July 1, 1880
New Haven, Connecticut

Mr. President and Gentlemen:

It is my first duty, I think, to offer sincere acknowledgments to the authorities of Yale College, to the graduates of Yale, and to the friends of Yale here assembled, for the most gratifying way in which I have been welcomed by you. I also wish to thank the citizens of New Haven for the way in which they have received me, not for anything personal to me, but as a representative of the Nation which we all love so much. There is no doubt that every administration this country has ever known has been indebted to a great extent to Yale College. There is no doubt that in the future, every good administration and every administration which aims to be a good one, will owe this institution a similar debt. Perhaps, however no administration has ever been more deeply indebted to Yale than the present.

You will readily recall the exciting events of four years ago, during the embarrassing period which intervened between the election and the final decision of the question as to who should be the incumbent of the Presidential chair. I was much embarrassed, for it was plainly to be seen that if the trust and responsibility of that station was to devolve upon me the voyage would not be over a smooth sea or under halcyon skies. Therefore, when it seemed probable that the responsibility might devolve upon my shoulders, my first thought was, What is the paramount duty I shall have to perform, and how can it be done? It seemed to me the permanent pacification of the country was the first duty. I knew there were good and true people who failed to see the path of duty as I did; but I thought I saw the necessity of doing something to restore the confidence of the whole people, and of bringing to the whole country the rest and repose it so sadly needed.

Seeing this as my first duty, I asked what can I do to assure all, that this will be my earnest purpose? This had been attempted in party platforms and in letters of acceptance. What was required by the people, however, was some distinct, unmistakable, and palpable act. It occurred to me that I might find in the South some man of the highest character who had been opposed to me through the long and bitter conflict, and who therefore had the confidence of the Southern people against whom we fought, and who would be faithful to the Constitution as it now is, and that it would be wise to invite such a man to a place at the council-board of the Nation. I found no great political leader suggesting that this course might possibly lead to a solution of our difficulties. While I was pondering on the course to pursue, there came to me like a flash of sunlight from the sky, a letter from the great and venerable man who so long presided over the destinies of Yale, and whom we almost worship. Without drifting into a speech, I will say that the suggestions contained in that letter were in perfect accord with the conclusions of my own judgment, and that I followed implicitly President Woolsey's advice.

All may not have resulted as I then believed and hoped, but I can not confidently say, after more than three years of trial, that in following his advice I found the true Key to the situation. I will not undertake at this time to give you a catalogue of the names of those who have been connected with Yale, or the institutions which are directly connected with it, who have aided in the work of the past three years. Seated in the chief council of the Government, as its head, Yale has Secretary Evarts. In Germany your institution is represented by President White, of Cornell University. In Belgium you are represented by the gifted Putnam. But there is no necessity for prolonging the list, brilliant as it is.

Before concluding, however, let me say a word for the admirable school founded here as a supplement to the college, through the generosity of the venerable Mr. Sheffield. When in the course of my administration it became necessary to find out the underdeveloped resources of this great country, particularly those which lie hidden in the far West, I cast about me to find a man to do the work. I came to the Sheffield School, and there I found Clarence King. I know that whatever there was of good to be found he could find it and report it to the people. When at the end of a period of ten years, the people wanted to know of the material growth of the country, of its wealth and prosperity, what we have and what we want, I came to you for another Sheffield man, and selected as the one who could best handle the mass of figures and statistics gathered, and deduce from them something of importance to the country--General Walker.

Indebted, therefore, as I am, at all points, to this institution, I wish to thank you; and, graduate as I have been made to-day, I find myself thanking myself while I am thanking you. There is another point to which I wish to allude, and yet it is not a point for it has length, and breadth, and thickness. There is an old saying, "you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink." Knowing the desire of the American people that their representative to the nation to which we so largely trace our lineage, should be a man reared up to the full stature of a mental and moral manhood, and wishing to select the best type of American character, in that emergency, again I turned to Yale, and found just the man. I reversed the old adage in this case, for I brought the water to the horse, but President Porter wouldn't drink. And he was altogether right in refusing to accept the position tendered to him.

Any administration, and any country, is more indebted to the man who is engaged in education the people than it is to those who are its executive and administrative officers. The Executive is but the figurehead at best. The real government resides at last in the men who, figuratively speaking, stand at the helm, and have charge of the boilers and engine--the men who form and guide the public opinion which propels the ship and directs its course. The head of such an institution as this, where moral and intellectual culture are combined, is the man who forms men, who control not only the figure-head but control the nation. I wish here publicly to return thanks to the man who had the judgment to give such an example to the Nation. Whether Yale's sons guide or act as the figure-head of the Nation, I know they will be an honor to you. Any administration that is a good one, or desires to be a good one, must every be grateful to such an institution as this.

go to top of page