Oration on the Power and Value of National Liberty.

Delivered to a large assembly of citizens, at Milestown, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday, March 4th 1801, the day on which Mr. Jefferson was elected president.

Disguise thyself as thou wilt, still, Slavery, still thou art a bitter draught; and though thousands in all ages have been made to drink of thee, thou art no loss bitter on that account.


GENTLEMEN,—The subject to which I mean to call your attention on this distinguished occasion, is the POWER AND VALUE OF NATIONAL LIBERTY; a subject of all other earthly concerns the most interesting to men; but particularly so to freemen. It is indeed with the deepest consciousness of my utter inability to do justice to so noble a theme, that I venture to address you on this auspicious day; but trusting with all my deficiences, to the indulgence of this numerous and respectable assembly, many of whom I know have hazarded their lives in defence of liberty, and all of whom I trust glory in this inestimable inheritance, I solicit for myself your kind and patient attention.

There is not, perhaps, in the whole English language, a more expressive term than the word liberty. The very sound seems to inspire with ardour, and to rouse the heart to energy. Among the ancient Romans it was a sacred and soul-inspiring name, that animated their legions to battle, and resounded in times of peace, through that immense Republic, in songs of triumph. During your late arduous, but triumphant struggle for independence, in this western world, with a powerful and inveterate antagonist; a kingdom of soldiers and seamen, provided with every necessary, and every implement of destruction in abundance, against an infant colony of farmers and woodsmen, without fleets, without armies, unpractised in the bloody arts of war and dispersed over an immense country; it was this inspiring name, liberty, that collected from every direction your gallant youths, that created arms, heroes, and armies, that bore you on through every danger and every difficulty, to victory and glory, and drove your enemies before you back to the ocean, as the gloomy clouds of the east roll back before the irresistible fury of the roaring north-west. It was this illustrious name, and your glorious example, that roused, as if by electricity, a great, but deeply oppressed nation, of twenty-five millions of people, to burst the chains and rivetted shackles of despotism as in a moment, and to hurl back the accumulated vengeance of ages of sufferings on the heads of their overwhelmed oppressors. It was this that demolished the gloomy dungeons of the Bastile—that dethroned and devoted to punishment, a once powerful monarch, and has rendered the French nation not only invincible, but victorious over the whole combined arms of Europe.

How astonishing that one word should produce such extraordinary effects; and more astonishing still, if, as some persons assert, this thing liberty be nothing more than a name—an ideal notion, that exists but in imagination. Amazing, indeed, that a mere name—an ideal notion—should inspire millions of men to scorn every danger, to face death in its most terrible forms, and glory, with their expiring breath, in their cause! No, gentlemen, the heroes of America, thank Heaven! have demonstrated to the world that liberty is something more than a name—something more than a notion;—that it is a blessed and substantial reality, the great strength and happiness of nations, and the universal and best friend of man.

In order to give you a concise and comprehensive definition of true liberty, it will be necessary for me, in the first place, to observe, that there have been people in the world weak or wicked enough to believe that liberty was the right and privilege of doing just whatever they pleased. This, so far from being liberty, is the most complete tyranny, and would if adopted, introduce universal anarchy, and the total subversion of all society. The strong would overpower the weak; they, in their turn, would prey upon and devour one another; all right, justice, and civilization, would be completely swept away, and nothing left of man but an unprincipled herd of ferocious savages. This, therefore, cannot be true liberty, even according to these gentlemen’s own opinions; for it would then be no imaginary notion, no airy dream, but a most dreadful reality indeed.