Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
The Great Procession of American History
By Robert Charles Winthrop (1809–1894)
 
[Oration on the Two Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Landing of the Pilgrims. Plymouth, Mass., 21 December, 1870.—Addresses and Speeches on Various Occasions. 1852–86.]

AS we look back ever so cursorily on the great procession of American History as it starts from yonder Rock, and winds on and on and on to the present hour, we may descry many other scenes, many other actors, remote and recent, in other parts of the Union as well as in our own, of the highest interest and importance. There are Conant and Endicott with their little rudimental plantations at Cape Ann and at Salem. There is the elder Winthrop, with the Massachusetts Charter, at Boston, of whom the latest and best of New England Historians, Dr. Palfrey, has said “that it was his policy, more than any other man’s, that organized into shape, animated with practical vigor, and prepared for permanency, those primeval sentiments and institutions that have directed the course of thought and action in New England in later times.” There is the younger Winthrop, not far behind, with the Charter of Connecticut, of whose separate Colonies Hooker and Haynes and Hopkins and Eaton and Davenport and Ludlow had laid the foundations. There is Roger Williams, “the Apostle of soul freedom,” as he has been called, with the Charter of Rhode Island. There is the brave and generous Stuyvesant of the New Netherlands. There are the Catholic Calverts, and the noble Quaker Penn, building up Maryland and Pennsylvania alike, upon principles of toleration and philanthropy. There is the benevolent and chivalrous Oglethorpe, assisted by Whitefield and the sainted Wesleys, planting his Moravian Colony in Georgia. There is Franklin, with his first proposal of a Continental Union, and with his countless inventions in political as well as physical science. There is James Otis with his great argument against Writs of Assistance, and Samuel Adams with his inexorable demand for the removal of the British regiments from Boston. There are Quincy with his grand remonstrance against the Port Bill, and Warren, offering himself as the Proto-martyr on Bunker Hill. There is Jefferson with the Declaration of Independence fresh from his own pen, with John Adams close at his side, as its “Colossus on the floor of Congress.” There are Hamilton and Madison and Jay bringing forward the Constitution in their united arms; and there, leaning on their shoulders, and on that Constitution, but towering above them all, is Washington, the consummate commander, the incomparable President, the world-honored Patriot. There are Marshall and Story as the expounders of the Constitution, and Webster as its defender. There is John Quincy Adams with his powerful and persistent plea for the sacred Right of Petition. There is Jackson with his Proclamation against Nullification. There is Lincoln with his ever memorable Proclamation of Emancipation. And there, closing for the moment that procession of the dead,—for I presume not to marshal the living,—is George Peabody, with his world-wide munificence and his countless benefactions. Other figures may present themselves to other eyes as that grand Panorama is unrolled. Other figures will come into view as that great procession advances. But be it prolonged, as we pray God it may be, even “to the crack of doom,” first and foremost, as it moves on and on in radiant files,—“searing the eyeballs” of oppressors and tyrants, but rejoicing the hearts of the lovers of freedom throughout the world,—will ever be seen and recognized the men whom we commemorate to-day,—the Pilgrim Fathers of New England. No herald announces their approach. No pomp or parade attends their advent. “Shielded and helmed and weapon’d with the truth,” no visible guards are around them, either for honor or defence. Bravely but humbly, and almost unconsciously, they assume their perilous posts, as pioneers of an advance which is to know no backward steps, until, throughout this Western hemisphere, it shall have prepared the way of the Lord and of liberty. They come with no charter of human inspiration. They come with nothing but the open Bible in their hands, leading a march of civilization and human freedom, which shall go on until time shall be no more,—if only that Bible shall remain open, and shall be accepted and reverenced, by their descendants as it was by themselves, as the Word of God!
  1
  It is a striking coincidence that while they were just taking the first steps in the movement which terminated at Plymouth Rock, that great clerical Commission was appointed by King James, which prepared what has everywhere been received as the standard English version of the Holy Scriptures; and which, though they continued to use the Geneva Bible themselves, has secured to their children and posterity a translation which is the choicest treasure of literature as well as of religion. Nor can I fail to remember, with the warmest interest, that, at this moment, while we are engaged in this Fifth Jubilee Commemoration, a similar Commission is employed, for the first time, in subjecting that translation to the most critical revision;—not with a view, certainly, to attempt any change or improvement of its incomparable style and language, but only to purge the sacred volume from every human interpolation or error.  2
  No more beautiful scene has been witnessed in our day and generation, nor one more auspicious of that Christian unity which another world shall witness, if not this, than the scene presented in Westminster Abbey, in the exquisite chapel of Henry VII., by that Revision Commission, in immediate preparation for entering on their great task, on the morning of the 22d of June last;—“such a scene,” as the accomplished Dean Alford has well said, “as has not been enacted since the name of Christ was first named in Britain.” I can use no other words than his, in describing it: “Between the latticed shrine of King Henry VII. and the flat pavement tomb of Edward VI. was spread ‘God’s board,’ and round that pavement tomb knelt, shoulder to shoulder, bishops and dignitaries of the Church of England, professors of her Universities, divines of the Scottish Presbyterian and Free Churches, and of the Independent, Baptist, Wesleyan, Unitarian Churches in England,—a representative assembly, such as our Church has never before gathered under her wing, of the Catholic Church by her own definition,—of ‘all who profess and call themselves Christians.’” It was a scene to give character to an age; and should the Commission produce no other valuable fruit, that opening Communion will make it memorable to the end of time.  3
  Yes, the open Bible was the one and all-sufficient support and reliance of the Pilgrim Fathers. They looked, indeed, for other and greater reformations in religion than any which Luther or Calvin had accomplished or advocated; but they looked for them to come from a better understanding and a more careful study of the Holy Scriptures, and not from any vainglorious human wisdom or scientific investigations. As their pastor Robinson said, in his farewell discourse, “He was confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his Holy Word.”  4
 
 
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