April 26, 1888
My friends, I believe the gas outside has been stopped, and if so, it is time that the gas inside should be let on. I believe in all this business; it is a good thing. We are all of us better for what has occurred here to-night already—the good music, the good songs, the good feeling. I have said again and again, and shall say it often hereafter, I suppose, that the best antidote in the world for meanness and selfishness is the comradeship of the army. To that is the comradeship of the Grand Army of the Republic.
I don’t believe, my comrades, that it will do for me to enter again upon the topic of last night. I had intended to add a little to what I said last night, it is a sober topic, and you want humor. You want something stirring; you want Tanner, and you want Gibson, and if that is not stirring, I don’t know what is. Yes, you are all sober, but I am afraid you will be too sober if I talk to you.
You know I said last night that I wanted to protest against the idea that the treatment that the nations of Europe gave to their soldiers is properly the rule for free America. I also said I would protest against the treatment which the soldiers of the Revolution had. If you will hear me for about five minutes, I will give you what was the condition of the fathers. Old Burnett, you know, was the pioneer lawyer of Cincinnati. He wrote an account of early times in Ohio, and in speaking of the men who first settled Ohio, he described them as “Revolutionary soldiers.” And what is his account of them? “After having spent the most valuable periods of their lives in the army, enduring every species of exposure, fatigue and suffering, they were dismissed to their homes, if they were so fortunate as to have any, with nothing but empty promises which have never been realized, and most of them with broken or impaired constitutions. The certificates they received as evidence of the sums that were due them from the country were almost valueless, and they were bought and sold in the market at 2s 6d for 20s. They were honorable and high-minded men, and left their friends and sought retirement on the frontier, where they became involved in the hazardous conflicts of border warfare, being paid therefore in continental currency.”
This was the way the country treated the Revolutionary veterans. There was an excuse, as I said last night. All were poor. Here the men who were in the army with Gen. Steedman now own but a small part of the wealth of this country; but it can be truly said that a large part of all the wealth of this country is due to the services they rendered under Lincoln. Now, my friends, I simply wish to add to that this: What was the contract? What was the engagement that you entered into in 1861? We have in the town where I live a very intelligent and a very patriotic Catholic clergyman, Father Bauer, that I once heard discuss that feature in something like this way: Said he, “when the young man stepped up to the table and signed the enlistment paper, and when he had been examined by the inspector of the government—the mustering officer and the surgeon—and had been accepted, and when with uplifted hand he called God to witness his purpose faithfully to do his duty as a soldier, what was the situation? It was this: he had agreed to give life for his country, if ordered into the place where life was to be lost. He had agreed to give happiness, to give liberty away.” Liberty; you understand very well that while an honorable solder feels in no sense that he is a slave, yet in fact he is in a certain bondage that gives away the liberty of the citizen. Then he had contracted life, and he had contracted liberty at that moment, and given it away to his country. And happiness, what does that mean? Life and liberty and happiness are what belong, are due, and are to be protected to the freeman. But these men, 20—less than 20, many of them—and from 20 to 25, gave to their country the formative years of life, when character is to be formed. You remember the old adage, “Sow intellect, and you reap habit; sow habit, and you reap character; sow character, and you reap destiny.”
And here were these young men, agreeing to five up life, liberty, and the chance of being able to get that which gives happiness through life. Then, my friends, the government having inspected them, and taken them, shall they not haggle for proof, for example, that they were capable and able men when they enlisted? Shame on a government that will not stand by its promises to its soldiers! Then I say that the very moment that that engagement was made, and the government had accepted it, and that a free government, from that time forward the men so enlisted, so engage, are the wards of the nation, forever to be taken care of, whatever may have happened to them.
Well, then, my friends, I think of the services, and of the sufferings that these men gave to the country in pursuance to their engagement. I rejoice—I rejoice with exceeding great joy, in the action to-day. You emphasize the opinion you have by the election you made of Commander for Ohio. If there is a man living now among our soldiers anywhere who has gone through the whole circle of duty, and sacrifice, and suffering, it is the man we have elected Commander.
Then, my friends, go one step further. They have made the contribution of service, and of sacrifice, and of suffering. What else? They have achieved results that make the duty clear of the great nation. Was there ever a war from the beginning of time until today that so completely, and so fully, and so exactly accomplished all that we intended to accomplish at the beginning? Never any in all history.
I quoted last evening from the great Senator of Massachusetts. Let me quote from his again to-night—another quotation, almost equally famous. In 1837 in New York, at Niblo’s Garden, he closed a grand speech with the motto that blazes so often upon banners. Said he: “We have one country, one constitution, one destiny.” Ah, Mr. Webster, you hoped that was true; but, sir, I can say to you it never was true until it was made true by the soldiers of the Union.
One country? Why, sirs, the line that divided the slaveholding from the non-slaveholding States for fifty years before this time, divided the American people and the American territory into two countries. Am I not right? Remember Abraham Lincoln, who never spoke except with an exhibition of those grand characteristics which al the world knows; who never spoke except moderately, and fairly, and kindly, and charitably, towards all his countrymen; and yet, prior to ’61 he could not have made any one of the speeches that made him famous, and President, south of Mason & Dixon’s line, except at the risk of his life. Two countries, at least, Mr. Webster, prior to ’61.
One constitution? Why, North, the constitution meant that the government of the nation was supreme over all nation, anything in the law or the constitution of any state to the contrary notwithstanding; South, it everywhere meant a part was greater than the whole; that the state was sovereign over the United States. It was two constitutions, one North, one South.
One destiny, Mr. Webster; one destiny? On one side human slavery the destiny, that downward road to darkness and ruin; the other, pointing to the north star, and hoping against hope, that they were going on to realize the Declaration of Independence and the Sermon on the Mount. It was two destinies, as wide as the poles asunder.
But your services and your suffering—your services in the field and your sufferings in the prison pens, made it all right, and now we do have indeed one country, one constitution, one destiny. Good night.