tax on the colonies. Sir, I rejoice that
America has resisted. Three millions of
people, so dead to all the feelings of lib
erty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves,
would have been fit instruments to make
slaves of the rest."

Thus, ever since its first announcement
to the world, and down almost to the

present moment, has the Declaration of
Independence been tested by criticism of
every possible kind by criticism intended
and expected to be destructive. Apparent
ly, however, all this criticism has failed
to accomplish its object.

It is proper for us to remember, also,
that what we call criticism is not the
only valid test of the genuineness and
worth of any piece of writing of great-
practical interest to mankind: there is,
in addition, the test of actual use and ser
vice, in direct contact with the common
sense and the moral sense of large masses
of men, under various conditions, and for
a long period. Probably no writing which
is not essentially sound and true has ever
survived this test.

Neither from this test .has the great
Declaration any need to shrink. As to
the immediate use for which it was sent
forth that of rallying and uniting the
friends of the Revolution, and bracing
them for their great task its effective
ness was so great and so obvious that it
has never been denied. During the
century and a quarter since the Revolu
tion, its influence on the political char
acter and the political conduct of the
American people has been great beyond
calculation. Eor example, after we had
achieved our own national deliverance,
and had advanced into that enormous and
somewhat corrupting material prosperity
which followed the adoption of the Con
stitution and the development of the cot
ton interest and the expansion of the re
public into a- transcontinental power, we
fell under an appalling temptation the
temptation to forget, or to repudiate, or
to refuse to apply to the case of our
human brethren in bondage, the principles
which we had once proclaimed as the
basis of every rightful government. The
prodigious service rendered to us in this
awful moral emergency by the Declara
tion of Independence was, that its public
repetition, at least once every year, in the
hearing of vast throngs of the American
people in every portion of the republic,
kept constantly before our minds, in a
form of almost religious sanctity, those
few great ideas as to the dignity of
human nature, and the sacredness of per
sonality, and the indestructible rights of
man as mere man, with which we had so



p gq




gloriously identified the beginnings of our up in the nursery of every king, and
national existence. It did at last become blazoned on the porch of every royal pal-
very hard for us to listen each year to the ace," it is because it has become the
preamble of the Declaration and still to classic statement of political truths which
remain the owners and users and must at last abolish kings altogether, or
catchers of slaves; still harder, to accept else teach them to identify their existence
the doctrine that the righteousness and with the dignity and happiness of human
prosperity of slavery was to be accepted nature.

as the dominant policy of the nation. The Declaration of Independence, DUTCH.

logic of Calhoun was as flawless as usual, The following is the text of the declara-

when he concluded that the chief ob- tion of the States General of the United

struction in the way of his system was Provinces, setting forth that Philip II.

the preamble of the Declaration of In- had forfeited his right of sovereignty over

dependence. Had it not been for the in- the said provinces, promulgated at The

violable sacredness given by it to those Hague, July 26, 1581:

sweeping aphorisms about the natural The States General of the United Prov-

rights of man, it may be doubted whether inces of the Low Countries, to all whom

Calhoun might not have won over an im- it may concern, do by these Presents

mense majority of the American people send greeting:

to the support of his compact and plaus- As tis apparent to all that a prince is
ible scheme for making slavery the basis constituted by God to be ruler of a people,

Online LibraryBenson John LossingHarper's encyclopdia of United States history from 458 A.D. to 1905 (Volume 3) → online text (page 7 of 76)