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Robert Ingersoll Tribute Conkling

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Tribute Conkling

Robert Green Ingersoll


Delivered before the New York State Legislature,

at Albany, N.Y., May 9, 1888.

ROSCOE CONKLING -- A great man, an orator, a statesman, a
lawyer, a distinguished citizen of the Republic, in the zenith of
his fame and power has reached his journey's end; and we are met,
here in the city of his birth, to pay our tribute to his worth and
work. He earned and held a proud position in the public thought. He
stood for independence, for courage, and above all for absolute
integrity, and his name was known and honored by many millions of
his fellow-men.

The literature of many lands is rich with the tributes that
gratitude, admiration and love have paid to the great and honored
dead. These tributes disclose the character of nations, the ideals
of the human race. In them we find the estimates of greatness --
the deeds and lives that challenged praise and thrilled the hearts
of men.

In the presence of death, the good man judges as he would be
judged. He knows that men are only fragments -- that the greatest
walk in shadow, and that faults and failures mingle with the lives
of all.

In the grave should be buried the prejudices and passions born
of conflict. Charity should hold the scales in which are weighed
the deeds of men. Peculiarities, traits born of locality and
surroundings -- these are but the dust of the race -- these are
accidents, drapery, clothes, fashions, that have nothing to do with
the man except to hide his character. They are the clouds that
cling to mountains. Time gives us clearer vision. That which was
merely local fades away. The words of envy are forgotten, and all
there is of sterling worth remains. He who was called a partisan is
a patriot. The revolutionist and the outlaw are the founders of
nations, and he who was regarded as a scheming, selfish politician
becomes a statesman, a philosopher, whose words and deeds shed

Fortunate is that nation great enough to know the great. When
a great man dies -- one who has nobly fought the battle of a life,
who has been faithful to every trust, and has uttered his highest,
noblest thought -- one who has stood proudly by the right in spite
of jeer and taunt, neither stopped by foe nor swerved by friend --
in honoring him, in speaking words of praise and love above his
dust, we pay a tribute to ourselves.

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How poor this world would be without its graves, without the
memories of its mighty dead. Only the voiceless speak forever.

Intelligence, integrity and courage are the great pillars that
support the State.

Above all, the citizens of a free nation should honor the
brave and independent man -- the man of stainless integrity, of
will and intellectual force. Such men are the Atlases on whose
mighty shoulders rest the great fabric of the Republic. Flatterers,
cringers, crawlers, time-servers are the dangerous citizens of a
democracy. They who gain applause and power by pandering to the
mistakes, the prejudices and passions of the multitude, are the
enemies of liberty.

When the intelligent submit to the clamor of the many, anarchy
begins and the Republic reaches the edge of chaos. Mediocrity,
touched with ambition, flatters the base and calumniates the great,
while the true patriot, who will do neither, is often sacrificed.

In a government of the people a leader should be a teacher --
he should carry the torch of truth.

Most people are the slaves of habit -- followers of custom --
believers in the wisdom of the past -- and were it not for brave
and splendid souls, "the dust of antique time would lie unswept,
and mountainous error be too highly heaped for truth to overpeer."
Custom is a prison, locked and barred by those who long ago were
dust, the keys of which are in the keeping of the dead.

Nothing is grander than when a strong, intrepid man breaks
chains, levels walls and breasts the many-headed mob like some
great cliff that meets and mocks the innumerable billows of the

The politician hastens to agree with the majority -- insists
that their prejudice is patriotism, that their ignorance is wisdom;
-- not that he loves them, but, because he loves himself. The
statesman, the real reformer, points out the mistakes of the
multitude, attacks the prejudices of his countrymen, laughs at
their follies, denounces their cruelties, enlightens and enlarges
their minds and educates the conscience -- not because he loves
himself, but because he loves and serves the right and wishes to
make his country great and free.

With him defeat is but a spur to further effort. He who
refuses to stoop, who cannot be bribed by the promise of success,
or the fear of failure -- who walks the highway of the right, and
in disaster stands erect, is the only victor. Nothing is more
despicable than to reach fame by crawling, -- to position by

When real history shall be written by the truthful and the
wise, these men, these kneelers at the shrines of chance and fraud,
these brazen idols worshiped once as gods, will be the very food of
scorn, while those who bore the burden of defeat, who earned and
kept their self-respect, who would not bow to man or men for place
or power, will wear upon their brows the laurel mingled with the
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Roscoe Conkling was a man of superb courage.

He not only acted without fear, but he had that fortitude of
soul that bears the consequences of the course pursued without
complaint. He was charged with being proud. The charge was true --
he was proud. His knees were as inflexible as the "unwedgeable and
gnarled oak," but he was not vain. Vanity rests on the opinion of
others -- pride, on our own. The source of vanity is from without
-- of pride, from within. Vanity is a vane that turns, a willow
that bends, with every breeze -- pride is the oak that defies the
storm. One is cloud -- the other rock. One is weakness -- the other

This imperious man entered public life in the dawn of the
reformation -- at a time when the country needed men of pride, of
principle and courage. The institution of slavery had poisoned all
the springs of power. Before this crime ambition fell upon its
knees, -- politicians, judges, clergymen, and merchant -- princes
bowed low and humbly, with their hats in their hands. The real
friend of man was denounced as the enemy of his country -- the real
enemy of the human race was called a statesman and a patriot.
Slavery was the bond and pledge of peace, of union, and national
greatness. The temple of American liberty was finished -- the
auction-block was the corner-stone.

It is hard to conceive of the utter demoralization, of the
political blindness and immorality, of the patriotic dishonesty, of
the cruelty and degradation of a people who supplemented the
incomparable Declaration of Independence with the Fugitive Slave

Think of the honored statesmen of that ignoble time who
wallowed in this mire and who, decorated with dripping filth,
received the plaudits of their fellow-men. The noble, the really
patriotic, were the victims of mobs, and the shameless were clad in
the robes of office.

But let us speak no word of blame -- let us feel that each one
acted according to his light -- according to his darkness.

At last the conflict came. The hosts of light and darkness
prepared to meet upon the fields of war. The question was
presented: Shall the Republic be slave or free? The Republican
party had triumphed at the polls. The greatest man in our history
was President elect. The victors were appalled -- they shrank from
the great responsibility of success. In the presence of rebellion
they hesitated -- they offered to return the fruits of victory.
Hoping to avert war they were willing that slavery should become
immortal. An amendment to the Constitution was proposed, to the
effect that no subsequent amendment should ever be made that in any
way should interfere with the right of man to steal his fellow-men.

This, the most marvelous proposition ever submitted to a
Congress of civilized men, received in the House an over-whelming
majority, and the necessary two-thirds in the Senate. The
Republican party, in the moment of its triumph, deserted every
principle for which it had so gallantly contended, and with the
trembling hands of fear laid its convictions on the altar of
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The Old Guard, numbering but sixty-five in the House, stood as
firm as the three hundred at Thermopylae. Thaddeus Stevens -- as
maliciously right as any other man was ever wrong -- refused to
kneel. Owen Lovejoy, remembering his brother's noble blood, refused
to surrender, and on the edge of disunion, in the shadow of civil
war, with the air filled with sounds of dreadful preparation, while
the Republican party was retracing its steps, Roscoe Conkling voted
No. This puts a wreath of glory on his tomb. From that vote to the
last moment of his life he was a champion of equal rights, staunch
and stalwart.

From that moment he stood in the front rank. He never wavered
and he never swerved. By his devotion to principle -- his courage,
the splendor of his diction, -- by his varied and profound
knowledge, his conscientious devotion to the great cause, and by
his intellectual scope and grasp, he won and held the admiration of
his fellow-men.

Disasters in the field, reverses at the polls, did not and
could not shake his courage or his faith. He knew the ghastly
meaning of defeat. He knew that the great ship that slavery sought
to strand and wreck was freighted with the world's sublimest hope.

He battled for a nation's life -- for the rights of slaves --
the dignity of labor, and the liberty of all. He guarded with a
father's care the rights of the hunted, the hated and despised. He
attacked the savage statutes of the reconstructed States with a
torrent of invective, scorn and execration. He was not satisfied
until the freed man was an American Citizen -- clothed with every
civil right -- until the Constitution was his shield -- until the
ballot was his sword.

And long after we are dead, the colored man in this and other
lands will speak his name in reverence and love. Others wavered,
but he stood firm; some were false, but he was proudly true --
fearlessly faithful unto death.

He gladly, proudly grasped the hands of colored men who stood
with him as makers of our laws, and treated them as equals and as
friends. The cry of "social equality" coined and uttered by the
cruel and the base, was to him the expression of a great and
splendid truth. He knew that no man can be the equal of the one he
robs -- that the intelligent and unjust are not the superiors of
the ignorant and honest -- and he also felt, and proudly felt, that
if he were not too great to reach the hand of help and recognition
to the slave, no other Senator could rightfully refuse.

We rise by raising others -- and he who stoops above the
fallen, stands erect.

Nothing can be grander than to sow the seeds of noble thoughts
and virtuous deeds -- to liberate the bodies and the souls of men
-- to earn the grateful homage of a race -- and then, in life's
last shadowy hour, to know that the historian of Liberty will be
compelled to write your name.

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There are no words intense enough, -- with heart enough -- to
express my admiration for the great and gallant souls who have in
every age and every land upheld the right, and who have lived and
died for freedom's sake.

In our lives have been the grandest years that man has lived,
that Time has measured by the flight of worlds.

The history of that great Party that let the oppressed go free
-- that lifted our nation from the depths of savagery to freedom's
cloudless, heights, and tore with holy hands from every law the
words that sanctified the cruelty of man, is the most glorious in
the annals of our race. Never before was there such a moral
exaltation -- never a party with a purpose so pure and high. It was
the embodied conscience of a nation, the enthusiasm of a people
guided by wisdom, the impersonation of justice; and the sublime
victory achieved loaded even the conquered with all the rights that
freedom can bestow.

Roscoe Conkling was an absolutely honest man. Honesty is the
oak around which all other virtues cling. Without that they fall,
and groveling die in weeds and dust. He believed that a nation
should discharge its obligations. He knew that a promise could not
be made often enough, or emphatic enough, to take the place of
payment. He felt that the promise of the Government was the promise
of every citizen -- that a national obligation was a personal debt,
and that no possible combination of words and pictures could take
the place of coin. He uttered the splendid truth that "the higher
obligations among men are not set down in writing signed and
sealed, but reside in honor." He knew that repudiation was the
sacrifice of honor -- the death of the national soul. He knew that
without character, without integrity, there is no wealth, and that
below poverty, below bankruptcy, is the rayless abyss of
repudiation. He upheld the sacredness of contracts, of plighted
national faith, and helped to save and keep the honor of his native
land. This adds another laurel to his brow.

He was the ideal representative, faithful and incorruptible.
He believed that his constituents and his country were entitled to
the fruit of his experience, to his best and highest thought. No
man ever held the standard of responsibility higher than he. He
voted according to his judgment. his conscience. He made no
bargains -- he neither bought nor sold.

To correct evils, abolish abuses and inaugurate reforms, he
believed was not only the duty, but the privilege, of a legislator.
He neither sold nor mortgaged himself. He was in Congress during
the years of vast expenditure, of war and waste -- when the credit
of the nation was loaned to individuals -- when claims were thick
as leaves in June, when the amendment of a statute, the change of
a single word, meant millions, and when empires were given to
corporations. He stood at the summit of his power -- peer of the
greatest -- a leader tried and trusted. He had the tastes of a
prince, the fortune of a peasant, and yet he never swerved. No
corporation was great enough or rich enough to purchase him. His
vote could not be bought "for all the sun sees, or the close earth
wombs, or the profound seas hide." His hand was never touched by

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any bribe, and on his soul there never was a sordid stain. Poverty
was his priceless crown.

Above his marvelous intellectual gifts -- above all place he
ever reached, -- above the ermine he refused, -- rises his
integrity like some great mountain peak -- and there it stands,
firm as the earth beneath, pure as the stars above.

He was a great lawyer. He understood the frame-work, the
anatomy, the foundations of law; was familiar with the great
streams and currents and tides of authority.

He knew the history of legislation -- the principles that have
been settled upon the fields of war. He knew the maxims, -- those
crystallizations of common sense, those hand-grenades of argument.
He was not a case-lawyer -- a decision index, or an echo; he was
original, thoughtful and profound. He had breadth and scope,
resource, learning, logic, and above all, a sense of justice. He
was painstaking and conscientious -- anxious to know the facts --
preparing for every attack, ready for every defence. He rested only
when the end was reached. During the contest, he neither sent nor
received a flag of truce. He was true to his clients -- making
their case his. Feeling responsibility, he listened patiently to
details, and to his industry there were only the limits of time and
strength. He was a student of the Constitution. He knew the
boundaries of State and Federal jurisdiction, and no man was more
familiar with those great decisions that are the peaks and
promontories, the headlands and the beacons, of the law.

He was an orator,-logical, earnest, intense and picturesque.
He laid the foundation with care, with accuracy and skill, and rose
by "cold gradation and well balanced form" from the corner-stone of
statement to the domed conclusion. He filled the stage. He
satisfied the eye -- the audience was his. He had that indefinable
thing called presence. Tall, commanding, erect -- ample in speech,
graceful in compliment, Titanic in denunciation, rich in
illustration, prodigal of comparison and metaphor -- and his
sentences, measured and rhythmical, fell like music on the
enraptured throng.

He abhorred the Pharisee, and loathed all conscientious fraud.
He had a profound aversion for those who insist on putting base
motives back of the good deeds of others. He wore no mask. He knew
his friends -- his enemies knew him.

He had no patience with pretence -- with patriotic reasons for
unmanly acts. He did his work and bravely spoke his thought.

Sensitive to the last degree, he keenly felt the blows and
stabs of the envious and obscure -- of the smallest, of the weakest
-- but the greatest could not drive him from conviction's field. He
would not stoop to ask or give an explanation. He left his words
and deeds to justify themselves.

He held in light esteem a friend who heard with half believing
ears the slander of a foe. He walked a highway of his own, and kept
the company of his self-respect. He would not turn aside to avoid
a foe -- to greet or gain a friend.

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In his nature there was no compromise. To him there were but
two paths -- the right and wrong. He was maligned, misrepresented
and misunderstood -- but he would not answer. He knew that
character speaks louder far than any words. He was as silent then
as he is now -- and his silence, better than any form of speech,
refuted every charge.

He was an American -- proud of his country, that was and ever
will be proud of him. He did not find perfection only in other
lands. He did not grow small and shrunken, withered and apologetic,
in the presence of those upon whom greatness had been thrust by
chance. He could not be overawed by dukes or lords, nor flattered
into vertebrate-less subserviency by the patronizing smiles of
kings. In the midst of conventionalities he had the feeling of
suffocation. He believed in the royalty of man, in the sovereignty
of the citizen, and in the matchless greatness of this Republic.

He was of the classic mould -- a figure from the antique
world. He had the pose of the great statues -- the pride and
bearing of the intellectual Greek, of the conquering Roman, and he
stood in the wide free air as though within his veins there flowed
the blood of a hundred kings.

And as he lived he died. Proudly he entered the darkness -- or
the dawn -- that we call death. Unshrinkingly he passed beyond our
horizon, beyond the twilight's purple hills, beyond the utmost
reach of human harm or help -- to that vast realm of silence or of
joy where the innumerable dwell, and he has left with us his wealth
of thought and deed -- the memory of a brave, imperious, honest
man, who bowed alone to death.

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Reproducible Electronic Publishing can defeat censorship.

Bank of WisdomThe Bank of Wisdom is a collection of the most thoughtful, scholarly and factual books. These computer books are reprints of suppressed books and will cover American and world history; the Biographies and writings of famous persons, and especially of our nations Founding Fathers. They will include philosophy and religion. all these subjects, and more, will be made available to the public in electronic form, easily copied and distributed, so that America can again become what its Founders intended --

The Free Market-Place of Ideas.

The Bank of Wisdom is always looking for more of these old, hidden, suppressed and forgotten books that contain needed facts and information for today. If you have such books please contact us, we need to give them back to America.

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