May 30, 1884
Comrades, ladies, and gentlemen: Memorial Day has become one of our favorite holidays. It certainly has many titles to the regard of the American people. It commemorates the greatest event of this century in our country. The war for the Union takes higher and still higher rank as time passes, and as its true significance and the higher value of its results are better understood it shall surely be recorded at last one of the most illustrious events in the history of our race.
In the remarks I am to make I shall not dwell largely on the topics of this day. From the adoption of the Constitution down to the rebellion there had been contention in Congress, in State Legislatures, and before the people in the relative rights, jurisdiction, and authority of the National and State governments, and also as to the nature of the Union which binds the States together. The danger arising from these questions was mainly due to slavery, which lent to every controversy, domestic and foreign, sinister and vindictive elements which threatened alike good government, the Union and liberty. Every question of the war was settled in favor of government, of Union, and of liberty. The soldiers of the Union army did their part, and did it well. By their courage, their constancy and their devoted loyalty, even unto death, they have secured, so far as war alone can secure, “highly exciting and gratifying prospects for us and for our children.”
But there are great interests belonging to society and even to government which war cannot protect nor even promote. When the work and duties of war are ended the work and duties of peace must follow. I do not pause to consider the measures of reconstruction which were adopted.
In one essential respect reconstruction is not yet finished: slavery is but half abolished: emancipation is but half completed, while millions of freedmen, with votes on their hands, are left without education. Slavery did not provide for, did not even tolerate universal education. In the South none but the wealthy have the means of instruction. But now all are citizens and are entitled to vote on the same terms of the States where schools are good and open to all. It was said by sanguine friends of reconstruction that freedom and the right to vote are excellent educators. So they are, the experience of the last fourteen years.
However, tells us that the ballot is not the only schoolmaster an ignorant community needs. The ballot, like every other instrument or force of human contrivance must be used with knowledge and skill. Jefferson, the last conservative of the fathers, the most radical champion of popular self-government, said: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free it expects what never was and never will be.”
Reconstruction, therefore, is imperfect: a wise reconstruction is impossible until universal suffrage is based on universal education. The question of National aid for education in the South is vital. No question of national policy which now engages the attention of Americans is more important than this. More than four years ago the Peabody education fund sent a memorial to Congress showing “the vital necessity of national aid for the great masses of colored people in the Southern States, who are growing up to be voters under the Constitution.”
The purpose of the memorial has had the concurring recommendation of four Presidents of the United States in succession, with increasing emphasis, and educational conventions and religious assemblies have urgently demanded immediate and effective measures of relief.
On the 8th of last month the Senate, after a long, very able, and extensive debate, passed a bill by a vote of 33 yeas and 11 nays entitled “An act to aid in the establishment and temporary support of common schools.”
Its friends do not claim it is perfect in all its details. If it is finally adopted defects will probably be discovered in its practical operation. There are difficulties and embarrassments connected with the whole subject of free and universal education which are peculiar to the South. Almost half the voters were lately slaves. A large proportion of the other half never had adequate means of education. Neither white nor colored people have the practical experience required to insure entire success in the administration and management of a free school system. But the case is very urgent.
More than a million of voters cannot read nor write the ballots they cast. Every bad cause is strengthened by ignorance; every good cause gains by universal education. The smartness of debate may say this ignorance of the South is their affair, not ours. Slavery was the cause, slavery left this legacy to the South, and slavery was their affair, not ours.
The reply is ready and cogent. Ignorance in any State in our country impairs the value of suffrage in every other State. It imperils every interest of the Nation and puts in jeopardy this nation’s life. I grant that slavery is responsible for evil for this evil. Who is responsible for slavery? Slavery was in the Union when it was formed; it was in the Constitution when adopted. All who took part in forming the Union or framing the Constitution, and all who upheld them before emancipation were in some sense and some degree responsible for slavery. The only American citizen of full age when slavery existed and not at all responsible for it were its victims; the colored people were “slaves by the misfortunes of their ancestors and the crimes of ours.” They are the people who now especially implore the Nation for that education which alone can fit them for the duties which the Nation now requires them to perform.
I must not now detain you with an attempt to present fully the facts and arguments in favor of the wise and necessary measure which the Senate has adopted by a three-fourths vote, a vote made up from both political parties, and from all sections of our country. Let the voice and influence of every citizen be employed in all suitable ways to urge the House of Representatives to pass the bill of the Senate. Let it have a fair trial, and we may confidently hope that it will largely contribute to the education and welfare of the whole American people.
Without extending these quotations or going further with this argument, let me say with some consideration I am fully persuaded that industrial training will be found valuable alike to the young of both sexes, of all races, and all conditions in life. That for merely intellectual culture the habits formed, and the faculties trained and developed by a few hours of faithful and well-directed labor each week at school will tend to make not only skillful hands, but sound heads. To use safely and skillfully tools and machines, or the implements of the farm is to train successfully the powers of memory, observation, concentration, and judgment, and to form habits of lasting value in every honorable walk of life. In every circle, in every board of directors or trustees, how constantly it is observed that the best minds are not always those that have been trained by the studies of the classics or of mathematics, but are often those that were trained by the labor of the shop or the farm.
One of the eminent teachers of the last generation, President McGuffey, said to a graduating class, there is a wide difference between being learned and being well educated. Dr. Samuel Parr was a very learned man. He was the first Latin scholar in England. He could write imitations of the Latin of Cicero so perfect that it puzzled the linguists to tell whether his sentences were the Latin of Parr or the Latin of Cicero. But he was vain, arrogant, quarrelsome, and inconsistent. He was not well educated. On the other hand, said President McGuffy, the Indian Chief Tecumseh (born near your city) was not well educated, but he was trained to do what his place in life required him to do. He was well educated.
Without detaining you longer let me suggest that our school system should be so improved that it will tend to furnish not merely learned men and women, but well educated men and women. Let the blessings go to all parts of our country and to all her children. Wherever such aid is needed, let the Nation without stint aid the people of the States to the end that all American citizens of every race shall be reared up to the full stature of manhood required for intelligent and wise self-government and our republican institutions.