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I HAVE frequently referred, in several of the preceding biographies, to the powerful eloquence of several of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Of its nature, the reader should be correctly informed.
Rhetoric, as taught in the schools, as defined in the lexicons, and as practised in times of prosperous peace and leisure like the present, is not the kind that graced the Continental Congress.
Not to leave the reader to depend upon a picture drawn by my own fancy and imagination, I will present the delineation as drawn by those who saw and felt its influence, at the time it illuminated the legislative hall, roused men to deeds of noble daring, and gave freedom to our happy country.
One of the illustrious members of that body, John Adams, has said: "Oratory, as it consists in expressions of the countenance, graces of attitude and motion, and intonation of voice, although it is altogether superficial and ornamental, will always command admiration, yet it deserves little veneration. Flashes of wit, corruscations of imagination and gay pictures, what are they? Strict truth, rapid reason, and pure integrity, are the only essential ingredients in oratory. I flatter myself, that Demosthenes, by his action! action! action!' meant to express the same opinion.”
Another eminent writer, who had often felt the force of this, the kind of eloquence exhibited by the sages of the revolution, in describing that of the illustrious statesman just named, remarked; “It was bold, manly, and energetic, but such as the crisis required. When public bodies are to be addressed on momentous occasions, when great interests are at stake, and strong passions excited, nothing is valuable in speech farther than is connected with high intellectual endowments. Clearness, force and earnestness are qualities which produce conviction. True eloquence, indeed, does not consist in speech. It cannot be brought from far. Labour and learning may toil for it, but they toil in vain. Words and phrases may be marshalled in every way, but they cannot compass it. "It must exist in the man, in the subject, and in the occasion. Affected passion, intense expression, the pomp of declamation, all may aspire after it, but they cannot reach it. It comes, if it comes at all, like the outbreaking of a fountain from the earth, or the bursting forth of volcanic fires, with spontaneous, original, native force. The graces taught in schools, the courtly ornaments and studied contrivances of speech, shock and disgust men when their own lives, and the lives of their wives and children, and their country, hang on the decisions of the hour. Then
words have lost their power, rhetoric is vain, and all elaborate oratory contemptible. Even genius itself, then feels rebuked and subdued, as in the presence of higher qualities. Then patriotism is eloquent, then self-devotion is eloquent. The clear conception outrunning the deductions of logic; the high purpose, the firm resolve, the dauntless spirit speaking on the tongue, beaming from the eye, informing every feature, and urging the whole man onward-right onward to his object-this, this is eloquence, or rather, it is something greater and higher than eloquence—it is action, noble, sublime, and god-like action.”
This was the kind of eloquence that characterized the Continental Congress, and sounded an alarum that vibrated the souls of millions, and often drove back the purple current upon the aching heart. No long, no set, no written speeches were then crowded upon dience to kill time and make a show. Governor M.Kean, who was constantly a member during the revolution, remarked, shortly before his death, “I do not recollect any formal speeches, such as are made in the British Parliament, and in our late Congresses, to have been made in the Revolutionary Congress. We had no time to hear such speeches, little for deliberation-action was the order of the day."
Of the kind of eloquence above described, GEORGE Ross possessed a large share. This faithful public servant was the son of the Rev. George Ross, pastor of the Episcopal Church at New Castle, Delaware, and was born in 1730, at that ancient town. Under the parental roof, and under the instruction of his father, his strong native talents unfolded their beauties, and at the age of eighteen he became a good classical scholar. He then commenced the study of law with John Ross, an elder brother, in the city of Philadelphia, where he was admitted to the bar in 1751. In order to have more elbow-room he located at Lancaster, then a border town near the confines of civilization, and verging on the "far west."
Noble in his disposition, agreeable and plain in his manners, learned and diligent in his profession, candid, honest, and just in his course, he succeeded in gaining the confidence and esteem of the people, and a lucrative practice. In addition to all this, in order to plant himself more firmly in his new location, he married Miss Ann Lawler, an amiable and highly respectable lady, who proved an affectionate and worthy companion.
He built his legal fame upon its legitimate basis, close application to his professional business unconnected with public politics. At the present day, many young men, unfortunately for themselves, when they are admitted to the practice of law, at once enter the political arena, for the purpose of obtaining professional notoriety and business. This conclusion is based upon false premises, and has prevented many from rising to a legal eminence that a contrary course would have gained. Sacred writ has declared, no man can serve two masters.” This is particularly the case with a young lawyer at the present day; the American revolution was a different thing. When he becomes devoted to the interests of a policical party, a ant that exacts the most abject and humiliating services, either his business, or that of
the party must be neglected. Reflecting men know this, and aware that it requires close study and diligent application to become learned in the law, they keep aloof from young political lawyers. A few high toned partisans may employ them in small matters, but if they have an important case, the studious, industrious attorney, who has not imbibed the corrupting atmosphere of modern politics, is the man of their choice. A word to the wise should be sufficient.
It was not until long after his location at Lancaster that Mr. Ross commenced his legislative course. The time had already arrived when the people began to feel the smart of British oppression, and became more particular in selecting men of known worth, integrity and talents, to guard their interests against the machinations of an avaricious and designing ministry. They accordingly elected Mr. Ross a member of the colonial legislature in October, 1768. His reputation then stood high as an able lawyer and as a man of liberal views, sound judgment and decision of character. He at once exercised a salutary influence in the assembly, and took a bold and decided stand in favour of the people's rights. At that time it was the custom of the legislature to reply to the messages of the royal governor in extenso, or at large. Mr. Ross was appointed to prepare an answer to one of these documents at the first session of his service. In that as at all subsequent times, he boldly objected to every proposition that he considered impolitic or in opposition to the rights and best interests of the people. He became a faithful and fearless sentinel, a vigorous and able champion in the cause of liberty. He continued to serve in the legislature of his own colony until he was elected to Congress. He was one of the committee that prepared a consonant reply to the speaker of the house of burgesses of Virginia in answer to the resolutions recommending a general convention of delegates to deliberate upon the condition of the country. In every leading measure in favour of freedom, he was among the leading men.
In 1774, he was appointed a delegate to the Congress convened at Philadelphia, and repaired promptly to the post of duty. He was one of the committee of the assembly that determined on sending delegates to the general convention, and was appointed by that committee to prepare the instructions of that body to govern these delegates in their action. As these instructions are similar in their main features to those adopted by the other colonies, I here insert them that the reader may see that peaceable redress of grievances was all that was at that time contemplated by the sages of the revolution.
“The trust reposed in you is of such a nature, and the modes of executing it may be so diversified in the course of your deliberations, that it is scarcely possible to give you particular instructions respecting it. We shall therefore only in general direct, that you are to meet in Congress the committees of the several British colonies at such time and place as shall be generally agreed on, to consult together on the present critical and alarming situation and state of the colonies, and that you, with them, exert your utmost endeavours to form and adopt a plan which shall afford the best prospect of obtaining a redress of American grievances, ascertaining American rights, and establishing that union and harmony which is most essential to the welfare and happiness of both countries. And in doing this, you are strictly charged to avoid every thing indecent or disrespectful to the mother state."
Under instructions like these the first general Congress assembled; agreeably to instructions like these that august body acted. All honourable means were used to restore peace on the part of the colonists that were required by the constitution of England, more was offered than reason and strict justice demanded. Nothing but an infatuation making men blind, deaf and dumb, could have resisted the appeals and consummate arguments in favour of chartered and violated rights that were poured upon the king, the parliament and the people of Great Britain, from the deep, the translucent fountain of intelligence concentrated in the Congress of 1774. The members were determined to clear their own skirts of blood and not draw the bow of physical opposition until their arrows were dipped in the liquid fire of eternal justice and fixed in the quiver of wisdom.
Mr. Ross was continued a member of the Continental Congress until 1777, when ill health compelled him to retire. He rendered important services on numerous committees, and was a strong and truly eloquent debater in the house. He also served, when his congressional duties would permit, in the legislature of Pennsylvania, in which he continued to exercise an essential influence. The governor and his friends were on the alert to thwart the designs of the patriots, and for some time presented a formidable opposition. To raise the foundation of this royal mass, Mr. Ross placed his whole weight upon the political lever, and contributed largely in breaking it up. He was a member of the colonial convention that commenced the new government, and one of the committee that prepared the declaration of rights on that occasion. He was chairman of the committee that formed the organization of the state government, and of the one that prepared the declaratory ordinance defining high treason and misprision of treason, and the kind and measure of punishment to be inflicted. Upon committees like these, his high legal acquirements rendered him an important member. He was a profound lawyer and an able statesman, and well prepared to aid in laying deep the foundations of rational liberty.
On the 19th of July, 1779, he was appointed judge of the court of admiralty for Pennsylvnnia, and in July following was called suddenly and unexpectedly to witness the untried scenes of a boundless eternity. His death was occasioned by an excruciating attack of the gout.
Thus in the full career of life and usefulness, rising on the wings of fame, flushed with the hopes of liberty for his country, pressing right onward towards the goal of freedom, an arrow from the quiver of death pierced his patriotic heart and consigned him to the insatiate tomb. There his dust reposes in peace whilst the lustre of his examples when living will continue to shine and will be admired by millions yet unborn.
Immediately after he closed his legislative career, the citizens of Lancaster county passed two resolutions of the following tenor.
“Resolved, that the sum of one hundred and fifty pounds out of the county stock, be forth with transmitted to George Ross, ('Honourable' was not then republican,) one of the members of the assembly for this county, and one of the delegates for this colony in the Continental Congress; and that he be requested to accept the same, as a testimony from this county of their sense of his attendance on the public business, to his great private loss, and of their approbation of his conduct.
Resolved, that if it be more agreeable, Mr. Ross purchase with part of the said money a genteel piece of plate, ornamented as he thinks proper,
to remain with him as a testimony of the esteem this county has for him, by reason of his patriotic conduct in the great struggle for American liberty."
Here is old fashioned republican simplicity in language and expression, flowing from its native fountain-gratitude strongly felt and plainly told-forming a bold contrast with the fulsome flattery of modern times showered upon our statesmen by fawning sycophants, whose gratitude is based alone upon the loaves and fishes of favour and office.
Mr. Ross declined accepting the gift, assuring the committee that waited upon him, that he had performed no more than his duty, and that at such a period all were bound to exert their noblest energies to secure their liberty, which would afford a reward more precious than gold, more valuable than diamonds.
In private as in public life, he stood approved and untarnished. No blemish is upon the proud escutcheon of the name of George Ross.
MODERATION, arising from sound discretion and deep penetration of judgment, united with wisdom to plan, and energy to execute, is always desirable, and, in times of high excitement, indispensably necessary in those who wield the destinies of a community. When the fires of passion burning in the bosoms of an enraged multitude unite in one cyclopean volume, the mental rod of moderation managed by skilful hands can alone guide, regulate, and direct it to a proper destination. To this quality, pre-eminently possessed by many of the sages of the American revolution, we owe the liberty we now enjoy. It was this that gave weight and dignity to the proceedings of the Continental Congress; leaving the mother country without an excuse for oppression and exciting the sympathy of other nations in favour of the cause of liberty.
No one demonstrated more fully the beauties of moderation, combined with firmness of purpose and boldness of action, than BENJA