April 7, 1881
One of the most eloquent and best known speeches of Mr. Clay was in reference to the War of 1812, in reply to the question, “what have we gained by the war?” If the same question is asked in relation to the great conflict of 1861, no eloquence is required to give emphasis to the answer. The sufficient reply is found in the single phrase of the sentiment just announced. If it is asked, “what have we gained in the war for the Union?” The answer must be, “our gain is the United States!” How large a part of all that exalts our patriotic pride, when we look at the present condition of our country and think of its future, is the fruit of the war of 1861. The war established not only that the people of the United States are one people; but that they are a free people, all of whom have equal rights, and that their government is supreme within its sphere on every acre of American soil, but it also gave to intelligent men at home and abroad a confidence in the stability of our institutions and in the capacity of our people for self-government, which is working, and has already wrought extensive and gratifying change in this country and throughout the world. The war taught ourselves and the rest of mankind, that faith in the fitness of the people to govern which is essential to the maintenance of free government here, and to its adoption by other nations. Our increase in wealth, population, territorial extent and in other elements of physical progress, we easily trace to the triumph of Union arms. But the statistical tables, which exhibit the strength of our country and its resources, afford very inadequate means for measuring the progress we have made, and are making, by reason of the war. Before the war, twenty or twenty-five years ago, many well-informed people in this country denied, and many more doubted, the fundamental maxims of free institutions. In other countries the general judgment was against popular government. This skepticism exposed our experiment in republicanism to a double peril. Those who are active in public affairs and who distrust the wisdom of the people, resort to sophistry, intrigue and corruption to attain their ends. At the same time the good citizens who lack the popular judgment lose their interest in the government and neglect their political duties. The tendency of this state of things is to supplement the opportunity and power of the demagogue by the apathy of the good citizen. Confidence in the people is one of the main props of government by the people. As faith in the humanity, justice and wisdom of the people increase, the arts of dishonest politics give place to fair debate and intelligent discussion, and good elections will be found at the front of political movements. Our civil war, on this head, gave to us and the world a much needed lesson. In the hardest stress of the war the private soldier and the private citizen were often wiser and firmer than their leaders.
The masterly leadership of President Lincoln was rooted in his perfect knowledge of the people, and his implicit trust in their heroic and enduring patriotism. On this rock the United States stands. Hereafter the strife’s of party and our political differences will hardly touch the fundamental principles or even the forms of our institutions, More and more the conflicts of party will be over mere questions of administration. Important questions, undoubtedly, but they are not vital. They may be decided either way and not involve the life of the republic, or even the form of our government.
The United States, since the war, and because of the war, has entered upon a career which is open to no other nation. Here the people, with almost entire unanimity, believe that our form of government for us is better than any other, and is satisfied with the principles on which it rests. Our standing army is small and inexpensive. It is hardly larger than is required to keep the peace and preserve order among the jarring elements of population in our newly settled territories. It is never wanted for aggressive warfare and it is no longer needed for defense. No other great nation of modern times has ever paid its national debt. In the administration of Jackson, the war debts of the Revolution and the War of 1812 was paid off. Now with steady but rapid steps we are again accomplishing the same feat with the enormous debt that represents the cost of the rebellion. Fully two-thirds of the cost of the war has already been paid. More than one hundred million dollars has been paid within a year, and the whole debt of the United States can soon be extinguished by its full and honest payment.
The wealth of our country increases, it is estimated, at the rate of two or three millions each day, and our credit at least equals that of the most favored nation. The highly civilized nations of the earth are adding largely every year to our populations, and with the immigrants come capital, labor, enterprise, prestige and power. We are perplexed with no fear of change, people have confidence in the forms and principles of their government. The ground for this increased confidence it is not difficult to discover. It is one of the evident results of the war that intelligent men everywhere are persuaded that no Government in the world is safer, stronger, or more likely to endure than that of the United States.
Our Government is in fact “a government of the governed. Whatever the people are their government shall surely be. What sort of people do the lineage, the general circumstance and the institutions of the United States produce? The war, and the course of events after the war, furnishes a very satisfactory answer, Tested by the sore trials of the rebellion, American character stood the test. The citizen, who in 1861 became a soldier, when the war was over, became again a citizen. Having fought for his country as a soldier, he went resolutely and cheerfully to work as a citizen to promote its welfare and to preserve its credit and its honor.
It is not among the least of blessings flowing from the war that it developed in American citizens an increased sense of responsibility for the conduct and character of the nation and its government. To this I trace a marked advance in the disposition to deal conscientiously and humanely with all the weaker races in our midst. I think we can also see the growth of better sentiments in respect to our treatment of weaker nations. Is there not almost an entire disappearance of that aggressive and reckless spirit which formerly led to lawless expeditions under various pretexts, regardless of the rights of our weaker neighbors? Now if such a purpose crops out anywhere, how promptly is it condemned and crushed by public opinion?
In conclusion, may we not confidently believe that the United States is not only more prosperous and powerful, but also a wiser and better people because of the war? I believe that all our countrymen and all the world besides, have many added reasons in the results of the war for greatly invoking blessings upon the United States.