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Mr. Bancroft on the Declaration of Independence.

Mr. Rufus Choate, deceased, has left upon record his opinion, that the ethics of the Declaration of Independence are merely “glittering generalities.” Mr. Caleb Cushing, muzzy and mazy as he is, in thought and expression, has contrived to assert, with tolerable clearness, that in his opinion “all men are not born free and equal.” Mr. Charles O'Connor is of the same mind. So in his day was Mr. John C. Calhoun. Of course there is nothing to be astonished at in this resort to arrogant paradox. These gentlemen living or dead, having determined beforehand to defend a [107] bad system, could begin the work in no other way than by ignoring the axioms of the Revolution. Not until the broad humanity of the Declaration had been explained, philosophized and sophisticated to mere nothingness, or to something sadder, were these traitors to universal humanity able to repeat, without blushing, sentiments too revolting to be suddenly and nakedly promulgated. Their dismal conclusions, which dogmatically forbid all hope of the equality of man, in view of any human government, will hereafter be read with wonder, and are too signal a departure from the traditions of the Republic to be presently or speedily forgotten. Their most natural refutation is to be found in the steady, the intuitive convictions of the American mind.

The doctrines of the Declaration of Independence are not to be comprehended in all their beauty and sublimity by the closest study, any more than they are to be wasted away by the shrewdest verbal criticism of the letter of the instrument. Great as were the abilities of those who framed it, they were — and any men would have been — unequal to the task of condensing into words, of confining within sentences the great idea of political equality which informed the general American reason and heart. They left us a letter, noble only because it was the exponent of a noble spirit. The letter might be perverted and controverted — might be faithful to the ear of the world, but altogether false to its hope — but the spirit would remain, incapable of a double sense, and useless to palterers. [108]

We did not need it, but we are happy to have the opinion of Mr. George Bancroft, the best known of our historians, that the Declaration was not “a tissue of glittering generalities.” Mr. Bancroft contradicts the late Mr. Rufus Choate point blank, and in words which are curiously responsive to those of that advocate; for Mr. Bancroft says distinctly that the Declaration “avoided specious and vague generalities.” Again, those who have been misled by the indignant or contemptuous repetition of the phrase “higher law,” will have ampler opportunities of exhibiting their virtuous horror when they read what Mr. George Bancroft has written. “The bill of rights which it (i. e. the Declaration) promulgated, is of rights that are older than human institutions, and spring from the eternal justice that is anterior to the State.” He must possess very rare powers of distinction who can find any substantial difference between “the higher law” and the “rights that are older than human institutions” --rights that “spring from the eternal justice that is anterior to the State.”

But Mr. Bancroft goes still further; nor can we forbear the pleasure of quoting his own admirable words: “Two political theories,” says he, “divided the world; one founded the Commonwealth on the reasons of State, the policy of expediency; the other on the immutable principles of morals. The new Republic, as it took its place among the powers of the world, proclaimed its faith in the truth and reality and unchangeableness of freedom, virtue and right. The heart of Jefferson in writing the Declaration, and [109] of Congress in adopting it, beat for all humanity; the assertion of right was made for the entire world of mankind, and all coming generations, without any exception whatever; for the proposition which admits of exception can never be self-evident.” Moreover, and in illustration of the glad tidings and their universal application, Mr. Bancroft says: “The astonished nations as they read that all men are created equal, started out of their lethargy, like those who have been exiles from childhood, when they suddenly hear the dimly-remembered accents of their mother tongue.”

Mr. Bancroft, it will be seen, does not speak with the fashionable timidity of dyspeptic students. He does note maunder about races, nor take refuge within the cheap defenses of ethnological sciolism. His political philosophy “makes the circuit of the world” --his political morality is applied to “the entire world of mankind, and all coming generations, without any exceptions whatever.” After Mr. Cushing's pilferings from encyclopedias and stereotyped nonsense about white and black and yellow races — after the intolerable conceit, ignorance and inhumanity of his imitators — after the inconclusive conclusions of text-twisting and text-splitting doctors of divinity — after the ignoble efforts of fools and of knaves to extenuate a moral wrong by appeals to physical distinctions — it is plea it to find a man like Mr. Bancroft adhering to a sensible and simple construction of the axioms and adages of honest and fearless Republicanism. These trimmers — these torturers of plain words, of [110] plain morality into tenth century sophistications have now their answer, and they have it from a very high, if not from the highest quarter.

June 27, 1860.

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