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Fellow Citizens : The Declaration of American Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress at the State House, Philadelphia, July 4, 1776, to the reading of which we have just been listening, stands to day the charter of our national liberty. It was the first grand step of American freedom and progress in their march across this continent, whose influence now binds together a nation extending from Lake Itasca, on the nor:h, to Mexico, on the South, and bounded respectively, on the east and on the west, by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It was the death-knell of England's power over her American colonies, and severed the ties that bound them to contribute to her support without a voice in their own government.
At this distance from the occurrences of that day, when the enthusiastic and just indignation that prompted this immortal State paper has passed away, the allegations against King George and his ministers have, to a certain degree, lost much of their interest; and yet those wrongs still stand, and will continue to stand while the world lasts, a momentous page in our national history. At this period, when all nations have learned to respect us, and we count England among our best friends and commercial allies, the bitterness of these charges against her has, in our minds, faded away. In the bosoms of the Revolutionary fathers, however, they created a fervor of patriotism stronger than the love of life and property, and in defense of their principles these men took up arms, defied tyranny, fought, bled and died. With them, as the great orator, Patrick Henry, defined it, the issue was simply "liberty, or death!" To gain the one, they braved the other, regarding their sufferings as a sacrifice to secure the prosperity and political freedom of their posterity. Nowhere is this sentiment more forcefully, more brilliantly expressed than in the closing sentences of the Declaration itself: " With a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."
It was no empty boast. Living or dying, whatever might be the result, they went forth to battle for their rights with such earnestness, such fidelity to each other and their country, that they won the prize for which they fought, and the American Republic, born of patriotism and of strife, won victory and peace for succeeding generations. Such a spectacle entranced the nations, and the colonies did then, in deed and in truth, "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."
The one great principle established by the triumph of the American colonies was this: The equality of all men under the law, possessing the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as one common heritage.
That principle prevailed, with one exception, through all the vicissitudes of the young republic, fortified by the wisdom of a Washing-son, a Jefferson, an Adams, and a Hamilton, and the result of their deliberations was that grand guarantee of our liberties, the Constitution of 1788-'79. At that time negro slavery was viewed with different eyes from those that witnessed its horror in after-years, and its enormity was not appreciated by the founders of the government; a fact that has led to many sneers, that while the continental patriots fought for their own liberty, they forged the chains of their slaves, and thus cast discredit upon their motives for freedom. This criticism, though severe, had a particle of reason in it; but in that day, and among that people, slavery was considered no offense against Divine or human law.
The benefits secured to every individual (excepting slaves) were representation in the national councils, the right of equal suffrage, trial by jury, freedom from unjust and onerous taxation, protection to life, and peaceful possession of individual property. And these rights and privileges are our heritage to-day.
It is in honor of these rights and privileges under the Constitution, secured to us by the valor of our forefathers, that we celebrate this day. In the long strides of the civilization of the nineteenth century, our nation has kept step with the progress of the world, and, under our Constitution and beneficent laws, every encouragement has been afforded us for the development of the arts and sciences; labor has been appreciated as a source of wealth and improvement, and has attained to a high position in the work of perfecting the great enterprises of the age; inventors and inventions have been encouraged and patronized; literature has achieved honor by its freshness and brilliancy, and everything that comfort or luxury could suggest has been multifariously furnished at prices within the reach of moderate incomes. To enumerate the blessings we have in this way enjoyed under the provisions of our national charter would be a herculean labor; and in any other country such progress as we have made in one hundred years would have required two or three centuries.
Above me wave the stars and stripes of our country among the peaceful branches of the grove, and the shadows of the flag we love and venerate as the ensign of our liberties flit over the happy faces of our sturdy yeomanry and their comely wives and daughters. The birds are singing in our leafy bowers; flowers and fruits, and waving fields of grain, enrich our soil; peaceful homes dot the landscape all around us, and the voices of merry children fall sweetly upon our ears. These are the blessings of peace wrought out for us by the hardy Continentals and their brave and wise leaders of the American Revolution. To-day we venerate their memory; and if from their spirit-homes they are permitted to witness our happiness and the blessings they purchased for us in those rugged times and dark days, I am sure they must rejoice with us in the triumph of the principles they established, and in behalf of which they laid down their lives by the wayside and on the battlefield. Let us never forget these men, nor those noble mothers, wives and daughters of the Revolution, whose patriotism was no less sincere and enthusiastic than that of the men they encouraged to take up arms against tyranny, and was only less demonstrative because of the gentleness of their sex.
The lessons which the lives and deaths of these brave and noble men and women bequeathed to us are worthy of our consideration, and I would dwell upon some of the peculiarities which made them great and sustained them in the hour of trial and danger. I have already referred to the deep, inborn patriotism which the rule of oppression to which they were subjected so thoroughly developed. It was a sentiment born of the period and the circumstances of their existence - a sentiment that, subdued all selfish propensities and found expression in actions of just defiance and heroism.
They were men of simple habits, living lives of industry in their several vocations, and overcoming difficulties by their energy and perseverance.
They were men of integrity and honor, knowing and doing their duty as citizens in all the relations of life.
They possessed no false ambition to become rich by speculation and fraud, nor to aspire to stations of honor and profit for selfish purposes; nor did they encourage hurtful extravagance.
They respected the laws of the government under which they lived, until those laws became unjustly oppressive and destructive to the best interests of the entire colonies.
They encouraged morality and truth in their dealings with each other and also toward strangers with whom they came in contact, and were severe in punishing infractions of law and evil practices.
Such were the men and women in "the times that tried their souls," and such were the examples which they left for us to follow.
Young ladies and gentlemen, whose beaming eyes gaze into mine as I look around over this assemblage, in your blooming manhood and womanhood remember these dead heroes and their families, their sufferings and their endurance, their unselfish patriotism, and, above all, the examples of their private virtues. The world needs such men and women as they were every day, and it is in your power to emulate them in all that reflects honor upon their memories. There are battles to be fought against wrong and oppression in numerous forms, social obstacles to overcome, love of country to cherish and maintain, truth and honor to be upheld, and it will soon devolve upon you to govern this broad nation, with all its interests confided to your care. In the near future this responsibility will fall like a mantle upon your shoulders, and it will behoove you to see that the trust is not misplaced. To-day there is not one of the old Revolutionary patriots alive. They did their work, and did it well, and then passed on. Other generations came upon the stage of action, but through all the years that intervened between then and now, their staunch principles and sturdy teachings were owned and heeded. Will you own and heed them also? If you will, I may safely prophesy from this stand that the glory of the Union will not depart from it in your day and generation, and I foresee, in that case, greater wonders awaiting our second centennial birthday than we in the last century have witnessed. Revere the stars and stripes forever. They are the symbols of our prosperity as well as our integrity - the mementoes of a past age - the hope of our country's future.