“With their pens and their voices they stirred themselves and the world.”
– Jan R. Van Meter
During our early American history, our early leaders coined a number of important phrases that embodied the American spirit.
Every American man should take on the task of studying the words of these founders and learning what they truly said and thought. Not only will you learn more about our nation’s history, but you will gain insights into modern politics… and the changes that have occurred in the last two hundred years.
To start in that study, read these three influential slogans and the stories behind them.
“We Shall Be As A City Upon A Hill”
John Winthrop, 1630
As a group of Puritan colonists sponsored by the Massachusetts Bay Company sailed to New England, these now-famous words were spoken by Governor Winthrop in a sermon. Speaking of the importance of the work that was before them, Winthrop showed the responsibilities the colonists owed each other, rejoiced in the possible success and warned of the danger of failure.
Near the end of his sermon, John Winthrop uttered this well-known line:
For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world.
Winthrop’s famed phrase was an allusion to Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.”
Landing in North America, Winthrop and his fellow settlers founded the city of Boston. A little more than 130 years later, Boston once again lead the way in the American revolution.
“No Taxation Without Representation”
Probably James Otis, 1763
During another war between England and France, the Seven Year’s War, the hostilities spread from Europe to the colonies. Although the British ultimately won the French and Indian War, as it was called in the colonies, the war took its financial toll. Already heavily taxing their citizens at home and looking for ways to alleviate the national debt, Parliament, not without justification, decided to tax the colonies also.
Angry at this new intervention and particularly frustrated by their lack of representation in Parliament, the colonists opposed this bill. James Otis, a successful Boston lawyer and mentor of many of the leading founders, wrote a pamphlet titled, “The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved” in which he argued that, since the colonies had no Parliamentarian delegates, they could not be taxed.
Who used the precise wording that became so popular is not known (it might have been Otis himself), but whoever the author, the effect of this slogan was clear: it became one of the main rallying cries of the American revolution and summarized one of the most important reasons for our break with England.
“Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death!”
Patrick Henry, 1775
Before the war had officially broken out between the American colonies and the British crown, the Virginia legislature was discussing The situation and trying to determine the best course of action.
As the meetings slowly progressed, Patrick Henry, wisely recognizing the coming conflict, sponsored a motion to form a Virginian militia. To support this measure, Patrick Henry gave one of the most influential speeches in American history.
After speaking respectfully of his opponents and briefly touching on the topic of treason (of which he had been accused), Patrick Henry used a series of rhetorical questions to prove the impossibility of peace, and ended with an energetic call for action:
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the batter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace – but there is not peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!
I know not the course that others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
His speech carried the day, and the legislature ruled to form a militia and send two representatives to the newly-formed Continental Congress.
With his “City on a Hill” speech, John Winthrop exemplified the ideals of early American colonists. With his argument against taxation without representation, James Otis lead the way toward freedom. With his fiery declaration of “liberty or death”, Patrick Henry stirred his fellow representatives to action.
All three of these quotes contributed greatly to the formation of our new, American form of government and give us, today, insights into the thoughts of these early American leaders.
What other quotes have helped shape history?