August 20, 1892
Chautauqua, New York
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: Matthew Arnold after his visit to America habitually wrote and spoke in a friendly spirit about our country and our people. But he said, “America is a very uninteresting country.” No doubt, considered as a museum of relics of antiquity, America does not compare favorably with Egypt or China or other ancient nations. But taking a larger and juster view, America is the most interesting country in the world. Indeed, our Republic is the most interesting nation that ever was in the world. It has been 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 all of these elements of strength, influence and growth augmenting at a rate beyond the wildest dream of national ambition. It has the finest part of the best continent on the globe. Emerson hit the nail on the head when he said: “Resources of America! Why, one thinks of St. Simon saying ‘The Golden Age is not behind but before you.’ Here is man in the Garden of Eden; here the Genesis and the Exodus.” It has the only flag which no good man or woman born under it ever willingly leaves or ever wishes to exchange for any other flag-an ensign to which for more than a century the young, the intelligent and the enterprising seeking to improve their condition and that of their posterity from all civilized lands have been coming, trusting in the sublime prediction of our patriotic scholar and poet 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 appropriate topics for the observance of Grand Army day are very familiar. Newspapers, magazines and books without number have spread before us the inspiring narrative of the great war of 1861-1865 for Union and Liberty. 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 took part 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 of 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 solitude 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 bloodshed – of an uncounted multitude 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 eminent 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 such 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 assailing 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; that 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 has established a new nation in America.”
A leader of the English press calmly 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.”
John Bright, the favorite representative of the untitled English people, was almost alone among distinguished European statesmen in his opinions and actions on the American question. His voice – the most eloquent voice in all England – was from first to last on the side of American union and American liberty. Replaying to one of our bitterest foes in the House of Commons who prophesied evil to our cause, he said: “I see another and a far brighter vision. I see a vast Confederacy of states reaching from the frozen north to the glowing south, from the stormy billows of the Atlantic main to the calm waters of the Pacific sea, and everywhere I see one language, one law, one faith, one flag, the home of freedom and the refuge of the oppressed of every race and of every clime.” Forever enshrined in America shall be the name and memory of John Bright.
The governments of Europe, with possibly not more than 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 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 had 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 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 started 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 at 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 finally 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 on the consent of each of the states. When the war ended it was 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 of 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 of flags would have represented never-ending petty wars between the 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 perpetual 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 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 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’d 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 coast, so that the whole commercial 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 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 our 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 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 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 burdens 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 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 can never be broken by the same offender.
Among the duties to our own citizens devolved upon the Nation by this war, one not to be overlooked is the welfare of those who made the chief sacrifices in the conflict. Those who have shared in the fullest measure the prosperity which has come upon our country from the services of the men who stood by Lincoln and the good cause when all was at stake on the fields of the war, should be the last to hesitate, to haggle, or to condemn when the question of pensions is to be considered and decided. Two classes of debts were incurred during the war. Debts to the men who risked their money, and debts to the men who risked their lives. Both had the plighted faith of the Nation. The money obligations have been redeemed to the uttermost farthing. Depreciated paper has been paid dollar for dollar with gold – the intrinsic money of the world. The pledge to the soldier was surely no less sacred. It came to him from the Pulpit, from the Press, from every organ of the Government-it was in the platforms of all the political parties- in a word it came from every loyal pen and tongue and heart, and the very conscience of the Nation spoke when Lincoln declared again and again that we should, above all, “care for him that hath borne the battle and for the widow and his orphans.”
I do not need to be reminded of the frauds in the granting and repayment of pensions. I understand very well that the men who make and execute the laws are not all of them trustworthy. But with information quite as full and accurate as that of the men who are loudest in the denunciation of pensions I have a firm conviction that no equal sum of money expended on account of the war has been more free from the taint of fraud the pensions granted to the veterans who responded to the calls of Lincoln. The government spends vast sums for ships, for fortifications, for the improvement of rivers and harbors, for public building, for salaries of executive, legislative, and judicial officials, and for a host of other proper objects. Does anyone suppose that the government gets a full and honest equivalent in return for every dollar so expended? I am fully persuaded that very few appropriations made by the Nation do more good and are more justly deserved than those who go to the men who in the great crisis saved their country from irretrievable disaster and ruin. And this was done at the sacrifice by the soldiers of their own best opportunity and their fairest hope in life. They gave to their country the formative years when occupations are learned and when habits and character are fixed.
The list of our countrymen who have acquired large fortunes since the war contains hundreds of thousands of names. How few of those names are also found on the honored roll of the men who during four years upheld the flag in the divine war. The share of this country’s riches which would have accrued to the Union Solider if he had remained at home, has gone to other hands. His service made the United States bonds as good as gold. Prosperity and wealth, national and individual, followed as the night the day, the restoration of a sound financial condition by reason of the victory he achieved. Let it not be said that the men who have profited most by the salvation of their country have turned their backs on the men who saved it, No man whose head is good and whose heart is right will ever point a veteran of the war to the wretched road that leads to the poor house, He will rather urge with Lincoln: “Care for him that hath borne the battle and for the widow and his orphans.”
Another lesson inculcated by the war for America is still more important. All wars educate. Of our war it has been said, “ideas were behind the cannon and pointed the musket.” Abraham Lincoln was the very incarnation of these ideas, and they are at once the secret and they are the sure foundation of the enduring place which he holds in the affections of all good men and women, The sentiments which filled his soul and were the guides of his life were: Humanity – anxious solitude for the welfare of his fellow men – sympathy with the suffering and they oppressed – hatred of wrong to the humblest human being, and our common brotherhood. The lesson of his wonderful life contains almost the whole future of our country. It is short and simple. Our America to-day is drawing near to the parting of the roads. Dazzled almost to blindness by the contemplation of the unrivaled swiftness and splendor of her march to prestige, to power and to riches our country may be tempted to reject, or may neglect the message of Lincoln. That message was often repeated by him in words, and always exhibited in his life from his earliest to his latest days on earth. It can easily be given in a single sentence. His whole life, his very being, seemed to say to his country: “See to it that every son and daughter of our Republic, so far as human laws and conduct avail, shall have an equal chance and a fair start in the race of life.” Knowledge is power and property is power. The Republic means opportunity - the equal opportunity to get knowledge which in the long run commands property. The practical meaning of Lincoln’s maxim is, therefore, let all the children of the Republic have an equal opportunity for the best education which their natural faculties fit them to receive. Reject or neglect that and our government ceases to be republican except in name, and that doom which the Almighty has appointed for all shams is not far off. On the other hand let the American people remain steadfastly true to the ideas for which they fought in the sacred war, and we shall thus do all that is in us lies to link the destiny of our country to the stars and to entitle her institutions to share in that immortality which, under the allotment of Providence in the affairs of nations, belongs always to eternal wisdom and to eternal justice.