Robert Ingersoll on the Declaration of Independence
(on its centennial, c.1876)
With one blow, with one stroke of the pen, they struck down all the cruel, heartless barriers that aristocracy, that priestcraft, that kingcraft had raised between man and man. They struck down with one immortal blow that infamous spirit of caste that makes a God almost a beast, and a beast almost a god. With one word, with one blow they wiped away and utterly destroyed all that had been done by centuries of war -- centuries of hypocrisy -- centuries of injustice.
And what more? That the people are the source of political power. That was not only a revelation, but it was a revolution. It changed the ideas of people with regard to the source of political power. For the first time it made human beings men. What was the old idea? The old idea was that no political power came from, nor in any manner belonged to the people. The old idea was that the political power came from the clouds; that the political power came in some miraculous way from heaven; that it came down to kings, and queens and robbers. That was the old idea. The nobles lived upon the labor of the people; the people had no rights; the nobles stole what they had and divided with the kings, and the kings pretended to divide what they stole with God Almighty. The source, then, of political power was from above. The people were responsible to the nobles, the nobles to the king, and the people had no political right whatever, no more than the wild beasts of the forest. The kings were responsible to God; not the people. They were responsible to the clouds, not to the toiling millions they robbed and plundered.
And our forefathers, in this declaration of independence, reversed this thing, and said; No, the people, they are the source of political power, and their rulers -- these presidents, these kings -- are but the agents and servants of the great, sublime people. For the first time, really, in the history of the world, the kind was made to get off the throne, and the people were royally seated thereon. The people became the sovereigns, and the old sovereigns became the servants and the agents of the people. It is hard for you and me now to imagine even the immense results of the change. It is hard for you and me, at this day, to understand how thoroughly it had been ingrained in the brain of almost every man, that the king had some wonderful right over him; that in some strange way the king owned him; that in some miraculous manner he belonged, body and soul, to somebody who rode on a horse, to somebody with epaulettes on his shoulders and a tinsel crown upon his brainless head.
So many religions met in our country -- so many theories and dogmas came in contact -- so many follies, mistakes and stupidities became acquainted with each other, that religion began to fall somewhat into disrepute. Besides this, the question of a new nation began to take precedence of all others.
The people were too much interested in this world to quarrel about the next. The preacher was lost in the patriot. The Bible was read to find passages against kings.
Everybody was discussing the rights of man. Farmers and mechanics suddenly became statesmen, and in every shop and cabin nearly every question was asked and answered.
During these years of political excitement the interest in religion bated to that degree that a common purpose animated men of all sects and creeds.
Now, do not understand that all our fathers were in favor of independence. Do not understand that they were all like Jefferson; that they were all like Adams or Lee; that they were all like Thomas Paine or John Hancock. There were thousands and thousands of them who were opposed to American independence. There were thousands and thousands who said "When you say men are created equal, it is a lie; when you say the political power resides in the great body of the people, it is false." Thousands and thousands of them said: "We prefer Great Britain." But the men who were in favor of independence, the men who knew that a new nation must be born, went on full of hope and courage, and nothing could daunt or stop or stay the heroic, fearless few. ...
They made up their minds that a new nation must be formed. All nations had bee, so to speak, the wards of some church. The religious idea as to the source of power had been at the foundation, of all governments and had been the bane and curse of man.
Happily for us, there was no church strong enough to dictate to the rest. Fortunately for us, the colonists not only but the colonies differed widely in their religious views. There were the Puritans, who hate the Episcopalians; the Episcopalians, who hated the Catholics; and the Catholics, who hated both, while the Quakers held them all in contempt. There they were, of every sort and color and kind, and how was it that they came together? They had a common aspiration. They wanted to form a new nation. More than that, most of them cordially hated Great Britain; and they pledged each other to forget their religious prejudices for a time, at least, and agreed that there should be only one religion until they got through -- and that was the religion of patriotism. They solemnly agreed that the new nation should not belong to any particular church but that it should secure the rights of all.
Our fathers founded the first secular government that was ever founded in this world. Recollect that. The first secular government; the first government that said every church has exactly the same rights, and no more; every religion has the same rights, and no more. In other words, our fathers were the first men who had the sense, who had the genius, to know that no church should be allowed to have a sword; that it should be allowed only to exert its moral influence.
So our fathers said: "We will form a secular government, and under the flag which we are going to enrich our air we will allow every man to worship God as he thinks best." They said: "Religion is an individual thing between each man and his Creator, and he can worship as he pleases and as he desires." And why did they do this? The history of the world warned them that the liberty of man was not safe in the clutch and grasp of any church. They had read of and seen the thumb-screws, the racks and the dungeons of the Inquisition. They knew all about the hypocrisy of the olden time. They knew that the church had stood side by side with the throne; that the high priests were hypocrites, and that the kings were robbers. They also knew that if they gave to any church power, it would corrupt the best church in the world. And so they said that power must not reside in a church, nor in a sect, but power must be wherever humanity is - in the great body of the people. And the officers and servants of the people must be responsible to them. And so I say again, as I said in the commencement, this is the wisest, the profoundest, the bravest political document that was ever written.
They turned, as I tell you, everything squarely about. They derived all their authority from the people. They did away forever with the theological idea of government.
As soon as our ancestors began to get free they began to enslave others. With an inconsistency that defies explanation, they practiced upon others the same outrages that had been perpetrated upon them. As soon as white slavery began to be abolished black slavery commenced. In this infamous traffic nearly every nation of Europe embarked. Fortunes were quickly realized; the avarice and cupidity of Europe was excited; all ideas of justice were discarded; pity fled from the human breast; a few good, brave men recited the horrors of the trade; avarice was deaf; religion refused to hear; the trade went on; the governments of Europe upheld it in the name of commerce -- in the name of civilization and of religion.
What we want today is what our fathers wrote down. They did not attain to their ideal; we approach it nearer, but have not reached it yet. We want not only the independence of state, not only the independence of a nation, but something far more glorious -- the absolute independence of the individual. That is what we want. I want it so that I, one of the children of Nature, can stand on an equality with the rest; that I can say this is my air, my sunshine, my earth, and I have a right to live, and hope, and aspire, and labor and enjoy the fruit of that labor, as much as any individual or any nation on the face of the globe.
All who stand beneath our banner are free. Ours is the only flag that has in reality written upon it Liberty, Fraternity, Equality -- the three grandest words in all the languages of men.
Liberty -- Give to every man the fruit of his own labor; the labor of his hands and of his brain.
Fraternity -- Every man in the right is my brother.
Equality -- The rights of all are equal. Justice poised and balanced in eternal claim will shake from the golden scales in which are weighed the acts of men the very dust of prejudice and caste.
No race, no color, no previous conditions, can change the rights of men.
I want you to go away with an eternal hatred in your breast of injustice, of aristocracy, of caste, of the idea that one man has more rights than another because he has better clothes, more land, more money; because he owns a railroad, or is famous and in high position. Remember that all men have equal rights. Remember that the man who acts best his part -- who loves his friends the best -- is most willing to help others -- truest to the obligation -- who has the best heart -- the most feeling -- the deepest sympathies -- and who freely gives to others the rights that he claims for himself is the best man. I am willing to swear to this.
More About Robert Ingersoll...
Jul 5, 2007
Robert Ingersoll on the Declaration of Independence