April 6, 1891
COMRADES AND FELLOW CITIZENS: It has been said--I do not recall by whom it was said--that in the war for the union “The bayonets did, indeed, think,” and that “Ideas were behind every musket and pointed every cannon,”
All of the army societies are based on ideas. Of these the largest organized body is the Grand Army of the Republic. Its distinguishing merit is that it is the home of the mind and heart of every man of every rank from the sentinel to the commander-in-chief who bravely and faithfully risked his life in the sacred cause of union and liberty.
What are the pivotal ideas of this noble organization? What will be its influence on its members and our countrymen, and especially the young who are growing up to take our places? It is not and will not be an organization of mere political clubs. We understand very well that free government is of necessity a government by means of political parties. We also understand perfectly that men who have stood by their convictions on the perilous edge of battle are not so likely to be neutrals in the political conflicts of their day. But our organization stands on a sentiment that can easily bear the severest possible strain due to sectarian or partisan feelings. The Grand Army of the Republic is essentially the organic expression of our comradeship in a sacred war. Our honored comrade, Gen. Harrison, in his terse and emphatic way gave the whole pith of the question. Said he; “Politics cannot break the bond of comradeship.” In this the general made no mistake. You, my comrades, do not think as I do on the political issues of the hour. You are confident that I am wrong. This difference between us does not even dim the brightness of the links that unite us. They were welded when we stood together as comrades on holy ground, fighting for eternal right. Where is holy ground? If anywhere it is where man freely dies for his fellow man. That sublime privilege was the crown of Lincoln’s fame. And we comrades of the Grand Army can reverently thank God that we were permitted to stand by Lincoln in that deadly crisis of our Nation’s history.
The union of the fathers was imperiled by secession. Our faith is that the American republic, in the language of the Supreme Court, “is an indestructible union of indestructible states.”
The general government was threatened by the doctrine that the allegiance of the citizen was due only to his State. Our faith is that the citizen’s allegiance is to the United States, and that the United States is in authority and duty, in the fullest possible sense, a nation.
The contention of our adversaries was that slavery was national, perpetual and of divine origin. Our faith is that no statue and no constitution, can make valid “the false and fatal phantasy that man can hold property in man.”
By reason of the peculiar institution in the slave-holding states, education was within the reach of only the few who were rich. But for the white man who was poor it was not provided, and for the colored man it was not simply denied, but by solemn enactments was made a crime. The faith of the Grand Army is that the universal suffrage is essential to liberty, and that there can be no fitting exercise and no full enjoyment of the right of suffrage without universal education.
Above all, our faith is in America, of its history, of its geography, and in the lives of its men and of its women.
We believe in American principles, in American music, and in songs, and tunes. We have no quarrel with Europe, or with any foreign people. But we prefer that their notions, their follies, their vices, and their perils should remain on the other side of the Atlantic. We have enough vices, follies and perils of our own. We import from Europe altogether too many.
We believe in the American home, and in the character and the virtue of the American women which make American homes happy.
Finally, one of the mistakes of the rebellion was unduly to exult what they called “sovereign states.” They thought each state should have its own flag for its people, to gaze upon and to admire and love. They would have had thirty-four flags in 1861 -forty-four now- and at no distant day a hundred. Each would represent a separate government, a separate army, and a separate navy, and all of them would wave helplessly and miserably over “states discordant, dissevered, and belligerent!” The faith of the Grand Army is the reverse of all this. We believe that the whole of the American republic - every state belongs to one flag, “the old flag”- the stars and stripes- the flag of Washington and of Lincoln-the flag of the United States.
Their rabble of flags would have represented never-ending petty wars between the inhabitants of petty States. Only one flag represents a people great, prosperous, and happy, whose heritage will be, so long as they are guided by wisdom and justice, the enjoyment of unbroken harmony and perpetual peace throughout a continental republic.
These, comrades and friends, are some of the lessons which the Grand Army of the Republic would teach to our children, and our children’s children,
“Until the sign of the Lord is seen on the hill,
When the day of battle is done,
And the conflict with Time by eternity won.”