Great Virginians

Title: Great Virginians

Date: July 6, 1922

Location: Fredericksburg, VA


We meet here out of reverence for the past. We come with that resolution, which has characterized Americans, to show by our actions our adherence to those seasoned and established principles which have made our country the greatest among the nations of the earth. It is out of this that there is created the very natural desire to preserve those monuments which were associated with the great names and the great times which laid the foundation of our history.

For more than three generations, now, America has been building, a necessary and desirable operation, worthy of high commendation. This has been a strong index of progress. But to preserve also is to build, and to save is to construct. No people can look forward who do not look backward. The strongest guarantee of the future is the past. Unless that which has been built shall stand with an assured security, the motive for further building is destroyed, and all our structures will go down in ruins.

We need not only the story but the symbols of past history. We can best preserve our institutions by preserving our confidence in the men who did so much to establish them. It is only when men begin to worship that they begin to grow. A wholesome regard for the memory of the great men of long ago is the best assurance to a people of a continuation of great men to come, who shall still be able to instruct, to lead, and to inspire. A people who worship at the shrine of true greatness will themselves be truly great.

It is sometimes assumed that Americans care only for material things, that they are bent only on that kind of success which can be cashed into dollars and cents. That is a very narrow and unintelligent opinion. We have been successful beyond others in great commercial and industrial enterprises because we have been a people of vision. Our prosperity has resulted not by disregarding but by maintaining high ideals. Material resources do not, and cannot, stand alone; they are the product of spiritual resources. It is because America, as a nation, has held fast to the higher things of life, because it has had a faith in mankind which it has dared to put to the test of self-government, because it has believed greatly in honor and truth and righteousness, that a great material prosperity has been added unto it.

This fundamental characteristic of our countrymen is manifest all about us. We can see it in our incomparable charities, in our expanding art and literature, in our philanthropic and patriotic societies, in our tremendous missions, in our religious life. In all these there are revealed the fundamental purposes of our people. They are all the expressions of spiritual ideals.

This is the course of that inspiration which has moved different organizations to gather up the traditions of the past, to mark the location of historic events, to restore and preserve ancient habitations and buildings. It is all intensely American, it is done in the knowledge that where men have worked and wrought righteousness, there is holy ground.

No State is so rich in history and tradition as the Old Dominion of Virginia. The story of the early attempts at its settlement, of its lost colony, and the final success after failure, is all more fascinating than fiction. It has ever been the home of a proud and valiant race of pioneers and their descendants, of the early seventeenth century, strengthened and dignified by a dominant addition of Cavaliers and Huguenots, a sturdy and high-minded people, forever jealous of their rights and intent upon guarding and maintaining their liberties. There was always among them the courage of self-reliance and that true spirit of independence which results in local self-government. It was here in July, 1619, that there assembled the first parliament that was ever convened in America, when the first House of Burgesses met at Jamestown and there began those sessions which, being ever since continual, have made it the oldest of our legislative bodies. While the informal Mayflower Compact of November, 1620, holds a high place among the charters of free government, the first formal and authoritative charter which established free government on this continent was that granted to Virginia in July, 1621.

This was the beginning of true representative government. The public authority of the colony was vested in the governor, with veto power, who, together with his council and with the Burgesses, made up of two men chosen by the inhabitants of each town, hundred, and plantation, constituted a general assembly, which was to meet each year and make all decisions by a majority vote. The colonies generally acknowledged the authority of the crown. They were always disposed to question the authority of Parliament. How great a step toward freedom and independence this charter was, is disclosed by the provision that when a form of government should be adopted, “no orders of court afterward shall bind the said colony unless they be ratified in like manner in the General Assemblies.” Here began an assertion of popular rights carried over into the realm of action which the people of Virginia never relinquished.

When the colony felt itself aggrieved by the navigation laws of Charles II, and an unwarranted interference with its land titles, it did not hesitate to engage in a rebellion in 1676, the principles of which run a very close parallel to those of the American Revolution. It did not result in a final success in the field, but it did demonstrate that here were a people who knew and dared to assert their rights.

Thus was the foundation laid for the great days which were to come when Virginia was to bear an honorable and victorious part in the French and Indian Wars, and following this was to cast the influence of its great resources and great men into the struggle for American independence.

It is the Anglo-Saxon way first to appeal for the maintenance of rights to the courts of law, and it is only when those fail that resort is had to the sword. It was there that John Hampden had first sought protection from the illegal impositions of the King. It was before the judges that James Otis argued the illegality of the British Writs of Assistance at Boston. It was in a Virginia court that Patrick Henry asserted, in 1763, that the Burgesses of Virginia were “the only authority which could give force to the laws of the government of this colony.” It was but two years later that he moved those famous resolutions in the House of Burgesses, asserting chiefly that the general assembly of the colony had the sole right and power to levy taxes on its inhabitants. When these resolutions were adopted, Virginia stood forth as the first colony to declare its resistance to the imposition of stamp taxes.

From that time forth Virginia, at first perhaps unconsciously, was dedicated to the cause of American independence. Massachusetts looked to her confidently as “that ancient colony of whose disinterested virtue this province has had ample experience.” Other great Virginians soon joined their names with that of Patrick Henry. There was George Mason, who drew up the Virginia Bill of Rights. This was adopted on the 15th of June, 1776. Two weeks later the new Constitution, which he had prepared, was adopted, so that Virginia declared its independence and set up its own form of government before the momentous action of the Continental Congress taken on the fourth day of the following July. Virginia regarded resistance to illegal exactions as the common cause of all the colonies. She did not fail to send money and supplies to those whom she designated as “our distressed fellow subjects of Boston.” “British oppression,” declared Patrick Henry, at the opening of the Congress, ” has effaced the boundaries of the several colonies. The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.”

It was a Virginian, Peyton Randolph, who was president of the first Continental Congress. It was another Virginian, Richard Henry Lee, who, on the 7th of June, 1776, moved the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams, of Massachusetts, seconded the motion. It was another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, to whom belongs the immortal honor of having drafted the Declaration. It is to the everlasting glory of the Old Dominion that it produced two men of the ability of Mason and Jefferson, one of whom set out in the Virginia Bill of Rights the great fundamental principles of liberty on which our State governments are founded, and the other proclaimed the great truths of our national life in the Declaration of Independence. Along with these great names go Edmund Pendleton, John Marshall, James Madison, and James Monroe.

There was yet another Virginian who towered above them all, who still stands as the first citizen of America, and is yet unsurpassed in greatness by any other man in history. It was he who, as general of the armies, was at times almost the sole support of the Revolution, and it was he who brought it to a successful close at Yorktown. It was he who lent the weight of his great character to the formation and adoption of the Federal Constitution. It was he who, as the first President, organized, established, and gave direction to the present government of the United States of America. In him there is the unusually remarkable combination of a great soldier, a great statesman, and a great patriot.

It is pre-eminently our regard for the memory of George Washington, for all who were associated with him, and for all that they represent that has inspired this gathering. There is standing in this historic city of Fredericksburg a mansion, built about 1752, and named Kenmore, by Colonel Fielding Lewis, the husband of Betty Washington, the only sister of the first President. On its walls are frescos designed by Washington himself, and said to have been executed originally by Hessian artists whom he had taken as prisoners of war during the Revolution. Here he had visited and been entertained with his friends, and here his mother often came during her declining years.

Colonel Lewis was a patriot who sacrificed a fortune in supplying the Revolutionary forces with arms and ammunitions. The mansion not only has these associations, but is a good example of colonial architecture, well fitted to rank in interest with the home of Jefferson, of Mason, of Lee, and with Mount Vernon itself. It ought to be preserved for its own sake. It must be preserved for the sake of patriotic America.

But it must be remembered that these monuments of the past are only the form and not the substance of that which we would perpetuate. They are helps, they are reminders, but of themselves they will not suffice. It is necessary that there be in us a like spirit to that which was in the Virginians of the brave days which we seek to commemorate. There is but one way to demonstrate adherence to principles, that is by acting in accordance with them.

It was not the Declaration which was proclaimed one hundred and forty-six years ago that gave America its independence. It was the action of the army in the field, led by Washington and his generals. It was the support of that army by the people of the colonies. It was the sacrifice made by those who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to this high purpose.

The institutions which were established in that day, the constitutions which were adopted, the laws which were enacted, did not arise from any new thought. It was the action which was new. It was the people of the colonies, living in accordance with these principles, which constituted a new era in human history. The example of those inspiring times, the eloquence of Patrick Henry, the confidence in the people of Thomas Jefferson, the inspired judgment of John Marshall, the incomparable patriotism of George Washington will all be of no avail unless we shall make the necessary sacrifices to live up to the standard which they acclaimed.

The world to-day is filled with a great impatience. Men are disdainful of the things that are and are credulously turning toward those who assert that a change of institutions would somehow bring about an era of perfection.

It is not a change that is needed in our Constitution and laws so much as there is need of living in accordance with them. The most fundamental precept of them all—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—has not yet been brought into universal application. It is not our institutions that have failed, it is our execution of them that has failed.

The great principles of life do not change; they are permanent and well known. Men are not ignorant of what justice requires. No power can ever be brought into existence which will relieve of obligations. The sole opportunity for progress lies in their faithful discharge.

There is no reason for Americans to lack confidence in themselves or in their institutions. Let him who doubts them look about him. Let him consider the power of his country, its agriculture, its industry, its commerce, its development of the arts and sciences, its great cities, its enormous wealth, its organized society, and let him remember that all this is the accomplishment of but three centuries. Surely we must conclude that here is a people with a character which is not to be shaken. Imperfections there are, violations of the law there are, but public requirements were never so high in the intercourse of society, in the conduct of commerce, in the observance of the law, and in the faithful discharge of public office as at the present time.

There are criticisms which are merited, there always have been and there always will be; but the life of the nation is dependent not on criticism but on construction, not on tearing down but on building up, not in destroying but in preserving. If the American Revolution meant anything, it meant the determination to live under a reign of law. It meant the assertion of the right of the people to adopt their own constitutions, and when so adopted the duty of all the people to abide by them. The colonists of that day had had enough of the reign of force. They had had enough unlawful usurpation of their government, enough of the domination of a military force quartered in their midst. They wanted to escape from the rule of a force imposed from without and live in accordance with the light of reason which comes from within. That is the real mark of progress. That is the true liberation of mankind.

Those who now, under any form or for any purpose, seek to substitute for the reign of public law their own private desire, or any species of force, coercion, or intimidation, are not in harmony with the aims of the great Virginians. The industrial life of the nation cannot stand except on the recognition and observance by everybody connected with it of the fundamental precepts of American institutions. Nothing will ever be settled unless it be settled in accordance with them. Any other attempt will have as its result nothing but confusion, destruction, anarchy, and failure. Virginia has pointed out the way to harmony, to co-operation, to prosperity, and to justice. Her great example must still lead and inspire the nation.


Citation: The Price of Freedom

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of James Krejci who prepared this document for digital publication.

One Response to “Great Virginians”

  1. James Krejci

    This speech expresses some of the highest possible admiration for the foundations of our country. In it, Coolidge praises not just the brave and laudable actions of remarkable individuals for their roles in creating the set of institutions that guide us to this day—well-known figures such as Washington, Jefferson, Mason, and Henry. He identifies and praises the fundamental ideas of individual rights and liberty behind the institutions that those figures helped to construct. This speech should inspire modern day Americans to want to live up to those actions and ideas.

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