Robert Green Ingersoll
New York, November 26, 1898
MR.PRESIDENT, GENTLEMEN OF THE CLUB — Boys: I congratulate all of you and I congratulate myself, and I will tell you why. In the first place, we were well born, and we were all born rich, all of us. We belong to a great race. That is something; that is having a start, to feel that in your veins flows heroic blood, blood that has accomplished great things and has planted the flag of victory on the field of war. It is a great thing to belong to a great race.
I congratulate you and myself on another thing; we were born in a great nation, and you can’t be much of a man without having a nation behind you, with you. Just think about it! What would Shakespeare have been, if he had been born in Labrador? I used to know an old lawyer in southern Illinois, a smart old chap, who mourned his unfortunate surroundings. He lived in Pinkneyville, and occasionally drank a little too freely of Illinois wine; and when in his cups he sometimes grew philosophic and egotistic. He said one day, “Boys, I have got more brains than you have, I have, but I have never had a chance. I want you just to think of it. What would Daniel Webster have been, by God, if he had settled in Pinkneyville?”
So I congratulate you all that you were born in a great nation, born rich; and why do I say rich? Because you fell heir to a great, expressive, flexible language; that is one thing. What could a man do who speaks a poor language, a language of a few words that you could almost count on your fingers? What could he do? You were born heirs to a great literature, the greatest in the world — in all the world. All the literature of Greece and Rome would not make one act of “Hamlet.” All the literature of the ancient world added to all of the modern world, except England, would not equal the literature that we have. We were born to it, heirs to that vast intellectual possession.
So I say you were all born rich, all. And then you were very fortunate in being born in this country, where people have some rights, not as many as they should have, not as many as they would have if it were not for the preachers, maybe, but where we have some; and no man yet was ever great unless a great drama was being played on some great stage and he got a part. Nature deals you a hand, and all she asks is for you to have the sense to play it. If no hand is dealt to you, you win no money. You must have the opportunity, must be on the stage, and some great drama must be there. Take it in our own country. The Revolutionary war was a drama, and a few great actors appeared; the War of 1812 was another, and a few appeared; the Civil war another. Where would have been the heroes whose brows we have crowned with laurel had there been no Civil war? What would have become of Lincoln, a lawyer in a country town? What would have become of Grant? He would have been covered with the mantle of absolute obscurity, tucked in at all the edges, his name never heard of by any human being not related to him.
Now, you have got to have the chance, and you cannot create it. I heard a gentleman say here a few minutes ago that this war could have been averted. That is not true. I am not doubting his veracity, but rather his philosophy. Nothing ever happened beneath the dome of heaven that could have been avoided. Everything that is possible happens. That may not suit all the creeds, but it is true. And everything that is possible will continue to happen. The war could not have been averted, and the thing that makes me glad and proud is that it was not averted. I will tell you why.
It was the first war in the history of this world that was waged unselfishly for the good of others; the first war. Almost anybody will fight for himself; a great many people will fight for their country, their fellow-men, their fellow-citizens; but it requires something besides courage to fight for the rights of aliens; it requires not only courage, but principle and the highest morality. This war was waged to compel Spain to take her bloody hands from the throat of Cuba. That Is exactly what it was waged for. Another great drama was put upon the boards, another play was advertised, and the actors had their opportunity. Had there been no such war, many of the actors would never have been heard of.
But the thing is to take advantage of the occasion when it arrives. In this war we added to the greatness and the glory of our history. That is another thing that we all fell heirs to — the history of our people, the history of our Nation. We fell heirs to all the great and grand things that had been accomplished, to all the great deeds, to the splendid achievements either in the realm of mind or on the field of battle.
Then there was another great drama. The first thing we knew, a man in the far Pacific, a gentleman from Vermont, sailed one May morning into the bay of Manila, and the next news was that the Spanish fleet had been beached, burned, destroyed, and nothing had happened to him. I have read a little history, not much, and a good deal that I have read was not true. I have read something about our own navy, not much. I recollect when I was a boy my hero was John Paul Jones; he covered the ocean; and afterward I knew of Hull and Perry and Decatur and Bainbridge and a good many others that I don’t remember now. And then came the Civil war, and I remember a little about Farragut, a great Admiral, as great as ever trod a deck, in my judgment. And I have also read about other admirals and sailors of the world. I knew something of Drake and I have read the “Life of Nelson” and several other sea dogs; but when I got the news from Manila I said, “There is the most wonderful victory ever won upon the sea;” and I did not think it would ever be paralleled. I thought such things come one in a box. But a little while afterward another of Spain’s fleets was heard from. Oh, those Spaniards! They have got the courage of passion, but that is not the highest courage. They have got plenty of that; but it is necessary to be coolly courageous, and to have the brain working with the accuracy of an engine — courageous, I don’t care how mad you get, but there must not be a cloud in the heaven of your judgment. That is Anglo-Saxon courage and there is no higher type. The Spaniards sprinkled the holy water on their guns, then banged away and left it to the Holy Ghost to direct the rest.
Another fleet, at Santiago, ventured out one day, and another great victory was won by the American Navy. I don’t know which victory was the more wonderful, that at Manila Bay or that at Santiago. The Spanish ships were, some of them, of the best class and type, and had fine guns, yet in a few moments they were wrecks on the shore of defeat, gone, lost.
Now, when I used to read about these things in the olden times, what ideas I had of the hero! I never expected to see one; and yet to-night I have the happiness of dining with one, with one whose name is associated with as great a victory, in my judgment, as was ever won; a victory that required courage, intelligence, that power of will that holds itself firm until the thing sought has been accomplished; and that has my greatest admiration. I thank Admiral Schley for having enriched my country, for having added a little to my own height, to my own pride, so that I utter the word America with a little more unction than I ever did before, and the old flag looks a little brighter, better, and has an added glory. When I see it now, it looks as if the air had burst into blossom, and it stands for all that he has accomplished.
Admiral Schley has added not only to our wealth, but to the wealth of the children yet unborn that are going to come into the great heritage not only of wealth, but of the highest possible riches, glory, honor, achievement. That is the reason I congratulate you to-night. And I congratulate you on another thing, that this country has entered upon the great highway, I believe, of progress. I believe that the great nation has the sentiment, the feeling of growth. The successful farmer wants to buy the land adjoining him; the great nation loves to see its territory increase. And what has been our history? Why, when we bought Louisiana from Napoleon, in 1803, thousands of people were opposed to “imperialism,” to expansion; the poor old moss-backs were opposed to it. When we bought Florida, it was the same. When we took the vast West from Mexico in 1848 it was the same. When we took Alaska it was the same. Now, is anybody in favor of modifying that sentiment?
We have annexed Hawaii, and we have got the biggest volcano in the business. A man I know visited that volcano some years ago and came back and told me about his visit. He said that at the little hotel they had a guest-book in which the people wrote their feelings on seeing the volcano in action. “Now,” he said, “I will tell you this so that you may know how you are spreading out yourself. One man had written in that book, ‘if Bob Ingersoll were here, I think he would change his mind about hell.'” I want that volcano. I want the Philippines. It would be simply infamous to hand those people back to the brutality of Spain, Spain has been Christianizing them for about four hundred years. The first thing the poor devils did was to sign a petition asking for the expulsion of the priests. That was their idea of the commencement of liberty. They are not quite so savage as some people imagine. I want those islands; I want all of them, and I don’t know that I disagree with the Rev. Mr. Slicer as to the use we can put them to. I don’t know that they will be of any use, but I want them; they might come handy. And I wanted to pick up the small change, the Ladrones and the Carolinas. I am glad we have got Porto Rico. I don’t know as it will be of any use, but there’s no harm in having the title. I want Cuba whenever Cuba wants us, and I favor the idea of getting her in the notion of wanting us. I want it in the interest, as I believe, of humanity, of progress; in other words, of human liberty. That is what the war was waged for, and the fact that it was waged for that, gives an additional glory to these naval officers and to the officers in the army. They fought in the first righteous war; I mean righteous in the sense that we fought for the liberty of others.
Now, gentlemen, I feel that we have all honored ourselves to- night by honoring Rear Admiral Schley. I want you to know that long after we are dead and long after the Admiral has ceased to sail, he will be remembered, and in the constellation of glory one of the brightest stars will stand for the name of Winfield Scott Schley, as brave an officer as ever sailed a ship. I am glad I am here to-night, and again, gentlemen, I congratulate you all upon being here. I congratulate you that you belong to this race, to this nation, and that you are equal heirs in the glory of the great Republic.