It is conceived that there can be a horizontal elevation of the standards of the nation, immediate and perceptible, by the simple device of new laws. This has never been the case in human experience. Progress is slow and the result of a long and arduous process of self-discipline. Real reform does not begin with a law, it ends with a law. The attempt to dragoon the body when the need is to convince the soul will end only in revolt. — Calvin Coolidge
We meet to celebrate the birthday of America. The coming of a new life always excites our interest. Although we know in the case of the individual that it has been an infinite repetition reaching back beyond our vision, that only makes it the more wonderful. But how our interest and wonder increase when we behold the miracle of the birth of a new nation. It is to pay our tribute of reverence and respect to those who participated in such a mighty event that we annually observe the fourth day of July.
…[T]he four corners of the earth unite in coming to Philadelphia as to a holy shrine in grateful acknowledgement of a service so great, which a few inspired men here rendered to humanity, that it is still the preeminent support of free government throughout the world...
We are obliged to conclude that the Declaration of Independence represented the movement of a people. It was not, of course, a movement from the top. Revolutions do not come from that direction. It was not without the support of many of the most respectable people in the Colonies, who were entitled to all the consideration that is giving to breeding, education, and possessions. It had the support of another element of great significance and importance to which I shall later refer. But the preponderance of all those who occupied a position which took on the aspect of aristocracy did not approve of the Revolution and held toward it an attitude either of neutrality or open hostility. It was in no sense a rising of the oppressed and downtrodden. It brought no scum to the surface, for the reason that colonial society had developed no scum. The great body of the people were accustomed to privations, from they were free from depravity. If they had poverty, it was not of the hopeless kind that afflicts great cities, but the inspiring kind that marks the spirit of the pioneer.
The American Revolution represented the informed and mature convictions of a great mass of independent, liberty-loving, God-fearing people who knew their rights, and possessed the courage to dare to maintain them...
When we come to examine the action of the Continental Congress in adopting the Declaration of Independence in the light of succeeding events, we can not escape the conclusion that it had a much broader and deeper significance than a mere secession of territory and the establishment of a new nation. Events of that nature have been taking place since the dawn of history. One empire after another has arisen, only to crumble away as its constituent parts separated from each other and set up independent governments of their own. Such actions long ago became commonplace. They have occurred too often to hold the attention of the world and command the admiration and reverence of humanity.
There is something beyond the establishment of a new nation, great as that event would be, in the Declaration of Independence which has ever since caused it to be regarded as one of the great charters that not only was to liberate America but was everywhere to ennoble humanity.
It was not because it was proposed to establish a new nation, but because it was proposed to establish a new nation on new principles, that July 4, 1776, has come to be regarded as one of the greatest days in history. Great ideas do not burst upon the world unannounced. They are reached by a gradual development over a length of time usually proportionate to their importance. This is especially true of the principles laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Three very definite propositions were set out in its preamble regarding the nature of mankind and therefore of government. These were:
The doctrine that all men are created equal,
That they are endowed with certain inalienable rights,
And that therefore the source of the just powers of government must be derived from the consent of the governed.
If no one is to be accounted as born into a superior station, if there is to be no ruling class, and if all possess rights which can neither be bartered away nor taken from them by any earthly power, it follows as a matter of course that the practical authority of the Government has to rest on the consent of the governed. While these principles were not altogether new in political action, and were very far from new in political speculation, they had never been assembled before and declared in such a combination. But remarkable as this may be, it is not the chief distinction of the Declaration of Independence. The importance of political speculation is not to be underestimated, as I shall presently disclose. Until the idea is developed and the plan made there can be no action.
It was the fact that our Declaration of Independence containing these immortal truths was the political action of a duly authorized and constituted representative public body in its sovereign capacity, supported by the force of general opinion and by the armies of Washington already in the field, which makes it the most important civil document in the world.
It was not only the principles declared, but the fact that therewith a new nation was born which was to be founded upon those principles and which from that time forth in its development has actually maintained those principles, that makes this pronouncement an incomparable event in the history of government. It was an assertion that a people had arisen determined to make every necessary sacrifice for the support of these truths and by their practical application bring the War of Independence to a successful conclusion and adopt the Constitution of the United States with all that it has meant to civilization.
The idea that the people have a right to choose their own rulers was not new in political history. It was the foundation of every popular attempt to depose an undesirable king. This right was set out with a good deal of detail by the Dutch when as early as July 26, 1581, they declared their independence of Philip of Spain. In their long struggle with the Stuarts the British people asserted the same principles, which finally culminated in the Bill of Rights deposing the last of that house and placing William and Mary on the throne. In each of these cases sovereignty through divine right was displaced by sovereignty through the consent of the people. Running through the same documents, though expressed in different terms, is the clear inference of inalienable rights. But we should search these charters in vain for an assertion of the doctrine of equality. This principle had not before appeared as an official political declaration of any nation. It was profoundly revolutionary. It is one of the corner stones of American institutions.
But if these truths to which the declaration refers have not before been adopted in their combined entirety by national authority, it is a fact that they had been long pondered and often expressed in political speculation. It is generally assumed that French thought had some effect upon our public mind during Revolutionary days. This may have been true. But the principles of our declaration had been under discussion in the Colonies for nearly two generations before the advent of the French political philosophy that characterized the middle of the eighteenth century. In fact, they come from an earlier date. A very positive echo of what the Dutch had done in 1581, and what the English were preparing to do, appears in the assertion of the Reverend Thomas Hooker of Connecticut as early as 1638, when he said in a sermon before the General Court that–
‘The foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people…The choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God’s own allowance.’
This doctrine found wide acceptance among the nonconformist clergy who later made up the Congregational Church. The great apostle of this movement was the Reverend John Wise, of Massachusetts. He was one of the leaders of the revolt against the royal governor Andros in 1687, for which he suffered imprisonment. He was a liberal in ecclesiastical controversies. He appears to have been familiar with the writings of the political scientist, Samuel Pufendorf, who was born in Saxony in 1632. Wise published a treatise, entitled ‘The Church’s Quarrel Espoused,’ in 1710, which was amplified in another publication in 1717. In it he dealt with the principles of civil government. His works were reprinted in 1772 and have been declared to have been nothing less than a textbook of liberty for our Revolutionary fathers.
The Continental Congress, convening in Baltimore at the start of the new year, ordered on January 18, 1777, the first mass printing of the fully signed Declaration to be sent out to the states. The historic order was completed by Mary Katherine Goddard, printer and postmaster.
While the written word was the foundation, it is apparent that the spoken word was the vehicle for convincing the people. This came with great force and wide range from the successors of Hooker and Wise. It was carried on with a missionary spirit which did not fail to reach the Scotch-Irish of North Carolina, showing its influence by significantly making that Colony the first to give instructions to its delegates looking to independence. This preaching reached the neighborhood of Thomas Jefferson, who acknowledged that his ‘best ideas of democracy’ had been secured at church meetings.
That these ideas were prevalent in Virginia is further revealed by the Declaration of Rights, which was prepared by George Mason and presented to the general assembly on May 27, 1776. This document asserted popular sovereignty and inherent natural rights, but confined the doctrine of equality to the assertion that
‘All men are created equally free and independent.’
It can scarcely be imagined that Jefferson was unacquainted with what had been done in his own Commonwealth of Virginia when he took up the task of drafting the Declaration of Independence. But these thoughts can very largely be traced back to what John Wise was writing in 1710. He said,
‘Every man must be acknowledged equal to every man.’
‘The end of all good government is to cultivate humanity and promote the happiness of all and the good of every man in all his rights, his life, liberty, estate, honor, and so forth.’
‘For as they have a power every man in his natural state, so upon combination they can and do bequeath this power to others and settle it according as their united discretion shall determine.’
And still again,
‘Democracy is Christ’s government in church and state.’
Here was the doctrine of equality, popular sovereignty, and the substance of the theory of inalienable rights clearly asserted by Wise at the opening of the eighteenth century, just as we have the principle of the consent of the governed stated by Hooker as early as 1638.
When we take all these circumstances into consideration, it is but natural that the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence should open with a reference to Nature’s God and should close in the final paragraphs with an appeal to the Supreme Judge of the world and an assertion of a firm reliance on Divine Providence. Coming from these sources, having as it did this background, it is no wonder that Samuel Adams could say:
‘The people seem to recognize this resolution as though it were a decree promulgated from heaven.’
No one can examine this record and escape the conclusion that in the great outline of its principles the Declaration was the result of the religious teachings of the preceding period. The profound philosophy which Jonathan Edwards applied to theology, the popular preaching of George Whitefield, had aroused the thought and stirred the people of the Colonies in preparation for this great event. No doubt the speculations which had been going on in England, and especially on the Continent, lent their influence to the general sentiment of the times. Of course, the world is always influenced by all the experience and all the thought of the past. But when we come to a contemplation of the immediate conception of the principles of human relationship which went into the Declaration of Independence we are not required to extend our search beyond our own shores.
They are found in the texts, the sermons, and the writings of the early colonial clergy who were earnestly undertaking to instruct their congregations in the great mystery of how to live. They preached equality because they believed in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. They justified freedom by the text that we are all created in the divine image, all partakers of the divine spirit.
Placing every man on a plane where he acknowledged no superiors, where no one possessed any right to rule over him, he must inevitably choose his own rulers through a system of self-government. This was their theory of democracy. In those days such doctrines would scarcely have been permitted to flourish and spread in any other country. This was the purpose which the fathers cherished. In order that they might have freedom to express these thoughts and opportunity to put them into action, whole congregations with their pastors had migrated to the colonies. These great truths were in the air that our people breathed. Whatever else we may say of it, the Declaration of Independence was profoundly American.
If this apprehension of the facts be correct, and the documentary evidence would appear to verify it, then certain conclusions are bound to follow. A spring will cease to flow if its source be dried up; a tree will wither if its roots be destroyed. In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man–these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.
— President Calvin Coolidge, July 5, 1926
Among those standing in the street beside Independence Hall the day the first public reading of the Declaration was heard that July of 1776 was a Philadelphia teenager named James Forten (top left), whose life would be forever changed by its words. He would go on to serve with the Continental forces on the high seas and become one of the most influential advocates for complete abolition before his death at age 75 in 1842.
A young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (top right) is here pictured before he becomes the foremost mover on behalf of a Declaration of Indian Independence by January 1930.
It was Elizabeth Freeman (bottom left), born a slave in colonial New York, came to serve Colonel and Mrs. Ashley in Massachusetts. A co-author of the Sheffield Declaration in 1773, which read, part: “mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property,” Ashley’s friend and fellow author, Thomas Sedgwick represented “Mum Bett” (as Freeman was previously known) in court seeking to secure her emancipation in the summer of 1780. It was the success of her case that not only won her freedom but helped ensure the formal end of slavery in Massachusetts, shown (as it was) to be a contradiction of the state constitution (authored by the brilliant and tenacious John Adams). She became a homeowner and her remains rest in the Sedgwick family plot today.
Emilio Aguinaldo (bottom center), appealing to the language and ideas of the Declaration of Independence was instrumental in securing a Declaration for Filipino independence on June 12, 1898, creating the first ever democratic constitution on the continent of Asia, and serving as the new republic’s first President. Ironically, he would stand on the shoulders of American ideals to go to arms against U.S. forces in the effort to achieve them.
The Declaration of Independence for Venezuela (bottom right), in clear imitation of the U.S. Declaration, is being signed by those gathered behind Sebastian Francisco de Miranda and Simon Bolivar, July 5, 1811.
There can be no doubt of the Declaration’s enduring transformation of the world.
Happy 245th Year of Independence, to each of our States and each friend inspired by them!
And, lastly, Happy 149th Birthday to Calvin Coolidge, who perhaps more than any other modern American President understood liberty and championed the ideals of the Declaration just as the nation was undergoing its first technological and cultural growth spurt as a world power.
To some men there are given a few great moments in life, while all the rest is commonplace. Lincoln had his great moments, for ‘he grew in stature and in wisdom,’ but he was never commonplace. He was marked by a solemn grandeur from the rude and lonely hut on the frontier until a nation stood beside his tomb. There was about him a dignity which no uncouthness of surroundings could blot out. He had a mind which no lack of letters could leave undeveloped. He had a faith which could move mountains. Two generations have sought out whatever could be associated with him, have read the record of his every word with the greatest eagerness, and held his memory as a precious heritage. Where he trod is holy ground. Yet never was a man more simply human...
He learned how to make facts clear and a principle of the law plain. Seeing his great ability, knowing his self-sacrificing honesty, the people came to have a great faith in him as he had a great faith in them. In the course of events he was sent to Congress…Nothing ever seemed to stand in the way of his being able to see the simple truth, and nothing ever seemed to move him from his wish to see the truth win. He had no will to fight for what was wrong. He might stay his hand for a while, but in the end, knowing the right, he held to it with a power which finally could not be overcome.
Coming home at the end of his term, he took up again the work of the law, but soon he had other work to do. There was never any question about what he thought of slavery. He hated it with the whole force of his whole being; but he believed not only in freedom, he believed in the Constitution of his country. He said that slavery was legal; that a Fugitive Slave Act would be valid. He had a great faith in the law. He knew that without it there would be no freedom. While he would stretch out no lawless hand against slavery, while he would observe the finding of the court in its favor, he was against its extension through the passage of any new law or the unwarranted interpretation of any old law. He was not a radical, but a conservative. He never sought to waste, but always to save. He had a love for his country so great, a faith in its people so deep, that he believed if the Union could stand according to the Constitution and the law the evil of slavery would finally fall of its own weight…
The story of this man spread…When the men of the new Republican Party met, many leaders had many different plans, but in the end the urge of the will of the people chose Lincoln. He was elected. He took office amid great stress and strain…Clearly, steadily, drawing those who loved their country more than all else around him, he kept one end alone in view, the saving of the Union…
He saw the failure of his armies through nearly two campaigns; then came Antietam. Knowing that the time for which he long had waited had come, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He believed at last that it was possible, by breaking slavery, to keep the Union whole. Henceforth the war was not only to save the nation but to make it free…The great evil which had lain on the soul of the whole nation had been purged away by the awful scourge of war. The flag of our country had come to have the meaning which Webster said it should have. At last Liberty and Union were one and inseparable. In this hour, which was to him not one of triumph but of duty alone, the spirit of Lincoln, released from a life of anguish, returned to God who gave it…
So there came to an end this life in which the meaning of human existence reached its flood. It had within its scope every range of experience between the most humble and lonely beginning and the highest and most famous place that man could hold in all the world.
Who can look upon it and feel that stern circumstances have denied to any one a chance?
Who could know Lincoln and not have hope and faith?
He showed that the only bounds set to the height to which a man shall rise are those which he sets himself.
In the practice of law he never relied on deceit. In seeking office he used no pretense. The end he sought in life was truth through honesty. He wished to have what that could bring; no more. He did not ask that others should take his burden from him; he asked to take their burdens from them, humbly seeking the guidance of man and of God as to how it might be done. He worked with the Unseen.
What an answer he is to all those who would tear down.
All his work was to save and to build up. He wished to make himself better; he wished for gain; he wished for place. He did not try to get these by casting aside the only sure means by which they could had. He did not seek them without humility, without industry, without honesty, without forbearance, and without faith. He spoke against the seizing and pulling down of the house of another, and in favor of building up and making safe the house of oneself. He knew that those who made the best of what they had were the only ones who were sure to have more…
Lincoln made the same appeal to his countrymen which all great men have made. There was in it nothing small or mean. No man ever had a greater love of humanity. But it came not from his belief in their weakness but in their strength. His faith was not in the things of the flesh. He held out no promise of ease. He knew there could be no growth without toil, no character without effort. His faith was in the things of the spirit. He believed all men were great enough to be free. He besought them to strive mightily that they might come unto their true estate. He knew that freedom was not easy, that its burden was not light; that it could be only for those who dwelt in the high places; that to have it and keep it was a great task. But he did not hesitate to call the people up into the high places; he did not cease to urge that with increased devotion they should highly resolve to be dedicated to the great task. They heard and they obeyed.
The place which Lincoln holds in the history of the nation is that of the man who finished what others had begun. What they had dared to dream of, he dared to do. He does not lessen the glory of what they did, rather he adds to it. They built a base that was sound and solid. They left plans by which it was to be finished. The base which they made was the Union. The plans which they drew, and stated time and time again, were for a free people. But Lincoln rises above them all in one thing. He never halted; he never turned aside. He was no opportunist. He had no lack of tact. He had a mighty sense of what was timely. He was wise as a serpent. But he did not stop part way; he followed the truth through to the end. In this peculiar power it is not too much to say that he excels all other statesmen…
He answered for all time the question of whether the selfish interests of a part, or the greater interest of the whole should be supreme. This contest had been confined to no one locality and to no one issue. New England had turned to it when she thought it would make for her welfare. The South clung to it when she believed it was for her advantage. The National Union which Washington and Hamilton had formed, which Marshall had declared, which Webster and Jackson and Clay had defended, Abraham Lincoln saved, and saving, made it free…
He saw clearly that no free government could derive its just powers from anything less than a free people. What he saw, what he believed, when the time came he was ready to do. In all things he followed the truth to the end…
It is not to the city of Washington that men must turn if they would understand Abraham Lincoln…Too often the world turns its eyes to the high places, thinking that from them will come its revelations and its great events, forgetful that a greater wisdom is in those who ‘mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.’ The greatest epoch in all human history began in a manger…
In the memory of these facts there lies a solid basis for our faith. There is in the people themselves the power to put forth great men. There is in the soul of the nation a reserve for responding to the call to high ideals, to nobility of action, which has never yet been put forth. There is no problem so great but that somewhere a man is being raised up to meet it. There is no moral standard so high that the people cannot be raised up to it. God rules, and from the Bethlehems and the Springfields He sends them forth, His own, to do His work. In them we catch a larger gleam of the Infinite.
— Calvin Coolidge, at Lincoln’s Birthplace in Springfield, Illinois, February 12, 1922
[Editorial Note: Are not, then, the dates of greater import, on which Juneteenth, ultimately, owes all of its significance, Independence Day on July 4, or perhaps the day Congress ended the slave trade (January 1, 1808), or perhaps the day on which the Emancipation Proclamation was publicly declared (January 1, 1863) or even the dates of passage — January 31, 1865; June 13, 1866; February 26, 1869 — or ratification by the states — December 6, 1865; July 9, 1868; February 3, 1870 — of what Coolidge would call the War’s “great freedom amendments”: the 13th, 14th, and 15th? Why should we celebrate the day an unfortunate few in Galveston, Texas, learned of the freedom that was already theirs…granted not by an army or local authorities but an Almighty God whose Father we all are?
Who else might have learned about the Proclamation well after its public announcement? Should their day of realization be excluded from the federal calendar? If so, why and, if not, where should it end? Should we not celebrate the day all earned it as Americans, born and yet unborn, without distinction of race, creed, color, background? Is this fragmentation of cultural identity, competition of interest, and outright Balkanization of the Union those who came before us, including Lincoln himself, not to mention generations of America’s melting pot of immigrants, of all colors, have striven to overcome?]