V. THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.
The Revolution was long in brewing. The discontent of the colonies at their treatment by the mother country was gradual in its growth. At first it seemed rather to inspire fitful protests and expostulations, than a desire to foster a deliberate quarrel. Even New England, settled by Pilgrims who had no strong reason for evincing loyalty and affection for the land whence they had been driven for opinion's sake, seemed to have become more or less reconciled to the dominion of British governors. There can be no doubt that the colonists, even down to within a brief period of the Declaration of Independence, hoped to retain their connection with Great Britain. Congress declared, even after armies had been raised to resist the red-coats, that this was not with the design of separation or independence. Even the mobs cried "God save the king!" Washington said that until the moment of collision he had abhorred the idea of separation: and Jefferson declared that, up to the 19th of April, 1775 (the date of the battle of Lexington), "he had never heard a whisper of a disposition to separate from Great Britain."
[Effect of the Stamp Act.]
The Stamp Act, and the similar acts which followed it, united the colonies in a spirit of resistance. They inspired Patrick Henry's eloquence in Virginia; they gave rise to the "tea-party" in Boston; they produced the Boston massacre; they led to the burning of the Gaspee in Narragansett Bay; they finally developed, no longer rioting, but open and flagrant rebellion at Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill. The colonies did not refuse to be taxed. They recognized the right of Great Britain to tax them. But they claimed that this right had its condition - that the taxed people should be represented in the body which held the taxing power. Had the colonies been permitted to send members to the British Parliament, and to have a voice in the deliberations of the government, the Revolution might never have taken place. But King George and his Tory ministers were obstinate to folly. They met protest with repression; in order to subjugate the colonies, they added tyranny to tyranny. The warnings of Townshend and Chatham were lost upon them, and at last the colonies, utterly despairing of a settlement with a power so deaf and so inconsiderate, launched into the storm of revolution.
Every American who pays a visit to Philadelphia should visit the plain, old-fashioned, sombre room known as "Independence Hall." Its dinginess is venerable; its relics are illustrious. In this hall have resounded the voices of Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Hancock, Randolph, - the whole circle of Revolutionary statesmen. On that table, which is pointed out to you, the famous Declaration was signed. From the walls historic faces gaze down upon you. Every relic has its record and its hint. In the square below, you see the place where the Philadelphians of 1776 listened to the reading of the Declaration from the Court House steps. No one can visit this hall without conjuring up in his fancy the memorable scene of the first of our "Fourths of July"; and, happily, a great painter, who knew many of the actors in it, has preserved its features on canvas. It is not difficult, standing in Independence Hall, and retaining Trumbull's picture in memory, to imagine very nearly the scene it presented.
[Signers of the Declaration.]
There were the long rows of plain uncushioned benches, extending up and down the sides, filled with men of all ages, some with wigs, some with powdered hair, some with unpowdered hair, all dressed in small-clothes, breeches, knee-buckles, long stockings, and buckled shoes; coats of blue, gray, and snuff color; venerable men like Franklin and Stephen Hopkins, men in the full vigor of middle life, like Samuel Adams and Roger Sherman, young men in the ardor and flush of lusty patriotism, like Thomas Jefferson, and Francis Hopkinson, and Robert Livingston, and John Hancock - the younger evidently predominating, alike in numbers and activity. The faces were solemn and grave, no doubt, though Dr. Franklin would have his genial joke about the necessity of their all hanging together, lest they should all hang, separately; deep silence prevailed, followed now and then by an excited stir among the benches.
[The Continental Army.]
Then there was the President's table, a little aside from one end of the hall, with papers strewed over it, and by its side President Hancock, attired with dainty and aristocratic precision, his sword by his side, his wig perfectly dressed, his face earnest yet serene and bright. We can fancy, too, the commotion which arose, the leaning forward, the holding of the breath, then the dead silence, when the committee appointed to draw the Declaration advanced to the President's table. It was the moment of crossing the Rubicon. It was the burning of the ships behind them. From this moment there was to be no possibility of retreating. Independence declared, it still remained to conquer it. British troops burdened the soil; shiploads of them were at that moment crossing the Atlantic. The Continental army was but an armed rabble, with patriotism for their strongest weapon. And would the colonies, one and all, adhere, and "hang together"; or would the Declaration strike terror to timid hearts, and destroy its purpose by its very audacity?