September 2, 1880
Platform Car, Burlington, Iowa
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: I am very glad to meet so large an assemblage of the citizens of so great a state as Iowa. I would be still gladder if the day’s travel and the general weariness and dullness which it necessarily brings had left me in a better condition to talk worthily to so fine an audience. One of the agreeable features of this meeting, as I understand it, is that the people who have come here to welcome General Sherman and the parties with us, and myself, have come here free of all political or partisan influences. People of all parties, people of all creeds, people of all descriptions in life, have come here mainly, I suppose, because, after their curiosity, they desire to show their respect to those who, for the time being, represent the government of this nation. It is well to do this, not on account of any individuals but because of your love for the union and for your country. Now which of the many topics that interest the people at this time we may properly talk about is a question of no little difficulty. For it is an unwritten law in your coming together here as you have to lay aside party questions, and therefore I must not discuss those questions.
There was a time, two or three years ago, when it was a question of doubt whether the republicans or democrats would have received me with the most favor. At that time, may be you democrats would have given me a kindly reception, For the reception which the democrats of Iowa would have given me then I am very much obliged, and for the kind welcome you republicans now give me I am also greatly obliged.
Now, my friends, every man has his hobby. Any man who amounts to anything in this world is apt to have a hobby. Now, it so happens that I have been in possession of a hobby for several months or a year and which does not interfere with the convictions of any person or any political party. That hobby-that thought- is this: We are now in a period of universal prosperity-this is an auspicious era. We are, on the whole, the most prosperous country on the globe. We might with entire propriety inaugurate a new policy. I suppose the people of Iowa need as little as any people on earth to be told that knowledge is power.
Now, I have noticed that in this country, and any country where universal suffrage prevails, there must be universal education. But why should I talk thus to the people of Iowa? I know the generous provision you have made for the education of your people. There cannot be ignorance prevailing in one part of the country without injury to other parts. If you elect men to office by intelligent suffrage your vote is neutralized by ignorant suffrage. What you want, what the country needs, is intelligence among the masses in all parts of the community. Free schools fit the voter for the performance of his duties. My statement is that ignorant voters are merely powder and ball for demagogues.
Let your representatives and senators understand that it is your will that they shall aid in disseminating knowledge in those portions of the country where the people are unable to provide for free instruction. I don’t know but what I have talked long enough; but you may say “Why not let the people of Maine and the people of Georgia educate themselves and not put the burden on us?” And yet, at last, how much is there in that objection when we come to investigate this important question? As you are affected by the degree of intelligence in the district adjoining you, so are you also affected by the intelligence or ignorance of the people in any state of the Union. This want cannot be supplied until the general government gives some attention to the matter. It is like the old idea of the mother who said to her son, “you must not go near the water until you learn to swim!” People who have not known the benefits of free schools never will know unless you bring them to their doors. This is a work the general government should begin in states not provided with free schools. There is poverty in some sections of the south, for example. There the whole colored population came out of slavery with no education. They need the benefits of free schools. We cast on them the responsibilities and duties of citizenship in the reconstruction of the states, and we can’t complete that work until we give that people an education. The uneducated man, black or white, must of necessity be deceived, misled, and defrauded by the wicked men. If we would make reconstruction complete let us give them opportunity to fit themselves for the duties of free citizens.
But, my friends, I am drifting into too solemn a talk upon an occasion like this, and in the midst of the busy scenes of a railroad depot. I do not propose to discuss this subject further now, but will thank your mayor, the committee and the citizens of all political parties, assembled, for your kind reception and welcome.
Beyond that I merely wish to say that the state of Iowa has a reputation for intelligence and virtue, steadiness of patriotism, and love of our union, and for valuable service rendered in sustaining the government of the United States based as it is upon the united will of a free people. I thank you for showing your affection for the government we love so well.