An Oration Delivered Before the Inhabitants of the Town of Newburyport, at their request, on the Sixty-First Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1837.
By John Quincy Adams.
But this is not the reason for which you are here assembled. The question of right and wrong involved in the resolution of North American Independence was of transcendent importance to those who were actors in the scene. A question of life, of fortune, of fame, of eternal welfare. To you, it is a question of nothing more than historical interest. The separation itself was a painful and distressing event; a measure resorted to by your forefathers with extreme reluctance, and justified by them, in their own eyes, only as a dictate of necessity. – They had gloried in the name of Britons: It was a passport of honor throughout the civilized world. They were now to discard it forever, with all its tender and all its generous sympathies, for a name obscure and unknown, the honest fame of which was to be achieved by the gallantry of their own exploits and the wisdom of their own counsels.
But, with the separation of the one people from the other, was indissolubly connected another event. They had been British Colonies, – distinct and separate subordinate portions of one great community. In the struggle of resistance against one common oppressor, by a moral centripetal impulse they had spontaneously coalesced into One People. They declare themselves such in express terms by this paper. – The members of the Congress, who signed their names to the Declaration, style themselves the Representatives, not of the separate Colonies, but of the United States of America in Congress assembled. No one Colony is named in the Declaration, nor is there any thing on its face, indicating from which of the Colonies, any one of the signers was delegated. They proclaim the separation of one people from another. – They affirm the right of the People, to institute, alter, and abolish their Government: – and their final language is, “we 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.” The Declaration was not, that each of the States was separately Free and Independent, but that such was their united condition. And so essential was their union, both in principle and in fact, to their freedom and independence, that, had one of the Colonies seceded from the rest, and undertaken to declare herself free and independent, she could have maintained neither her independence nor her freedom.
And, by this paper, this One People did notify the world of mankind that they thereby did assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station, to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitled them.
This was indeed a great and solemn event. The sublimest of the prophets of antiquity with the voice of inspiration had exclaimed, “Who hath heard such a thing? Who hath seen such things? Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? Or shall a nation be born at once?” [Isaiah 66:8]. In the two thousand five hundred years, that had elapsed since the days of that prophecy, no such event had occurred. It had never been seen before. In the annals of the human race, then, for the first time, did one People announce themselves as a member of that great community of the powers of the earth, acknowledging the obligations and claiming the rights of the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God. The earth was made to bring forth in one day! A nation was born at once!
Well, indeed, may such a day be commemorated by such a Nation, from year to year! But whether as a day of festivity and joy, or of humiliation and mourning, – that, fellow-citizens, – that in the various turns of chance below, depends not upon the event itself, but upon its consequences; and after threescore years of existence, not so much upon the responsibilities of those who brought the Nation forth, as upon the moral, political and intellectual character of the present generation, – of yourselves. In the common intercourse of social life, the birth-day of individuals is often held as a yearly festive day by themselves, and their immediate relatives; yet, as early as the age of Solomon, that wisest of men told the people of Jerusalem, that, as a good name was better than precious ointment, so the day of death was better than the day of one’s birth [Ecclesiastes 7:1].