By John Quincy Adams.
For the second object of the Declaration, the assumption among the powers of the earth of the separate and equal station, to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitled them, no reason was assigned, – no justification was deemed necessary.
The first and chief purpose of the Declaration of Independence was interesting to those by whom it was issued, to the people, their constituents in whose name it was promulgated, and to the world of mankind to whom it was addressed, only during that period of time, in which the independence of the newly constituted people was contested, by the wager of battle. Six years of War, cruel, unrelenting, merciless War, – War, at once civil and foreign, were waged, testing the firmness and fortitude of the one People, in the inflexible adherence to that separation from the other, which their Representatives in Congress had proclaimed. By the signature of the Preliminary Articles of Peace, on the 30th of November 1782, their warfare was accomplished, and the Spirit of the Lord, with a voice reaching to the latest of future ages, might have exclaimed, like the sublime prophet of Israel, – Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God [Isaiah 40:1].
But, from that day forth, the separation of the one People from the other was a solitary fact in their common history; a mere incident in the progress of human events, not more deserving of special and annual commemoration by one of the separated parts, than by the other. Still less were the causes of the separation subjects for joyous retrospection by either of the parties. – The causes were acts of misgovernment committed by the King and Parliament of Great Britain. In the exasperation of the moment they were alleged to be acts of personal tyranny and oppression by the King. George the third was held individually responsible for them all. The real and most culpable oppressor, the British Parliament, was not even named in the bill of pains and penalties brought against the monarch. – They were described only as “others” combined with him; and, after a recapitulation of all the grievances with which the Colonies had been afflicted by usurped British Legislation, the dreary catalogue was closed by the sentence of unqualified condemnation, that a prince, whose character was thus marked by every act which might define a tyrant, was unworthy to be the ruler of a free people.
The King, thus denounced by a portion of his subjects, casting off their allegiance to his crown, has long since gone to his reward. His reign was long, and disastrous to his people, and his life presents a melancholy picture of the wretchedness of all human grandeur; but we may now, with the candor of impartial history, acknowledge that he was not a tyrant. His personal character was endowed with many estimable qualities. His intentions were good; his disposition benevolent; his integrity unsullied; his domestic virtues exemplary; his religious impressions strong and conscientious; his private morals pure; his spirit munificent, in the promotion of the arts, literature and sciences; and his most fervent wishes devoted to the welfare of his people. But he was born to be a hereditary king, and to exemplify in his life and history the irremediable vices of that political institution, which substitutes birth for merit, as the only qualification for attaining the supremacy of power. George the third believed that the Parliament of Great Britain had the right to enact laws for the government of the people of the British Colonies in all cases. An immense majority of the people of the British Islands believed the same. That people were exclusively the constituents of the British House of Commons, where the project of taxing the people of the Colonies for a revenue originated; and where the People of the Colonies were not represented. The purpose of the project was to alleviate the burden of taxation bearing upon the people of Britain, by levying a portion of it upon the people of the Colonies. – At the root of all this there was a plausible theory of sovereignty, and unlimited power in Parliament, conflicting with the vital principle of English Freedom, that taxation and representation are inseparable, and that taxation without representation is a violation of the right of property. Here was a conflict between two first principles of government, resulting from a defect in the British Constitution: the principle that sovereign power in human Government is in its nature unlimited: and the principle that property can lawfully be taxed only with the consent of its owner. Now these two principles, carried out into practice, are utterly irreconcilable with each other. The lawyers of Great Britain held them both to be essential principles of the British Constitution. – In their practical application, the King and Parliament and people of Great Britain, appealed for the right to tax the Colonies to the unlimited and illimitable sovereignty of the Parliament. – The Colonists appealed to the natural right of property, and the articles of the Great Charter. The collision in the application of these two principles was the primitive cause of the severance of the North American Colonies, from the British Empire. The grievances alleged in the Declaration of Independence were all secondary causes, amply sufficient to justify before God and man the separation itself; and that resolution, to the support of which the fifty-five Representatives of the One People of the United Colonies pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, after passing through the fiery ordeal of a six years war, was sanctioned by the God of Battles, and by the unqualified acknowledgment of the defeated adversary.
This, my countrymen, was the first and immediate purpose of the Declaration of Independence. It was to justify before the tribunal of public opinion, throughout the world, the solemn act of separation of the one people from the other.
(To be continued)