On the 220th Anniversary of the US Declaration of Independence
Revised, Edited, and Abridged from Robert Green Ingersoll's CENTENNIAL ORATION of 1876 by Tim Gorski
Presented July 7, 1996 at the North Texas Church of Freethought
Two hundred and twenty years ago, the gods were retired from politics.
The Declaration of Independence is the grandest, the bravest, and the profoundest political document that was ever signed by the representatives of a people. It is the embodiment of physical and moral courage and of political wisdom.
Physical courage, because it was a declaration of war against the most powerful nation then on the globe; a declaration of war by thirteen weak, unorganized colonies; a declaration of war by a few people, without military stores, without wealth, without strength, against the most powerful kingdom on the earth; a declaration of war made when the British navy of the day was the mistress of every sea and hovering along the coast of America. It was made when thousands of English soldiers were upon our soil, and when the principal cities of America were in the substantial possession of the enemy. And if it was physically brave, the moral courage of the document is almost infinitely beyond the physical. They had the courage not only, but they had the almost infinite wisdom, to declare that a person's rights come not from a king, or even a god, but from one's own nature.
With one blow, with one stroke of the pen, they struck down all the cruel, heartless barriers that aristocracy, that priestcraft, that king-craft had raised between human beings. They struck down with one immortal blow that infamous spirit of caste that makes a God almost a beast. And in doing so they raised a beast almost to godhood. For with one word, with one blow, they wiped away and utterly destroyed, all that had been done by centuries of war, centuries of hypocrisy, centuries of injustice.
What more did they do? They then declared that everyone has a right to live. They said that everyone was entitled to liberty, and to pursue happiness in their own way. And for no other reason than that everyone was a human being.
And what more did they say? They said that governments were instituted by human beings, and for the human purpose of preserving their own rights.
The old idea was that people existed solely for the benefit of kings and nobles. The old idea was that the people were the wards of king and priest, that their bodies belonged to one and their souls to the other.
And what more? They said that people are the legitimate source of political power. Far more than a fevered revelation, that was a revolution. For the first time it made human beings out of people, where the old idea had been that political power came from the clouds; that the political power came in some miraculous way from heaven; that it came down to kings, and queens, and robbers. That was the old idea. The people were responsible to the nobles, the nobles to the king, and the people had no political rights whatever. The monarchs and nobles, for their part, their only responsibility was to the clouds and to God, and never to the toiling millions whom they robbed and plundered.
Jefferson, and Washington, and Madison, and Franklin, and Adams and the rest of them, in this shocking Declaration of Independence, reversed all of this and said: "No; the people, they are the source of political power, by virtue of their inalienable rights. While the rulers, these kings, these princes and nobles and presidents and statesmen, these are but the agents and servants of those they undertake to rule." For the first time, really, in the history of the world, the monarchs were made to get off the throne and the people, endowed with nothing more than their humanity, were royally seated thereon. It is almost impossible for us now, 220 years later, enjoying our summer picnics and barbecues, to understand how thoroughly it was once ingrained into everyone's mind that they were the subjects and property of kings, that in some strange way a king could own the people he exploited and terrorized, and that in some miraculous manner a divine right belonged to this one who rode on a horse and wore epaulets on his shoulders and a tinsel crown upon his brainless head.
Remember now that our ancestors had been educated in that idea, and when they first landed on American shores they believed it. They thought they belonged to somebody, and that they must be loyal to some thief who could trace his pedigree back to antiquity's most successful robbers.
It took a long time for them to get that idea out of their heads and hearts. They were three thousand miles away from the despotisms of the old world, and every wave of the sea was their friend and teacher. Every mile between them and Europe helped to put new ideas and thoughts into their minds. Besides that, when they came to this country, when the savage was in the forest and three thousand miles of waves on the other side, menaced by barbarians on the one hand and famine on the other, they learned that someone who had courage, someone who had thought, was as good as anyone else in the world, and they built up, as it were, in spite of themselves, little republics. And whoever had the most nerve and heart was the best of them, whether noble blood flowed in their veins or not.
In a sense, our ancestors were educated by Nature and Freedom. They grew to be as grand as the continent upon which they landed. Their ideas grew to be as spacious and as audacious as the great rivers, the wide plains, the deep blue lakes, the immense and lonely forests, and the soaring craggy mountains of the new land they made their home. These things stole into and became a part of their being, transforming their way of thinking about themselves and gradually leading them towards a disdain for the old, bitter, narrow, contracted views of the lands from which they had come.
The kings of the Old World believed they were parceling out this land to their favorites. But the kings' favorites stayed at home. For there was too much courage, too much determination, and too much exertion of body and soul that was required to carve a home out of a savage land. No, the people who came to America, then and since, have been the people who were dissatisfied with England, dissatisfied with France, with Germany, with Ireland and Holland, with Italy, and South Africa, and Iran and India, and with China, Japan, Vietnam, and Cambodia. They came from all over, most all of them for one thing only: for a liberty held dearer than life itself. From all over the Old World, East and West, the best came to build a nation of freedom and human dignity in the New.
The first of them, let us be honest, were not students of political philosophy. Many of them were narrow-minded. They brought their Bible books and they didn't understand what liberty meant. But they did believe in education. They did believe that everyone, the men, at least, should know how to read and how to write, and should find out all that their capacity allowed them to comprehend. We can at least credit the Puritans for that, even though they quickly forgot what they themselves had suffered, and forgot to apply the principle of universal liberty, of toleration.
Some of the colonies did not forget it. The Catholics of Maryland were the first people on the new continent to declare universal religious toleration. Let this be remembered to their eternal honor. Let it be remembered to the disgrace of the Protestant government of England, that it caused this grand law to be repealed. And to the honor and credit of the Catholics of Maryland let it be remembered that the moment they got back into power they reenacted the old law. The Baptists of Rhode Island also, led by Roger Williams, were in favor of universal religious liberty, though it may seem at times that no Baptists support such a thing today.
No American should fail to honor Roger Williams. He was the first grand advocate of the liberty of the soul. He was in favor of the eternal divorce of church and state. He was the only one of his day who was in favor of real religious liberty. While the Catholics of Maryland declared in favor of religious toleration, they had no idea of religious liberty. They would not allow anyone to call in question the doctrine of the Trinity, or the inspiration of the Scriptures. They stood ready with branding-iron and gallows to burn and choke out of anyone the heretical idea that human beings have the right to think and to express their own thoughts.
So many religions met in our country, so many theories and dogmas came in contact, so many follies, mistakes, and stupidities became acquainted with each other, that religion began to fall somewhat into disrepute. Besides this, the question of a new nation began to take precedence over all others, and people became too interested in this world to quarrel about the next. The preacher was lost in the patriot. The Bible was read to find passages against kings.
At the same time, not everyone was in favor of independence. They weren't all like Jefferson, Adams, or Lee. There were very many who were opposed to American independence. Thomas Paine would not have written so many words had there not been so many who said: "It is a lie that we are all equal, it is a lie that the government's power comes from the governed. We prefer Great Britain and its Empire and swear undying fealty to the king!" But those who saw the future, those who knew that a new nation must be born, went on full of hope and courage, and nothing could daunt or stop or stay these heroic, fearless few.
They met in Philadelphia; and the resolution was moved by Lee of Virginia, that the colonies ought to be independent states, and ought to dissolve their political connection with Great Britain. And they made up their minds that the new nation would not be, as other nations were, a ward of a church.
Happily for us, there was no church strong enough to dictate to the rest. Instead, there were the Puritans who hated the Episcopalians, and Episcopalians who hated the Catholics, and the Catholics who hated both, while the Quakers held all three in contempt and the Deists, as Freethinkers were then known, laughed — even if secretly — at all of them. Their only common bond was their common aspiration. And so they forgot their religious prejudices, for a time at least, and agreed that there should be only one religion until they got through, and that was the religion of patriotism. They solemnly agreed that the new nation should not belong to any particular church, but that it should secure the right of conscience for all.
And so they founded the first secular government that was ever founded in this world. The very first. For they had the sense, the genius, to know that no church should have a sword, but should be forced to rely only on the power of persuasion, and on its own goodness, its own morality, its own vision of justice, its own charity, and its own reason, if any. Religion, they saw, should have the effect upon humanity that it necessarily has, and no more. For the religion that has to be supported by law is not only without value but a fraud and curse. A prayer that has a gun behind it must never be uttered, for truth and love does not need to make its way with knives and revolvers.
These insights were no empty musings, either. For they knew also that the history of the world showed that human liberty was not safe in the clutch and grasp of any church. They had read of and seen the thumb-screws, the racks, and the dungeons of the Inquisition. They knew all about the hypocrisy of the past. They knew that the church had stood side by side with the throne; that the high priests were hypocrites, and that the kings were robbers. And they knew that if they gave power to any church, it would corrupt the best church in the world. And so they said that power must not reside in a church, or in a sect, but that power must be wherever humanity is and that the officers and servants of the people must be responsible to them. They did away forever with the theological idea of government.
And when they had done all this, they signed that bold and courageous document, unmatched for its sheer audacity and wisdom. What would we be today had they not done this thing? We would be nobodies, ready to get down on our knees and crawl in the very dust at the sight of somebody that was supposed to have in him some drop of blood that flowed in the veins of that mailed marauder, that royal robber William the Conqueror. Because they signed that Declaration of Independence, though they knew it would lead to a long, terrible, and bloody war, because they nevertheless signed what could well have become their death warrant, we today were launched on an unparalleled Odyssey of human freedom that continues to this day.
Oh, yes, the United States is today the oldest continuous government on the face of the earth. And all because the signers of that Declaration believed in the inalienable rights of human beings and saw, on the wrecked clouds of the war before them the beautiful bow of freedom. They saw, though others did not, the golden fringe of the mantle of glory that will finally cover this world.
Well, the war commenced. There was little money, and less credit. The new nation had but few friends. To a great extent each soldier of freedom had to clothe and feed himself. He was poor and pure, brave and good, and so he went to the fields of death to fight for the rights of humanity, leaving family and friends in the small refuge that had been carved out of the trackless wilderness in which crouched and crept the Indians who were at that time the allies of the still more savage Englishmen.
Nor did the soldiers of 1776 march away with music and banners. They went in silence to meet, not an equal, but a superior, to fight five times their number, to make a desperate stand to stop the advance of the enemy, and then, when their ammunition gave out, to seek the protection of rocks, and rivers, and hills. They suffered defeat again and again. But they never entirely lost heart, not even in the dark and dreary gloom of Valley Forge when many began to fear that all the treasure they had lost and all the blood they had shed had been in vain. Ultimately, it was this endurance that finally won them a victory at Yorktown over what was then the greatest military power on the planet.
After seven years of bloody war, the principle of inalienable human rights — that everyone was entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -won out. That is how we Americans became a part of the history of civilization, the history of the slow and painful enlightenment and enfranchisement of the human race.
But like the Puritans who fled oppression and bigotry only to practice it themselves, as soon as the victorious Americans got free they began to enslave others. With an inconsistency that defies explanation, they practiced upon others the same outrages that had been perpetrated upon them. As soon as white slavery began to be abolished, black slavery commenced, and black slavery, like white, left no possible crime or cruelty uncommitted. It was defended with every bit as much force and fervor from the pulpit as the divine right of kings had ever been, and blessed by bishops, by cardinals, and by popes. Churches were built and clergymen paid out of the spoils of this obscenity in the name of God's grace and the Law's justice.
Less obvious, even to the best of them, was that half the human race — women — continued to be denied the status of full human beings. Denied an education, denied the rights of citizenship, and denied the ballot, they were truly the invisible Americans. And judging by the experience of people who live in undeveloped countries today, a good many of them died in the process of literally giving birth to subsequent generations.
So the architects of the American Dream did not attain to their ideal. We approach it nearer today, the abolition of black slavery having been accomplished in the time of our great-grandparents, who even witnessed the marvelous spectacle of a freed slave sitting in the seat of his former master in the United States Congress. Our grandparents saw the inalienable rights of women begin to be finally recognized — not bestowed, but recognized. In our own day we have made and are making the further strides of eradicating government-sponsored and government-sanctioned racism and sexism. And we have made and continue to make a great deal of progress in restoring individual initiative, personal determination, and hard work — whether in home or office or factory — to being properly seen as the responsibility of free men and women and not the burden of slaves or wives.
But we have not yet reached the American Dream completely. Perhaps we never will. For what we really want is what Thomas Jefferson wrote down in the Declaration of Independence. We want not only the independence of a government, not only the independence of a nation, but something far more glorious -- the absolute independence of the individual. That is what we want: that every one of us can say, and believe, that we are the intrinsic equals of everyone else, that any one of us can say, "This is my air, my sunshine,my earth, and I have a right to live, and to hope and to aspire, and to labor, and to enjoy the fruit of that labor, as much as does anyone else in this world." And because this is something that we want for every man and woman, because the struggle for freedom is ultimately fought on the level of the individual, we can never be done fighting it.
And so let us, on this, the 220th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of 1776, make, each of us, our own declaration of individual independence. Let each of us enjoy our liberty to the utmost and enjoy it all we can without it being at the expense of another. Let us recognize the responsibilities of self-ownership and of participating in the protection of the same rights for others that we claim for ourselves. Let us commit our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor to those ideas that first ignited the dream of real human liberty and dignity, those ideas that first took flight in Independence Hall in 1776 and have spread, and are spreading, over the whole world, touching the hearts of people in a way that no holy fire ever could.
Go home today filled with an implacable hatred of injustice, of aristocracy, of caste, of the idea that some people can have more rights than others simply because they have the right to have better clothes, more land, more money, because they own millions of dollars in stocks, or because they are famous entertainment or sports celebrities or occupy high offices. Remember that the best people are the people who show it by their actions, the people who love the good and are most willing to do what is right, those who think most clearly and feel most deeply, and who are the first to say that even all of this does not give them more rights than others, but who freely give to others the rights that they claim for themselves. Those are the best sort of people. Become one of those people. Become a real light to the world, and to yourself. Love what is good, and believe what is right and true. Above all, use your head. Think.
On behalf of myself and Robert Green Ingersoll, Thank You and Good Morning.
© 1996 by Tim Gorski