MEMORIAL DAY ADDRESS
MEMORIAL DAY ADDRESS
A tide is rising in modern history which reaches one after another of the institutions, beliefs, and traditions which we have inherited from the past. As it touches the bad ones, they crumble, one after another, and fall beneath its waves. Some call this tide “revolution.” They see only its destructive side and its iconoclastic spirit and as they watch its advance, they fall under its fascination. The demon of destruction which lurks in every human breast is aroused and men are eager to participate in the work of overthrowing and destroying. It is true, indeed, that this new movement has several times manifested itself in revolution. It did so in England; it did so in America; and it did so in France; but the thoughtful student of history will see in these manifestations no reason to “glorify revolution.” He will rather see in all such internecine strife the sad side of human nature. He detects only the mad passions of men: on the one hand fanatical devotion to effete institutions and rotten traditions and on the other side the senseless love of ruin. He will tell us that if this is the true manifestation of the so-called modern spirit, then an enemy to civilization is abroad on the earth compared with which the barbaric lust for destruction of the Huns and Vandals sinks into insignificance.
But, in fact, the new movement is not simply destructive; it has also its positive and constructive side; it pulls down only to build better. It bears a freight of new ideas, doctrines, and institutions, rich with fruits of peace, joy, and prosperity. Its violent manifestations are only the fight which it has to wage for its birth-right. It is true, indeed, that the blood which is spilled upon its garments leaves deep stains; nay more, that those stains must be washed out in long suffering and patient toil and steady devotion to duty before the movement can renew its march. The fight is never over when the banner is furled and the arms are returned to the arsenal. On the contrary, that is just when the fight begins — a new fight and a hard one; not a fight of guns, but of ideas; not of artillery, but of discussion. The warfare of the battle-field only secures freedom of discussion and tames the party which sought to cut it short by an appeal to arms. Then arises a new question: whether those who won the victory under the inspiration of physical combat have the patience, the tenacity, and the self-denial to secure its fruits by establishing and spreading sound principles, by founding and fostering good institutions, and by engrafting upon the culture and civilization of their country the new convictions which they have won. To destroy old traditions is easy, but no nation can do without traditions unless it is willing to become the prey of demagogues and mountebanks and to chase every day a new chimera. But traditions must be cared for through a tender process of germination until they take root and acquire vitality and that is a labor of time, patience, and self-sacrifice.
Ten years ago this tide of modern history reached to one of the inherited institutions of this nation. Foremost in many respects as we were in our sympathy as a nation with all the new ideas and institutions, we yet had in our midst an institution which represented and rested on the grossest falsehood invented in the past — perhaps we had even developed the wrong into phases more revolting than it had elsewhere attained. With a social and civil system which was democratic from its broadest principle to its slightest development, we yet had an institution whose essential spirit was aristocratic. With a mercantile system running to excess even in its application to all the relations of life, according to which services rendered commanded a pecuniary recompense, we yet had a system of labor within our national frontier under which one set of men did all the work and another set of men took all the pay. All history might have taught us that inconsistencies so gross could never endure; that a united nation never could be built out of elements so discordant, producing a grotesque civil, social, political, and mercantile monstrosity. Under the influence of modern inventions which were rapidly uniting us as far as space and time were concerned, it was inevitable that sooner or later this alternative must come to a decision; either the attempt to form this people into one homogeneous nation must fail or else the discordant elements must be eliminated. The enactments on which the existing status was based might avail to this extent, that the changes could not be wrought out without a frightful convulsion, but they could not avail to prevent the decision of the alternative. The modern doctrines of equality, justice, and right reason, as practical principles on which governments ought to be based, had wrought upon the consciences of our people until a majority were hostile to one of our inherited institutions which enjoyed the sanction of law. It was only another phase of the modern revulsion against all forms of privilege and caste, which had already produced so many crises in Europe. Our turn had come. We had been foremost in accepting the modern principles; we must now put our institutions into complete consistency with them. Here, as elsewhere, the advocates of the abuse sought the arbitration of force and the first consequence of the new convictions was a bloody and desolating war, but the subsequent consequences have, I believe, been such as to educate and develop the nation. The destructive feature was first manifested, but we are now going through the constructive developing and consolidating movement. Let us see if this is not so.
It is easy for us now to look back and philosophize upon the events, but at the time none of us were so wise. One thing only the popular mind did discern, and discern clearly, even in the midst of the storm, and that was the main gist of the question at issue. The people did see that it was a question whether we should form one homogeneous nation, or whether the discordant institution should be maintained.
With the decision of that question the nation was born; or, perhaps I should say, attained its manhood. For the life of this nation up to that time had been a kind of boyhood. We had rollicked in the exultation of youth. We were conscious of vigor and freedom. We knew few of the burdens of national life. We had no powerful neighbors to impose fear upon us. We were not entangled in any weary diplomacy. We had the sea between us and our enemies and we did not feel the burdens of national defense. We had no old traditions to cramp us; no vested interests to respect; no complicated rights to fetter our movements of public policy. We were an experiment and we rejoiced in the evidences of our success. We undertook other experiments in social, civil, and political matters, whose apparent recklessness struck older nations aghast, but which we did not fear to make because we were confident of our power to recover from failure. Our relations were free, our powers were abundant enough to endure waste. Withal, we could not find opportunities to manifest all our strength. We could only promise to do and assert our ability to do, and this exposed us to malicious interpretations. In all this we see the indications of youth, of inexperience, of exuberant spirits, of overflowing power.
But the convulsion through which we passed ten years ago had the effect upon us as a nation which a grave trial has upon a man: at one step he passes from youth to manhood. He comes to know the world in which he lives. He appreciates the earnestness of life. His confidence in his own powers may be no less firm, but it is far more sober. He does not tempt the trials of life. He no longer seeks opportunities to waste his energies for the mere sake of exercising them. He husbands his powers and settles down to a less romantic, but far more efficient method of undertaking and working. So it was, I say, with this nation. War had been to us a tradition of glory. During a long peace, interrupted only by a slight foreign war, a generation had grown up which had no knowledge, from actual experience, of what war is; but to the Americans of this generation war is a lurid glory. We never can deceive ourselves as to what it means. It brings to us no poetry or romance, but we have seen the spectre face to face and have recognized its true features. We are yet so near to it that our exultation is dimmed in tears and when we turn our memory back to it, we cannot tell whether a sob or a cheer will burst from our hearts. War, to our generation of Americans, is a grim necessity to which sober men may be driven in the last extremity to ward off violent hands from all which makes life valuable, and no flowers of rhetoric can make us see in it anything else than the dire necessity of a peaceful citizen when his life, his family, his fireside, and his country are in danger from the rage of a misguided foe.
The war taught us also the value of moral forces in national life. We were in danger of falling into all the vices of a long and lazy peace. Our interests were centering in mercantile and industrial pursuits until it seemed that, as a nation, we might hold no cause worth the injury which must result from an interruption of industry. It seemed that our country might come to mean to us only a territory teeming with wealth for which we desired to scramble without interruption. Patriotism was a virtue which languished for want of exercise. It could no longer live on the story of great deeds done by a former generation, for the love of country, like every other love, grows by what it demands, not by what it brings; those who love their country are those who have paid for it, not those who have enjoyed its blessings after it was bought. But the great crisis of our recent history offered to our people an ideal good. It held up before the mind of the nation a good to be won which was worth more than gold or raiment. It called them to win for their children another inheritance than lands or stocks and that was the inheritance of a nation which should be to them a true nursing mother by its traditions of labor, patience, suffering, and self-denial. The people responded to the call. They proved to all the world and to themselves, which is far more important, that they could understand such a call, that they could appreciate a higher and ideal good, and that they were not yet altogether given over to the desire for material prosperity.
The war also taught this people what a nation is. A nation is not a certain extent of territory on the earth's surface; nor is it the mere aggregate of the persons who may live within a certain territory. A nation is a community of various ages, occupations, talents, and circumstances, but all united in a common interest. It is a unit which has organic life. It is enduring in its existence, spanning over individual lives and generations. It accumulates the contributions of various individuals and of various generations and it brings them all to the service and benefit of each. It is, therefore, in the strictest sense, a common-wealth, in which each participates in the prosperity of the whole and all suffer through the misfortune of one. It brings down from generation to generation the accumulation of art, science, and literature and its store of these treasures should be a steadily increasing one. It brings down the public buildings, the machinery of government, the stores of defensive means, the galleries of painting, the museums of art and science, the libraries, as a continually increasing endowment of posterity. Moreover it cherishes traditions which, if they become petrified, form a prisonhouse which must be broken, but which, if they are fresh, living, and flexible, are the framework of society. For instance, the rights of conscience, the equality of all men before the law, the separation of church and state, religious toleration, freedom of speech and of the press, popular education, are vital traditions of the American people. They are not brought in question; they form the stock of firm and universal convictions on which our national life is based; they are ingrained into the character of our people and you can assume, in any controversy, that an American will admit their truth. But they form the sum of traditions which we obtain as our birth-right. They are never explicitly taught to us, but we assimilate them in our earliest childhood from all our surroundings, at the fireside, at school, from the press, on the highways and streets. We never hear them disputed and it is only when we observe how difficult it is for some foreign nations to learn them that we perceive that they are not implanted by nature in the human mind. They are a part and the most valuable part of our national inheritance, and the obligation of love, labor, and protection which we owe to the nation rests upon these benefits which we receive from it.
We have learned, I say, in these last ten years, to appreciate the idea of a nation and its value as a unit and as a commonwealth. We have also reached the determination that we, the people of the United States, will be a nation, not a chance aggregate of adventurers in a new country nor a confederation of jealous and discordant states, but a union and a unity, holding as municipal rights those things which are truly limited and local and by which no jealousies are aroused, but maintaining pure our sense of a true national bond embracing all as far as the national name extends.
We have also obtained clearer views as to the way in which a nation is to be formed.
1. The first necessity for a nation is a homogeneous population. The nations of Europe generally start with this condition satisfied, and it is only when, by foreign conquest, they absorb foreign elements that they experience difficulty in this respect. In general they embrace within a certain area persons who speak a common language, cherish the same traditions, have the same manners and customs and, in many cases, hold the same religion. But we have a chaotic society and a conglomerate population. Europeans, Africans, and Asiatics meet with the aborigines of this continent in our population. We have every diversity of race, nationality, language, manners, customs, religion, traditions, and character. To form a nation, we must mold these elements into a certain measure of similarity and confortuity. The divisions which are based upon the circumstances of foreign countries must be left behind. The jealousies of race and the hatreds of sects and the bitterness of parties which have sprung up in foreign lands are no heritage of ours. They are curses which must not be transplanted hither. The divisions, factions, and cliques which take their names from the origin of their members in foreign countries must be dissolved in the new bond of American citizenship. The institutions, traditions, social and civil forms which are known as American are what have made this country a more desirable residence to many persons than the land of their birth. They are welcome to the great American nationality, to which many of us are only new-comers, but it is certainly no unfair demand to ask that they shall come in order to be Americans and not in order to find in the new world a new arena for the strifes which desolate the old. Such a disposition on the part of all to merge sectional, national, and other partisanships in the new nationality is a prime necessity if we are to form a nation.
2. It is only a development of the same idea to say that, in order to have a nation, we must have homogeneous institutions. We have already noticed how incongruous the institution of slavery was in our civil and social system, and we have observed that that incongruity led to a crisis in which the question at stake was nothing less than this: whether we should be a nation or not. It is an instance of a general law. The nation, as we have defined it, an organic unit, a commonwealth, a true educator and benefactor, cannot attain to the harmony which is its law of life unless its institutions are similar, harmonious, and compatible. They need not be uniform, for local circumstances will give them local color, but they must not be discordant. The relations of the general government to the state governments cannot be one thing in one section and another in another, if we are to solidify into a nation. If a man reared in Maine imbibes certain ideas of the right of free speech, and, on going to Florida or California finds that the exercise of that right puts his life and liberty in danger, he will not feel that any true bond of nationality unites those localities. If it is a principle which is recognized almost universally throughout the country that our soil and our institutions are open to all men who choose to come here and practice industry in peace, then any section which limits this principle by hostility to a single race impairs, in so far, the development of a true nationality. If monogamy is rooted in our civilization and lies at the lowest foundation of our social structure, then polygamy, if practised amongst us, is a foreign and disturbing element. Those who practise it may be amongst us but not of us. They cannot form with us a homogeneous nationality. We are not wise if we apply force to compel unformity in these respects, but we ought to understand the task which lies before us and the ends towards which we have to strive, and we must seek to accomplish them through the propagation of sound doctrines and general enlightenment.
3. This brings us to another necessary condition for a nation, a condition which, in order of thought and of importance is first of all, that is, that the people shah have a fund of common convictions, common principles, and common aims. The institutions of a country are only an embodiment and expression of the national faiths. We, for instance, as a nation, believe that every man has a full right to make the most of himself and that the commonwealth will gain by making the most of every individual born within its limits. Our common schools are an institution framed to give practical efficiency to this conviction. In a country or section where it is believed that one portion of the community are born to menial offices and that the commonwealth injures itself by educating them to be dissatisfied with their position, you will find no common school system. We believe also that the truth in regard to any matter whatsoever is most likely to emerge from a free discussion. We know that much will be said in such a discussion which will be crude, much which will be foolish, and perhaps some things which will be wicked and malicious. We nevertheless have faith in freedom. We trust it, and a free press is an institution which is a natural product of this conviction. In countries where such faiths are wanting, we meet with censorships, restrictions, and limitations. One part of the population undertakes to decide for another part what things are healthful and true. So, universally, the institutions of a country are the embodiment of its faiths. Moreover every law which is passed is an embodiment of a certain theoretical principle which is believed to be sound. There is a philosophy of some sort at the bottom of all legislation, whether it be the polished philosophy of the schools or the rough and ready philosophy of men of practical experience. We take private property for public uses because it is believed right and just to do so. We punish criminals because we believe in the theoretical doctrine that a man forfeits his right to life or liberty if he misuses his powers to the injury of his neighbors. We interfere with the freedom of purchase and sale of certain articles on grounds of public policy. Thus, as we say, all our public acts represent popular opinion, that is, the beliefs which the people cherish.
It follows from all this that if we are to be a united and harmonious nation, it is of the first importance that we shall be united in our convictions on those fundamental principles which underlie our jurisprudence, our legislation, our education, and our diplomacy. We must be agreed as to whether we will seek in our diplomacy petty advantages and jealous self-interest or whether we, as a nation, will contribute to the widest good of humanity; whether our motto shall be to see that our country is always right or to stand by our country right or wrong. We must be agreed as to the ends to be sought by government, whether they are the broadest national prosperity or the satisfaction of factions and parties. We must agree in our estimate of the true province and scope of legislation, whether men can be made good and rich by law or whether the true principle of strength be reluctance of the commonwealth to interfere further than is absolutely necessary with individual enterprise and the individual conscience. Our faith in the value of training and culture must be unanimous. We must esteem care and painstaking and thoroughness and industry in every department of life, and we must so esteem the authority of knowledge, experience, judgment, and sound reason as to be willing to defer to it. We must also be reasonably unanimous in regard to the highest interests of man, the relation of this life to immortality, and the moral obligations which depend on that relation; and we must agree in our estimate of the value of conscience in all human affairs. These are only a few of the broad and fundamental principles which underlie human affairs, unanimity in regard to which is necessary in a body of men who aspire to form a nation. Men will always differ in regard to the particular application of these principles to especial cases, and therefore parties will always exist, but these principles underlie all parties and are essential to the unity of the commonwealth.
Here, then, we have an outline of what a nation is, what is requisite to its formation, and what is required for its permanent prosperity—matters which the events of the last ten years have brought into new prominence and new interest. We count them into the results of our great civil crisis. It gave us a feeling of unity and nationality, it gave us a history, it vindicated us to ourselves and to posterity as a people who could understand and respond to an ideal good, and it fixed our attention on the conditions requisite to the development and establishment of a nation.
Far be it from me to glorify war. We need only estimate our position to-day in order to see that the evil results of the war are not confined to the destruction of property, the loss of life, and the crippling of industry. There are other results directly traceable to war: diminished respect for law, love of arbitrary processes, respect for force, and a tendency to sacrifice principle to a narrow expediency, which awaken our anxiety and demand our efforts to counteract them. In view of these evils and dangers we cannot glorify war. It is a harsh experience, full of the education and full of the evil which inheres in all adversity. One thing only we do say, and we say it with full confidence in looking back on our own great strife: there is one thing worse than war and that is peace in the face of men with swords drawn on behalf of injustice and wrong. War, in its way, and peace, in its way, are parts of that great discipline of adversity and prosperity by which God makes men and nations strong.
These are the thoughts which seem to me to be in place on our “Memorial Day.” A nation's civil holidays are an epitome of its history. We have a day on which we celebrate the nation's birth; it surely is well that we should have a day on which we celebrate its coming of age. But when we meet to-day, our minds do not revert to the glory of victory; they dwell rather on the memory of a grand duty nobly done. We do not celebrate amidst the booming of cannon or the noisy mirth of a popular holiday; we keep the day sacred to a pious duty in memory of those who fell in the great struggle. How could we be merry when every mind runs over its list of relatives and friends and when each recalls those in his own circle of acquaintances whose lives were full of promise of blessing to their country, but who to-day are not? The sun shines for us, and we laugh and are gay and the world goes on its course of business and pleasure, of joy and of enterprise, and still the memory of the lost ones when it revives is bright and keen. Above their graves we turn back to the retrospect and renew our vow that they shall not have perished in vain. We see now, as they could not see, all the extent of the cause for which they died and we resolve that the nation for whose external union they died shall be a nation indeed. We will carry on that moral regeneration and union which is still necessary to consolidate their work. We will establish the foundations of the nation in firm convictions and true principles; we will build it up on strong institutions and noble traditions; and we will consolidate its heterogeneous elements into a harmonious nationality.
Neither are we met to-day to exult over the defeated party or to keep alive the rancor of civil strife. That phase of this celebration is fading — happily fading out of the public mind. Rather, now that the heat of the conflict has subsided, we see distinctly the sad mischief of civil strife. The blows which we struck were blows at our own body; the wounds which we gave left scars upon ourselves; the destruction which we wrought fell upon our own interests. This is the fatal character of all civil strife, that the one commonwealth suffers the losses both of the victors and the vanquished. The names of places which we inscribe on our monuments are not those of a foreign foe; they are our own and a part of the inheritance of our children. Fifty years hence, when your sons visit Richmond and Charleston, they will hardly be able to find a rebel or the son of a rebel there. They will find a new race, energetic, patriotic, and American, a race of colonists and immigrants from the North and from foreign lands, cramped by no inherited crime, warped by no false traditions, and demoralized by no discord between conscience and social institutions. They will smile at the old folly and they will not meet with a frown the sons of the victors. Already the movements are in progress which promise to rescue the South from the unprincipled adventurers who have profited by the transition period, and to bring it into political, social, and industrial harmony with the rest of the nation. Already nature spreads her healing hand to conceal the physical scars which war had made. The trees spring again on the devastated hillside. The sod spreads over the half-buried cannon-ball. The shrubs and bushes obliterate the lines of the entrenchments. The industry of man assists in the same work, and new industry and new achievements spring up on the ruins of the old. It is not the province of Memorial Day to reverse or retard this process and by tearing open again the old wounds to rescue anger and hate from oblivion. Its province is to keep alive in the hearts of the people the meaning and value of the nation, the price which it cost, and the memory of those who died to purchase it. When men go to war for glory, let them have their reward. Pay it in the booming of cannon, in the blare of trumpets, and in the tinsel and trappings which perish in the using; but when men go to war for duty, let them also have their reward. Pay it in a new devotion to the duty for whose sake they fell; pay it in a nobler zeal in behalf of our rescued country; pay it in a loftier wisdom in public policy which shall destroy abuses before they grow so strong that it shall cost the blood of your sons to root them out.