Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1765–1787
Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vol. III: Literature of the Revolutionary Period, 1765–1787
The Meaning of the Revolution
By John Witherspoon (1723–1794)
[“On the Controversy about Independence.” Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon. 1800.]

EVERY one knows that when the claims of the British Parliament were openly made, and violently enforced, the most precise and determined resolutions were entered into, and published by every colony, every county, and almost every township or smaller district, that they would not submit to them. This was clearly expressed in the greatest part of them, and ought to be understood as the implied sense of them all, not only that they would not soon or easily, but that they would never on any event, submit to them. For my own part, I confess, I would never have signed these resolves at first, nor taken up arms in consequence of them afterward, if I had not been fully convinced, as I am still, that acquiescence in this usurped power would be followed by the total and absolute ruin of the colonies. They would have been no better than tributary states to a kingdom at a great distance from them. They would have been therefore, as has been the case with all states in a similar situation from the beginning of the world, the servants of servants from generation to generation. For this reason I declare it to have been my meaning, and I know it was the meaning of thousands more, that though we earnestly wished for reconciliation with safety to our liberties, yet we did deliberately prefer, not only the horrors of a civil war, not only the danger of anarchy, and the uncertainty of a new settlement, but even extermination itself, to slavery riveted on us and our posterity.
  The most peaceable means were first used; but no relaxation could be obtained: one arbitrary and oppressive act followed after another; they destroyed the property of a whole capital—subverted to its very foundation the constitution and government of a whole colony, and granted the soldiers a liberty of murdering in all the colonies. I express it thus, because they were not to be called to account for it where it was committed, which everybody must allow was a temporary, and undoubtedly in ninety-nine cases of an hundred must have issued in a total impunity. There is one circumstance, however, in my opinion, much more curious than all the rest. The reader will say, What can this be? It is the following, which I beg may be particularly attended to:—While all this was a doing, the King in his speeches, the Parliament in their acts, and the people of Great Britain in their addresses, never failed to extol their own lenity. I do not infer from this, that the King, Parliament and people of Great Britain are all barbarians and savages—the inference is unnecessary and unjust; but I infer the misery of the people of America, if they must submit in all cases whatsoever, to the decisions of a body of the sons of Adam, so distant from them, and who have an interest in oppressing them. It has been my opinion from the beginning, that we did not carry our reasoning fully home, when we complained of an arbitrary prince, or of the insolence, cruelty and obstinacy of Lord North, Lord Bute, or Lord Mansfield. What we have to fear, and what we have now to grapple with, is the ignorance, prejudice, partiality and injustice of human nature. Neither King nor ministry, could have done, nor durst have attempted what we have seen, if they had not had the nation on their side. The friends of America in England are few in number, and contemptible in influence; nor must I omit, that even of these few, not one, till very lately, ever reasoned the American cause upon its proper principles, or viewed it in its proper light.  2
  Petitions on petitions have been presented to King and Parliament, and an address sent to the people of Great Britain, which have been not merely fruitless, but treated with the highest degree of disdain. The conduct of the British ministry during the whole of this contest, as has been often observed, has been such, as to irritate the whole people of this continent to the highest degree, and unite them together by the firm bond of necessity and common interest. In this respect they have served us in the most essential manner. I am firmly persuaded, that had the wisest heads in America met together to contrive what measures the ministry should follow to strengthen the American opposition and defeat their own designs, they could not have fallen upon a plan so effectual, as that which has been steadily pursued. One instance I cannot help mentioning, because it was both of more importance, and less to be expected than any other. When a majority of the New York Assembly, to their eternal infamy, attempted to break the union of the colonies, by refusing to approve the proceedings of the Congress, and applying to Parliament by separate petition—because they presumed to make mention of the principal grievance of taxation, it was treated with ineffable contempt. I desire it may be observed, that all those who are called the friends of America in Parliament, pleaded strongly for receiving the New York petition; which plainly showed, that neither the one nor the other understood the state of affairs in America. Had the ministry been prudent, or the opposition successful, we had been ruined; but with what transport did every friend to American liberty hear, that these traitors to the common cause had met with the reception which they deserved.  3
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