Grant’s Birthday (1888)
Robert Green Ingersoll
GENERAL GRANT’S BIRTHDAY DINNER. New York, April 27, 1888.
GEN. SHERMAN AND GENTLEMEN: I firmly believe that any nation great enough to produce and appreciate a great and splendid man is great enough to keep his memory green. No man admires more than I do men who have struggled and fought for what they believed to be right. I admire General Grant, as well as every soldier who fought in the ranks of the Union, — not simply because they were fighters, not simply because they were willing to march to the mouth of the guns, but because they fought for the greatest cause that can be expressed in human language — the liberty of man. And to-night while General Mahone was speaking, I could not but think that the North was just as responsible for the war as the South. The South upheld and maintained what is known as human slavery, and the North did the same; and do you know, I have always found in my heart a greater excuse for the man who held the slave, and lived on his labor, and profited by the rascality, than I did for a Northern man that went into partnership with him with a distinct understanding that he was to have none of the profits and half of the disgrace. So I say, that, in a larger sense — that is, when we view the question from a philosophic height — the North was as responsible as the South; and when I remember that in this very city, in this very city, men were mobbed simply for advocating the abolition of slavery, I cannot find it in my heart to lay a greater blame upon the South than upon the North. If this had been a war of conquest, a war simply for national aggrandizement, then I should not place General Grant side by side with or in advance of the greatest commanders of the world. But when I remember that every blow was to break a chain, when I remember that the white man was to be civilized at the same time the black man was made free, when I remember that this country was to be made absolutely free, and the flag left without a stain, then I say that the great General who commanded the greatest army ever marshaled in the defence of human rights, stands at the head of the commanders of this world.
There is one other idea, — and it was touched upon and beautifully illustrated by Mr. Depew. I do not believe that a more merciful general than Grant ever drew his sword. All greatness is merciful. All greatness longs to forgive. All true grandeur and nobility is capable of shedding the divine tear of pity.
Let me say one more word in that direction. The man in the wrong defeated, and who sees the justice of his defeat, is a victor; and in this view — and I say it understanding my words fully — the South was as victorious as the North.
No man, in my judgment, is more willing to do justice to all parts of this country than I; but, after all, I have a little sentiment — a little. I admire great and splendid deeds, the dramatic effect of great victories; but even more than that I admire that "touch of nature which makes the whole world kin." I know the names of Grant’s victories. I know that these shine like stars in the heaven of his fame. I know them all. But there is one thing in the history of that great soldier that touched me nearer and more deeply than any victory he ever won, and that is this: When about to die, he insisted that his dust should be laid in no spot where his wife, when she sleeps in death, could not lie by his side. That tribute to the great and splendid institution that rises above all others, the institution of the family, touched me even more than the glories won upon the fields of war.
And now let me say, General Sherman, as the years go by, in America, as long as her people are great, as long as her people are free, as long as they admire patriotism and courage, as long as they admire deeds of self-denial, as long as they can remember the sacred blood shed for the good of the whole nation, the birthday of General Grant will be celebrated. And allow me to say, gentlemen, that there is another with us to-night whose birthday will be celebrated. Americans of the future, when they read the history of General Sherman, will feel the throb and thrill that all men feel in the presence of the patriotic and heroic.
One word more — when General Grant went to England, when he sat down at the table with the Ministers of her Britannic Majesty, he conferred honor upon them. There is one change I wish to see in the diplomatic service — and I want the example to be set by the great Republic — I want precedence given here in Washington to the representatives of Republics. Let us have some backbone ourselves. Let the representatives of Republics come first and the ambassadors of despots come in next day. In other words, let America be proud of American institutions, proud of a Government by the people. We at last have a history, we at last are a civilized people, and on the pages of our annals are found as glorious names as have been written in any language.
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