“Bad literature is a form of treason” – Joseph Brodsky
I don’t know about you, but when I’m plotting treason against the King, I find it very important to know who is in the room. On the evening of July 4th, 1776, the members of the Continental Congress sat in Philadelphia, staring at the document that lay before them and arguing vociferously about the details as politicians are wont to do. Such hesitancy is understandable as there had as of yet been few times in history when a group of royal subjects had officially told the reigning monarch to go stuff himself in a formal letter. That’s the sort of thing that gets you unceremoniously drawn and quartered or hung from the nearest tree. As they hemmed and hawed and avoided putting their signatures on the document that would come to be known as the United States Declaration of Independence (wondering about how their necks would look in a noose), the solemn occasion was interrupted by a mysterious man, an individual who’s impassioned speech was said to have been the straw that broke the colonial camel’s back, and impelled them all to immediately affix their “John Hancock”, both literally and figuratively on the piece of paper that would change the course of human history. The problem is that nobody knew who this skilled orator and advocate for the rights of man was, he completely disappeared after delivering his hell and brimstone exhortation to sign, and subsequent descriptions of him suggest that he was pretty creepy. And in fact, nobody is sure it happened at all. Let’s set the stage.
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin had just presented the final draft of the Declaration based on the last editorial changes suggested by the Continental Congress. It sat there on the table. A stormy debate ensues tinged by last minute doubts involving axes, scaffolds, and gibbets, which would presumably be the expected fate of any signatory should the British get their hands on them. “’GIBBET!’ echoes a fierce, bold voice, that startles men from their seats—and look yonder! A tall slender man rises, dressed—although it is summer time—in a dark robe. Look how his white hand undulates as it is stretched slowly out, how that dark eye burns, while his words ring through the hall” (Lippard, 1847, p394). And reportedly, he delivered the following speech:
Gibbet! They may stretch our necks on all the gibbets in the land; they may turn every rock into a scaffold, every tree into a gallows, every home into a grave, and yet the words of that parchment can never die! “They may pour blood on a thousand scaffolds, and yet from every drop that dyed the axe, or drops on the sawdust of the block, a new martyr to freedom will spring into birth! The British king may blot out the stars of God from His sky, but he cannot blot out His words written on the parchment there. The work of God may perish. His word, never!
These words will go forth to the world when our bones are dust. To the slave in bondage, they will speak hope; to the mechanic in his workshop, freedom; to the coward kings these words will speak, but not in tones of flattery. They will speak like the flaming syllables on Belshazzar’s wall: ‘The days of your pride and glory are numbered! The day of judgment draws near!’ Yes, that parchment will speak to kings in language sad and terrible as the trumpet of the Archangel. You have trampled on the rights of mankind long enough. At last the voice of human woe has pierced the ear of God, and called his judgment down. You have waded on to thrones through seas of blood; you have trampled on to power over the necks of millions; you have turned the poor man’s sweat and blood into robes for your delicate forms; into crowns for your annointed brows. Now, purpled hangmen of the world! For you comes the day of axes, and gibbets, and scaffolds; for you the wrath of man; for you the lightning of God!
Look how the light of your palaces on fire flashes up into the midnight sky! Now, purpled hangmen of the world, turn and beg for mercy! Where will you find it? Not from God; for you have blasphemed His laws! Not from the people, for you stand baptized in their blood! Here you turn, and lo! a gibbet! There, and a scaffold stares you in the face! All around you death, but nowhere pity! Now, executioners of the human race, kneel down—yes, kneel down on the sawdust of the scaffold; lay your perfumed heads upon the block; bless the axe as it falls — the axe sharpened for the poor man’s neck.
Such is the message of the declaration of man to the kings of the world. And shall we falter now? And shall we start back appalled, when our feet press the very Threshold of Freedom? Do you see quailing faces around you, when our wives have been butchered—when the hearthstones of our lands are red with the blood of little children. What! Are there shrinking hearts or faltering voices here, when the very dead of our battlefields arise and call upon us to sign that parchment, or be accursed. “Sign! If the next moment the gibbet’s rope is around your neck. Sign! If the next moment this hall rings with the echo of the falling axe. Sign by all your hopes in life or death — as husbands, fathers—as men, sign your names to the parchment, or be accursed forever!
Sign! not for yourselves, but for all ages; for that parchment will be the text-book of freedom — the Bible of the rights of man forever. Sign, for the declaration will go forth to American hearts forever, and speak to those hearts like the voice of God. And its work will not be done until throughout this wide continent not a single inch of ground owns the sway of privilege or power.
Nay, do not start and whisper with surprise. It is a truth. Your hearts witness it; God proclaims it. This continent is the property of a free people, and their property alone. God, I say, proclaims it. Look at this strange history of a baud of exiles and outcasts suddenly transformed into a people. Look at this wonderful exodus of the Old World into the New, where they came, weak in arms but mighty in Godlike faith. Nay, look at the history of your Bunker Hill, your Lexington, where a band of plain farmers mocked, trampled down the panopoly of British arms, and then tell me, if you can, that God has not given America to the free.
It is not given to our poor human intellect to climb the skies, to pierce the counsels of the Almighty One. But methinks I stand among the awful clouds which veil the brightness of Jehovah’s throne. Methinks I see the Recording Angel—pale as an angel is pale, weeping as an angel can weep—come trembling up to the throne, and speaking his dread message: “Father! The Old World is baptized in blood! Father! it is drenched with the blood of millions, butchered in war, in persecution, in low, grinding oppression! Father, look! With one glance of Thine eternal eye, look over Europe, Asia, Africa, and behold evermore a terrible sight — man trodden down beneath the oppressor’s feet, nations lost in blood, murder and superstition walking hand in hand over the graves of their victims, and not a single voice to whisper hope to man.
He stands there, his hand trembling with the black record of human guilt. But hark! The voice of Jehovah speaks out from the awful cloud: ‘Let there be light again. Let there be a New World. Tell my people, the poor, down-trodden millions, to go out of the Old World. Tell them to go out from wrong, oppression and blood. Tell them to go out from the Old World to build up my altar in the New.
As God lives, my friends, I believe that to be His voice. Yes, were my soul trembling on the wing of eternity, were this hand freezing in death, were my voice choking with the last struggle, I would still, with my last gasp of voice, implore you to remember the truth—God has given America to be free. Yes, as I sank down into the gloomy shadows of the grave, with my last gasp I would beg you to sign that parchment in the name of One who made the Savior, who redeemed you in the name of the millions whose very breath is now hushed, in intense expectation, as they look up to you for the awful words, you are free!
Laboring men of America! The voice of Patrick Henry and the fathers of American Independence rings down through the corridors of time and tells you to strike. Not with glittering musket, flaming sword and deadly cannon; but with the silent, potent and all-powerful ballot, the only vestige of liberty left. Strike from yourselves the shackles of party slavery, and exercise independent manhood. Strike at the foundation of the evils which are threatening the existence of the Republic. Strike for yourselves, your families, your fellow man, your country and your God. Strike from the face of the land the monopolies and combinations that are eating out the heart of the Nation. Let the manhood of the Nation rise up in defense of liberty, justice and equality. Let the battle go on until all the people, from North to South and East to West, shall join in one loud acclaim, “Victory is ours, and the people are free!” (Morgan, 1891, p770-774)
The name and identity of the man has never been established, and various appellations have been attributed to him suggesting he was a Rosicrucian initiate, a Freemason, Francis Bacon, the Comte de St. Germain, and more mundanely some have proposed that it was just Patrick Henry himself. The tricky fellow managed to get out of locked and guarded doors without being seen after what was likely the most awesome speech given that year. There is of course, as always, a problem with provenance. The first problem is that there wasn’t a day when all the members of the Continental Congress got together and signed the Declaration of Independence.
On June 7, 1776, the “Lee Resolution” called for the drafting of the Declaration, a resolution that 12 of the 13 colonies approved (New York abstained). When the edited version of the Declaration was presented to the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, it was signed at the time by John Hancock and witnessed by his secretary Charles Thomson. It was copied, and then signed, sealed, and delivered to King George III of England with only Hancock and Thomson’s names affixed. All the other delegates got around to signing it over the course of the next several months, and eventually we had the fully endorsed document that everyone is familiar with today. The conclusion of most sober historians is that there was no mass signing, thus there was similarly no mysterious, vanishing stranger who delivered fiery oratory to shame them into manning up. At all times I try never to be mistaken as sober and I stay out of dark alleys where someone might think I was a historian, so I am still intrigued.
When did this version of events first appear? The speech included herein (and reproduced many times after) was originally from one of most widely read authors in antebellum America, George Lippard, published in Lippard’s 1847 work Washington and His Generals: or, Legends of the Revolution. Lippard, incredibly popular in his own time, but now almost completely forgotten, was a close associate of Edgar Allen Poe, not to mention a novelist, journalist, playwright, social activist, and labor organizer who was best known for Gothic tales and historical novels. What category Washington and His Generals falls into is not entirely clear. Is it fiction or folklore? In its introductory essay, written by Reverend C. Chauncey Burr explains, “Altogether we take this to be the best book that has been written on this portion of our history. In the dull popular idea of history, this book is not merely a history. It is something more. It is a series of battle pictures; with all the truth of history in them, where the heroes are made living, present and visible to our senses. Here we do not merely turn over the dead dry facts of General Washington’s battles, as if coldly digging them out of their tomb—but we see the living general as he moves round over the field of glory. We almost hear the word of his command. We are quite sure that we see the smoke rolling up from the field of battle, and hear the dreadful roar of the cannon, as it spouts its death-flame in the face of the living and the dead” (Lippard, 1847, pXVI). I expect one of you folks to write something equally kind when my posthumously published works turn out to be staggering works of genius. Try and include something about my modesty. At any rate, the publisher and Gothic fanboy Charles Chauncey Burr (nobody knows where the Reverend came from) was good buddies with Lippard and Poe and from the little we know about him, it appears he most famously had been publicity agent for Lola Montez, the former mistress of Ludwig I of Bavaria. So what we have is a parcel of intimate Gothic revivalists circling around this possible interpretation of the signing of the Declaration of independence. Yet our story does not end there.
This story inevitably caught the attention of folks interested in the occult history of America, particularly the influence of “hidden masters” as generally suggested by Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and Theosophists. The Canadian mystic Manly Palmer Hall’s 1928 The Secrets of All Ages seems to have revived Lippard’s account, where he commented, “In the old State House in Philadelphia a group of men were gathered for the momentous task of severing the last tie between the old country and the new. It was a grave moment and not a few of those present feared that their lives would be the forfeit for their audacity. In the midst of the debate a fierce voice rang out. The debaters stopped and turned to look upon the stranger. Who was this man who had suddenly appeared in their midst and transfixed them with his oratory? They had never seen him before, none knew when he had entered, but his tall form and pale face filled them with awe. His voice ringing with a holy zeal, the stranger stirred them to their very souls. His closing words rang through the building: “God has given America to be free!” As the stranger sank into a chair exhausted, a wild enthusiasm burst forth. Name after name was placed upon the parchment: the Declaration of Independence was signed. But where was the man who had precipitated the accomplishment of this immortal task–who had lifted for a moment the veil from the eyes of the assemblage and revealed to them a part at least of the great purpose for which the new nation was conceived? He had disappeared, nor was he ever seen again or his identity established. This episode parallels others of a similar kind recorded by ancient historians attendant upon the founding of every new nation. Are they coincidences, or do they demonstrate that the divine wisdom of the ancient Mysteries still is present in the world, serving mankind as it did of old?“ (Hall, 1928, p200). Nothing like a good timeless conspiracy to guide us down the path towards enlightenment a la Ancient Aliens, but Mr. Hall suggested that there was more to the story.
Some years ago, while visiting the Theosophical colony at Ojai, California, A.P. Warrington, esoteric secretary of the society, discussed with me a number of historical curiosities, which led to examination of his rare old volume of early American political speeches of a date earlier than those preserved in the first volumes of the Congressional Record. He made particular mention of a speech by an unknown man at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The particular book was not available at that moment, but Mr. Warrington offered to send me a copy of the speech, and he did; but unfortunately neglected to append the title or the date of the book. He went to India subsequently, and died at the Theosophical headquarters at Adyar, in Madras. Then, in May, 1938, the speech appeared in The Theosophist, official organ of the society published in Adyar. In all probability the original book is now in the library of the Theosophical society. There is no reason to doubt the accuracy and authenticity of Mr. Warrington’s copy, but I am undertaking such investigation as is possible to discover the source of the speech (Hall, 1944).
Given that most of the gentlemen involved in the Continental Congress had strong literary inclinations, one would figure that such a momentous and preternatural event would have been recorded by numerous individuals. And indeed, the claim is made that Thomas Jefferson noted the speech, including the duration of the applause throughout, yet the claim is unsourced and the Lippard version, the earliest extant makes no such notes. Jefferson’s writings and letters have been studied rather extensively, and no doubt someone would have provided a reference for such a bizarre and inexplicable incident as a mystery man berating the Continental Congress and vanishing. No such luck.
A 1911 work on early American political speeches positively identifies the mysterious speaker as Patrick Henry, the firebrand orator from Virginia and claims it was Henry’s speech on July 4, 1776 that inspired the members of Congress to sign the parchment (Blakely,1911, p87), which would be rather odd as it contains a clear third party reference to himself. Certainly, not unheard of in a political speech, but a little strange – it is perhaps because this is the only reference to an extant member that it was assumed to be Patrick Henry, but given how much we know about Henry, why would there be no contemporary record? Curiously, Parry’s Literary Journal of 1885 also makes the claim that Patrick Henry made the speech, and furthermore that it was published in the Boston Journal of 1776. There were a remarkable number of “Journals” in Boston in 1776, and if anybody wants to make a trip to the Library of Congress and see if they can paw through the newspaper archives, I highly recommend it as it might be illuminating. Sadly, I have a day job. Of course, even should the results of such a search rather mundanely explain that Patrick Henry is the source of the speech, there is still the problem that there was no mass signing of the Declaration of Independence, upon which the power of the diatribe depends.
From about 1847 onward, reproductions of the speech have been distributed as an exemplar of powerful rhetoric, the kind of thing English teachers really dig, variously attributed to “Patrick Henry” or “the Unknown Speaker” in about equal measure. Many say Lippard himself was trying to mythologize elements of the American Revolution, and as a gothic writer could not have resisted the temptation to add hints of the macabre, madness, and the sinister into his tale. Was the speech ever actually made? Did a powerful orator stand before the Continental Congress and castigate them for shrinking in the face of their duty? Does it matter? History is continuously rewritten. Lost books are found. Classics are found to be forgeries. Culture heroes, demigods, and brave ancestors are found never to have existed (or myths are found to be grounded in a reality). Vanished cities emerge from the sand. Timelines are adjusted. Rhetoricians agree that the unknown speaker’s forceful oration exquisitely, skillfully, and persuasively captures the ethos of a nascent America. One might even say it ranks among the best speeches never given. You know, like the one Russell Crowe gives at the beginning of Gladiator where he says, “Brothers! Three weeks from now I will be harvesting my crops. Imagine where you will be, and it will be so. Hold the line! Stay with me! If you find yourself alone, riding in green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled, for you are in Elysium, and you’re already dead! Brothers, what we do in Life echoes in Eternity!” I keep looking for a situation where I can use it.
Blakely, William Addison. American State Papers Bearing On Sunday Legislation. Rev. enl. ed. Washington, D.C.: The Religious liberty association, 1911.
Hall, Manly P. 1901-1990. The Secret Teachings of All Ages: an Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic, And Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy: Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings Concealed Within the Rituals, Allegories, And Mysteries of the Ages. Los Angeles, CA: Philosophical Research Society, 1928.
Hall, Manly Palmer. and Philosophical Research Society. The secret destiny of America Philosophical Research Society: Los Angeles, CA, 1944.
Lippard, George, 1822-1854. Washington and His Generals: Or, Legends of the Revolution. Philadelphia: G. B. Zieber and co., 1847.
Morgan, W. Scott. History of the Wheel and Alliance and the Impending Revolution. Hardy, Ark.: published by the author , 1891.