Title: At the Home of Daniel Webster
Date: July 4, 1916
Location: Marshfield, MA
Context: Coolidge delivers a speech on the promise of 1776 and the legacy of the Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, he recounts the progress of the nation in living up to the Jeffersonian ideals of its inception
History is revelation. It is the manifestation in human affairs of a “power not ourselves that makes for righteousness.” Savages have no history. It is the mark of civilization. This New England of ours slumbered from the dawn of creation until the beginning of the seventeenth century, not unpeopled, but with no record of human events worthy of a name. Different races came, and lived, and vanished, but the story of their existence has little more of interest for us than the story the naturalist tells of the animal kingdom, or the geologist relates of the formation of the crust of the earth. It takes men of larger vision and higher inspiration, with a power to impart a larger vision and a higher inspiration to the people, to make history. It is not a negative, but a positive achievement. It is unconcerned with idolatry or despotism or treason or rebellion or betrayal, but bows in reverence before Moses or Hampden or Washington or Lincoln or the Light that shone on Calvary.
July 4, 1776, was a day of history in its high and true significance. Not because the underlying principles set out in the Declaration of Independence were new; they are older than the Christian religion, or Greek philosophy, nor was it because history is made by proclamation or declaration; history is made only by action. But it was an historic day because the representatives of three millions of people there vocalized Concord and Lexington and Bunker Hill, which gave notice to the world that they were acting, and proposed to act, and to found an independent nation, on the theory that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The wonder and glory of the American people is not the ringing declaration of that day, but the action, then already begun, and in the process of being carried out in spite of every obstacle that war could interpose, making the theory of freedom and equality a reality.
We revere that day because it marks the beginnings of independence, the beginnings of a constitution that was finally to give universal freedom and equality to all American citizens, the beginnings of a government that was to recognize beyond all others the power and worth and dignity of man. There began the first of governments to acknowledge that it was founded on the sovereignty of the people. There the world first beheld the revelation of modern democracy. Democracy is not a tearing-down; it is a building-up. It is not a denial of the divine right of kings; it supplements that claim with the assertion of the divine right of all men. It does not destroy; it fulfils. It is the consummation of all theories of government, to the spirit of which all the nations of the earth must yield. It is the great constructive force of the ages. It is the alpha and omega of man’s relation to man, the beginning and the end. There is and can be no more doubt of the triumph of democracy in human affairs, than there is of the triumph of gravitation in the physical world; the only question is how and when. Its foundation lays hold upon eternity. These are some of the ideals that the founders of our institutions expressed, in part unconsciously, on that momentous day now passed by one hundred and forty years. They knew that ideals do not maintain themselves. They knew that they there declared a purpose which would be resisted by the forces, on land and sea, of the mightiest empire of the earth. Without the resolution of the people of the Colonies to resort to arms, and without the guiding military genius of Washington, the Declaration of Independence would be naught in history but the vision of doctrinaires, a mockery of sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. Let us never forget that it was that resolution and that genius which made it the vitalizing force of a great nation. It takes service and sacrifice to maintain ideals.
But it is far more than the Declaration of Independence that brings us here to-day. That was, indeed, a great document. It was drawn up by Thomas Jefferson when he was at his best. It was the product of men who seemed inspired. No greater company ever assembled to interpret the voice of the people or direct the destinies of a nation. The events of history may have added to it, but subtracted nothing. Wisdom and experience have increased the admiration of it. Time and criticism have not shaken it. It stands with ordinance and law, charter and constitution, prophecy and revelation, whether we read them in the history of Babylon, the results of Runnymede, the Ten Commandments, or the Sermon on the Mount. But, however worthy of our reverence and admiration, however preeminent, it was only one incident of a great forward movement of the human race, of which the American Revolution was itself only a larger incident. It was not so much a struggle of the Colonies against the tyranny of bad government, as against wrong principles of government, and for self-government. It was man realizing himself. It was sovereignty from within which responded to the alarm of Paul Revere on that April night, and which went marching, gun in hand, against sovereignty from without, wherever it was found on earth. It only paused at Concord, or Yorktown, then marched on to Paris, to London, to Moscow, to Pekin. Against it the powers of privilege and the forces of despotism could not prevail. Superstition and sham cannot stand before intelligence and reality. The light that first broke over the thirteen Colonies lying along the Atlantic Coast was destined to illuminate the world. It has been a struggle against the forces of darkness; victory has been and is still delayed in some quarters, but the result is not in doubt. All the forces of the universe are ranged on the side of democracy. It must prevail.
In the train of this idea there has come to man a long line of collateral blessings. Freedom has many sides and angles. Human slavery has been swept away. With security of personal rights has come security of property rights. The freedom of the human mind is recognized in the right of free speech and free press. The public schools have made education possible for all, and ignorance a disgrace. A most significant development of respect for man has come to be respect for his occupation. It is not alone for the learned professions that great treasures are now poured out. Technical, trade, and vocational schools for teaching skill in occupations are fostered and nourished, with the same care as colleges and universities for the teaching of sciences and the classics. Democracy not only ennobled man; it has ennobled industry. In political affairs the vote of the humblest has long counted for as much as the vote of the most exalted. We are working towards the day when, in our industrial life, equal honor shall fall to equal endeavor, whether it be exhibited in the office or in the shop. These are some of the results of that great world movement, which, first exhibiting itself in the Continental Congress of America, carried her arms to victory, through the sacrifice of a seven years’ revolutionary war, and wrote into the Treaty of Paris the recognition of the right of the people to rule: since which days existence on this planet has had a new meaning; a result which, changing the old order of things, putting the race under the control and guidance of new forces, rescued man from every thralldom, but laid on him every duty.
We know that only ignorance and superstition seek to explain events by fate and destiny, yet there is a fascination in such speculations born, perhaps, of human frailty. How happens it that James Otis laid out in 1762 the then almost t reasonable proposition that “Kings were made for the good of the people, and not the people for them,” in a pamphlet which was circulated among the Colonists? What school had taught Patrick Henry that national outlook which he expressed in the opening debates of the first Continental Congress when he said, “I am not a Virginian, but an American,” and which hurried him on to the later cry of “Liberty or death?” How was it that the filling of a vacancy sent Thomas Jefferson to the second Continental Congress, there to pen the immortal Declaration we this day celebrate? No other living man could have excelled him in preparation for, or in the execution of, that great task. What circumstance put the young George Washington under the military instruction of a former army officer, and then gave him years of training to lead the Continental forces? What settled Ethan Allen in the wilderness of the Green Mountains ready to strike Ticonderoga? Whence came that power to draft state papers, in a new and unlettered land, which compelled the admiration of the cultured Earl of Chatham? What lengthened out the days of Benjamin Franklin that he might negotiate the Treaty of Paris? What influence sent the miraculous voice of Daniel Webster from the outlying settlements of New Hampshire to rouse the land with his appeal for Liberty and Union? And finally who raised up Lincoln, to lead, to inspire, and to die, that the opening assertion of the Declaration might stand at last fulfilled?
These thoughts are overpowering. But let us beware of fate and destiny. Barbarians have decreased, but barbarism still exists. Rome boasted the name of the Eternal City. It was but eight hundred years from the sack of the city by one tribe of barbarians to the sack of the city by another tribe of barbarians. Between lay something akin to a democratic commonwealth. Then games, and bribes for the populace, with dictators and Caesars, while later the Praetorian Guard sold the royal purple to the highest bidder. After which came Alaric, the Goth, and night. Since when democracy lay dormant for some fifteen centuries. We may claim with reason that our Nation has had the guidance of Providence; we may know that our form of government must ultimately prevail upon earth; but what guaranty have we that it shall be maintained here? What proof that some unlineal hand, some barbarism, without or within, shall not wrench the sceptre of democracy from our grasp? The rule of princes, the privilege of birth, has come down through the ages; the rule of the people has not yet marked a century and a half. There is no absolute proof, no positive guaranty, but there is hope and high expectation, and the path is not uncharted. It may be some help to know that, however much of glory, there is no magic in American democracy. Let us examine some more of this Declaration of ours, and examine it in the light of the events of those solemn days in which it was adopted.
Men of every clime have lavished much admiration upon the first part of the Declaration of Independence, and rightly so, for it marked the entry of new forces and new ideals into human affairs. Its admirers have sometimes failed in their attempts to live by it, but none have successfully disputed its truth. It is the realization of the true glory and worth of man, which, when once admitted, wrought vast changes that have marked all history since its day. All this relates to natural rights, fascinating to dwell upon, but not sufficient to live by. The signers knew that well; more important still, the people whom they represented knew it. So they did not stop there. After asserting that man was to stand out in the universe with a new and supreme importance, and that governments were instituted to insure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they did not shrink from the logical conclusion of this doctrine. They knew that the duty between the citizen and the State was reciprocal. They knew that the State called on its citizens for their property and their lives; they laid down the proposition that government was to protect the citizen in his life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. At some expense? Yes. Those prudent and thrifty men had no false notions about incurring expense. They knew the value of increasing their material resources, but they knew that prosperity was a means, not an end. At cost of life? Yes. These sons of the Puritans, of the Huguenots, of the men of Londonderry, braved exile to secure peace, but they were not afraid to die in defence of their convictions. They put no limit on what the State must do for the citizen in his hour of need. While they required all, they gave all. Let us read their conclusion in their own words, and mark its simplicity and majesty: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” There is no cringing reservation here, no alternative, and no delay. Here is the voice of the plain men of Middlesex, promising Yorktown, promising Appomattox. The doctrine of the Declaration of Independence, predicated upon the glory of man, and the corresponding duty of society, is that the rights of citizens are to be protected with every power and resource of the State, and a government that does any less is false to the teachings of that great document, of the name American. Beyond this, the principle that it is the obligation of the people to rise and overthrow government which fails in these respects. But above all, the call to duty, the pledge of fortune and of life, nobility of character through nobility of action: this is Americanism.
“Woe for us if we forget, we that hold by these.” Herein are the teachings of this day – touching the heights of man’s glory and the depths of man’s duty. Here lies the path to national preservation, and there is no other. Education, the progress of science, commercial prosperity, yes, and peace, all these and their accompanying blessings are worthy and commendable objects of attainment. But these are not the end, whether these come or no; the end lies in action – action in accord with the eternal principles of the Declaration of Independence; the words of the Continental Congress, but the deeds of the Army of the Revolution.
This is the meaning of America. And it is all our own. Doctrinaires and visionaries may shudder at it. The privilege of birth may jeer at it. The practical politician may scoff at it. But the people of the Nation respond to it, and march away to Mexico to the rescue of a colored trooper as they marched of old to the rescue of an emperor. The assertion of human rights is naught but a call to human sacrifice. This is yet the spirit of the American people. Only so long as this flame burns shall we endure and the light of liberty be shed over the nations of the earth. May the increase of the years increase for America only the devotion to this spirit, only the intensity of this flame, and the eternal truth of Lowell’s lines:
“What were our lives without thee?
What all our lives to save thee?
We reek not what we gave thee;
We will not dare to doubt thee,
But ask whatever else and we will dare.
Citation: Have Faith in Massachusetts
The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of James George who prepared this document for digital publication.