May 30, 1892
Comrades and Fellow Citizens: America is the most interesting nation in the world. Indeed it is the most interesting nation that ever was in the world. Our Republic has been happily called the cradle of the future. But why speak of the future? What is America to-day? With more widely diffused intelligence, with more wealth, more power, with greater prestige, with more justice and equality of rights and opportunity between man and man than ever before belonged to any people, and with all of these elements of strength, influence and growth augmenting at a rate beyond the wildest dream of national ambition, we may confidently anticipate that the prediction of our patriotic scholar and poet will surely be realized, and that “our Republic and that of our fathers is destined one day to gather the whole continent under a flag that shall be the most august flag that ever floated in any wind under the whole heavens.”
The history of our country is every year recalled and celebrated on three patriotic holidays. The oldest – the Fourth of July, the national birthday- is devoted to the Declaration of Independence, to the Revolutionary War and to the patriots and heroes by whom Independence was achieved. The next Holiday adopted is the Twenty-second of February – the birthday of Washington, the admirable and matchless character who was “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen” – the only man in the annals of our race who all mankind regard and reverence as the Father of his Country. The latest historic holiday of America is Memorial Day. This day is sacred to the memory of the heroes of every grade, from the humble drummer boy to the commander-in-chief, who fell in the Divine war for Union and Liberty. All that belongs to the great conflict – its motives, its causes, its history, its biography and transcendent results are recounted and celebrated on this day - a war forever ennobled and consecrated by the death of its martyred chief – who was the type and embodiment of the convictions and spirit of the people for whom it was waged, the never to be forgotten and always to be beloved Abraham Lincoln.
“There is one too little mentioned when our proud reunions come,
And the thoughtful love of country dies upon the sounding drum:
Let me call him in our muster! Let me wake him in our grief!
Captain by the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln was our chief.”
“Not a soldier of the classics, he could see through leaned pretense,
Master of the greatest sentence, military common sense:
As he watched our marches, comrades, hither, thither, wayward years.
On his map the roads we followed, we can trace them by his tears”
“Ever nearest to his heart, we were his defense and shield:
He alone of great commanders, died upon the battle-field;
All our generals were his children, leaning on him childish-willed,
And they all were filial mourners ‘round the mighty tomb he filled.”
“Stand around our great commander! Lay aside all little fears!
Ever Lincoln carries forward; Freedom for a thousand years,
And when next call for soldiers rolls along the golden belt
The world will see a mightier column, rise and march, prevail and melt.”
This day was once a day of sorrow, of tears and of deepest gloom to a host of suffering hearts. It is still a day of sad recollections in many homes, and brings to many grateful souls a tender pain. But time and circumstances have softened and healed the wounds which were in other years so cruel, and now admiration of the heroic deeds and noble sacrifices of the loved ones gone before has taken, in large measure, the place of grief and mourning. We appreciate and share the feelings of the bereaved father who proudly said, “I would rather have my dead son than any living son in all Christendom.” We have begun all of us to rejoice when this day dawns. Even the most sorely stricken can partake of the satisfaction and pride enjoyed by those who have made great sacrifices to give victory to the good cause of their country and of mankind. Therefore on this day let us heed the wise and patriotic words of the President. On this day let no flag be raised at half-mast, but rather let the glorious ensign of the Republic be still full high advanced – not a single stripe erased, nor a single star obscured!
The appropriate topics for this day’s observance are very familiar. Newspapers, magazines and books without number have spread before us the inspiring narrative of the great war. A merely casual glance at this stream of patriotic intelligence will amply explain and justify the setting apart of a day in honor of the men who perished in the conflict. The work they did and the results of that work stated in the shortest and simplest terms answer every pertinent question with respect to the final judgment and impartial history on this most tremendous transaction of our day and generation.
I will not detain you with a vain attempt to make even a catalogue of the amazing facts which belong to the four long and anxious years during which, not America alone, but the whole civilized world watched with unabated and painful solicitude the issue of the momentous struggle. The story of the war when told, however imperfectly, presents an example of an expenditure of money, of destruction and waste of property, of debt, of taxation- of suffering , of sacrifices and of bloodshed – of an uncounted magnitude of battles, of marches, of sieges and of daring, skillful and brilliant exploits - of endurance, constancy, and devotion in the field, sustained and cheered by a patriotism, earnestness and faith in the people – the men and women at home, upon whom the veterans in the ranks could always lean with absolute trust, which has no parallel in the history of the world, and which, taken altogether, proves incontestably that for the formation of a people’s character the best and highest education is afforded by free institutions-institutions founded on the equal rights of all men as taught in the Sermon on the Mount, and repeated by our Fathers in the Declaration of Independence.
And now resolutely turning our faces away from the attractive pages which contain the fascinating story of the wonderful war for the stainless cause of nationality and freedom let me ask your attention to this question: The war for the Union-how did it come to be so great, so hard, so long continued, and so doubtful? There were many lions in the path to the final victory of the Union armies. These two I name:
1. The power of the Confederacy with its brave and warlike people, having the almost impregnable advantage of acting on the defensive in the country of their own homes- and that country of vast extent with great forests and extensive ranges of mountains, affording at almost every step strategic positions easily fortified against an invading army.
2. The intervention of European nations with powerful aid, comfort and support to the Confederacy.
These obstacles to the preservation of the Union combined together devolved upon Lincoln and the people who stood by him so great a burden of responsibility, a task so difficult, a duty so hard that it is not strange he always spoke of it with a deeply reverent feeling, looking to heaven for that divine aid without which he solemnly declared in bidding farewell to his friends and neighbors at Springfield, “without which I cannot succeed and with which I cannot fail.” The historian George Bancroft in his great oration on Lincoln quotes from the speeches of the President-elect as he traveled from his home in Illinois to the scene of his vast and matchless labor.
At the capitol of Ohio Lincoln said: “Without a name, without a reason why I should have a name, there has fallen upon me a task as did not rest even upon the Father of his country.”
At Albany, before the legislature of New York, he said: “While I hold myself the humblest of all individuals who have ever been elevated to the Presidency, I have a more difficult task to perform than any of them. I bring a true heart to the work. I must rely upon the people of the whole country for support, and with their sustaining aid, even I, humble as I am, can not fail to carry the ship of state safely through the storm.”
In the old Independence Hall of Philadelphia he said: “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments of the Declaration of Independence, which gave liberty not only to the people of this country, but to the world in all future time. If the country can not be saved without giving up that principle, I would rather be assassinated on the spot than surrender it.
Mr. Lincoln was not mistaken. He did not overstate, he could not exaggerate the gravity of the situation which confronted him. Deadly perils were surrounding him and his country.
As to the number and extent of the dangers that imperiled the government and the Union nearly all the world not only agreed with him, but went far beyond him. In England our condition and our peril were perhaps better understood than in any other nation. The aristocracy - the governing class of Great Britain - could not repress their joy. “The British Secretary of State made haste to sound through the palaces of Europe that the great Republic was in agony; that the Republic was no more than a headstone was all that remained due by the law of nations to ‘the late Union.’
A leading member of Parliament declared that “the attempt of the North to restore the Union by force was totally incapable of success;” that “the great powers of Europe would recognize the Southern Confederacy in less than six months,” and warming with his subject he proclaimed amidst the frantic cheers of the House of Commons the bursting of the bubble republic!”
So universal and strong was the conviction of the utter hopelessness of the Union cause that even Mr. Gladstone lost his head and announced his conviction that “Jefferson Davis had established a new nation in America.”
A leader of the English press confidently assured its readers: “No amount of Federal force which can be brought into the field against the South on its own ground will stand a chance of success.”
The governments of Europe with possibly two exceptions, were against Lincoln and the Union. The South was confident, and was eager and ready for the conflict. How was it in the North? As Mr. Lincoln entered upon his duty, the President who stepped out insisted that the “State Legislatures must repeal their unconstitutional and obnoxious enactments, or it would be impossible for any human power to save the Union.” I would not disturb the ashes which now cover the partisan fires which burned so fiercely in the awful days of 1861. It is enough to say that a powerful minority of people in the North were misled by able, determined, eloquent and popular public men to oppose Mr. Lincoln and his measures from the beginning to the end of the great conflict.
Now in the face of this emergency what were the means, what the preparations which Mr. Lincoln found with which to meet the most formidable rebellion against good government which the world ever saw? He found a skeleton army, a navy of worn out and old ships scattered to the four winds, an empty treasury, a broken down credit, and a revenue deficient even for the limited expenditure of a time of profound peace! But, on the other side, Mr. Lincoln saw much that inspired him with hope and with unfailing confidence. He had perfect faith in the perpetuity of the Union; he was in full sympathy with the people and trusted them to the end of the chapter. Above all he believed that in the affairs of nations the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth, and that He would not permit a government of the people, by the people and for the people to perish from the earth.
But what at last makes a war great, important, memorable? There have been great wars, considered merely as wars, before the contest for the Union, but that which determines the ultimate judgment of the world about war, is the same that determines the judgment of history on every human effort. The question at last always is-and what came of it? What were the results? Did the country, did mankind receive blessings from the great conflict or was it a calamity? The bloody wars of Napoleon; what did they bring to Napoleon-what to France-what to Europe? The designs and aims of the wonderful genius who waged them, and of his deluded followers found at last only defeat and despair.
Touching our war for the Union I always insist upon these two signal and pregnant statements, which I have often deliberately made and which I believe are beyond all question true. In no other war in all history have the victors so fully, so completely and so exactly accomplished all they intended and hoped for as the result of their triumph. The other statement is like unto the first. In no other war have the results of victory so immeasurably surpassed and transcended the most sanguine anticipations of the men who fought for and who achieved the final triumph.
What, then, let us ask were the ideas and sentiments which filled all loyal minds and hearts in that burning hour when the whole land was startled, as by a fire bell in the night, by the wild and tragic gun that was aimed at Fort Sumter? And when the war ended how stood the record on the vital principles at stake? The Union soldier, the loyal volunteer under Lincoln’s call, wanted and meant to do these four things: To save the Union; to uphold the authority of the National government; to destroy slavery and to vindicate the honor and glory of the old flag which symbolized to him all of those patriotic and holy principles for which he was ready and willing to lay down his life.
The contention of the Confederacy was the reverse of each and all of these lofty ideas and purposes. It claimed that the bond of the Union could be broken by any State at its discretion, and was therefore, a mere rope of sand to be broken at the whim of the ruling faction in any one of the thirty-four States. When the war ended it was settled and settled finally that every State and every acre in every State belonged only and forever to the stars and stripes. The pretension of the Confederacy was that every State was sovereign and that the authority of the national government depended at last upon the consent of each of the States. When the war ended it was a fixed as fate that the nation was supreme, and that never again will any State of this Union make war against the United States. The Confederacy held that slavery was of Divine appointment-that it was the true relation between capital and labor, and that it ought to be extended and perpetuated. When the war ended all the world knew that never again would the constitution or laws of any civilized country tolerate for one instant “the false and fatal phantasy that man can hold property in man.” It was a favorite notion of the Confederacy that each State should have its own flag for its people to gaze upon, admire and love - thirty-four flags in 1861 - forty-four now - and at no distant day a hundred. Each would represent a separate army and a separate navy and all would wave helplessly and miserably over States discordant, dissevered, belligerent. Their rabble state of flags would represent never ending petty wars between the wretched inhabitants of petty States. When the war ended it was established that the stars and stripes – the old flag of the fathers – the flag of Washington and Lincoln – the flag of the United States was destined to represent for all future time a great prosperous and happy people, whose heritage shall be, as long as they are guided by wisdom and justice, the enjoyment of perpetual harmony and unbroken peace throughout a continental Republic.
This is the record of the war and it simply shows that the soldiers of the Union army gained every issue for which they fought. But it contains only a part of the inspiring results of the war, That part which no man in those days of fearful trial thought of or even dreamed of is rapidly becoming the greater part. All men can now see plainly that the vanquished combatants in our war gained more by their own defeat than ever accrued by the victors in any other war. Our vanquished foeman gained for white man as well as for black man liberty – respect for labor and for laborers – education for all – and these are the three elements that secure to a people the best civilization and the prosperity which it implies. No catalogue has yet been made – none can even today be made of the benefits and blessings conferred upon our country and upon mankind by the triumph of the Union. That list grows longer and brighter with every revolving year. When the war began European governments hated the upstart Republic and dreaded the influence of its example. But America then had a very small place in the old world’s estimate of the relative strength of the several members of the family of nations. In Europe a nation’s rank and importance are fixed by it’s army, its navy, its wealth, its credit and its achievements in war. In 1861 the United States had an army of 16,000 men scattered among two company posts, or at most five company posts, over half a continent. It had a navy of ships so few, so old and so out of fashion and so scattered it was simply insignificant. Its treasury was empty. Its revenues for some years in a time of peace had been less than its expenditures. Its credit was lower than that of any other nation – so low that merely a loan of merely $5,000,000 could only be placed in driblets and at twelve per cent interest. For many years the slavery question had divided our Republic into two hostile sections, and was swiftly drifting it towards the Niagara of disunion. When the war ended our European enemies could see across the Atlantic a restored and regenerated Union compacted more solidly than ever before under one flag, with an army of Northern men and Southern men, practically one army, of more than 2,000,000 of trained veterans hardened and seasoned by four years of bloody war – a full match for the combined armies of all the unfriendly governments in the old world. They saw here a navy of more than six hundred ships manned so well and handled so skillfully that it sealed up, tight as wax, every bay, harbor, river’s mouth and creek along more than fifteen hundred miles of our Atlantic and Gulf cost, so that the whole marine of neutral Great Britain could no longer smuggle into the Confederacy a single box of percussion caps or a single pair of shoddy stockings. To-day the financiers of Europe can see in America the most overflowing treasury, the largest revenue, the best credit, the least burdensome debt to be found in all the world. In Germany during the war the bankers and the people bought United States bonds, and they proved the most lucrative securities ever sold by any nation. In England capitalists bought the Confederate bonds and it is a happiness to know that they turned out to be a permanent investment, and they hold them still! At the end of war the credit of the United States was higher with a debt of about three thousand millions, than when the nation did not owe a dollar.
The astounding progress of America during the war and by reason of it during the last twenty-seven years, has carried us forward and upward until we have reached a rank among the nations so commanding that we ourselves can hardly realize either the privileges that are ours or the responsibilities and duties which those privileges impose upon us. It is our privilege to be without extensive and costly fortifications because we do not need them. We have only a small navy because with our resources we are able, if the need comes, to subsidize the ships of almost all other nations except those of the power with which we are at war. We have to-day the largest, the cheapest, the safest, and the most efficient and formidable army the world has ever seen. It consists of more than ten millions of educated men who are not merely self-sustaining, but who, engaged in the peaceful industries of civil life, are constantly adding to our wealth and power. To keep this army up to its maximum of numbers and strength we have more than a quarter of a million of school houses under the old flag, every one of which is at once a fortress and a recruiting station for the army of the republic.
With our privileges and national strength the conditions, appointed by Providence for human existence, for nations as well as individuals, require us to bear the burden of corresponding duties. The occasion permits me to call to your attention very briefly to two of the obligations devolved upon us. One relates to our dealings with foreign nations; the other concerns our own citizens and our own immediate welfare. America can and ought to use the precious opportunity which her weight in the world has given her to keep the peace of the world. It is altogether fitting that this fortunate Republic should be the peace-maker of the world. Actions speak louder than words. Example avails. We can better afford to suffer wrong than to do wrong especially in dealing with weaker nations. No other nation is so great that it will ever again seek to knock the chip off from our shoulders. We should of course always be just, but we can afford also to be moderate, considerate, charitable, and magnanimous. Let our example, voice and influence be consistently, sincerely, and firmly on the side of peace- in favor of arbitration and against war. Let it be understood that America will engage in no war that is not absolutely forced upon her. We should adopt the familiar maxim of the great dramatist.
“Beware of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear it that the opposed may beware of thee.”
We ought, indeed to advance both parts of Shakespeare’s advice. Large standing armies are fatal to Liberty. War is the enemy of civilization and we ought to keep out of war until driven to the wall. But when compelled to act, let the example of the old Romans be followed “Carthage delenda est – Let Carthage be destroyed.” When America is driven into war let that war end only with the annihilation of the power that caused it. Let it be understood that whoever makes war with America will never make war again. Our gospel is peace. If war must come its aim and end should be a peace that cannot again be broken by the same offender.