The Link Between Two Birthdays

This oration by John Quincy Adams came from a very resourceful book by David Barton from Wallbuilders, “WallBuilders is an organization dedicated to presenting America’s forgotten history”. See bottom of this post for a PDF copy of the entire oration.

“In John Quincy Adams’ oration on July 4, 1837, he first chronicled what led up to the Declaration of Independence and expounded on the subsequent development of American government, including the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution. He reminded Americans of fundamental principles: of how liberty was a gift from God and therefore why the Founders intended for slavery eventually to be abolished; and of how union was a first principle and therefore why secession and disunion were abhorrent to the Founders and should be repugnant to every generation. Adams’ oration is an inspiring look at the reason that the Fourth of July had become such a celebrated day in America—a day on which we looked into our past history, and also a day when we looked at our present responsibilities and renewed our pledge to preserve the trust that had been given us by God and by our Founders.[1]

oration-by-john-adams-july-4-1837.pngSay ye not, “At Confederacy,” to all them to whom this people shall say “A Confederacy”; neither fear ye their fear nor be afraid. Isaiah 8:12

Why is it, friends and fellow citizens, that you are here assembled? Why is it that entering upon the sixty-second year of our national existence, you have honored with an invitation to address you from this place a fellow citizen of a former age,1 bearing in the records of his memory the warm and vivid affections which attached him—at the distance of a full half century—to your town and to your forefathers, then the cherished associates of his youthful days? Why is it that next to the birthday of the Savior of the world, your most joyous and most venerated festival returns on this day? And why is it that among the swarming myriads [countless numbers] of our population [that] thousands and tens of thousands among us (abstaining under the dictate of religious principle—from the commemoration of that birthday of Him Who brought life and immortality to light [2 timothy 1:10])2 yet unite with all their brethren of this community year after year in celebrating this, the birthday of the nation?

Is it not that in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior?—that it forms a leading event in the progress of the gospel dispensation? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon earth?—that it laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity and gave to the world the first irrevocable [absolute] pledge of the fulfillment of the prophecies announced directly from Heaven at the birth of the Savior and predicted by the greatest of the Hebrew prophets six hundred years before?

Cast your eyes backwards upon the progress of time sixty-one years from this day, and in the midst of the horrors and desolations of civil war [the American Revolution] you behold an assembly of planters, shopkeepers, and lawyers—the representatives of the people of thirteen English colonies in North America—sitting in the city of Philadelphia. These fifty-five men on that day unanimously adopt and publish to the world a state paper under the simple title of “A Declaration.”3

The object of this Declaration was twofold.

First, to proclaim the people of the thirteen united colonies One People; and in their name and by their authority, to dissolve the political bands which had connected them with another people—that is, the people of Great Britain.4

Secondly, to assume—in the name of this One People of the thirteen united Colonies—among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature, and of Nature’s God entitled them.

With regard to the first of these purposes, the Declaration alleges a decent respect to the opinions of mankind as requiring that the one People separating themselves from another should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. The specification of these causes and the conclusion resulting from them constitute the whole paper. The Declaration was a manifesto issued from a decent respect of the opinions of mankind to justify the people of the North American Union for their voluntary separation from the people of Great Britain by alleging the causes which rendered this separation necessary.…

For the second object of the Declaration (the assumption among the powers of the earth of the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitled them), no reason was assigned—no justification was deemed necessary.…

Six years of war—cruel, unrelenting, merciless war—war at once civil and foreign—were waged, testing the firmness and fortitude of the One People in the inflexible adherence to that separation from the other which their representatives in Congress had proclaimed. By the signature of the preliminary Articles of Peace on the 30th of November 1782, their warfare was accomplished and the Spirit of the Lord—with a voice reaching to the latest of future ages—might have exclaimed (like the sublime prophet of Israel), Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God (isaiah 40:1).…

George the Third believed that the Parliament of Great Britain had the right to enact laws for the government of the people of the British Colonies in all cases. An immense majority of the people of the British Islands believed the same.… Here was a conflict between two first principles of government resulting from a defect in the British Constitution: the principle that sovereign power in human government is in its nature unlimited; and the principle that property can lawfully be taxed only with the consent of its owner. Now these two principles carried out into practice are utterly irreconcilable with each other.… [T]he King and Parliament [and t]he people of Great Britain appealed for the right to tax the Colonies to the unlimited and illimitable sovereignty of the Parliament, (and) [t]he Colonists appealed to the natural right of property and the articles of the Great Charter.5 The collision in the application of these two principles was the primitive [root] cause of the severance of the North American Colonies from the British Empire.

The grievances alleged in the Declaration of Independence6 were … causes amply sufficient to justify before God and man the separation itself; and that resolution—to the support of which the fifty-five representatives of the one people of the United Colonies pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor7—after passing through the fiery ordeal of a six years war, was sanctioned by the God of Battles and by the unqualified acknowledgment of the defeated adversary [Great Britain].…

The members of the Congress who signed their names to the Declaration style [call] themselves the representatives not of the separate colonies but of the United States of America in Congress assembled. No one colony is named in the Declaration—nor is there anything on its face indicating from which of the colonies any one of the signers was delegated.

They proclaim the separation of One People from another. They affirm the right of the people to institute, alter, and abolish their government; and their final language is, we do, in the name and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.… And by this paper, this One People did notify the world of mankind that they thereby did 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.

This was indeed a great and solemn event. The sublimest of the prophets of antiquity—with the voice of inspiration—had exclaimed, Who hath heard such a thing? Who hath seen such things? Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? Or shall a nation be born at once? [isaiah 66:8]. In the two thousand-five-hundred years that had elapsed since the days of that prophecy, no such event had occurred.… [But with America] the earth was made to bring forth in one day! A nation was born at once!

Well indeed may such a day be commemorated by such a nation from year to year! But whether as a day of festivity and joy, or of humiliation and mourning—that, fellow-citizens—that, in the various turns of chance below—depends not upon the event itself but upon its consequences.… [A]s early as the age of Solomon, that wisest of men told the people of Jerusalem that as a good name was better than precious ointment, so the day of death was better than the day of one’s birth (ecclesiastes 7:1).

Are you then assembled here, my brethren—children of those who declared your national independence—in sorrow, or in joy? In gratitude for blessings enjoyed, or in affliction for blessings lost? In exultation at the energies of your fathers, or in shame and confusion of face at your own degeneracy [slippage] from their virtues? Forgive the apparent rudeness of these inquiries—they are not addressed to you under the influence of a doubt what your answer to them will be. You are not here to unite in echoes of mutual [con]gratulation for the separation of your forefathers from their kindred freemen of the British Islands [the American Revolution]. You are [here].… to turn your final reflections inward upon yourselves and to say, “These are the glories of a generation passed away; what are the duties which they devolve upon us?”

The Declaration of Independence … explicitly unfolded the principles.… [and] the exposition of these principles will furnish the solution to the question of the purpose for which you are here assembled.

In recurring to those principles, let us remark:

First, that the people of the thirteen Colonies announced themselves to the world—and solemnly bound themselves with an appeal to God—to be One People. And this One People, by their Representatives, declared the United Colonies free and independent States.

Secondly, they declared the People—and not the States—to be the only legitimate source of power; and that to the People alone belonged the right to institute, to alter, to abolish, and to reinstitute government. And hence it follows that as the people of the separate Colonies or States formed only parts of the One People assuming their station among the powers of the earth, so the people of no one State could separate from the rest but by a revolution similar to that by which the whole people had separated themselves from the people of the British Islands—nor without the violation of that solemn covenant by which they bound themselves to support and maintain the United Colonies as free and independent States.

An error of the most dangerous character—more than once threatening the dissolution by violence of the Union itself—has occasionally found countenance and encouragement in several of the States by an inference not only unwarranted by the language and import of the Declaration but subversive of its fundamental principles.8 This inference is that because by this paper the United Colonies were declared free and independent States, therefore each of the States separately was free, independent, and sovereign.…

The origin of this error was of a very early date after the Declaration of Independence; and the infusion of its spirit into the Articles of Confederation—first formed for the government of the Union—was the seed of dissolution sown in the soil of that compact which palsied [enfeebled] all its energies from the day of its birth and exhibited it to the world only as a monument of impotence and imbecility.9

The Declaration did not proclaim the separate States free and independent, much less did it announce them as sovereign States or affirm that they separately possessed the war-making or the peace-making power. The fact was directly the reverse.

The Declaration was that the United Colonies, forming One People, were free and independent States—that they were absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown—that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain was and ought to be totally dissolved—and that as free and independent States, they had full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do. But all this was affirmed and declared not of the separate, but of the United, States.…

In constituting themselves One People, it could not possibly be their intention to leave the power of concluding peace to each of the States of which the Union was composed. The war was waged against all. The war itself had united the inhabitants of the thirteen Colonies into One People. The lyre of Orpheus was the standard of the Union.10 By the representatives of that One People and by them alone could the peace be concluded. Had the people of any one of the States pretended to the right of concluding a separate peace, the very fact would have operated as a dismemberment of the Union and could have been carried into effect only by the return of that portion of the people to the condition of British subjects.

Thirdly, the Declaration of Independence announced the One People assuming their station among the powers of the earth as a civilized, religious, and Christian people—acknowledging themselves bound by the obligations and claiming the rights to which they were entitled by the laws of nature and of nature’s God.11

They had [originally] formed a subordinate portion of an European Christian nation in the condition of Colonies. The European Colonies in America had all been settled by Christian nations; and the first of them (settled before the reformation of Luther) had sought their justification for taking possession of lands inhabited by men of another race in a grant of authority from the successor of Saint Peter at Rome for converting the natives of the country to the Christian code of religion and morals.12 After the Reformation, the kings of England (substituting themselves in the place of the Roman Pontiff as heads of the Church) granted charters for the same benevolent purposes;13 and as these colonial establishments successively arose, worldly purposes, the spirit of adventure, and religious persecution took their place (together with the conversion of the heathen) among the motives for the European establishments in this Western Hemisphere.14 Hence had arisen among the colonizing nations a customary law under which the commerce of all colonial settlements was confined exclusively to the metropolis or Mother Country. The Declaration of Independence cast off all the shackles of this dependency. The United States of America were no longer Colonies. They were an independent Nation of Christians.…

In setting forth the justifying causes of their separation from Great Britain, your fathers opened the fountains of the great deep. For the first time since the creation of the world, the act which constituted a great people laid the foundation of their government upon the unalterable and eternal principles of human rights. They were comprised in a few short sentences and were delivered with the unqualified confidence of self-evident truths.

We hold, says the Declaration, these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and to institute a new government, laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.…

The history of mankind had never before furnished an example of a government directly and expressly instituted upon this principle.… [until] the Declaration of Independence.… And never from that to the present day has there been one moment of regret on the part of the people whom they thus declared independent at this mighty change of their condition, nor one moment of distrust of the justice of that declaration.…

Every individual whose name was affixed to that paper has finished his career upon earth, and who at this day would not deem it a blessing to have had his name recorded on that list? The act of abolishing the government under which they had lived—of renouncing and abjuring [disavowing] the allegiance by which they had been bound …—stands recorded in the annals of the human race as one among the brightest achievements of human virtue, applauded on earth, ratified and confirmed by the fiat [decree] of Heaven.…

The position thus assumed by this One People consisting of thirteen free and independent States was new in the history of the world. It was complicated and compounded of [formed from] elements never before believed susceptible of being blended together.… By the affirmation that the principal natural rights of mankind are unalienable, it placed them beyond the reach of organized human power; and by affirming that governments are instituted to secure them—and may and ought to be abolished if they become destructive of those ends—they made all government subordinate to the moral supremacy of the people.… This was a novelty in the moral philosophy of nations and it is the essential point of difference between the system of government announced in the Declaration of Independence and those systems which had until then prevailed among men. A moral Ruler of the Universe—the Governor and Controller of all human power—is the only unlimited sovereign acknowledged by the Declaration of Independence, and it claims for the United States of America (when assuming their equal station among the nations of the earth) only the power to do all that may be done of right.

Threescore and one years have passed away since this Declaration was issued and we may now judge of the tree by its fruit [matthew 12:33; luke 6:44]. It was a bold and hazardous step when considered merely as the act of separation of the Colonies from Great Britain. Had the cause in which it was issued failed, it would have subjected every individual who signed it to the pains and penalties of treason—to a cruel and ignominious [shameful] death.15 But inflexible as were the spirits and intrepid [courageous] as were the hearts of the patriots (who by this act set at defiance the colossal power of the British Empire), bolder and more intrepid still were the souls which at that crisis in human affairs dared to proclaim the new and fundamental principles upon which their incipient [newborn] Republic was to be founded. It was an experiment upon the heart of man.…

The Declaration had laid the foundation of all civil government in the unalienable natural rights of individual man of which it had specifically named three: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, declaring them to be among others not enumerated [specifically mentioned]. The Revolution had been exclusively popular and democratic, and the Declaration had announced that the only object of the institution of governments among men was to secure their unalienable rights, and that they derived their just powers from the consent of the governed.…

[1] David Barton, Celebrate Liberty! Famous Patriotic Speeches & Sermons, 190 (Aledo, TX: WallBuildersPress, 2003).

1 Adams—who had played an active role during the American Revolution—was now speaking at a celebration six decades later, thus making him “a fellow citizen of a former age.”

2 It seems unimaginable today that “tens of thousands” in the then extremely religious New England region would abstain “under the dictate of religious principle” from celebrating Christmas (which today has become such a prominent religious holiday), yet such was the case. Why? Because the Pilgrims and Puritans of New England found no Biblical precedent for a public celebration of that day (recall that the goal of these groups was to simplify religious worship and to cut away all religious rituals and celebrations not specifically cited in the Bible); nothing in the Bible established any date for the birth of Christ; the holiday was instead established by Roman tradition, thus making it—in their view—one of the many “pagan” holidays that had been inculcated into the corrupt church that had persecuted them, and which they and other religious leaders wished to reform. Consequently, Christmas in New England remained a regular working day. In fact, Massachusetts passed an anti-Christmas law in 1659 declaring: “Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas, or the like, either by forbearing [ceasing from] labor, feasting, or any other way upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country.” The law was repealed in 1681, but the holiday still was not celebrated by religious non-conformists or dissenters (i.e., the Puritans and Pilgrims); it usually was celebrated only by a few Anglicans (later Episcopalians), Catholics, and other more formal or high-church-tradition New England families. It was not until the 1830s and 1840s (at the time of this oration) that Christmas celebrations were just beginning to be accepted in New England (primarily due to the influence of large-scale Christmas celebrations in cities such as New York)—although as late as 1870 in Boston public schools, a student missing school on Christmas Day could be punished or expelled. By the 1880s, however, Christmas celebrations had finally become as accepted in New England as they were in other parts of the country.

3 To many today who know that there were fifty-six who signed the Declaration of Independence, JQA’s reference to fifty-five seems an error; yet it is not. Actually, both fifty-five and fifty-six are correct.

The Declaration of Independence was approved in principle on July 2nd, 1776, and then approved by the full vote of Congress on July 4th, 1776. At that time, the Declaration was signed only by John Hancock (President of Congress) and Charles Thomson (Secretary of Congress). On July 19th, Congress agreed to prepare a beautifully engrossed copy of the Declaration to be signed by all the members. On August 2nd, the proposed Declaration was signed in a formal ceremony by fifty delegates of Congress. Among the signers were several who originally had not been in Congress on July 4th to vote for the Declaration (e.g., Benjamin Rush and James Smith); conversely, many who had voted for the Declaration on July 4th were not there to sign it on August 2nd (e.g., Robert Livingston and George Clinton). This was because several States had changed their delegates to the Congress between the vote on July 4th and the signing on August 2nd (e.g., George Clinton was called home to lead military forces in New York, while Benjamin Rush had been sent by Pennsylvania to replace a delegate who had voted against the Declaration on July 4th). On January 18th, 1777, Congress authorized the printing and public distribution of the signed Declaration. In the time between August 2nd when the fifty delegates had first signed and January 18th when the Declaration was authorized for printing, five more had signed: Matthew Thornton (NH), George Wythe (VA), Oliver Wolcott (CT), Richard Henry Lee (VA), and Elbridge Gerry (MA). Therefore, at the time of the congressional order to print the Declaration, fifty-five delegates had signed. Thomas McKean became the fifty-sixth to sign the Declaration—doing so nearly a year after the January 18th order to print and distribute the Declaration. (Although McKean had voted for the Declaration on July 4th, 1776, he did not sign until after January, 1778.) Therefore, at the time that Congress first printed and distributed the Declaration, it had only fifty-five signatures on the document; but within a year it had risen to fifty-six—the number at which it stands today.

4 The italicized lines in this part of the oration indicate direct quotes from the Declaration of Independence (unless otherwise identified).

5 The Great Charter is the Magna Charta, enacted in 1215 AD by Englishmen demanding protection from the arbitrary actions of King John against their persons and property. The Magna Charta was the first step in limiting governmental authority and granting rights to citizens—it was, in essence, the world’s first Bill of Rights.

6 The Declaration listed 27 grievances against Great Britain, including the abuse of representative powers (11 clauses), the abuse of military powers (seven clauses), the abuse of judicial powers (four clauses), and one clause each about Britain fostering domestic instability, opposing immigration, increasing government size and intrusiveness, interfering with foreign trade, and imposing taxation without representation.

7 See previous note three pages earlier on why JQA cites 55 rather than 56 signers.

8 There had occasionally been times when States or movements wrongly invoked the principles of the Declaration as a justification for weakening or dissolving the Union, such as in the Whiskey Rebellion (1794), the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions (1798, 1799), the Hartford Convention (1814), and the South Carolina Nullification Convention (1832). In each case, the group—or State—threatened to declare its own independence from the United States, or unilaterally—as a single State—to declare national acts unlawful. It was this perversion of the principles of the Declaration that eventually was invoked by the South to justify its secession from the Union in order to form its own separate nation, thus precipitating the War Between the States.

9 It became clear during the American Revolution that some type of national government was needed; the war could not be effectively conducted through thirteen separate State governments. Consequently, in June,1776, Congress appointed a Committee of thirteen delegates—one from each State—to work out some agreement under which they could operate jointly while still maintaining their individual State sovereignty. Those on the Committee were a distinguished group, most of whom would eventually sign the Declaration of Independence and some of whom would later sign the US Constitution. This Committee constructed what became known as the Articles of Confederation, approved by Congress on November 15, 1777, but not ratified by the States until three-and-a-half years later on March 1, 1781.

The reason for this delay primarily lay in resolving questions surrounding the future ownership principally of the Ohio territory then claimed by Virginia. Each State had long-standing and universally acknowledged claims on territories that were within its State jurisdiction. For example, New York held the lands that in 1792 became Vermont; North Carolina held the lands that in 1796 became Tennessee; Delaware was part of Pennsylvania until 1776; Kentucky was part of Virginia until 1785; Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820; etc. The Ohio territory (claimed by Virginia) was a massive area stretching from the Great Lakes in the north, along the length of the Mississippi River, and all the way to the “South Sea” (the Gulf of Mexico). Many of the other States wanted parts of this territory; however, Virginia ceded her rights to the Ohio Territory with the stipulation that the land would be used for the common good of the new nation rather than for any particular State. In short, several States had been reticent to approve a national government until the disposition of that (and other) territory had been settled.

Under the Articles of Confederation, a national Congress was established, but each State had equal power with all others without regard to representation. Additionally, agreement was not by the majority but rather by two-thirds of the States, thereby giving power to a block of any five States to thwart the will of the other eight. Furthermore, under the national government there was no judiciary and no “head” or executive and therefore no way to enforce the laws.

The weakness of this system—weaknesses incorporated because of the ardent State jealousies that caused the scope of powers of the national government to be over-restricted—soon became apparent to all. Congress had conducted its business throughout most of the Revolution (until the Articles of Confederation were officially ratified late in the war) on the majority vote principle. Had Congress been required to operate under the Articles of Confederation during the Revolution, it would have been completely powerless and ineffective—a fact that was made clear in the few years in which the nation did flounder under the Articles.

Further fueling discontent with the Articles was the fact that they actually protected and encouraged inequality rather than justice among the States. For example, States that had contributed the most during the Revolution (e.g., Connecticut and Massachusetts) were unable to receive their proper reimbursement because their repayment was opposed by States that had provided much less than their proportionate share (e.g., Georgia and South Carolina). The Articles indeed were “exhibited to the world only as a monument of impotence and imbecility.”

For additional information on the problems with the Articles of Confederation, see the note on pp. 109–110.

10 The “lyre of Orpheus” refers to a constellation of stars named “Lyre” (also spelled “Lyra”) that form a circle—like the bottom part of a stringed lyre. In Greek mythology, Orpheus had played the lyre skillfully and beautifully; when he was treacherously killed, Zeus retrieved the instrument and set it among the stars as a permanent memorial to Orpheus—thus the “lyre of Orpheus”. The thirteen stars that formed a circle in the first American flag were likened to the “lyre of Orpheus”—a permanent memorial (just like the stellar constellation)—a memorial that became “the standard [the symbol] of the Union.” Interestingly, the “lyre of Orpheus” was also a part of the Adams’ family seal, and it may well have been John Adams in 1777 (at that time serving on the American Board of War) who suggested the circle of stars as part of the flag. In short, Adams is saying that the non-ending circle of stars, reminiscent of “the lyre of Orpheus” and signifying the non-ending Union of the States then appearing on the American flag, had become the symbol for the Union.

11 The phrase “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” was taken from one of the most famous and widely-used legal works of that generation: Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws by Sir William Blackstone (1723–1780). So influential was Blackstone on the thinking of the Founders that he is documented as the second most-invoked political authority during the Founding Era (1760–1805).

Blackstone’s Commentaries eventually became the official law book adopted by the US Senate, and Supreme Court Justice James Iredell (appointed by President George Washington) declared that Blackstone’s views were heavily relied upon during the framing of the Bill of Rights. So important was Blackstone to America that Thomas Jefferson even commented that American lawyers used Blackstone’s with the same dedication and reverence that Muslims used the Koran.

With the Founders’ heavy reliance on Blackstone, it is not surprising that many of them (including James Madison, James Wilson, John Adams, Henry Laurens, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, James Madison, James Otis, James Kent, Joseph Story, Fisher Ames, and many others) either endorsed or relied on Blackstone in their own legal writings.

So how did Blackstone define “the laws of nature” and the laws “of nature’s God” (also called by Blackstone “the law of revelation”)—the phrase incorporated into the Declaration of Independence by the Founders? According to Blackstone:

Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator, for he is entirely a dependent being.… And consequently, as man depends absolutely upon his Maker for everything, it is necessary that he should in all points conform to his Maker’s will. This will of his Maker is called the law of nature.… This law of nature, being coeval [coexistent] with mankind and dictated by God Himself is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times; no human laws are of any validity if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.… The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law and they are to be found only in the holy Scriptures [i.e., the “law of nature’s God”]. These precepts, when revealed, are found upon comparison to be really a part of the original law of nature.… Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered [permitted] to contradict these.

While today “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” is not understood to be a significant legal phrase or even to carry any religious implications, the fact is clear that under the philosophy articulated by Blackstone and embraced and set forth in the Declaration by the Founders, civil laws could not contradict the laws of God revealed either through nature or the Bible—i.e., “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”

12 The “grant of authority from the successor of Saint Peter at Rome” (the Pope) for “converting the natives of the country to the Christian code of religion and morals” was actually more of an indirect grant of authority. That is, the Pope would sanction a Catholic monarch to develop the New World (or a particular region of it) and the Catholic monarch, when sending an expedition to that part of the New World, would dispatch Catholic missionaries to the Indians as part of the expedition. For example, after Pope Alexander VI (Pope from 1492–1503), a Spaniard, recognized Spain’s right to take possession of the entire New World following its “discovery” by Columbus, Spain dispatched numerous expeditions into Mexico, Central, and South America; on every expedition were missionary priests (usually Dominican, Franciscan, or Jesuit) to convert the Indians. Therefore, while “the grant of authority” for the New World came from the Pope, it was the Catholic monarchs—both French and Spanish—who implemented the missionary aspects of “converting the natives.”

The soldiers and leaders on these Catholic expeditions often resorted to violence “for taking possession of lands inhabited by men of another race,” although the forcible conversion of natives more frequently characterized Spanish than French missions. Pope Paul III (Pope from 1534–1550) later tried to change the “forcible conversion” policy, but his words were largely ignored by the monarchs. Spain and France both had been particularly unaffected by the Reformation and—providentially for American liberty—those two nations did not have much lasting influence in the settling of the eastern shore of America. (France’s influence primarily was to the far north, in and along Canada, while Spain’s influence primarily was in the far southern, southwestern, and western regions of the continent.) The colonists who arrived to settle America’s eastern seaboard were largely English and were steeped in the ideas of the Reformation rather than the Spanish and French models; and it was a notable distinction that they purchased rather than took lands from the Indians (e.g., the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation Colony, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the settlers of the New Haven Colony, etc.)—a practice in direct contrast to the methods of settlement used in Mexico, Central and South America. That early favorable practice of the English religious settlers in the east regrettably was largely abandoned in America’s later westward expansion.

13 Examples of charters granted by English kings “for the same benevolent purposes” included the Charter of Virginia, issued by King James in 1606 for the purpose—among others—of “propagating of Christian religion to such people as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God, and may in time bring the infidels and savages living in those parts to human civility and to a settled and quiet government.” Other charters with similar declarations included the Charter of New England (issued by King James in November 1620), the Charter of Maryland (issued by King Charles in 1632), the Charter of Rhode Island (issued by King Charles II in July 1663), and the Charter of Pennsylvania (issued by King Charles II in March 1681) with its declared purpose “to reduce the savage natives by gentle and just manners to the love of civil society and Christian religion.”

14 The “spirit of adventure” that replaced the “benevolent purposes” of evangelization was seen in charters such as that of Georgia (1732) that declared one of its purposes was to “not only gain a comfortable subsistence … but also strengthen our colonies and increase the trade, navigation and wealth of these realms.” The 1st Virginia Charter (1606) issued by King James I authorized the colonists “to dig, mine, and search for all manner of mines of gold, silver, and copper … and have and enjoy the gold, silver, and copper to be gotten.” The New York Charter (1663) issued by King Charles II similarly authorized the colonists to collect “revenues and profits” from the lands. In each case, the Mother Country (whether France, Spain, Holland, or England) wanted all the profits and commerce coming out of her colonies.

15 A “cruel and ignominious death” was definitely a certainty if the Revolution failed since the very act of separation was viewed by the king as an act of treason and therefore would have subjected the signers to the most painful forms of death. However, even though victory and independence were ultimately achieved for America, many of the signers still suffered a cruel death at the hands of the British. For example, of the 56 signers of the Declaration, nine died during the American Revolution, including three directly at the hands of the British; two others were so abused by the British as prisoners of war that they died shortly after the Revolution; two lost wives at the hands of the British (and four lost children in the same way); 17 had their homes, estates, or property pillaged or destroyed by the British; and many others paid similarly high prices. Therefore, even though death was a certainty if the signers lost the Revolution, it was no less a reality for many of them in fulfillment of their personal pledge of their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” to achieve American independence….”

To read John Quincy Adams’ oration in its entirety, please click on this document.  John Quincy Adams, Oration - July 4, 1837

To check out additional information on the book from which this oration was found, you may go to or –  Author, David Barton, Celebrate Liberty! Famous Patriotic Speeches & Sermons, 190 (Aledo, TX: WallBuildersPress, 2003).

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