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Decoration Day 88

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Robert Green Ingersoll         


THIS is a sacred day — a day for gratitude and love.

To-day we commemorate more than independence, more than the birth of a nation, more than the fruits of the Revolution, more than physical progress, more than the accumulation of wealth, more than national prestige and power.

We commemorate the great and blessed victory over ourselves — the triumph of civilization, the reformation of a people, the establishment of a government consecrated to the preservation of liberty and the equal rights of man.

Nations can win success, can be rich and powerful, can cover the earth with their armies, the seas with their fleets, and yet be selfish, small and mean. Physical progress means opportunity for doing good. It means responsibility. Wealth is the end of the despicable, victory the purpose of brutality.

But there is something nobler than all these — something that rises above wealth and power — something above lands and palaces — something above raiment and gold — it is the love of right, the cultivation of the moral nature, the desire to do justice, the inextinguishable love of human liberty.

Nothing can be nobler than a nation governed by conscience, nothing more infamous than power without pity, wealth without honor and without the sense of justice.

Only by the soldiers of the right can the laurel be won or worn.

On this day we honor the heroes who fought to make our Nation just and free — who broke the shackles of the slave, who freed the masters of the South and their allies of the North. We honor chivalric men who made America the hope and beacon of the human race — the foremost Nation of the world.

These heroes established the first republic, and demonstrated that a government in which the legally expressed will of the people is sovereign and supreme is the safest, strongest, securest, noblest and the best.

They demonstrated the human right of the people, and of all the people, to make and execute the laws — that authority does not come from the clouds, or from ancestry, or from the crowned and titled, or from constitutions and compacts, laws and customs — not from the admissions of the great, or the concessions of the powerful and victorious — not from graves, or consecrated dust — not from treaties made between successful robbers — not from the decisions of corrupt and menial courts — not from the dead, but from the living — not from the past but from the present, from the people of to-day — from the brain, from the heart and from the conscience of those who live and love and labor.

The history of this world for the most part is the history of conflict and war, of invasion, of conquest, of victorious wrong, of the many enslaved by the few.

Millions have fought for kings, for the destruction and enslavement of their fellow-men. Millions have battled for empire, and great armies have been inspired by the hope of pillage; but for the first time in the history of this world millions of men battled for the right, fought to free not themselves, but others, not for prejudice, but for principle, not for conquest, but for conscience.

The men whom we honor were the liberators of a Nation, of a whole country, North and South — of two races. They freed the body and the brain, gave liberty to master and to slave. They opened all the highways of thought, and gave to fifty millions of people the inestimable legacy of free speech.

They established the free exchange of thought. They gave to the air a flag without a stain, and they gave to their country a constitution that honest men can reverently obey. They destroyed the hateful, the egotistic and provincial — they established a Nation, a national spirit, a national pride and a patriotism as broad as the great Republic.

They did away with that ignorant and cruel prejudice that human rights depend on race or color, and that the superior race has the right to oppress the inferior. They established the sublime truth that the superior are the just, the kind, the generous, and merciful — that the really superior are the protectors, the defenders, and the saviors of the oppressed, of the fallen, the unfortunate, the weak and helpless. They established that greatest of all truths that nothing is nobler than to labor and suffer for others.

If we wish to know the extent of our debt to these heroes, these soldiers of the right, we must know what we were and what we are. A few years ago we talked about liberty, about the freedom of the world, and while so talking we enslaved our fellow-men. We were the stealers of babes and the whippers of women. We were in partnership with bloodhounds. We lived on unpaid labor. We held manhood in contempt. Honest toil was disgraceful — sympathy was a crime — pity was unconstitutional — humanity contrary to law, and charity was treason. Men were imprisoned for pointing out in heaven’s dome the Northern Star — for giving food to the hungry, water to the parched lips of thirst, shelter to the hunted, succor to the oppressed. In those days criminals and courts, pirates and pulpits were in partnership — liberty was only a word standing for the equal rights of robbers.

For many years we insisted that our fathers had founded a free Government, that they were the lovers of “liberty, believers in equal rights. We were mistaken. The colonists did not believe in the freedom of to-day. Their laws were filled with intolerance, with slavery and the infamous spirit of caste. They persecuted and enslaved. Most of them were narrow, ignorant and cruel. For the most part, their laws were more brutal than those of the nations from which they came. They branded the forehead of intelligence, bored with hot irons the tongue of truth. They persecuted the good and enslaved the helpless. They were believers in pillories and whipping-posts for honest, thoughtful men.

When their independence was secured they adopted a Constitution that legalized slavery, and they passed laws making it the duty of free men to prevent others from becoming free. They followed the example of kings and nobles. They knew that monarchs had been interested in the slave trade, and that the first English commander of a slave-ship divided his profits with a queen.

They forgot all the splendid things they had said — the great principles they had so proudly and eloquently announced. The sublime truths faded from their hearts. The spirit of trade, the greed for office, took possession of their souls. The lessons of history were forgotten. The voices coming from all the wrecks of kingdoms, empires and republics on the shores of the great river were unheeded and unheard.

If the foundation is not justice, the dome cannot be high enough, or splendid enough, to save the temple.

But above everything in the minds of our fathers was the desire for union — to create a Nation, to become a Power.

Our fathers compromised.

A compromise is a bargain in which each party defrauds the other, and himself.

The compromise our fathers made was the coffin of honor and the cradle of war.

A brazen falsehood and a timid truth are the parents of compromise.

But some — the greatest and the best — believed in liberty for all. They repeated the splendid sayings of the Roman: “By the law of nature all men are free;” — of the French King: “Men are born free and equal;” — of the sublime Zeno: “All men are by nature equal, and virtue alone establishes a difference between them.”

In the year preceding the Declaration of Independence, a society for the abolition of slavery was formed in Pennsylvania and its first President was one of the wisest and greatest of men — Benjamin Franklin. A society of the same character was established in New York in 1785: its first President was John Jay — the second, Alexander Hamilton.

But in a few years these great men we’re forgotten. Parties rivaled each other in the defence of wrong. Politicians cared only for place and power. In the clamor of the heartless, the voice of the generous was lost. Slavery became supreme. It dominated legislatures, courts and parties; it rewarded the faithless and little; it degraded the honest and great.

And yet, through all these hateful years, thousands and thousands of noble men and women denounced the degradation and the crime. Most of their names are unknown. They have given a glory to obscurity. They have filled oblivion with honor.

In the presence of death it has been the custom to speak of the worthlessness, and the vanity, of life. I prefer to speak of its value, of its importance, of its nobility and glory.

Life is not merely a floating shadow, a momentary spark, a dream, that vanishes. Nothing can be grander than a life filled with great and noble thoughts — with brave and honest deeds. Such a life sheds light, and the seeds of truth sown by great and loyal men bear fruit through all the years to be. To have lived and labored and died for the right — nothing can be sublimer.

History is but the merest outline of the exceptional — of a few great crimes, calamities, wars, mistakes and dramatic virtues. A few mountain peaks are touched, while all the valleys of human life, where countless victories are won, where labor wrought with love — are left in the eternal shadow.

But these peaks are not the foundation of nations. The forgotten words, the unrecorded deeds, the unknown sacrifices, the heroism, the industry, the patience, the love and labor of the nameless good and great have for the most part founded, guided and defended States. The world has been civilized by the unrewarded poor, by the untitled nobles, by the uncrowned kings who sleep in unknown graves mingled with the common dust.

They have thought and wrought, have borne the burdens of the world. The pain and labor have been theirs — the glory has been given to the few.

The conflict came. The South unsheathed the sword. Then rose the embattled North, and these men who sleep to-night beneath the flowers of half the world, gave all for us.

They gave us a Nation — a republic without a slave — a republic that is sovereign, and to whose will every citizen and every State must bow. They gave us a Constitution for all — one that can be read without shame and defended without dishonor. They freed the brain, the lips and hands of men.

All that could be done by force was done. All that could be accomplished by the adoption of constitutions was done. The rest is left to education — the innumerable influences of civilization — to the development of the intellect, to the cultivation of the heart and the imagination.

The past is now a hideous dream.

The present is filled with pride, with gratitude, and hope.

Liberty is the condition of real progress. The free man works for wife and child — the slave toils from fear. Liberty gives leisure and leisure refines, beautifies and ennobles. Slavery gives idleness and idleness degrades, deforms and brutalizes.

Liberty and slavery — the right and wrong — the, joy and grief — the day and night — the glory and the gloom of all the years.

Liberty is the word that all the good have spoken. It is the hope of every loving heart — the spark and flame in every noble breast — the gem in every splendid soul — the many-colored dream in every honest brain.

This word has filled the dungeon with its holy light, — has put the halo round the martyr’s head, — has raised the convict far above the king, and clad even the scaffold with a glory that dimmed and darkened every throne.

To the wise man, to the wise nation, the mistakes of the past are the torches of the present. The war is over. The institution that caused it has perished. The prejudices that fanned the flames are only ashes now. We are one people. We will stand or fall together. At last, with clear eyes we see that the triumph of right was a triumph for all. Together we reap the fruits of the great victory. We are all conquerors. Around the graves of the heroes — North and South, white and colored — together we stand and with uncovered heads reverently thank the saviors of our native land.

We are now far enough away from the conflict — from its hatreds, its passions, its follies and its glories, to fairly and philosophically examine the causes and in some measure at least to appreciate the results.

States and nations, like individuals, do as they must. Back of revolution, of rebellion, of slavery and freedom, are the efficient causes. Knowing this, we occupy that serene height from which it is possible to calmly pronounce a judgment upon the past.

We know now that the seeds of our war were sown hundreds and thousands of years ago — sown by the vicious and the just, by prince and peasant, by king and slave, by all the virtues and by all the vices, by all the victories and all the defeats, by all the labor and the love, the loss and gain, by all the evil and the good, and by all the heroes of the world.

Of the great conflict we remember only its glory and its lessons. We remember only the heroes who made the Republic the first of nations, and who laid the foundation for the freedom of mankind.

This will be known as the century of freedom. Slowly the hosts of darkness have been driven back.

In 1808 England and the United States united for the suppression of the slave-trade. The Netherlands joined in this holy work in 1818. France lent her aid in 1819 and Spain in 1820. In the same year the United States declared the traffic to be piracy, and in 1825 the same law was enacted by Great Britain. In 1826 Brazil agreed to suppress the traffic in human flesh. In 1833 England abolished slavery in the West Indies, and in 1843 in her East Indian possessions, giving liberty to more than twelve millions of slaves. In 1846 Sweden abolished slavery, and in 1848 it was abolished in the colonies of Denmark and France. In 1861 Alexander II., Czar of all the Russians, emancipated the serfs, and on the first day of January, 1863, the shackles fell from millions of the citizens of this Republic. This was accomplished by the heroes we remember to-day — this, in accordance with the Proclamation of Emancipation signed by Lincoln, — greatest of our mighty dead — Lincoln the gentle and the just — and whose name will be known and honored to “the last syllable of recorded time.” And this year, 1888, has been made blessed and memorable forever — in the vast empire of Brazil there stands no slave.

Let us hope that when the next century looks from the sacred portals of the East, its light will only fall upon the faces of the free.

[NOTE — By request, Col. Ingersoll closed this address with his “Vision of War”, to which he added “A Vision of the Future.”]

The past rises before me like a dream. Again we are in the great struggle for national life. We hear the sounds of preparation — the music of boisterous drums — the silver voices of heroic bugles. We see thousands of assemblages, and hear the appeals of orators. We see the pale cheeks of women, and the flushed farces of men; and in those assemblages we see all the dead whose dust we have covered with flowers. We lose sight of them no more. We are with them when they enlist in the great army of freedom. We see them part with those they love. Some are walking for the last time in quiet, woody places, with the maidens they adore. We hear the whisperings and the sweet vows of eternal love as they lingeringly part forever. Others are bending over cradles, kissing babes that are asleep. Some are receiving the blessings of old men. Some are parting with mothers who hold them and press them to their hearts again and again, and say nothing. Kisses and tears, tears and kisses — divine mingling of agony and love! And some are talking with wives, and endeavoring with brave words, spoken in the old tones, to drive from their hearts the awful fear. We see them part. We see the wife standing in the door with the babe in her arms — standing in the sunlight sobbing. At the turn of the road a hand waves — she answer, by holding high in her loving arms the child. He is gone, and forever.

We see them all as they march proudly away under the flaunting flags, keeping time to the grand, wild music of war — marching down the streets of the great cities — through the towns and across the prairies — down to the fields of glory, to do and to die for the eternal right.

We go with them, one and all. We are by their side on all the gory fields — in all the hospitals of pain — on all the weary marches. We stand guard with them in the wild storm and under the quiet stars. We are with them in ravines running with blood — in the furrows of old fields. We are with them between contending hosts, unable to move, wild with thirst, the life ebbing slowly away among the withered leaves. We see them pierced by balls and torn with shells, in the trenches, by forts, and in the whirlwind of the charge, where men become iron, with nerves of steel.

We are with them in the prisons of hatred and famine; but human speech can never tell what they endured.

We are at home when the news comes that they are dead. We see the maiden in the shadow of her first sorrow. We see the silvered head of the old man bowed with the last grief.

The past rises before us, and we see four millions of human beings governed by the lash — we see them bound hand and foot — we hear the strokes of cruel whips — we see the hounds tracking women through tangled swamps. We see babes sold from the breasts of mothers. Cruelty unspeakable! Outrage infinite!

Four million bodies in chains — four million souls in fetters. All the sacred relations of wife, mother father and child trampled beneath the brutal feet of might. And all this was done under our own beautiful banner of the free.

The past rises before us. We hear the roar and shriek of the bursting shell. The broken fetters fall. These heroes died. We look. Instead of slaves we see men and women and children. The wand of progress touches the auction block, the slave pen, the whipping post, and we see homes and firesides and school-houses and books, and where all was want and crime and cruelty and fear, we see the faces of the free.

These heroes are dead. They died for liberty — they died for us. They are at rest. They sleep in the land they made free, under the flag they rendered stainless, under the solemn pines, the sad hemlocks, the tearful willows, and the embracing vines. They sleep beneath the shadows of the clouds, careless alike of sunshine or of storm, each in the windowless Palace of Rest. Earth may run red with other wars — they are at peace. In the midst of battle, in the roar of conflict, they found the serenity of death. I have one sentiment for soldiers living and dead: Cheers for the living; tears for the dead.

A vision of the future rises

I see our country filled with happy homes, with firesides of content, — the foremost land of all the earth.

I see a world where thrones have crumbled and where kings are dust. The aristocracy of idleness has perished from the earth.

I see a world without a slave. Man at last is free. Nature’s forces have by Science been enslaved. Lightning and light, wind and wave, frost and flame, and all the secret, subtle powers of earth and air are the tireless toilers for the human race.

I see a world at peace, adorned with every form of art, with music’s myriad voices thrilled, while lips are rich with words of love and truth; a world in which no exile sighs, no prisoner mourns; a world on which the gibbet’s shadow does not fall; a world where labor reaps its full reward, where work and worth go hand in hand, where the poor girl trying to win bread with the needle — the needle that has been called “the asp for the breast of the poor,” — is not driven to the desperate choice of crime or death, of suicide or shame.

I see a world without the beggar’s outstretched palm, the miser’s heartless, stony stare, the piteous wail of want, the livid lips of lies, the cruel eyes of scorn.

I see a race without disease of flesh or brain, — shapely and fair, — the married harmony of form and function, — and, as I look, life lengthens, joy deepens, love canopies the earth; and over all, in the great dome, shines the eternal star of human hope.

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