Does this title sound familiar to you? These are the two concepts I’ve been harping on for the duration of this liberty loving blog, so if you’ve been following me at all, these concepts should sound familiar to you.
But this title is not my own, it is the title of a speech, delivered in Boston, Massachusetts on March 5, 1772 by a man named Dr. Joseph Warren. Joseph Warren, born in 1741, was a practicing American physician but also a loyal patriot and comrade of John and Samuel Adams. He was known to give impassioned and eloquent speeches in favor of independence. He was the individual who dispatched Paul Revere to warn his fellow countryman that the British were coming. Warren was 31 when he gave the speech, “Constitutional Liberty and Arbitrary Power”. He died three years later fighting in the Battle of Bunker Hill, defending the liberty he loved.
I was brought to tears reading his speech. It’s brilliant, laced with emotion and fervor, and yet supported by such careful reason and thought. The speech, though very relevant for the specific moment in American history that is was given, will, without a doubt, still reverberate in the hearts of Americans today. Therefore, without further ado, let me encourage you, my fellow Americans, with these rich words from a great American patriot of the past.
The Great Need of the Constitution
I’ve long pleaded with you, every student and every group I speak with to realize and digest the upmost importance of the Constitution. Without it, we have no liberty because without it there is no limitation on the power of government.
Warren beautifully explains the same at the start of his speech exactly 250 years ago:
“It was this noble attachment to a free Constitution which raised ancient Rome from the smallest beginnings to that bright summit of happiness and glory to which she arrived, and it was the loss of this which plunged her from that summit into the black gulf of infamy and slavery. It was this attachment which inspired her Senators with wisdom; it was this which glowed in the breast of her heroes; it was this which guarded her liberties and extended her dominions, gave peace at home, and commanded respect abroad…”
Notice all the good fortune he lays at the feet of the mere existence and attachment to a Constitution. When I say that a Constitution is truly the one safeguard to liberty, history supports this claim.
Warren proceeds to explain what happened when Rome abandoned her attachment to a free Constitution:
“…and when this [attachment to the Constitution] decayed, her magistrates lost their reverence for justice and the laws, and degenerated into tyrants and oppressors; her senators, forgetful of their dignity, and seduced by base corruption, betrayed their country; her soldiers, regardless of their relation to the community, and urged only by the hopes of plunder and rapine, unfeelingly committed the most flagrant enormities; and, hired to the trade of death, with relentless fury they perpetrated the most cruel murders, whereby the streets of Rome were drenched with her noblest blood. Thus the empress of the world lost her dominions abroad; and her inhabitants, dissolute in their manners at last became contented slaves, and she stands today the scorn and derision of nation, and a monument of this eternal truth…”
What eternal truth?
“…that public happiness depends on a virtuous and unshaken attachment to a free Constitution.”
Why does happiness depend on such an attachment? Because without a Constitution, without a law outside of government to confine government power, there is no liberty…there is only living under the arbitrary will of another.
Warren then firmly establishes that this great attachment to a Constitution is the foundation upon which America was colonized.
“It was this attachment to a Constitution, founded on free and benevolent principles, which inspired the first settlers of this country–they saw with grief the daring outrages committed on the free Constitution of their native land, — they knew nothing but a civil war could, at any time, restore its pristine purity. So hard was it to resolve to imbrue their hands in the blood of their brethren, that they chose rather to quit their fair possessions and seek another habitation in a distant clime.”
With this, he lays the foundation for his argument. Assuming that all Americans agree on the supremacy and utter importance of the Constitution, it is therefore a given that grievances done to the colonists are an egregious violation of these Constitutional principles. He proceeds to step through many examples of the British parliament’s violation of their own Constitutional norms/rights and the effect this has on the colonists.
Most pointedly he discusses the overbearing taxes and quartering of soldiers the British parliament subjected the colonists to with no one to Constitutionally represent them in parliament. In other words, Warren finds less fault in the oppressive measures as he does that fact that those subject to such measures had no Constitutional say in them.
He concludes with an impassioned plea to his fellow countryman to fight for and defend liberty at all costs.
Liberty and What It’s Worth
His speech takes place on the anniversary of the Boston Massacre, and he uses that morbid day as an example of the horrors of arbitrary power against the fortitude and zealotry of liberty.
He says of his fellow countryman: “I am confident that you will never betray the least want of spirit when called upon to guard your freedom”.
In other words, his generation is up for the challenge of fighting for and defending liberty. Are we?
“None but they who set a just value upon the blessings of liberty are worthy to enjoy her — your illustrious fathers were her zealous votaries[someone who has made vows of dedication] — when the blasting frowns of tyranny drove her from public view, they clasped her in their arms, they cherished her in their generous bosoms, they brought her safe over the rough ocean, and fixed her seat in this then dreary wilderness; they nursed her infant age with the most tender care; for her sake they patiently bore the severest hardships; for her support they underwent the most rugged toils; in her defence they boldly encountered the most alarming dangers; neither the ravenous beast that ranged the woods for prey, nor the more furious savages of the wilderness, could damp their ardor.“
What fascinates me about this whole line of reasoning is that Warren looks back upon the original colonists and their ardor for liberty in the way that we look at his generation and their ardor for liberty. This fervor and passion for liberty, at all costs, has been bred into the American spirit from the start.
“Whilst with one hand they broke the stubborn glebe [land], with the other they grasped their weapons, ever ready to protect her [liberty] from danger. No sacrifice, not even their own blood, was esteemed too rich a libation for her altar! God prospered their valor; they preserved her brilliancy unsullied; they enjoyed her whilst they lived; and, dying, bequeathed the dear inheritance to your care“.
While, in this context, he’s speaking to Americans in his time about their care of the liberty given to them by their forefathers, read this next paragraph in today’s context. His generation heard and answered the call with a resounding yes. Warren and the many others who fought for liberty in that day are now our forefathers. It’s their blood that was spilt so that we, today, could enjoy the liberty we still hold precariously in our grasp.
“And as they left you this glorious legacy, they have undoubtedly transmitted to you some portion of their noble spirit, to inspire you with virtue to merit her and courage to preserve her; you surely cannot, with such examples before your eyes, as every page of history of this country affords, suffer your liberties to be ravished from you by lawless force, or cajoled away by flattery and fraud.
The voice of your fathers’ blood cries to you from the ground, My sons, scorn to be slaves! In vain we met the frowns of tyrants — in vain we crossed the boisterous ocean, found a new world, and prepared it for the happy residence of liberty — in vain we toiled — in vain we fought — we bled in vain, if you, our offspring, want valor to repel the assaults of her invaders! Stain not the glory of your worthy ancestors, but like them resolve never to part with your birthright; be wise in your deliberations, and determined in your exertions for the preservation of your liberties. Follow not the dictates of passion, but enlist yourselves under the sacred banner of reason; use every method in your power to secure your rights; at least prevent the curses of posterity from being heaped upon your memories.”
My words pale in comparison to those of Warren’s. I cannot read his impassioned plea without my own heart beating in unison. What a precious gift we hold today. How many more lives have been given on liberty’s behalf since that day in 1772? How much more weight do we carry?
I’ll close with his words and pray that you are blessed by them as I have been.
“If you, with united zeal and fortitude, oppose the torrent of oppression; if you feel the true fire of patriotism burning in your breasts; if you, from your souls, despise the most gaudy dress that slavery can wear; if you really prefer the lonely cottage (whilst blest with liberty) to gilded palaces, surrounded with the ensigns of slavery, you may have the fullest assurance that tyranny, with her accursed train, will hide their hideous heads in confusion, shame and despair; if you perform your part, you must have the strongest confidence that THE SAME ALMIGHTY BEING who protected your pious and venerable forefathers, who enabled them to turn a barren wilderness into a fruitful field, who so often made bare his arms for their salvation, will still be mindful of you their offspring.
May THIS ALMIGHTY BEING graciously preside in all our councils.–May he direct us to such measures as he himself shall approve, and be pleased to bless. May we ever be a people favoured of GOD. May our land be a land of liberty, the seat of virtue, the asylum of the oppressed, a name and a praise in the whole earth, until the last shock of time shall bury the empires of the world in one common undistinguished ruin!”
The Liberty Belle