April 30, 1889
New York City
Mr. President and Gentlemen:
In this city, in 1839, on the fiftieth anniversary of the inauguration of Washington as President, John Quincy Adams delivered a memorable discourse. In it he set forth what he deemed the true principles of the Constitution on the then unsettled question of the relation between the States and the General Government. With a fullness of information, which perhaps no other man could marshal, and with a faultless logic he showed that the Declaration of Independence, in terms and in fact, was the act of a single people dwelling in thirteen colonies, but who united together, out of a decent respect to the opinions of mankind, declared the causes which impelled them as “one people to dissolve the political bands which had connected them with another.” He showed that the articles of confederation departed from the firm and safe concord with which independence was declared, and “relaxed their union into a mere league of friendship between sovereign and independent States.” In spite of the defects of the articles of confederation the sprit of liberty and the popular impulse to unity carried the Americans thought the war as one people an the cause of independence was triumphant. But now came the gravest periods. The danger of conquest by British despotism removed, “the Union languished,” says Mr. Adams, “to the point of death.” “There was,” he says, “avowedly no executive power.” Indeed, he went further and declared that “the one united people had NO GOVERNMENT.” And he was altogether right. Where there is no executive power, whatever else there may be, there is no government. Hence when the fathers met in that great convention which Washington suggested, and which he in truth more than any other man called into being, no more difficult or weighty duty devolved upon them than wisely to constitute the chief magistracy—the Presidency—for the republic they were about to establish. Now what shall be said of their work? Speaking under the necessary limitations of this occasion one must avoid details and all attempts at elaborate discussion. No candid and intelligent retrospect of the century that is gone will fail to discover transcendent merit in the executive authority contrived by Washington, Hamilton, Madison and their immortal associates. The tree is known by its fruit. Experience has shown that in ordinary times the executive power is of no greater importance—perhaps it is less vital—than the legislative or judicial power. Indeed, so happily constituted is the Presidency that we must say of each of the twenty-six presidential elections under the constitution, that either candidate might have been elected, and the good citizen whose partisan feeling was strongest and whose disappointment was strongest and who disappointment was bitterest, could repose on his pillow consoled by the reflection, although my party is beaten, my country is safe. Is it not true that our executive authority is so fashioned that in ordinary times it has always been so administered that the republic has received no detriment? When gigantic perils and disasters threaten, when extraordinary character and powers are demanded these great occasions have always found strong hands to deal with them. To pilot the untried government in its first voyage over an unknown and stormy sea, without a whisper of dissent in any quarter, Washington was called to the helm, and under him the first voyage gave the world assurance that the prospect of the new nation for growth, and power, and prestige, and happiness was unmatched by that of any people the world had seen before.
Only twice within the century, since our government was established, has deadly peril seemed to draw near to the people of the United States. At the beginning, as we have seen, armed with the orderly and clearly expressed powers of the Presidency the threatened danger was met and overcome by Washington.
Again, as we were approaching the middle of the second half century of the Constitution, it did seem as if we were drifting—nay as if we were swept on towards destruction. Our friends in other lands—the few we had—lost hope. John Bright was almost alone among great statesmen with his inspiring confidence—ever blessed in America shall be the memory of John Bright! Those not our friends, and yet not quite our enemies, shook their heads, and thought it strange that we could not see the inevitable end. Our enemies abroad jubilant beyond expression declared the bubble Republic bursted.
In that dread time to what department of our Government did we look? The judge calm, impartial and wise could interpret the Constitution and the laws. But the sectional passion and madness of the hour—would it heed him? The Senator, far-seeing, patriotic and solicitous, what laws could he propose to meet the urgent need of the time? In the legislative halls, as in the court rooms, everywhere was clearly written the awful sentence,
“Inter arma silent leges.”
“In the midst of war the laws are silent.” Happily for America, in conformity with the Constitution, and by the gracious favor of Providence, the Presidency of the United States was held by Abraham Lincoln.
We can truly say of the Presidency that the results of twenty-five consecutive terms have vindicated the wisdom of the Fathers who established it. Of twenty-two terms there are two things which may be said: One is that no great remediless harm came through the executive power to the people it was intended to serve. The other is that if no eminent historical benefit, lasting through the ages, was conferred by most of them, it was perhaps because the opportunity for illustrious achievement did not occur. But during them all the Nation, by its inherent resources and energy, pushed rapidly forward in a career of unparalleled prosperity and happiness, unimpeded by executive crimes or blunders.
Finally, during the critical and anxious years of the other three Presidential terms the opportunity came to America, and she gave to the world two Chief Magistrates whose character and deeds, unrivalled in human annals, were crowned by a devotion to country and mankind which enabled them to furnish an example of independence of personal advantage and of selfish love of power, of wealth and of title, either for themselves or their families, absolutely unknown before the history of the rulers of the world. By their administration of the Presidency, Washington and Lincoln made the great office, and the century whose completion we celebrate, forever illustrious.