J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Identifying the Unknown Orator

In 1944, the author Manly P. Hall (a name that sounds made up, but isn’t) published a book called The Secret Destiny of America. It had this to say about the Continental Congress’s approval of the Declaration of Independence on this day 233 years ago:

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. . . . 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.

On July 4, 1776, in the old State House in Philadelphia, a group of patriotic men were gathered for the solemn purpose of proclaiming the liberty of the American colonies. From the letters of Thomas Jefferson which were preserved in the Library of Congress, I have been able to gather considerable data concerning this portentous session.

In reconstructing the scene, it is well to remember that if the Revolutionary War failed every man who signed the parchment then lying on the table would be subject to the penalty of death for high treason. It should also be remembered that the delegates representing the various colonies were not entirely of one mind as to the policies which should dominate the new nation.

There were several speeches. In the balcony patriotic citizens crowded all available space and listened attentively to the proceedings. Jefferson expressed himself with great vigor; and John Adams, of Boston, spoke and with great strength. The Philadelphia printer, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, quiet and calm as usual, spoke his mind with well chosen words. The delegates hovered between sympathy and uncertainty as the long hours of the summer days crept by, for life is sweet when there is danger of losing it. The lower doors were locked and a guard was posted to prevent interruption.

According to Jefferson, it was late in the afternoon before the delegates gathered their courage to the sticking point. The talk was about axes, scaffolds, and the gibbet, when suddenly a strong bold voice sounded—“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 our blood on a thousand scaffolds, and yet from every drop that dyes the axe a new champion of freedom will spring into birth! The British King may blot out the stars of God from the sky, but he cannot blot out His words written on that parchment there. The works of God may perish: His words never!

“The words of this declaration will live in the world long after our bones are dust. To the mechanic in his workshop they will speak hope: to the slaves in the mines freedom: but to the coward kings, these words will speak in tones of warning they cannot choose but hear...

“Sign that parchment! Sign, if the next moment the gibbet’s rope is about your neck! Sign, if the next minute this hall rings with the clash of falling axes! Sign, by all your hopes in life or death, as men, as husbands, as fathers, brothers, sign your names to the parchment or be accursed forever! Sign, and not only for yourselves, but for all ages, for that parchment will be the textbook of freedom, the bible of the rights of man forever.

“Nay, do not start and whisper with surprise! It is truth, your own hearts witness it: God proclaims it. Look at this strange band of exiles and outcasts, suddenly transformed into a people; a handful of men, weak in arms, but mighty in God-like faith; nay look at your recent achievements, your Bunker Hill, your Lexington, and then tell me, if you can, that God has not given America to be free!

“It is not given to our poor human intellect to climb to the skies, and to pierce the Council 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 come trembling up to that throne and speak his dread message. ‘Father, the old world is baptized in blood. Father, look with one glance of Thine eternal eye, and behold evermore that terrible sight, man trodden beneath the oppressor’s feet, nations lost in blood, murder, and superstition, walking hand in hand over the graves of the victims, and not a single voice of hope to man!’

“He stands there, the Angel, trembling with the record of human guilt. But hark! The voice of God speaks from out the awful cloud: ‘Let there be light again! Tell my people, the poor and oppressed, to go out from the old world, from oppression and blood, and build my altar in the new.’

“As I live, my friends, I believe that to be His voice! Yes, were my soul trembling on the verge of eternity, were this hand freezing in death, were this voice choking in the last struggle, I would still, with the last impulse of that soul, with the last wave of that hand, with the last gasp of that voice, implore you to remember this truth—God has given America to be free!

“Yes, as I sank into the gloomy shadows of the grave, with my last faint whisper I would beg you to sign that parchment for the sake of those millions whose very breath is now hushed in intense expectation as they look up to you for the awful words: ‘You are free.’”

The unknown speaker fell exhausted into his seat. The delegates, carried away by his enthusiasm, rushed forward. John Hancock scarcely had time to pen his bold signature before the quill was grasped by another. It was done.

The delegates turned to express their gratitude to the unknown speaker for his eloquent words.
He was not there.

Who was this strange man, who seemed to speak with divine authority, whose solemn words gave courage to the doubters and sealed the destiny of the new nation?

Unfortunately, no one knows. . . .

There are many interesting implications in his words.

He speaks of the ‘rights of man,’ although Thomas Paine’s book by that name was not published until thirteen years later.

He mentions the all-seeing eye of God which was afterwards to appear on the reverse of the Great Seal of the new nation.

In all, there is much to indicate that the unknown speaker was one of the agents of the secret Order, guarding and directing the destiny of America.
Actually, there is much to indicate—such as exact, line-by-line quoting at the start of the speech—that these words were derived from George Lippard’s Washington and His Generals; or, Legends of the Revolution, published in 1847.

Lippard was one of the great fictionalizers of the Revolution in the Philadelphia area. His “legends” were short stories with supernatural overlays and patriotic morals. Though he dropped historical names, he didn’t stick to historical details, such as when Congress actually voted for independence (2 July) and when delegates started signing the famous handwritten copy of the Declaration (2 August). And as histrionic as Hall’s exhortation looks, Lippard’s original version of “The Speech of the Unknown” was even more over the top.

Yet some people repeat this tale as if it were useful history. It’s been quoted by a future President, who had the false understanding, probably from Hall, that Jefferson had described the moment. Other writers have said that the unknown orator was an immortal named Count Saint-Germain, the angel Moroni, or future Maryland delegate John Hanson. But the identity of the unknown is quite simple—he’s fictional.


Bloomfield Bob said...

VERY timely and interesting for your 4 July entry. Thanks! This very topic was addressed in a recent documentary that aired on the History Channel, which tried to tie together the Founding Fathers with the Freemasons. I thought it odd, this mysterious speaker, and dismissed it. I'm too happy to see my hunch as correct, punctuated by your splendid research.

Rob Velella said...

Hooray to another George Lippard myth - and what an impassioned one, too!

J. L. Bell said...

Oh, no! Now that the Unknown Orator has been on television, we’ll never get rid of him!

EStaples said...

You can find record of the speech within the records of Thomas Jefferson kept in the National Archives. It predates Lippard’s novel

J. L. Bell said...

That’s a “[citation needed]” claim if I ever saw one. As the posting says, people have cited Thomas Jefferson’s letters as the basis of this myth for decades. Yet no one studying those papers has found confirmation or provided a specific citation.

To begin with, the National Archives doesn’t hold a collection of Jefferson’s own papers. The Library of Congress has the largest collection, and the Massachusetts Historical Society owns another large batch.

The National Archives does host Founders Online, not available when this posting appeared in 2009. That includes the published Papers of Thomas Jefferson, which was drawn from all known Jefferson collections and individual documents. A search for this speech on that site yields absolutely nothing.

Unknown said...

Believe it or not.But what us important is there was a speech and looking back after all these years ,we all should agree that the words of that speech has come to pass on the dot.In my mind ,that was nothing else but an Angel ,disguised as human in human flesh!

J. L. Bell said...

To the Unknown commenter, what’s important is that there was not a speech of this sort. This is a myth made up decades after the event. No one at the Continental Congress described such an event. I’m sorry that wasn’t completely clear in the posting above.

Mark P said...

This is very insightful, as I was trying To distinguish the difference from this speech and John Adam's impassioned speech three days before.
I am seeing that this one is legend, though, despite my beliefs. But, it is incredibly clear that there was divine intervention ave inspiration during these events, and unknown, angelic orator or not, God had a hand in the making of this Nation.

Unknown said...

They never even actually got together to sign the document. It was signed over the course of months…

J. L. Bell said...

There was a session in early August 1776 when most of the signatures we see on the Declaration were applied to the handsomely handwritten copy. A handful of additional signatures indeed went on later.

The myth quoted above made the common mistake of depicting the group signing on the 4th of July. On that date only John Hancock and secretary Charles Thomson signed the document, and it probably wasn’t that pretty, just clear enough to go to the printer.