April 15, 1890
The welcome you extend to our brethren from all parts of the Republic is, by them, appreciated for a host of reasons. The city of Philadelphia is famous this broad land over, for the work that she did during the times that tried men’s souls. Grateful for what you did then, we are grateful for what you do to-day in welcoming the survivors of the great conflict who are here. The number of the survivors is still large; but when we think of the noted men who have gone from among us, we cannot but pause with a feeling of sadness that they are not with us to-night. All of the long list, from Grant to him who is in all our thoughts—whom this anniversary tells us to remember, at the beginning, at the close, and all the way through the man whom providence gave us to be, as he was by the Constitution, Commander-in-Chief-Abraham Lincoln, all, all are in our thoughts.
We celebrate to-night the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the organization of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. The founders of this Order, it perhaps may be fairly said, were the first among his countrymen to dedicate a monument to Abraham Lincoln. Other memorials speedily followed—memorials in prose, in verse, in granite, in marble, in bronze, and in many other forms. The best minds in this country and abroad, the orators, the poets, and the artists of all lands, have vied with each other to give expression, adequate expression if possible to the thoughts of all good men when they meditate on Abraham Lincoln, on his character, on his deeds, and on his words, and when they reflect on the amazing vicissitudes and contrasts presented by his life and his death. From the great number of such attempts there are some that always come to our minds when we think or speak on this subject. We shall always recall with peculiar delight the poem of Tom Taylor, in the London Punch, which came to us from an unlooked-for quarter just at the time when the bitter desolation and agony of those frightful April days were hardest to bear, and when every precious word of consolation was indeed most welcome. We cannot but remember also with unstinted admiration the lines of Lowell in his famous Commemoration Ode, recited at the Harvard Memorial services, in honor of her fallen sons, when he hung that fitting and splendid wreath on Lincoln’s “world-honored urn.” All America has reason to prize the words of Emerson, wiser and shrewder than those of Plutarch, which he spoke to his friends and neighbors when they considered to consider their grief and mourn the death of Lincoln. Having named these three lofty tributes, I need not further extend the list of panegyrics inspired by the memory of Lincoln, in poetry and eloquence in all parts of the world. They bring us to a pivotal question—this Society of the Loyal Legion, what is it doing, what can it do, what can it arrive to do, that is worthy of the fame of Lincoln? May I venture to change a single word in the familiar line of Coleridge so that it will read—
“He prayeth best who doeth best.”
The question, then, is as to the work of Lincoln--as to what we can do to support and advance that work. In the great conflict where he led, and in which it was our good fortune and golden opportunity to follow, it has been wisely said, “ideas were behind the cannon and ideas fired the musket.” We are also told that the ancestor of noble deeds is always noble thoughts. Then the ideas, the thoughts, by which Lincoln became the type, the representative, the very incarnation of the spirit and purpose of the war, which we are coming to regard as almost divine—what were those ideas, what were those thoughts? Our reply is, humanity, anxious solitude for the welfare of all mankind, hatred of wrong to the humblest human being, our common brotherhood, sympathy with the oppressed and the suffering. These sentiments, and sentiments like these, filling his soul and the guide of his life, are at once the secret and the sure foundation of the enduring place which Lincoln holds in the affections of all mankind.
Nowhere, my Companions, can the lesson of his life be more fitly studied or more warmly cherished than in this Army Society, which traces its origin to that awful time when the ending of that life was felt as a personal bereavement by all who fought the good fight that was so ennobled and so consecrated by the death of its martyr chief. That lesson, while it contains almost the whole future of our country, is short and simple. Our America to-day is plainly approaching –may, is it not drawing very near?—to the parting of the roads. Dazzled almost to blindness by contemplation of the unrivaled swiftness and splendor of her march to prestige, to power, to riches, and to glory, is there not danger that our country may be tempted to reject or neglect the message of Lincoln? That message, often repeated by him in words, always exhibited in his life from his earliest to his latest days on earth, can be easily and amply given in a single sentence. His whole life, his whole being seemed to say to this country (and yet he understood the limitations of government, the limitations of the law; no man better than Lincoln understood that there are important things that government cannot do and that law cannot do; and yet that life seemed to say, as his life often said): “My countrymen, see to it that, so far as human laws and human conduct avail, every son and every daughter of America shall have a fair start and an equal chance in the race of life.” Reject or neglect this, and our government is republican in nothing but name, and that doom which the Almighty has appointed for all shams is not far off. On the other hand, let the American people – and especially let all who stood by Lincoln on the perilous edge of battle in support of the rights of human nature—remain steadfastly true to the ideas and thoughts for which they fought in the great War and we shall thus do all that in us lies to link the destiny of our country to the stars and entitle her institutions to share in that immortality which, under the allotment of Providence, in the affairs of nations belong only to eternal justice, in the dealings of man with his fellow man.