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The Declaration of Independence - Tudor Jenkins

( Originally Published 1927 )


"WHAT is the most dramatic incident in American history and why?"

The emphatic and determining word in this question is the adverb " most." To answer conclusively, the method must be comparative ; it is not enough to stir the emotions of patriotism, to excite the imagination of the poetic soul, to depict with skill bygone scenes so that they live again. The intellectual faculties must be satisfied that the chosen incident is truly an incident, that it is dramatic, and that it is more dramatic than all others in our history.

Definition seems but a poor prelude to the drama, but as the defender of the Constitution began his reply to Hayne by asking for the reading of the resolution before the Senate, it may be permissible to refer to the dictionary for guidance, as the storm-tossed mariner of Webster's metaphor glanced at the sun to rectify his course.

" Incident," as used in the given question, can mean only " something which takes place in connection with an event or series of events of greater importance " (Century Dictionary), since any broader meaning of the word would be too inclusive, and might permit the naming of a whole epoch.

"Dramatic" (by the same author) is "characterized by the force and animation in act or expression appropriate to the drama." Force and animation may of course be psychical or physical ; but if psychical they must find expression in some form appreciable by the senses, else they are not dramatic.

Bearing these guiding principles in mind, let us see in what moment of American history we shall find that incident so connected with greater events, and so expressed as to be " The most dramatic "— that incident toward which all preceding events led, and from which subsequent events have sprung. Let us then select as expressing that incident the most forceful and animated action that would be appropriate to dramatic representation.

The periods 0f American history are the traditionary, that of discovery and exploration, that of colonization. These three are preparatory, and " American" only in a geographical sense. Then come the period of revolution, that of nationality and rebellion and finally the present — which may be called the period of expansion, since it marks for good or for evil the birth of the nation as a world power.

These periods group naturally into two great classes : I. America as an appanage of Europe. II. America as independent. The transition from one existence t0 the other took place in an instant of time. Before the Declaration of Independence our nation did not exist; once that document was ratified, the United States was created a nation.

Here, then, is the dividing of the ways ; here the act of divine creation of which our forefathers were but the human instruments. This is the one universally celebrated and commemorated moment in our history—the birth of " a new nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

The great Civil war was but the test whether that nation could endure ; so said Lincoln, whom we are, learning to know as our greatest statesman. All our subsequent history is but the voyage 0f the ship of state by the chart then drafted.

Toward the Declaration converge all previous lines of historical development; from the Declaration diverge all the lines along which patriotic statesman-ship must hereafter guide the national future. Deviations from these converging and diverging paths have been but blind trails to be painfully retraced.

Here, then, let us repeat, is the focus of our national life.

In what act, in what incident shall we find this moment of time expressed most dramatically?

The streets of Philadelphia were thronged with citizens awaiting news of the action of Congress. Within the old State House were the councilors 0f the colonies — the group of contemporaries whom Glad-stone declared unequaled in the history of the world. One by one the names 0f the representatives were signed to that document which was to commit them to death as rebels or to immortality as patriots.

As the last name was affixed, a little boy ran from the doorway out into the street, and, tossing his arms above his head, gave forth the tidings of a nation's birth in the words:

"Ring! Ring! RING!"

and then the Liberty Bell echoed the gospel, as fore-ordained in its inscription: " Proclaim liberty to the land : to all the inhabitants thereof."

That is the most dramatic incident in American history.

Whether we view its inception or its outcome, it stands unrivaled. We shall forever " celebrate it with thanksgiving" so long as the nation endures.

This incident responds to every test. It is the action of a single person actuated by intense emotion; he, a child, was a type of the fact he expressed ; through his puny action began the independent life of a nation to whose future none dares prescribe limits.

Discovery and colonization were inevitable, and are common to all lands. Civil wars are expressions rather than causes 0f great crises. Civil and commercial progress are inevitable. But the Declaration of Independence was an act of conscious choice.

No other incident in our history was so momentous, none so dramatic and comprehensive of past and future.

Columbus was an unconscious instrument in opening a new world ; the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English explorers were all working toward a consummation none foresaw ; the founders of colonies had their ideals, but all have been swallowed up in our national development. The Revolution alone looked both backward and forward, and the fathers of the republic gave us the law of our national being.

The birth-cry of the nation came from the lips of the child who cried aloud in the streets :

Ring ! Ring! RING!"

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