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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

To the Society of the Cincinnati

By Robert R. Livingston (1746–1813)

[From an Oration delivered 4 July, 1787.]

I COULD have wished, gentlemen, that the task I am now about to perform, had been assigned to some abler speaker; and in that view, I long since tendered my apology for declining it, and hoped, till lately, that it had been accepted. Disappointed in this hope and unwilling to treat any mark of your favor with neglect, I determined to obey your commands, although I was satisfied, that in the execution of them, I should not answer your expectations. There is a style of eloquence adapted to occasions of this kind, to which I feel myself unequal; a style which requires the glowing imagination of younger speakers, who, coming recently from the schools of rhetoric, know how to dress their sentiments in all its flowery ornaments. The turbulence of the times, since I first entered upon public life, and the necessity they imposed upon those who engaged in them, of attending rather to things than words, will, I fear, render me, if not an useless, at least an unpolished speaker.

If the mind dwells with pleasure on interesting events; if the soul pants to emulate the noble deeds it contemplates; if virtue derives new force from the successful struggles of the virtuous, it is wise to set apart certain seasons, when, freed from meaner cares, we commemorate events which have contributed to the happiness of mankind, or afford examples worthy their imitation. What are we this day called upon to commemorate? Some signal victory, in which the victor weeps the loss of friends, and humanity mourns over the graves of the vanquished? The birth of some prince whom force, fraud, or accident has entitled to a throne? Or even that of some patriot, who has raised the reputation and defended the rights of his country? No, gentlemen, a nobler subject than the splendor of victories, or the birth of princes demands our attention. We are called upon to commemorate the successful battles of freedom and the birth of nations!

It may be expected, and, indeed, I believe it is usual on such occasions, that I should tread the steps we have taken, from the dawn of oppression to the bright sunshine of independence; that I should celebrate the praise of patriots who have been actors in the glorious scene, and more particularly that I should lead you to the shrines of those that have offered up their lives in support of their principles, and sealed with their blood your charters of freedom. Had I no other object in view than to amuse you and indulge my own feelings, I should take this path; for what task more delightful than to contemplate the successful struggles of virtue; to see her at one moment panting under the grasp of oppression, and rising in the next with renewed strength, as if, like the giant son of earth, she had acquired vigor from the fall; to see hope and disappointment, plenty and want, defeats and victories, following each other in rapid succession, and contributing, like light and shade, to the embellishment of the piece! What more soothing to the soft and delicate emotions of humanity, than to wander with folded arms, and slow and pensive step, amidst the graves of departed heroes; to indulge the mingled emotions of grief and admiration; at one moment giving way to private sorrow, and lamenting the loss of a friend, a relation, a brother,—in the next, glowing with patriot warmth, gazing with ardor on their wounds, and invoking their spirits, while we ask of Heaven to inspire us with equal fortitude! But, however pleasing this task, the desire of being useful impels me, at this interesting moment, to forego this pleasure; to call you from this tender scene, to remind you, that you are the citizens of a free State, to bid you rejoice with Roman pride that those you love have done their duty, to exhort you to crown the glorious work which they have begun. For, alas! my friends, though they have nobly performed the part assigned them, the work is still unfinished and much remains for us to do. It may not, therefore, be improper, amidst the congratulations I make you on this day—this day distinguished in the annals of fame, for the triumph of freedom and the birth of nations, to inquire how far it has been productive of the advantages we might reasonably have expected and where they have fallen short of our expectations.

To investigate the causes that have conduced to our disappointment, two objects demand our attention—our internal and federal governments. Either, to those who are disposed to view only the gloomy side of the picture, will afford sufficient matter for censure, and too much cause of uneasiness. Many desponding spirits, misled by these reflections, have ceased to rejoice in independence, and to doubt whether it is to be considered as a blessing. God forbid that there should be any such among us: for whatever may be the pressure of our present evils, they will cease to operate, when we resolve to remove them; the remedy is within our reach, and I have sufficient confidence in our own fortitude to hope that it will be applied….

Having observed that our internal constitutions are adequate to the purposes for which they were formed, and that the inconveniences we have sometimes felt under them were imputable to causes which it was in our power to remove; I might perhaps add, that the continuance of those evils were proofs of the happiness these governments impart; since, had they not been more than balanced by advantages, they would have pressed with such weight as to have compelled the people to apply the remedy the constitution affords. But, when I turn my eyes to the other great object of a patriot’s attention, our federal government, I confess to you, my friends, I sicken at the sight. Nothing presents itself to my view, but a nerveless council, united by imaginary ties, brooding over ideal decrees, which caprice or fancy is at pleasure to annul or execute! I see trade languish, public credit expire—and that glory which is not less necessary to the prosperity of a nation, than reputation to individuals, a victim to opprobrium and disgrace. Here, my friends, you are particularly interested; for I believe, I should do little justice to the motives that induced you to brave the dangers and hardships of a ten years’ war, if I supposed you had nothing more in view than humble peace and ignominious obscurity. Brave souls are influenced by nobler motives; and I persuade myself, that the rank and glory of the nation you have established, were among the strongest that nerved your arms and invigorated your hearts. Let us not then, my friends, lose sight of this splendid object: having pursued it through fields of blood, let us not relinquish the chase, when nothing is necessary to its attainment but union, firmness, and temperate deliberation.

In times of extreme danger, whoever has the courage to seize the helm, may command the ship: each mariner, distrusting his own skill, is ready to repose upon that of others. Congress, not attending to this reflection, were misled by the implicit respect, that during the war was paid to their recommendations; and, without looking forward to times, when the circumstances which made the basis of their authority, should no longer exist, they formed a constitution adapted only to such circumstances. Weak in itself, a variety of causes have conspired to render it weaker. Some States have totally neglected their representation in Congress, while some others have been inattentive, in their choice of delegates, to those qualities which are essential to the support of its reputation—objects of some moment, where authority is founded on opinion only. To these, I am sorry, gentlemen, to add a third, which operates with peculiar force in some States—the love of power, of which the least worthy are always the most tenacious. To deal out a portion of it to Congress, would be to share that which some, among those who are elected by popular favor, already find too little for their own ambition. To preserve it, rulers of free States practise a lesson they have received from eastern tyrants; and as these, to preserve the succession, put out the eyes of all that may approach the seat of power, so those strive to blind the people, whose discernment they fear may expel them from it.

I will not wear your patience and my own, by contending with those chimeras they have raised, to fright the people from remedying the only real defect of this government; nor will I dwell upon that wretched system of policy which has sunk the interest and reputation of such States in the great council of America, and drawn upon them the hatred and contempt of their neighbors. Who will deny that the most serious evils daily flow from the debility of our federal constitution? Who but owns that we are at this moment colonies, for every purpose but that of internal taxation, to the nation, from which we vainly hoped our sword had freed us? Who but sees with indignation British ministers daily dictating laws for the destruction of our commerce? Who but laments the ruin of that brave, hardy, and generous race of men, who are necessary for its support? Who but feels that we are degraded from the rank we ought to hold among the nations of the earth? Despised by some, maltreated by others, and unable to defend ourselves against the cruel depredations of the most contemptible pirates. At this moment, yes, great God, at this moment, some among those, perhaps, who have labored for the establishment of our freedom, are groaning in barbarian bondage. Hands that may have wielded the sword in our defence, are loaded with chains. Toilsome tasks, gloomy prisons, whips and tortures, are the portion of men who have triumphed with us and exulted in the idea of giving being to nations and freedom to unnumbered generations.

These, sirs, these are a few of the many evils that result from the want of a federal government. Our internal constitutions may make us happy at home, but nothing short of a federal one can render us safe or respectable abroad. Let us not, however, in our eagerness to attain one, forget to preserve the other inviolate; for better is distress abroad, than tyranny or anarchy at home. A precious deposit is given into our keeping; we hold in our hands the fate of future generations. While we acknowledge that no government can exist without confidence in the governing power, let us also remember that none can remain free where that confidence is incautiously bestowed.

How, gentlemen, shall I apologize for having obtruded this serious address upon the gayeties of this happy day? I told you, and told you truly, that I was ill-qualified to play the holiday orator; and I might have added, that the joy of this day is ever attended, in my mind, with a thousand mingled emotions. Reflection of the past brings to memory a variety of tender and interesting events; while hope and fear, anxiety and pleasure, alternately possess me, when I endeavor to pierce the veil of futurity. But never, never before, have they pressed upon me with the weight they do at present. I feel that some change is necessary; and yet I dread lest the demon of jealousy should prevent such change, or the restless spirit of innovation should carry us beyond what is necessary. I look round for aid; I see in you a band of patriots, the supporters of your country’s rights; I feel myself indebted to you for the freedom we enjoy; I know that your emotions cannot be very different from my own; and I strive, by giving you the same views on these important subjects, to unite your efforts in the common cause. Let us, then, preserve pure and perfect those principles of friendship for each other—of love for our country, of respect for the Union, which supported us in our past difficulties. Let us reject the trammels of party, and, as far as our efforts will go, call every man to the post his virtues and abilities entitle him to occupy. Let us watch with vigilant attention over the conduct of those in power; but let us not, with coward caution, restrain their efforts to be useful; and let us implore that omnipotent Being, who gave us strength and wisdom in the hour of danger, to direct our great council to that happy mean which may afford us respect and security abroad, and peace, liberty, and prosperity at home.