Author and John Jay re-enactor Phil Webster has recently recorded John Jay’s excellent message from December 1776—which came at a low time in the struggle for independence.
Here’s Phil Webster re-enacting this classic speech—about which he says: “In John Jay’s Christmas Address, he mentions God and having faith in God 33 times. Imagine what would happen if the nation knew that we had such a godly Chief Justice [of the U.S. Supreme Court].” John Jay served as the nation’s first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Here’s the text of what John Jay said:
Address of the Convention of the Representatives of the State of New York to Their Constituents [Dec. 23, 1776]
At this most important period, when the freedom and happiness, or the slavery and misery, of the present and future generations of Americans, is to be determined on a solemn appeal to the Supreme Ruler of all events, to whom every individual must one day answer for the part he now acts, it becomes the duty of the Representatives of a free people to call their attention to this most serious subject, and the more so at a time when their enemies are industriously endeavoring to delude, intimidate, and seduce them by false suggestions, artful misrepresentations, and insidious promises of protection.
You and all men were created free, and authorized to establish civil government, for the preservation of your rights against oppression, and the security of that freedom which God hath given you, against the rapacious hand of tyranny and lawless power. It is, therefore, not only necessary to the well-being of Society, but the duty of every man, to oppose and repel all those, by whatever name or title distinguished, who prostitute the powers of Government to destroy the happiness and freedom of the people over whom they may be appointed to rule.
Under the auspices and direction of Divine Providence, your forefathers removed to the wilds and wilderness of America. By their industry they made it a fruitful, and by their virtue a happy country. And we should still have enjoyed the blessings of peace and plenty, if we had not forgotten the source from which these blessings flowed; and permitted our country to be contaminated by the many shameful vices which have prevailed among us.
It is a well known truth, that no virtuous people were ever oppressed; and it is also true, that a scourge was never wanting to those of an opposite character. Even the Jews, those favourites of Heaven, met with the frowns, whenever they forgot the smiles of their benevolent Creator. By tyrants of Egypt, of Babylon, of Syria, and of Rome, they were severely chastised; and those tyrants themselves, when they had executed the vengeance of Almighty God, their own crimes bursting on their own heads, received the rewards justly due to their violation of the sacred rights of mankind.
You were born equally free with the Jews, and have as good a right to be exempted from the arbitrary domination of Britain, as they had from the invasions of Egypt, Babylon, Syria, or Rome. But they, for their wickedness, were permitted to be scourged by the latter; and we, for our wickedness, are scourged by tyrants as cruel and implacable as those. Our case, however, is peculiarly distinguished from theirs. Their enemies were strangers, unenlightened, and bound to them by no ties of gratitude or consanguinity. Our enemies, on the contrary, call themselves Christians. They are of a nation and people bound to us by the strongest ties—a people, by whose side we have fought and bled; whose power we have contributed to raise; who owe much of their wealth to our industry, and whose grandeur has been augmented by our exertions.
It is unnecessary to remind you that during the space of between one and two hundred years, every man sat under his own vine and his own fig-tree, and there was none to make us afraid—that the people of Britain never claimed a right to dispose of us, and everything belonging to us, according to their will and pleasure, until the reign of the present King of that Island—and that to enforce this abominable claim they have invaded our country by sea and land. From this extravagant and iniquitous claim, and from the unreasonable as well as cruel manner in which they would gain our submission, it seems as though Providence were determined to use them as instruments to punish the guilt of this country, and bring us back to a sense of duty to our Creator.
You may remember that to obtain redress of the many grievances to which the King and Parliament of Great Britain had subjected you, the most dutiful petitions were presented, not only by the several Assemblies, but by the Representatives of all America in General Congress. And you cannot have forgot with what contempt they were neglected; nay, the humblest of all petitions, praying only to be heard, was answered by the sound of the trumpet and the clashing of arms. This, however, is not the only occasion on which the hearts of kings have been hardened; and in all probability it will add to the number of those instances in which their oppression, injustice and hardness of heart have worked their destruction.
Being bound by the strongest obligations to defend the inheritance which God hath given us, to Him we referred our Cause, and opposed the assaults of our taskmasters, being determined rather to die free than live slaves and entail bondage on our children.
By our vigorous efforts and by the goodness of Divine Providence, those cruel invaders were driven from our country in the last Campaign. We then flattered ourselves that the signal success of our arms, and the unanimity and spirit of our people, would have induced our foes to desist from the prosecution of their wicked designs, and disposed their hearts to peace. But peace we had not yet deserved. Exultation took place of thanksgiving, and we ascribed that to our own prowess which was only to be attributed to the great Guardian of the innocent.
The enemy with greater strength again invade us—invade us not less by their arts than their arms. They tell you that if you submit you shall have protection; that their king breathes nothing but peace; that he will revise (not repeal) all his cruel acts and instructions, and will receive you into favour. But what are the terms on which you are promised peace? Have you heard of any except absolute, unconditional obedience and servile submission? If his professions are honest—if he means not to cajole and deceive you, why are you not explicitly informed of the terms, and whether parliament means to tax you hereafter at their will and pleasure? Upon this and the like points, these military commissioners of peace are silent; and, indeed, are not authorized to say a word, unless a power to grant pardon implies a power to adjust claims and secure privileges; or unless the bare possession of life is the only privilege which Americans are to enjoy. For a power to grant pardon is the only one which their parliament or prince have thought proper to give them. And yet they speak of peace, but hold daggers in their hands. They invite you to accept of blessings, and stain your habitations with blood. Their voice resembles the voice of Jacob, but their hands are like the hands of Esau.
If their Sovereign intends to repeal any of the acts we complain of, why are they not especially named? If he designs you shall be free, why does he not promise that the claim of his parliament, to bind you in all cases whatsoever, shall be given up and relinquished? If a reasonable peace was intended, why did he not empower his Commissioners to treat with the Congress, or with Deputies from all the Assemblies; or why was not some other mode devised, in which America might be heard? Is it not highly ridiculous for them to pretend that they are authorized to treat of a peace between Britain and America with every man they meet? Was such a treaty ever heard of before? Is such an instance to be met with in the history of mankind? No! The truth is, peace is not meant; and their specious pretentions and proclamations are calculated only to disunite and deceive.
If the British king really desires peace, why did he order all your vessels to be seized, and confiscated? Why did he most cruelly command, that the men found on board such vessels should be added to the crews of his ships of war, and compelled to fight against their own countrymen—to spill the blood of their neighbours and friends; nay, of their fathers, their brothers and their children; and all this before these pretended ambassadors of peace had arrived on our shores! Does any history, sacred or profane, record any thing more horrid, more impious, more execrably wicked, tyrannical or devilish? If there be one single idea of peace in his mind, why does he order your cities to be burned, your country to be desolated, your brethren to starve, and languish, and die in prison? If any thing were intended besides destruction, devastation, and bloodshed, why are the mercenaries of Germany transported near four thousand miles to plunder your houses; ravish your wives and daughters; strip your infant children; expose whole families naked, miserable, and forlorn, to want, to hunger, to inclement skies, and wretched deaths? If peace were not totally reprobated by him, why are those pusillanimous, deluded, servile wretches among you, who, for present ease or impious bribes, would sell their liberty, their children, and their souls; who, like savages, worship every devil that promises not to hurt them; or obey any mandates, however cruel, for which they are paid? how is it, that these sordid, degenerate creatures, who bow the knee to this king, and daily offer incense at his shrine, should be denied the peace so repeatedly promised them? Why are they indiscriminately abused, robbed, and plundered, with their more deserving neighbours? But in this world, as in the other, it is right and just that the wicked should be punished by their seducers.
In a word, if peace was the desire of your enemies, and humanity their object, why do they thus trample under foot every right and every duty, human and divine? Why, like the demons of old, is their wrath to be expiated only by human sacrifices? Why do they excite the savages of the wilderness to murder our inhabitants and exercise cruelties unheard of among civilized nations? No regard for religion or virtue remains among them. Your very churches bear witness of their impiety; your churches are used without hesitation as jails, as stables, and as houses of sport and theatrical exhibitions. What faith, what trust, what confidence, can you repose in these men, who are deaf to the call of humanity, dead to every sentiment of religion, and void of all regard for the temples of the Lord of Hosts?
And why all this desolation, bloodshed, and unparalleled cruelty? They tell you to reduce your obedience. Obedience to what? To their will and pleasure! And then what? Why, then you shall be pardoned, because you consent to be slaves. And why should you be slaves now, having been freemen ever since this country was settled? Because, forsooth, the king and parliament of an island three thousand miles off, choose that you should be hewers of wood and drawers of water for them. And is this the people whose proud domination you are taught to solicit? Is this the peace which some of you so ardently desire? For shame! for shame!
But you are told that their armies are numerous, their fleet strong, their soldiers valiant, their resources great; that you will be conquered; that victory ever attends their standard; and therefore that your opposition is vain, your resistance fruitless. What then? You can but be slaves at last, if you should think life worth holding on so base a tenure. But who is it that gives victory? By whom is a nation exalted? Since what period hath the race been always to the swift and the battle to the strong? Can you be persuaded that the merciful King of kings hath surrendered His crown and sceptre to the merciless tyrant of Britain and committed the affairs of this lower world to his guidance, control and direction? We learned otherwise from our fathers; and God himself hath told us that strength and numbers avail not against Him. Seek then to be at peace with Him; solicit His alliance, and fear not the boasted strength and power of your foes.
You may be told that your forts have been taken, your country ravaged, and that your armies have retreated, and therefore that God is not with you. It is true that some forts have been taken, that our country hath been ravaged, and that our Maker is displeased with us. But it is also true that the King of Heaven is not like the King of Britain, implacable. If His assistance be sincerely implored, it will surely be obtained. If we turn from our sins, He will turn from His anger. Then will our arms be crowned with success, and the pride and power of our enemies, like the arrogance and pride of Nebuchadnezzar, will vanish away. Let us do our duty and victory will be our reward. Let a general reformation of manners take place; let no more widows and orphans, compelled to fly from their peaceful abodes, complain that you make a market of their distress, and take cruel advantage of their necessities; when your country is invaded and cries aloud for your aid, fly not to some secure corner of a neighbouring State and remain idle spectators of her distress, but share in her fate and manfully support her cause; let universal charity, publick spirit and private virtue be inculcated, encouraged and practised; unite in preparing for a vigorous defence of your country, as if all depended on your own exertions; and when you have done these things, then rely upon the good Providence of Almighty God for success, in full confidence, that without His blessing all our efforts will evidently fail.
A people moving on these solid principles never have been, and never will be, subjected by any tyrant whatever. Cease, then, to desire the flesh-pots of Egypt, and remember their taskmasters and oppressions. No longer hesitate about rejecting all dependence on a king who will rule you only with a rod of iron. Tell those who blame you for declaring yourselves independent that you have done no more than what your late king had done for you; that he declared you to be out of his protection; that he absolved you from all allegiance; that he made war upon you, and instead of your king he became your enemy and destroyer. By his consent, by his own act, you became independent of his crown. If you are wise you will always continue so. Freedom is now in your power. Value the heavenly gift. Remember, if you dare to neglect or despise it, you offer an insult to the Divine Bestower. Nor despair of keeping it. Despair and despondency mark a little mind and indicate a grovelling spirit. After the armies of Rome had been repeatedly defeated by Hannibal, that Imperial City was besieged by this brave and experienced general at the head of a numerous and victorious army. But so far were her glorious citizens from being dismayed by the loss of so many battles and of all their country, so confident in their own virtues and the protection of Heaven, that the very land on which the Carthaginians were encamped was sold at public auction for more than the usual price. Those heroic citizens disdained to receive his protection or to regard his proclamations. They remembered that their ancestors had left them free—ancestors who had bled in rescuing their country from the tyranny of kings. They invoked the protection of the Supreme Being. They bravely defended their city with undaunted resolution; they repelled the enemy and recovered their country. Blush, then, ye degenerate spirits, who give all over for lost, because your enemies have marched over three or four counties in this and a neighbouring State—ye who basely fly to have the yoke of slavery fixed upon your necks and to swear that you and your children after you shall be slaves forever! Such men deserve to be slaves, and are fit only for beasts of burden to the rest of mankind. Happy would it be for America if they were removed away, instead of continuing in this Country to people it with a race of animals who, from their form, must be classed among human species, but possess none of those qualities which render man more respectable than the brutes.
There never yet was a war in which victory and success did not sometimes change sides. In the present, nothing has happened either singular or decisive. Inquire dispassionately, and be not deceived by those artful tales which emissaries so industriously circulate.
A powerful and well-disciplined army, supported by a respectable fleet, invade this country. They are opposed by an army which, though numerous and brave, is quite undisciplined. Notwithstanding this manifest disparity, they have never thought it prudent to give us battle, though they have often had the fairest opportunities. True it is, that taking advantage of that critical moment when our forces are almost disbanded, they have penetrated into Jersey, and marched a considerable distance without being attacked. If any are alarmed at this circumstance, let them consider that we do not fight for a few acres of land, but for freedom—for the freedom and happiness of millions yet unborn.
Would it not be highly imprudent to risk such important events upon the issue of a general battle, when it is certain Great Britain cannot long continue the war, and by protracting it we cannot fail of success? The British Ministry, sensible of this truth, and convinced that the people of England are aware of it, have promised that the present campaign shall be the last. They are greatly and justly alarmed at their situation. A country drained of men and money, the difficulties of supplying fleets and armies at so great a distance, the danger of domestic insurrections, the probability that France will take advantage of their defenceless condition, the ruin of their commerce by our privateers—these are circumstances at which the boldest are dismàyed. They are convinced that the people will not remain long content in such a dangerous situation: hence it is that they press so hard to make this campaign decisive; and hence it is that we should endeavor to avoid it. Even suppose that Philadelphia, which many believed to be of such great importance, suppose it was taken or abandoned, the conquest of America will still be at a great distance. Millions, determined to be free, still remain to be subdued—millions who disdain to part with their liberties, their consciences, and the happiness of their posterity in future ages, for infamous protections and dishonourable pardons.
But amidst all the terror and dismay which have taken hold of some weak minds, let us consider the advantage under which we prosecute the present war. Our country supplies us with every commodity which is necessary for life and defence. Arms and ammunition are now abundantly manufactured in almost all the American States, and our armies will be abundantly supplied with all military stores. We have more fighting men in America than Britain can possibly send. Our trade is free, and every port of France and Spain affords protection to our ships. Other nations, invited by the advantages of the commerce, will doubtless soon follow their example; and experience must convince the most incredulous that the British Navy cannot exclude us from the sea. If their armies have invaded, ravaged and plundered our dominions and our people, have we not successfully attacked them on their boasted empire of the ocean? Have not our privateers brought into our ports of America British property to the amount of more than fifteen hundred thousand pounds? And do we not daily receive the most valuable cargoes from foreign countries in spite of those fleets whose colours have waved in triumph over the globe? The article of salt, about which some of you have been uneasy, will soon be fully supplied. The shores of America are washed by the ocean for more than two thousand miles. Works for manufacturing salt have been erected and proved successful, and many cargoes of it are expected, and have arrived, in the neighbouring States. Provisions of every kind abound among us. From our plenteous stores Great Britain hath heretofore supplied her necessities, though she now most wantonly and ungratefully abuses the kind hand which hath ministered to her wants and alleviated her distress. As to clothing, the rapid increase of our manufacturers, and the supplies we obtain from abroad, quiet all fears upon that subject. By the most authentic intelligence from Europe, we are informed that the people of France are ripe for a war with Britain, and will not omit the present opportunity of extending their commerce, and humbling their rival. Every State in Europe beheld with a jealous eye the growing power of the British empire, and the additional strength she daily received from this amazing continent; for they could not but perceive that their own security was diminished in proportion as her power to injure them increased. Whence is it, then, that some persons pretend to assure you that France, Spain, and the other European States, are not disposed to favour you? The wise and virtuous of all nations have pronounced our cause to be just, and approved the manner in which our resistance hath been conducted.
Whoever, therefore, considers the natural strength and advantage of this country, the distance it is removed from Britain, the obvious policy of many European Powers, the great supplies of arms and amunition cheerfully afforded us by the French and Spaniards, and the feeble and destitute condition of Britain—that she is drained of men and of money, obliged to hire foreign mercenaries for the execution of her wicked purposes; in arrears to her troops for a twelvemonth’s pay, which she cannot or will not discharge: her credit sunk; her trade ruined; her inhabitants divided; her King unpopular, and her Ministers execrated; that she is overwhelmed with a monstrous debt; cut off from the vast revenue heretofore obtained by taxes on American produce; her West India Islands in a starving condition; her ships taken; her merchants involved in bankruptcy; her design against us wicked, unjust, cruel, contrary to the laws of God and man, pursued with implacable, unrelenting vengeance, and in a manner barbarous and opposed to the usage of civilized nations;—whoever considers that we have humbly sought peace and been refused; that we have been denied even a hearing; all our petitions rejected; all our remonstrances disregarded; that we fight not for conquest but only for security; that our cause is the cause of God, of human nature and posterity: whoever we say seriously considers these things, must entertain very improper ideas of the Divine justice to which we have appealed, and be very little acquainted with the course of human affairs, to harbour the smallest doubt of our being successful.
Remember the long and glorious struggle of the United Netherlands against the power of Spain, to which they had once been subjected. Their extent was small, their country poor, their people far from numerous, and unaccustomed to arms, and in the neighbourhood of their enemies. Spain, at that time the most powerful kingdom in Europe, her fleet formidable, her armies great, inured to war, and led by the best generals of the age, and her Treasury overflowing with the wealth of Mexico and Peru—endeavoured to enslave them. They dutifully remonstrated against the design. Their petitions were treated with contempt, and fire and sword was carried into their country to compel submission. They nobly resolved to be free. They declared themselves to be independent States, and after an obstinate struggle, frustrated the wicked intentions of Spain.
Switzerland presents us with another instance of magnanimity. That country was oppressed by cruel tyrants, but the people refused to continue in bondage. With arms in their hands they expelled those tyrants, and left to their descendants the portion of freedom.
Even England, whose Genius now blushes for the degeneracy of her sons, hath afforded examples of opposition to tyranny which are worthy to be imitated by all nations. His sacred Majesty Charles the First, lost his head and his crown by attempting to enslave his subjects; and his sacred Majesty James the Second, was for the same reason expelled the kingdom, with his whole family, and the Prince of Orange chosen king in his stead. The English were too wise to believe that the person of any tyrant could be sacred, and never suffered any man to wear the crown who attempted to exercise the powers of royalty to the destruction of the people from whom those powers were derived.
This practice is not only consistent with human reason, but perfectly consonant to the will and practice of God himself. You know that the Jews were under his peculiar direction, and you need not be informed of the many instances in which he took the crown from such of their kings as refused to govern according to the laws of the Jews.
If then, God hath given us freedom, are we responsible to him for that, as well as other talents? If it be our birthright, let us not sell it for a mess of pottage, nor suffer it to be torn from us by the hand of violence! If the means of defence are in our power and we do not make use of them, what excuse shall we make to our children and our Creator? These are questions of the deepest concern to us all. These are questions which materially affect our happiness, not only in this world but in the world to come. And surely, “if ever a test for the trial of spirits can be necessary, it is now. If ever those of liberty and faction ought to be distinguished from each other, it is now. If ever it is incumbent on the people to know truth and to follow it, it is now.”
Rouse, therefore, brave Citizens! Do your duty like men! and be persuaded that Divine Providence will not permit this Western World to be involved in the horrours of slavery. Consider that, from the earliest ages of the world, Religion, Liberty and Empire, have been bounding their course toward the setting sun. The Holy Gospels are yet to be preached to those western regions, and we have the highest reason to believe that the Almighty will not suffer Slavery and the Gospel to go hand in hand! It cannot, it will not be.
But if there be any among us, dead to all sense of honour, and love of their country; if deaf to all the calls of liberty, virtue, and religion; if forgetful of the magnanimity of their ancestors, and the happiness of their children; if neither the examples nor the success of other nations, the dictates of reason and of nature, or the great duties they owe to their God, themselves, and their posterity, have any effect upon them; if neither the injuries they have received, the prize they are contending for, the future blessings or curses of their children, the applause or the reproach of all mankind, the approbation or displeasure of the Great Judge, or the happiness or misery consequent upon their conduct, in this and a future state, can move them;—then let them be assured, that they deserve to be slaves, and are entitled to nothing but anguish and tribulation. Let them banish from their remembrance the reputation, the freedom, and the happiness they have inherited from their forefathers. Let them forget every duty, human and divine; remember not that they have children: and beware how they call to mind the justice of the Supreme Being: let them go into captivity, like the idolatrous and disobedient Jews, and be a reproach and a by-word among the nations.
But we think better things of you. We believe, and are persuaded, that you will do your duty like men, and cheerfully refer your cause to the great and righteous Judge. If success crown your efforts, all the blessings of Freedom will be your reward. If you fail in the contest, you will be happy with God and Liberty in Heaven.