The Declaration of Independence
( Originally Published 1927 )
BY JOHN D. LONG
RECALL the quaint and homely city of Philadelphia, the gloom that hung over it from the terrible responsibility of the step there taken, the modest hall still standing and baptized as the Cradle of Liberty. On its tower swung the bell which yet survives with its legend,—" Proclaim liberty throughout all the world to all the inhabitants thereof." That day it rang out a proclamation of liberty that will indeed echo round the world and in the ears of all the inhabitants thereof long after the bell itself shall have crumbled into dust.
Hancock is in the president's chair ; before him sit the half-hundred delegates who at that time represent America. Among the names it is remarkable how many there are that have since been famous in our annals. The committee appointed to draft the declarations are Jefferson, youngest and tallest; John Adams; Sherman, shoemaker; Franklin, printer; and Robert R. Livingston. If the patriot, Samuel Adams, at the sunrise of Lexington could say,-" Oh, what a glorious morning!" how well might he have renewed in the more brilliant noontime of July 4, 1776, the same prophetic words !
There is nothing in the prophecies of old more striking and impressive than the words of John Adams, who declared the event would be celebrated by succeeding generations as a great anniversary festival and commemorated as a day of deliverance, from one end of the continent to the other; that through all the gloom he could see the light; that the end was worth all the means and that posterity would triumph in the transaction. I am not of those who overrate the past. I know that the men of 1776 had the common weaknesses and shortcomings of humanity. I read the Declaration of Independence with no feeling of awe; and yet if I were called upon to select from the history of the world any crisis grander, loftier, purer, more heroic, I should not know where to turn.
It seems simple enough to-day, but it was some-thing else in that day. The men who signed the Declaration knew not but they were signing warrants for their own ignominious execution on the gibbet. The bloody victims of the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745 were still a warning t0 rebels ; and the gory holocaust of Culloden was fresh in the memory. But it was not only the personal risk ; it was risking the homes, the commerce, the lives, the property, the honor, the future destiny of three million innocent people,— men, women, and children. It was defying on behalf of a straggling chain of colonies clinging to the sea-board, the most imperial power 0f the world. It was, more than all, like Columbus sailing into awful uncertainty of untried space, casting off from an established and familiar form of government and politics, drifting away to unknown methods, and upon the dangerous and yawning chaos of democratic institutions, flying from ills they had to those they knew not 0f, and perhaps laying the way for a miserable and bloody catastrophe in anarchy and riot.
There are times when ordinary men are borne by the tide of an occasion to crests of grandeur in con-duct and action. Such a time, such an occasion, was that of the Declaration. While the signers were picked men, none the less true is it that their extraordinary fame is due not more to their merits than to the crisis at which they were at the helm and to the great popular instinct which they obeyed and ex-pressed. And why do we commemorate with such veneration and display this special epoch and event in our history? Why do we repeat the words our fathers spoke or wrote? Why cherish their names, when our civilization is better than theirs and when we have reached in science, art, education, religion, politics, in every phase of human development, even in morals, a higher level?
It is because we recognize that in their beginnings the eternal elements of truth and right and justice were conspicuous. To those eternal verities we pay our tribute, and not to their surroundings, except so far as we let the form stand for the spirit, the man for the idea, the event for the purpose. And it is also because we can do no better work than to perpetuate virtue in the citizen by keeping always fresh in the popular mind the great heroic deeds and times of our history. The valuable thing in the past is not the man or the events,— which are both always ordinary and which under the enchantment 0f distance and the pride of descent, we love to surround with exaggerated glory,— it is rather in the sentiment for which the man and the event stand. The ideal is alone substantial and alone survives.