John Quincy Adams: ‘Unlimited power belongs not to the nature of man’

John Quincy Adams

On July 4, 1831, at the request of the citizens of the town of Quincy, former president John Quincy Adams, then in his first term as congressman, delivered an oration on the 55th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Here is an excerpt:

Behold, my fellow citizens, the cause of the North American Revolution! Look at that cold exanimate flint, which, clashing with the steel of your fathers hearts, struck out the spark and kindled the flame which reduced to ashes the British dominion in these United States; nor ceasing there, its burning brands have floated on the wings of the winds back to Europe, instinct with unextinguishable fire, and spreading at once light and conflagration throughout the regions inhabited by civilized man, a false definition of the term sovereignty; an erroneous estimate of the extent of sovereign power!. . .

Unlimited power belongs not to the nature of man; and rotten will be the foundation of every government leaning upon such a maxim for its support. Least of all can it be predicated of any government professing to be founded upon an original compact. The pretence of an absolute, irresistible, despotic power, existing in every government somewhere, is incompatible with the first principle of natural right.

Take for example the right to life. The moment an infant is born, it has a right to the life which it has received from the Creator. Amiable and benevolent moralists have sometimes denied that this right can be forfeited to human laws, even by the commission of crime.

Without concurring in that sentiment, we may safely affirm, that no human being, no combination of human beings, has the power, I say not the physical, but the moral power, to take a life not so forfeited, unless in self-defence or by the laws of war. No power in government exists to take it without a cause; none, surely none, in the British Parliament.

Nor let me be told that governments have exercised and do exercise this power; that the ancient Romans and the modern Chinese hold it no wrong in the parent to expose his newborn child, and leave it to perish in its own helplessness.

Fathers! MOTHERS! Is this the law of nature?

Christians! Is this the law of your Redeemer?

Americans! Ask the Declaration of Independence, and that will tell you that its authors held for self-evident truth, that the right to life is the first of the unalienable rights of man, to secure, and not to destroy which, governments are instituted among men, and that the sovereignty which would arrogate to itself absolute, unlimited power, must appeal for its sanction to those illustrious expounders of human rights. . .

The Declaration of Independence was a social compact, by which the whole people covenanted with each citizen of the United Colonies, and each citizen with the whole people, that the United Colonies were, and of right ought to be, free and independent states. To this compact, union was as vital as freedom or independence.

From the hour of that Declaration, no one of the States whose people were parties to it, could, without violation of that primitive compact, secede or separate from the rest. Each was pledged to all, and all were pledged to each by a concert of souls, without limitation of time, in the presence of Almighty God, and proclaimed to all mankind. . .

Without union the covenant contains no pledge of freedom or independence; without freedom, none of independence or union; without independence, none of union or freedom. . .

In the course of nature, the voice which now addresses you, must soon cease to be heard upon earth.

Life and all which it inherits, lose of their value as it draws towards its close. But for most of you, my friends and neighbors, long and many years of futurity are yet in store. May they be years of freedom years of prosperity years of happiness, ripening for immortality!

But, were the breath which now gives utterance to my feelings, the last vital air I should draw, my expiring words to you and your children should be, INDEPENDENCE AND UNION FOREVER!