The Day We Celebrate: Bunker Hill Day
Mr. Toastmaster, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I need not tell you what the Battle of Bunker Hill meant, nor is it necessary for me to give in detail the narrative of the events that immediately preceded it. These events are known to everyone here tonight. Tongues far more eloquent then mine have, on previous occasions, described it adequately and well. However, I do feel that it is significant as we face the most critical period in the history of our nation, that we understand the historical background of that great event.
As we recall our history, we know that Massachusetts, and particularly Boston, had early been marked objects of the displeasure of the British Crown. This was clearly shown when Parliament closed the Port of Boston. The Crown anticipated that the other colonies would be terrified by the severity of the punishment inflicted on Boston. The Crown felt that the other seaports would be governed by a spirit of gain and that, as Boston was now cut off from all commerce, other seaports and towns would greedily exploit this advantage. But, oh how miserably such reasoners deceived themselves. How little they knew of the depth, and the strength, and the intenseness of that feeling of resistance to the illegal acts of power which possess the American People. Everywhere the unworthy boon was rejected with scorn.
This occasion was seized everywhere to show to the whole world that the colonies were swayed by no local interest, no partial interest, no selfish interest.
The temptation to profit by the punishment of Boston was strongest in Salem, yet Salem was precisely the place where this miserable proffer was spurned in the tone of most lofty self-respect and indignant patriotism. And these noble sentiments were not confined to the immediate vicinity but the blow given to Boston rankled every patriotic heart from one end of the country to the other. Virginia and the Carolinas, as well as Connecticut and New Hampshire, felt and proclaimed the cause to be their own.
The Continental Congress, then holding its first session in Philadelphia, expressed its sympathy for the suffering inhabitants of Boston, and protests were received from all quarters assuring them that the cause was a common one and should be met by common efforts and common sacrifices.
The immortal Warren declared that, “This colony is ready at all times to spend and be spent in the cause of America.”
The tidings of Lexington and Concord had no sooner spread than it was universally felt that the time had at last come for action. A spirit pervaded all ranks—not transient, not boisterous, but deep, solemn and determined. War on their own soil and at their own doors was indeed a strange work to the Yeomanry of New England but their conscience was convinced of its necessity. Their country called them to it and they did not withhold themselves from the perilous trial.
The ordinary occupations of life were abandoned. The plough was staid in the unfinished field. Wives gave up their husbands and mothers gave up their sons to battle the tyrants. Death might come in honor on a field or it might come in disgrace on the scaffold—for either or both they were prepared.
The sentiment of Quincy was full in their hearts. “Blandishments,” said that distinguished son of genius and of patriotism, “will not fascinate us, nor will threats of a halter intimidate us for, under God, we are determined that wheresoever, whensoever, or howsoever we shall be called to make our exit, we will die free men”.
The 17th of June saw the four New England Colonies standing here side by side to triumph or fall together and there was with them, from that moment till the end of the war, what I hope and pray will remain with this country forever—one cause, one country, one heart.
The Battle of Bunker Hill was attended with the most important effects beyond its result as a military engagement. It created at once a state of open war. There could be no longer a question of proceeding against the individuals as guilty of treason or rebellion. The fearful crisis was past; the appeal now laid to the sword and the only question was whether the spirit and resolutions of the people would hold out until the object should be accomplished. Nor were its general consequences confined to our own country. The previous proceedings of the colonies, their appeals, resolutions and protests had made their cause known to Europe. Without boasting, we may say that in no age or country has the public cause been maintained with more force of argument, more power of illustration, or more of that persuasion which excited feeling and elevated principles can alone bestow than the revolutionary state papers exhibited. These papers will forever deserve to be studied, not only for the spirit which they breathe but for the ability with which they were written. To this able vindication of their cause the colonies had now had a practical and severe proof of their own thorough devotion to it and evidence also of the power which they could bring to its support.
All now saw that if America fell, she could not fall without a struggle.
Speech source: David F. Powers Personal Papers. Series 09. John F. Kennedy Speeches File. Box 28, Folder: "Bunker Hill Knights of Columbus, Charlestown, MA, 16 June 1946".