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The Signing of the Declaration

( Originally Published 1927 )


IT is a cloudless summer day ; a clear blue sky arches and expands above a quaint edifice rising among the giant trees in the center of a wide city. That edifice is built of plain red brick, with heavy window frames, and a massive hall door.

Such is the State House of Philadelphia in the year of our Lord 1776.

In yonder wooden steeple, which crowns the summit of that red brick State House, stands an 0ld man with snow-white hair and sunburnt face. He is clad in humble attire, yet his eye gleams as it is fixed on the ponderous outline of the bell suspended in the steeple there. By his side, gazing into his sunburnt face in wonder, stands a flaxen-haired boy, with laughing eyes of summer blue. The old man ponders for a moment upon the strange words written upon the bell, then, gathering the boy in his arms, he speaks: " Look here, my child ; will you do this old man a kindness? Then hasten down the stairs, and wait in the hall below till a man gives you a message for me ; when he gives you that word, run out into the street and shout it up to me. Do you mind? " The boy sprang from the 0ld man's arms and threaded his way down the dark stairs.

Many minutes passed. The old bell-keeper was alone. " Ah ! " groaned the old man, "he has for-gotten me." As the word was upon his lips a merry, ringing laugh broke on his ear. And there, among the crowd 0n the pavement, stood the blue-eyed boy, clapping his tiny hands while the breeze blew his flaxen hair all about his face, and, swelling his little chest, he raised himself on tiptoe, and shouted the single word, " Ring ! "

Do you see that old man's eye fire? Do you see that arm so suddenly bared to the shoulder? Do you see that withered hand grasping the iron tongue of the bell? That old man is young again. His veins are filling with a new life. Backward and forward, with sturdy strokes, he swings the tongue. The bell peals out; the crowds in the street hear it, and burst forth in one long shout. Old Delaware hears it, and gives it back on the cheers of her thousand sailors.

The city hears it, and starts up from desk and workshop, as if an earthquake had spoken.

Under that very bell, pealing out at noonday, in an old hall, fifty-six traders, farmers and mechanics had assembled to break the shackles of the world. The committee, who had been out all night, are about to appear. At last the door opens, and they advance to the front. The parchment is laid on the table. Shall it be signed or not? Then ensues a high and stormy debate. Then the faint-hearted cringe in corners. Then Thomas Jefferson speaks his few bold words, and John Adams pours out his whole soul.

Still there is a doubt; and that pale-faced man, rising in one corner, speaks out something about " axes, scaffolds, and a gibbet." A tall, slender man rises, and his dark eye burns, while his words ring through the halls : " Gibbets ! They may stretch our necks on every scaffold in the land. They may turn every rock into a gibbet, every tree into a gallows ; and yet the words written on that parchment can never die. They may pour out our blood on a thou-sand altars, and yet, from every drop that dyes the axe, 0r drips on the sawdust of the block, a new martyr to freedom will spring into existence. What! are there shrinking hearts and faltering voices here, when the very dead upon our battle-fields arise and call upon us to sign that parchment, or be accursed forever?

" Sign ! if the next moment the gibbet's rope is around your neck. Sign ! if the next moment this hall rings with the echo of the falling axe. Sign ! by all your hopes in life or death, as husbands, as fathers, as men ! Sign your names to that parchment.

" Yes ! were my soul trembling on the verge of eternity; were this voice choking in the last struggle, I would still, with the last impulse of that soul, with the last gasp of that voice, implore you to re-member this truth : God has given America to the free. Yes ! as I sink down in the gloomy shadow of the grave, with my last breath I would beg of you sign that parchment."

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