May 30, 1885
COMRADES AND FELLOW CITIZENS:
I wish to speak briefly on a subject not closely connected with the appropriate topics of the occasion which have been so ably handled by the orator of the day, General Grosvenor. For several years past I have at least once in each year, in addressing soldiers, asked them to consider the question of popular education in the Southern States. My wish is to present again barely enough of the argument in favor of National aid to education, wherever in our country such aid is needed, to leave with every thoughtful person who hears me the impression that the measure is one which has solid claims upon the American people. A few days ago I had the privilege of hearing on this subject the general agent of the Peabody Education Fund, Dr. Curry, of Virginia. He is one of the Southern statesmen who comprehending and fully accepting the abolition of slavery as one of the essential results of the war wisely and earnestly labors to develop all the inestimable blessings which ought in the nature of things to flow from this great revolutionary, but beneficent fact in our history. I do not attempt to reproduce his well chosen and impressive language. He began by saying, in substance, that after long and anxious deliberation it was his judgment that no public measure which now engages the attention of the people is at all to be compared in importance with that which aims to secure general and, if practicable, universal education by the aid of the Nation.
Concurring fully and heartily as I do with Dr. Curry, allow me first to say that this question is not a partisan question nor a sectional question. There was a very able and exhaustive debate in the Senate of the United States last spring on a bill which provided the means to give vitality to the system of popular education in the South. It occupied the sessions of the Senate during many days, and eminent Senators of both political parties and from all sections of the country took part in it. At the close of the debate the bill was passed by a vote of 33 to 11. If all who were paired and whose opinions were announced had voted the bill would have passed with 43 votes in the affirmative and 21 votes in the negative. The vote was not partisan. A majority of Republican Senators voted for the bill and a minority of Republicans voted against it. In like manner a majority of Democratic Senators voted for the bill and a minority against it.
The vote was not sectional. A majority of the Senators from Northern States voted for the bill and a minority against it. A majority of Senators from the Southern States voted for, and a minority against the bill. In the Cabinet of President Cleveland are three gentlemen who as Senators voted on the measure. Two voted for it and one against it. The declarations of the National Conventions of both of the great political parties of the country last year were in the right direction. A political convention is not apt to make the mistake of being dangerously explicit on questions about which its party is not entirely harmonious. But both National Conventions considered the subject, and their resolutions were accepted by the friends of the National aid as sufficiently definite.
From the Senate the bill went to the House. It was confidently believed by its friends that if brought to a vote a decided majority would support it, but the pressure of other business prevented its consideration. The record therefore unhappily reads that in the last Congress National aid to education failed.
The friends of education will, however, continue to debate. The measure will again be brought forward. The facts and their fatal tendency are only too well known. There are six States in the South having fifty-nine votes in the electoral college and in the two houses of Congress in which about half of the total number of voters are unable to write or read the ballots they cast. These States, viz: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina contain a total illiterate voting population of 711,954. The total number of votes cast in these States at the late Presidential election in 1884 was only 870,455. They contain about four-fifths as many illiterate voters as the total number of voters who usually cast their ballots in a Presidential election. These States have about the same representation—that is within one vote of the same representation in Congress and in the electoral college as the three States of Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana combined. This single fact is enough to show the extent and danger of the ignorance which threatens the perpetuity of our institutions.
The ignorance both of colored people and of whites in the South is due to slavery. Slavery and education could not exist together. It is equally true that ignorance and free government can not exist together. This is according both to the faith and the practice of the fathers who founded our government. By official acts and solemn declarations of opinion all of the early Presidents are on record in favor of the wisdom and constitutionality of Government aid to education. I need not detain you with quotations. They read the Constitution on this subject by the light of the great principle that “the safety of the Republic is the supreme law.” In the debate on the Educational Bill, Mr. Voorhies, the Democratic Senator from Indiana, said:
“But the doctrine of State rights has been carried too far in the past, and will be again whenever it is invoked to defeat legislation of the kind we are now considering.
“Sir, we have had an era of strict construction. May I not talk plainly? May I not say what is in my mind to say? The strict construction of antewar times was born of an institution which exists no more. The opposition in the Southern mind to a liberal construction of the powers of the Federal Government originated with the institution of slavery. It was your local and domestic institution; you had it to protect; you dreaded the interference of the Federal authority in the slightest degree, and in proportion as you were threatened with the power you vehemently denied its existence in any and every form in which it was asserted. This was no more than natural, but the reason which made the rule then has passed away, and now there is no people, there are no States in this Union whose future hope and welfare are so vitally interwoven with a liberal construction of the Constitution as the people and States of the South.”
The six millions of colored people in the Southern States are in no condition by taxation or otherwise to supply the means for their own education. The whites can perhaps by taxation support schools for themselves, but to do it for the whole population is simply impossible. Let the Nation help the States to prepare “the wards of the Nation” to become useful citizens. I have said before and repeat that the colored people are the only people resident in our country when slavery existed who are in no sense responsible for it. “They were here by the misfortune of their ancestors, and by the crime of ours.” Slavery is responsible for the ignorance of the South. Who is responsible for slavery? It as in the Union and in the Constitution when they were formed. All who took part in forming or upholding them while slavery continued are in some sense responsible for slavery.
Let the Nation then complete the work which was begun by the soldiers who are honored to-day. The work of the war was to save the Union by abolishing slavery. It only remains to secure the results of the war by giving to the emancipated race that education which will fit them for their new duties. Let this wise and necessary measure be delayed no longer. Let National aid be given to the end that every citizen may have that intelligence and virtue which is essential under a free government.