Estimated reading time: 18 minute(s)

On July 4, 1923, Reverend Charles W. Lyons, S.J. delivered an Independence Day Oration at Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall. His oration was called “The American Mind.” The oration owed its name to an 1825 letter authored by Thomas Jefferson. In the speech, Reverend Lyons explains that the Founders drew their ideas from the experience and wisdom of the past, but that they were able to build a nation on those ideas because the sentiments of the American people of 1776 – “the American mind” – were in accord with the lofty ideas that had never found their home in a concrete State.

In this article, I will introduce Reverend Charles W. Lyons, provide a detailed point-by-point summary of his speech, offer my own thoughts on the speech, and then, in the end, reprint the entire speech for your reading enjoyment.

This is part of a series of articles on Independence Day. You may read the other entries here.

Who Was Reverend Charles W. Lyons, S.J.?

Charles W. Lyons was a Jesuit Priest who lived from January 31, 1868, to January 31, 1939. Wikipedia notes that he is likely the only educator in the United States to have served as the president of four colleges. Lyons served as President of Gonzaga College (1909), President of Saint Joseph’s College (1909-1914), President of Boston College (1914-1919), and President of Georgetown University (1924-1928).

Photograph of Rev. Charles W. Lyons, S.J., with signature.
Photograph of Charles W. Lyons with signature, clipped from “The American Mind” on Project Gutenberg. Public Domain.

Lyons delivered his “American Mind” speech in between his tenures as President of Boston College and President of Georgetown University. At that time, he was teaching metaphysics at Boston College as a professor.

Reverend Lyons’ tenure at Boston College was colored by the First World War, which reduced the number of students in attendance at the school by 81%. In that time, he presided over the resumption of an ROTC unit at Boston College. Lyons also oversaw the construction of several new buildings on campus.

Lyons was transferred to Georgetown University to serve as Rector on October 7, 1924. His tenure as President of Georgetown ended on September 6, 1928, when he was succeeded by Reverend William Coleman Nevils, S.J. During Lyons’ tenure, he presided over the building of new dormitories (see page 54). Wikipedia cites to one source in asserting that his tenure was seen by some as unsuccessful. On July 3, 1926, three years after his “American Mind” speech, Lyons conferred an honorary degree (photo in the link) on the Secretary of Commerce and soon-to-be President, Herbert Hoover.

Introduction to The American Mind Speech

I do not know the backstory of Reverend Lyons’s being invited to address the Government and citizens of Boston on July 4, 1923. However, in light of his being a well-known clergyman, academic, and the former President of Boston College, his being asked to deliver a Fourth of July oration seems not at all surprising.

Because “The American Mind” speech comes in at a mere 1,797 words, I will reprint the speech in its entirety. However, I will begin first with my summary of the speech and notes on my impression before reprinting the speech. In order to present the speech in a readable form for web-consumption, I will break it into sections in a manner that I will describe below.

For those who are interested, I recommend downloading a copy of the short address in ebook form from Project Gutenberg. I read it in ebook form with Calibre in studying the content for this article.

My Impressions of Reverend Lyons’ American Mind Speech

Below, I will analyze the speech in several sections. I will work through the speech in the order that it was presented. You may use my notes and commentary as a full summary of the speech. However, I recommend reading the speech in its original form (whether you do so in this article or in a different format) and returning to my commentary for a third-party perspective on its contents.

Title card for book version of "The American Mind" Independence Day Oration (1923) by Rev. Charles W. Lyons, S.J.
Title card in the book on Project Gutenberg. Public Domain.

1. “This generous impulse of nature”

Reverend Lyons described the achievement of the United States on its 147th anniversary:

[T]oday our beloved country, in the fullness of her achievement, with the memories of one hundred and forty-seven years, one hundred and forty-seven golden years, lived only that her children might grow, as from eternity the Creator had destined them to grow, in the full security of rights that are inalienable.

While remembering the sacrifices that brought the United States into being, Reverend Lyons stated that “our beloved country turns to us children of a later generation and pleads that we follow this generous impulse of nature…”

The phrase “impulse of nature” segues into the next section of the speech.

2. “They were not new thoughts or emotions”

The sentiments that drove the Founding generation to sacrifice so greatly to bring the United States into being “were not new thoughts or unknown emotions.” The generous impulse of nature that Reverend Lyons hoped would touch the hearts of his countrymen and women preexisted the country. To demonstrate this point, he quoted historical sources and authorities.

John Quincy Adams: “The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are parts of one constant whole, founded upon one and the same theory of government, then not a new theory, for it had been working itself into the mind of man for many ages, but it had never before been adopted by a great nation.” (Emphasis added by N.A. Ferrell.)

Moses to the judges in Israel (Deuteronomy): “There shall be no difference of persons; you shall hear the little as well as the great; neither shall you respect any man’s person, because it is the judgment of God.”

Aristotle: “[T]he state is not merely an institution for repressing vice, but a necessary formation for the full development of humanity.”

Magna Carta (Pledges of the King to the People): “We will not set forth against any freeman, nor send against him, unless by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land; to no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.”

John Quincy Adams recognized that the Founders drew from the wisdom of posterity, but applied timeless and true ideas in a place where they could flourish. Figures such as Moses describing justice, Aristotle discussing the common good, and the Magna Carta establishing the duties of Government and its necessary limitations.

3. “Joint action of mutual compact and deliberate agreement in defense of liberty”

Reverend Lyons next focused on the source of government authority in the United States – the consent of the governed. This too, he explained, was not an idea first conceived by the Founders:

The mediæval councils, the military orders, the guilds, followed centuries after by the contract of the Pilgrim Fathers made in the cabin of the “Mayflower” in which they “covenanted and combined themselves into a civil body politic for their better order and preservation,” as well as the charters of the Providence Plantations, of Virginia, and of Maryland, had accustomed the people to joint action of mutual compact and deliberate agreement in defense of liberty and justice which, after all, is the mother of democracy.
(Emphasis added.)

Thus, before Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” people had already been accustomed to the idea that civil and political authority could flow only from the people to the Government.

Nicholas of Cusa on Natural Law and the Consent of the Governed

Three and a half centuries prior to the drafting of the Declaration, the fifteenth century theologian opined that “Every constitution is rooted in natural law and cannot be valid if it contradicts it.”

What is the relevancy of natural law to the principle that legitimate governmental authority flows from the consent of the people? Nicholas of Cusa , quoted by Reverend Lyons, wrote: “Since all are free by nature, all government, whether by written law or a prince, is based solely on the agreement and consent of the subject. For if by nature men are equally powerful and free, true and ordered power in the hands of one can be established only by the election and consent of others, just as law also is established by consent.”

Rejecting Power Vested in One

The United States was unique for a reason. Notwithstanding the existence of the universal truths that informed the founders, few had ever endeavored to build States on those truths. Reverend Lyons noted that Queen Elizabeth I and other thinkers took the view that monarchs ruled by Divine Right, owing service only to God.

However, there were contemporary thinkers who rejected this view in favor of a position similar to that articulated by Nicholas of Cusa. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) responded to these arguments by stating that the Divine Law does not give power to any particular man, but to all men. Political power, according to Bellarmine, derived from the consent of the people – whether it was exercised by a single individual or by the multitude. For this reason, he opined that “if there be a lawful cause, the multitude may change the kingdom into an aristocracy or democracy.”

4. Thomas Jefferson and the American Mind

Satisfied with the evidence he presented, Reverend Lyons stated that the ideas expressed by the thinkers of the past “had seeped down through the ages unactuated, mere themes for academic speculation, until they filtered into the minds of those simple, yet truly great men, who, in signing the Declaration of Independence, gave birth to the nation we so rightfully cherish and lovingly serve.”

“Thomas Jefferson” by Jacques Reich, 10 Aug 1852 – 08 Jul 1923 is marked with CC0 1.0 (Cropped for Publication)

Lest one had any doubt, Thomas Jefferson explained in an 1825 letter that he had not sought to articulate new principles in his drafting the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson stated that his objective was “not to find new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent in and justify ourselves in the stand we are compelled to take.”

Jefferson continued, explaining that he sought to frame these universal ideas for a particular people in a particular time and place:

Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular or previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.

Thomas Jefferson

For that reason, Jefferson explained that the authority of the Declaration derived from its being in accord with the sentiments of the American people of 1776.

“All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”

5. “What, then, was this American mind?”

Jefferson stated that the Declaration of Independence was an expression of the American Mind, and Reverend Lyons pondered: “What, then, was this American mind?” What was so special about the American people of 1776 that allowed them to implement the timeless ideas noted earlier in his speech in building a great nation? Why were its sentiments, tone, and spirit so in accord with the people of the Founding generation?

6. “The answer to this question will not be far to seek”

Reverend Lyons assured his audience that the answers to his questions were close at hand: “If we look more closely at the type of men whose united action founded our nation the answer to this question will not be far to seek.”

The Founding generation, Reverend Lyons explained, “were either immigrants or the immediate descendants of immigrants.” They differed from one another in many ways, in education, race, creed, customs, and prejudices. Yet, despite their differences, they had in common that “they had left home and country, led on by a vision or an ideal that made a fitting basis for the union to come.” What were these ideals? “[T]hey would start life anew, freed from the tyrrany of unjust laws; they would enjoy the liberty to worship their God according to the dictates of their own conscience; they would exercise, without unwarranted interference, their natural and inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.”

In their journey to new frontiers, the Founders and their forebearers “came to know one another; thus, they learned to bear with one another; thus they grew to love one another; and understanding, and tolerance, and brotherly love developed the American Mind.” These things that these very different people had in common lead to the American people having the sentiments that were expressed in the Declaration of Independence. “[T]he immortal Declaration of Independence that solved the speculative problems of the past, secured the full enjoyment of liberty for its people, and gave hope and inspiration to all mankind and for all time.”

7. “Ours is a most responsible trust”

Reverend Lyons told his audience that they had a responsible trust to preserve the American Republic. “We must hand it down to posterity sacred and intact.” He cited several things that must occur for his generation to hand America to posterity “sacred and intact.”

Capital and labor would have to come to a truce, and their interests and equities “must measure even in the scales of justice.”

The inalienable rights of the people could not be infringed. The natural and civic right of the people to own property could not be denied.

The people would have to cast aside “[c]lass prejudices, racial pride, assumed superiority, must be dislodged from the minds of men, that justice may function and equality and the dignity of human nature be sustained.”

Reverend Lyons urged his contemporaries to safeguard the home and preserve its sanctity, in order “that our children be protected and grow–as nature destined them to grow–in wisdom and grace before God and man.”

The schools and the free press must be encouraged in order that the citizens of the United States would understand the Constitution and laws of the United States – “and in the full development of their intellectual faculties realize the burdens as well as the privileges of representative government.”

Finally, “[t]he church, the House of God, must have its place of respect, that our children may continue moral and grow in reverence for authority and for the divine and human law.” He quoted Alexander Hamilton: “In all those dispositions which promote political happiness, religion and morality are essential props.”

Reverend Lyons opined that this would be the message that the United States would send to its citizens on July 4, 1923.

My Brief Thoughts on Reverend Lyons’s “The American Mind” Speech

Before turning over the floor to Reverend Lyons, I will offer some brief thoughts on the speech.

The speech’s first half does an effective job in demonstrating that the Founders drew inspiration for their governmental axioms from the great ideas of the past. He is no doubt correct that the unique contribution of the Founders was putting those ideas into practice and doing so successfully. Because the speech focused primarily on the Declaration of Independence, it did not address in more than passing how the Constitution created a system of Government that was amenable to preserving and implementing the lofty words of the Declaration.

The portion of the speech opining about the scope of what Jefferson expressed in his “American Mind” passage presented a strong moral for the audience, but the extent to which the Declaration expressed the sentiments of a generation defies thorough treatment in a short address. It was nevertheless well-said and argued.

I appreciated Reverend Lyons’s nods to an idea of the common good and the duties of citizens in his message for his audience. Here, he confronted several ideas in brief that he was not able to treat thoroughly earlier in his speech. His line on safeguarding the home and its sanctity in order that children would be protected and grow wise was the best line of his speech. Also powerful was his rejection of racial and class essentialism as affronts to human dignity. These passages and his final line on the church and morals echoes an idea in his quote from Aristotle near the beginning of the essay – that the State is “a necessary formation for the full development of humanity.”

The Original Speech

Below, I present the full and unabridged “The American Mind” speech for your reading enjoyment. You may refer to my commentary to see which passages I have singled out as being the most important. The original speech has no sections, but I have inserted them to make it more easily readable in this format. You will find numerous versions of the original on Project Gutenberg.

Original book cover for "Fourth of July Oration: The American Mind" by Rev. Charles W. Lyons, S.J.
Cover of the book version of “The American Mind” – clipped from Project Gutenberg. You will find the original speech below. Public Domain.

Introduction

In the evolution of any life, whether it be that of an individual or of that corporate moral union we know as society, there are times when it seems fitting and proper to pause from the whirl of incessant activities, turn aside from accustomed line of thought, and let the mind run sweetly and lovingly over a treasured past.

And today our beloved country, in the fulness of her achievement, with the memories of one hundred and forty-seven years, one hundred and forty-seven golden years, lived only that her children might grow, as from eternity the Creator had destined them to grow, in the full security of rights that are inalienable.

Today our beloved country turns to us children of a later generation and pleads that we follow this generous impulse of nature, and tarry for the moment, while she lives over again the thoughts and emotions and heroic sacrifices that gave her birth.

The Ideas That Predated the Founding

They were not new thoughts or unknown emotions. As John Quincy Adams so well remarked in his scholarly discourse on the Jubilee of the Constitution: “The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are parts of one constant whole, founded upon one and the same theory of government, then new not as a theory, for it had been working itself into the mind of man for many ages, but it had never before been adopted by a great nation.”

Moses, as narrated in Deuteronomy, had charged the judges in Israel: “There shall be no difference of persons; you shall hear the little as well as the great; neither shall you respect any man’s person, because it is the judgment of God.”

Aristotle had taught that, “the State is not merely an institution for repressing vice, but a necessary formation for the full development of humanity.”

In the Magna Charter the germ of true liberty and equality is seen in the pledges of the king to his people: “We will not set forth against any freeman, nor send against him, unless by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land; to no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.”

The Consent of the Governed

The mediæval councils, the military orders, the guilds, followed centuries after by the contract of the Pilgrim Fathers made in the cabin of the “Mayflower” in which they “covenanted and combined themselves into a civil body politic for their better order and preservation,” as well as the charters of the Providence Plantations, of Virginia, and of Maryland, had accustomed the people to joint action of mutual compact and deliberate agreement in defense of liberty and justice which, after all, is the mother of democracy.

While the schoolmen, with scarcely an exception, as Sidwick tells us, taught that, “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The Wisdom of Nicholas of Cusa

“Every constitution,” says Nicholas of Cusa, three and a half centuries before the Declaration of Independence, “is rooted in natural law and cannot be valid if it contradicts it.”

“Since all are free by nature,” he continues, “all government, whether by written law or a prince, is based solely on the agreement and consent of the subject. For if by nature men are equally powerful and free, true and ordered power in the hands of one can be established only by the election and consent of the others, just as law also is established by consent.”

“It is clear, therefore,” he adds, “that the binding validity of all constitutions is based on tacit and expressed agreement and consent.”

The Divine Right of the People

And although Elizabeth had asserted in 1585 that “kings and princes sovereign owe their homage and service only to Almighty God,” and James defended the Divine Right of Kings, and the University of Cambridge, in its address to Charles II, had declared that they believed and maintained[Pg 6] that “our kings derive not their title from the people but from God,” “Defenders of Liberty” were not wanting, Bellarmine declaring boldly, as Sir Robert Filmer tells us, that “secular or civil power is instituted by men; it is in the people unless they bestow it on a prince. This power is immediately in the whole multitude as in the subject of it. For this power is in the Divine Law, but the Divine Law hath given this power to no particular men; if the positive law be taken away, there is left no reason why amongst a multitude (who are equal) one rather than another should bear rule over the rest. Power is given by the multitude to one man or to more by the same law of nature; for the commonwealth cannot exercise this power, therefore it is bound to bestow it upon some one man or some few. It depends upon the consent of the multitude to ordain over themselves a king or consul or other magistrates. And if there be a lawful cause, the multitude may change the kingdom into an aristocracy or democracy.”

These thoughts and emotions, expressed and re-expressed by the writers, philosophers and political leaders of their day, had seeped down through the ages unactuated, mere themes for academic speculation, until they filtered into the minds and souls of those simple, yet truly great men, who, in signing the Declaration of Independence, gave birth to the nation we so rightfully cherish and so lovingly serve.

Thomas Jefferson and The American Mind

In a letter to his friend Henry Lee, dated May 8, 1825, Jefferson, as if in confirmation of what we have just held, notes that the object of the Declaration of Independence was “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never before been said; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular or previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”

What, then, was this American mind, that, amid problems vexed and theories varied, had sifted the wisdom and folly of the past, discerning the true from the false, the good from the evil, and “of which,” Jefferson was pleased to say, “the Declaration of Independence was intended to be an expression?” And what, again, was “the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion” that the Declaration of Independence was to give to this expression of the American mind?

Finding the American Mind in the Founding Generation

If we look more closely at the type of men whose united action founded our nation the answer to this question will not be far to seek. They, like many of us here today, were either immigrants or the immediate descendants of immigrants. They differed in origin, in education, in race, and in creed. They had the traditions, the affections, the prejudices of their times and of their peoples. Yet in common they had left home and country, led on by a vision or an ideal that made a fitting basis for the union that was to come. They would break away from an effete civilization; they would start life anew, freed from the tyranny of unjust laws; they would enjoy liberty to worship their God according to the dictates of their own conscience; they would exercise, without unwarranted interference, their natural and inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.

Crossing, as they did, the same unknown seas, buffeted by the same winds and waves, coming to the same uncultivated, though not inhospitable shores, their difficulties, their interests, their common foe, drew them together in mutual helpfulness, in united enterprise, and in common defense.

Thus they came to know one another; thus they learned to bear with one another; thus they grew to love one another; and understanding, and tolerance, and brotherly love developed the American mind. So that, when the occasion arose, in proper tone and spirit, it expressed itself in the immortal[Pg 9] Declaration of Independence that solved the speculative problems of the past, secured full enjoyment of liberty for its people, and gave hope and inspiration to all mankind and for all time.

Preserving America’s Gift for Posterity

And shall we mar the beauty of her gift? Shall we, forgetting our common interests, our common enterprises, our common foes, destroy the unity of purpose and of action that is essential for individual and national prosperity? Shall we, by misunderstanding, by intolerance and hatred, sully the luster of our heritage, breaking the bondage of brotherhood?

Ours is a most responsible trust. We must hand it down to posterity sacred and intact. Capital must make truce with labor; labor must make pact with capital; each must measure even in the scales of justice. The rights—inalienable rights—of man to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, must not be infringed. The rights—natural and civic rights—of property must not be denied. Class prejudices, racial pride, assumed superiority, must be dislodged from the minds of men, that justice may function and equality and the dignity of human nature be sustained.

The home must be safeguarded, and its sanctity preserved, that our children be protected and grow—as nature destined them to grow—in wisdom and grace before God and man.

The school—the private and the public school—free as speech and the press are free—must be encouraged that our citizens may understand the Constitution and our laws, and in the full development of their intellectual faculties realize the burdens as well as the privileges of representative government.

The church, the House of God, must have its place of respect, that our children may continue moral and grow in reverence for authority and for the divine and human law.

As Hamilton wrote to Washington, on the occasion of his farewell address: “In all those dispositions which promote political happiness, religion and morality are essential props.”

Message From Our Beloved Country

This, I take it, is the message our beloved country would send to us today. That we be men of American mind, the mind that expressed itself in the Declaration of Independence, the mind that was born of understanding, tolerance, and brotherly love, the mind that didn’t hesitate to say, in the closing words of the great document that gave to us our nation, “For the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”