Bidwell Lore – An Oration by Barnabas Bidwell, Part V

Welcome to Bidwell Lore number 113! This week we continue to share the speech that Reverend Bidwell’s son Barnabas Bidwell delivered on July 4th 1795 during an Independence celebration in Stockbridge. You can read Part I HERE, Part II HERE, Part III HERE and Part IV HERE.

Note: The original speech Barnabas Bidwell delivered is VERY long. I can only hope July 4th, 1795, was not an exceedingly hot day for all of those who attended. I am planning to share excerpts over the next few weeks that get to the core of Barnabas’ message, which is why the citizens of Stockbridge, in 1795, should be celebrating American Independence. Keep in mind that while Barnabas makes some very salient points about freedom and liberty, he was living in a time when these freedoms mostly applied to white men. He does not mention the plight of the enslaved peoples in America nor of the Indigenous peoples displaced by the Europeans, though he was morally opposed to slavery which you can begin reading more about HERE – Heather Kowalski



CONSTITUTIONAL questions had undergone every possible discussion, in conversation, and innumerable free publications from the Press, as well as in the deliberative Conventions, expressly holden for that purpose. But as perfection is not to be found on this side heaven; as in politics, no less than philosophy, theory must yield to experiment; as the art of government is practical and progressive; as it is beyond the utmost scope of human sagacity to foresee the precise operation of every clause, and is therefore impossible to devise at once all the checks necessary to prevent the abuse of delegated power; as the manners and circumstances of a people also gradually change and require correspondent changes in their forms of government; for these reasons the United States and some of the particular States have wisely provided constitutional modes of amendment. The object of these provisions is to steer the vessel of State in safety between Scylla and Charibdis; to shun the evils of hasty innovations, on one side, and the obstinate inveteracy of long continued errors, on the other; to introduce seasonable improvements, and counteract the effects of human fallibility by the verifying test of experience; to effect all this, without disturbing the settled course of things or hazarding the public tranquility by popular commotions. A number of amendments have accordingly been already introduced, in the mode prescribed, without the least symptom of a ferment or any dangerous consequences. With this principle of self-correction and improvement, the Federal Constitution promises to survive those contentions of parties, which always have existed and doubtless will continue to exist, till man shall be divested of his selfish nature, and which have overwhelmed other governments in factions, convulsions and sanguinary revolutions.

BUT though they, who create, can destroy; though a people may lawfully reform or annul their Constitution, when and how they please; that is a prerogative, which ought never to be usurped by an ordinary legislature; lest their alterations, instead of being founded upon the broad basis of general principles, should be adapted to the temporary exigencies of parties. The Constitution of France, we have seen, is in a state of fluctuation, which renders it little more than a mere pretence. That of Great-Britain, however extolled by some writers, as concentering the practical wisdom of ages, may be changed, as it has been repeatedly and essentially, by Parliament, without any new authority derived from the people…But in America, a Constitution is defined and inviolable. Our Representatives cannot prolong their duration from one to three and from three to seven years. In other important respects there is a wide difference in our favour. Neither our chief magistrates, nor the Senatorial branch of our Legislatures, hold their offices by hereditary descent, which, instead of rewarding merit with promotion, treats wise men and fools, honest men and knaves, as equally entitled to public confidence, or rather gives the preference to folly and vice, by removing from those who are born to office, many of the incentives to exertion and many restraints, which are the useful guardians of virtue. All our rulers proceed from the people, either by immediate election, or by appointment from those who are thus elected; and no one is exalted above responsibility. Our governments admit no political distinctions, but such as are the result of personal acquisition. We are not burthened with sinecure offices, which in monarchies are doubly convenient, as establishments for needy favourites and means of increasing the monarch’s or the minister’s patronage. Though public worship is here ordained by law, not only for purposes which relate to eternity, but as one efficacious method of instructing, reforming and meliorating the citizens, everyone has an undisturbed enjoyment of the rights of conscience. No Dissenters are here tithed for the support of a national church, while they have the additional expence of paying their own clergy. We have no Birminghams, no Manchesters or Sheffields, large, populous towns, containing a hundred thousand inhabitants, excluded from the darling privilege of Representation. We have no Old Sarums or Newtons, corporations owned by single individuals, each possessing a right to send two members to the popular branch of the Legislature. Our representation is founded upon the just principles of equality, and is proportionate to taxation. Men of fortune, living in our capitals, cannot procure themselves to be elected in obscure country places, where they are known only by their agents and their largesses. With great propriety our elections are confined to Residents, who being daily seen in the usual occupations of life, will generally possess a similarity of sentiments with their constituents, or at least such as they approve.

BUT it would be a trespass upon the patience of a holyday audience to pursue this comparison of constitutional privileges into the minuteness of detail. Other distinctions have an equal claim to attention. Our distance from Europe is a circumstance which ought not to be omitted, in enumerating the advantages of United America. The neighbourhood of independent kingdoms is a source of endless contention. Every attentive reader of history knows that most of the wars, which for a century past, have crimsoned the European world with blood, though primarily caused by the restless ambition of kings and their ministers, have been immediately occasioned by territorial disputes and interferences, which exist only among jealous neighbours. Take the map of Europe, and observe the geographical relations of the several countries delineated on it; and if you recollect their histories, you cannot but be struck with the idea, that contiguous States are naturally rivals, and consequently enemies; while those that have an alternate position, are as naturally allies and friends. Great-Britain and France have generally been actuated by a mutual, hereditary antipathy. So have France and Austria—So likewise have Austria and Turkey. Meanwhile the British and the Austrians, the French and the Turks, have felt a reciprocal propensity to unite in alliance. The Turks and Russians are mortal enemies, on the score of contiguity and interference. For the same reason, the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia, although Catharine and Frederic wickedly combined, for the temporary purpose of dismembering Poland, are, from their local situation, natural enemies, and will in common times be moved by a spirit of repulsion; while Prussia and Turkey will as naturally be inclined towards each other by a political attraction. The rule may be extended to other countries, with some exceptions, arising from family compacts and other intervening causes. Hence if any two of the great powers enter the lists, they are able, by existing treaties, by faction or the arts of negociation, to involve their whole neighbourhood of nations with them in one common calamity. Were we situated in the same continental vicinity, the matchless prudence and firmness of a WASHINGTON would be insufficient to prevent our being drawn into the general vortex. Standing armies, at once the bane of industry and the engines of oppression, would immediately become necessary, to guard against those of our rivals. Wars, with all their millions of plagues, would be frequent and inevitable. An enormous public debt, forever increasing, from unavoidable exigencies or the conveniences of administration, would anticipate the revenues of future years and hang a mill-stone about the neck of industry and liberty. Taxation, in all its odious British forms, would stare us in the face. These are some of the evils, which would attend a situation within the atmosphere of European politics. But at the fortunate distance of three thousand miles, with an Ocean rolling between, we may more safely be the spectators of their jealousies, their competitions and intrigues, and profit by their follies, without becoming actors in their tragic scenes. I am happy that I can verify this observation, by a reference to the present state of our country. Notwithstanding Europe is convulsed with the most formidable combination, and exhausted by the greatest military exertions, which this century has witnessed; notwithstanding our commerce has suffered considerable interruption from the depredations of the belligerent powers, especially the British, who have long usurped the empire of the Ocean, and proudly assumed a right to dictate the maritime laws of nations; notwithstanding our citizens have felt the indignation naturally excited by such abuses, sharpened by the additional sense of former injuries; notwithstanding a foreign Ambassador, artfully availing himself of these impressions upon the public mind, and affecting to forget the acknowledged laws of nations, impudently presumed to interfere in our politics, by appealing from the constituted authorities to the body of the people, by forming societies in imitation of the revolutionary clubs in France, by arming vessels of war in our ports, and attempting to engage headstrong individuals in acts of hostility, for the purpose of impelling us as a nation, into the sanguinary contest; notwithstanding certain characters, among ourselves, some doubtless from patriotic and others from selfish motives, impatiently clamoured for war; yet, under the auspices of the illustrious WASHINGTON, blessed with the approving smiles of heaven, we have hitherto escaped the contagion…

Next week we come to the end of Barnabas’ speech.