What is your favorite quote by a Revolutionary?
“I see one head turning into thirteen.” Washington said this several times in the closing years of the war. After independence, it was THE crucial issue.
“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” —James Madison, “The Federalist, No. 51”
“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” —John Adams, closing argument, trial of the soldiers for the Boston Massacre
“A newspaper in South Carolina in the present state of their affairs would be equal to at least two regiments,” wrote Benjamin Rush to Nathanael Greene, September 4, 1781.
“The ancient Roman and Greek orators could only speak to the number of citizens capable of being assembled within the reach of their voice. Their writings had little effect, because the bulk of the people could not read. Now by the press we can speak to nations… the facility, with which the same truths may be repeatedly enforced by placing them daily in different lights in newspapers, which are everywhere read, gives a great chance of establishing them. And we now find, that it is not only right to strike while the iron is hot, but that it may be very practicable to heat it by continually striking,” wrote Benjamin Franklin to Richard Price, June 13, 1782.
On November 15, 1775 – before the publication of Common Sense, and long before Congress would declare independence – Mercy Otis Warren told John Adams that the Congress “should no longer piddle at the threshold. It is time to leap into the theatre, to unlock the bars, and open every gate that impedes the rise and growth of the American republic, and then let the giddy potentate send forth his puerile proclamations to France, to Spain and all the commercial world who may be united in building up an Empire which he can’t prevent.” She then composed some verse, “extempore”:
At leisure then may G[eor]ge his reign review,
And bid to empire and to crown adieu.
For lordly mandates and despotic kings
Are obsolete like other quondam things.
Having recently returned from Quebec where he assisted in the defeat of the Continental Army’s early landings at Fort St. John’s, Sir William Johnson’s mixed-blood son, William Johnson Jr., aggressively confronted Colonel Jacob Klock, commander of the 2nd Tryon County Militia regiment and a Palatine District committee member. William was “accoutered with two pistols, a gun and a Broadsword on his side.” He declared – “I am a King’s Man, who dare say anything aginst it…” William was known variously as Tagawirunta, William Johnson Jr., or William of Canajoharie. The quote is found in Klock’s report to the County Committee on 07Nov75. William’s expostulations continued , “I have Killed so many Yankies at Fort St. John’s with this Sword of my Father, they are no Soldiers at all. I kill’d and scalp’d, and kick-d their arses, etc… etc…” Penrose, Maryly B., ed., Mohawk Valley in the Revolution, Committee of Safety Papers & Genealogical Compendium (Franklin Park, NJ: Liberty Bell Associates, 1978).
From Thomas Paine: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny like hell is not easily conquered yet we have this consolation with us, the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”
MG William Phillips: “Where a goat can go, a man can go. And where a man can go, he can drag a gun.” referring to taking high ground prior to the recapture of Ft. Ticonderoga.
“The Troops I had the Honor to command have been so fortunate as to obtain a compleat Victory over a Detachment from the British Army commanded by Lt. Colonel Tarlton. The Action happened on the 17th Instant about Sunrise at the Cowpens. It perhaps would be well to remark, for the Honour of the American Arms, that altho’ the progress of this Corps was marked with Burnings and Devastations & altho’ they have waged the most cruel Warfare, not a man was killed, wounded or even insulted after he surrendered. Had not Britons during this contest received so many Lessons of Humanity, I should flatter myself that this might teach them a little, but I fear they are incorrigible.” -Daniel Morgan to Nathaniel Greene, 19 January 1781
“We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again. The whole country is one continuous scene of blood and slaughter.”—Nathanael Greene in letter to Chevalier de la Luzerne, April 28, 1781
My favorite snarky quote is from John Adams (of course) suspecting Britain’s attempts to get the European monarchies and aristocracy to mobilize against the American colonies’ cause of liberty: “By Intelligence hourly arriving from abroad We are more and more confirmed, that a Kind of Confederation will be formed among the Crowned Skulls, and numbskulls of Europe, against Human Nature.” -From John Adams to John Trumbull, 13 February 1776
My favorite awesome quote is from George Washington at war’s end, and guessing that the hardships of the Continental Army will never be remembered in history: “… for it will not be believed that such a force as Great Britain has employed for eight years in this Country could be baffled… by numbers infinitely less, composed of men oftentimes half starved, always in Rags, without pay, and experiencing, at times, every species of distress which human nature is capable of undergoing.” -From George Washington to Nathanael Greene, 8 July 1783From George Washington to Nathanael Greene, 8 July 1783
Before the Battle of Bennington Vermont, Brigadier General John Stark reportedly said: “There are your enemies, the Red Coats and Tories. They are ours or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow”
Later at age 81, Stark wrote to veterans returning to Bennington to celebrate the battle in a letter, which ended: “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils”
Live free or die is now the New Hampshire state motto memorialized on residents auto license plates.
Aside from the egalitarian and natural rights portions of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, I have two favorite quotations from revolutionaries. One is that of Captain Levi Preston of Danvers, Massachusetts. When asked why he had soldiered on the first day of the war, he responded: “[W]hat we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.” My second favorite is Washington’s remark on learning of Lexington and Concord: a “Brother’s Sword has been sheathed in a Brother’s breast.”
Scowling, determined John Stark at Bennington, “We’ll beat them before night or Molly Stark’s a widow.”
Nathaneal Greene describing his own troops but could be describing American fortunes throughout the war: “We fight, get beaten, rise, and fight again.”
Greene once complained of injury received when he was thrown by “a very vitious Horse with tory principles.”
“I have not yet begun to fight” John Paul Jones. Did he actually say that or not? Either way it is a great quote.
There are so many. Here’s one of my favorites, from King George III to Lord North (in Nov, 1774):
“I am not sorry that the line of conduct seems now chalked out… the New England Governments are in a state of rebellion, blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent.” Blows indeed did decide. But the quote also encapsulates the ignorance of the British elite, for in 1774, the Americans did not want independence, they just wanted good and fair government, represented by Americans. Had George III acted differently, America might have ended up a Commonwealth country.
George Washington to Nathanael Greene, 6 Feb. 1783: “If Historiographers should be hardy enough to fill the page of History with the advantages that have been gained with unequal numbers (on the part of America) in the course of this contest, & attempt to relate the distressing circumstances under which they have been obtained, it is more than probable that Posterity will bestow on their labors the epithet & marks of fiction for it will not be believed that such a force as Great Britain has employed for eight years in this Country could be baffled in their plan of Subjugating it by numbers infinitely less—composed of Men often times half starved—always in Rags—without pay—& experiencing, at times, every Species of distress which human nature is capable of undergoing.”
This one isn’t well known, nor is it a long statement, but I love General Sir Henry Clinton’s sarcastic references to Lord Cornwallis as “the noble earl.” Clinton often resorted to that phrase when Cornwallis did something that Clinton didn’t like. The effect is best when the phrase appears in context, and it gives great insight into the anger arising from the feud between the two.
“…the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph” – Thomas Paine in The American Crisis
What about you? What’s your favorite quote by a Revolutionary?