The Soul of the Nation
Friends and fellow citizens:
Your committee of arrangements were pleased to select me as your orator of the day, on an occasion similar to this, two years ago At that time, while appreciating the honor conferred upon me, I ventured to express the wish that some one of the many competent colored young men of this city and District had been chosen to discharge this honorable duty in my stead.
There were excellent reasons for that wish then, and there are even much better reasons for the same wish now. Time and cultivation have largely added to the number of those from whom a suitable selection might have been made, and one of these silent, yet powerful, agents whose mission it is to create and destroy all things mortal has left me much less desire for such distinguished service now than two years ago.
Happily, however, the burden is not heavy or grievous, and the proper story of this occasion is simple, familiar, and easily told. In observing the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, we attract the attention of the American people to one of the most important and significant events in their national history, and at the same time evince a grateful and proper sense of the wonderful changes for the better that have taken place in our condition, and in that of the country generally. Though in its immediate and legal operation this act of emancipation was local in its range as to territory, and limited in its application as to the number of persons liberated by it, morally it looms upon us as a grand, comprehensive, and far-reaching measure.
To appreciate its importance we must not consider it as a single independent act, standing alone, nor as one pertaining to this District only, nor to the colored people only. We must regard it as a part of a series of splendid public measures, as one of so many steps in the national progress looking to one beneficent and glorious result, a large contribution to the honor and welfare of the whole country. It was the auspicious beginning of a great movement in the councils of the nation, made necessary by the war, and one which finally culminated in the complete and permanent abolition of slavery, not only in the District of Columbia, but in every part of the Republic. Thus viewed it was the one act which broke the gloomy spell that bound the nation in the bonds of servile, unnatural reverence and awe for slavery.
It withdrew the sympathy of European nations from the rebellion. It brought the moral support of the civilized world to the loyal cause. It erased the foulest blot that ever stained our national escutcheon. It gave to the war for the Union a logical, humane, and consistent purpose. It solved a problem which was the standing grief of good men, and the perplexity of statesmen for ages. It gave courage and hope to our armies in the field. It weakened the rebellion. It raised the whole nation to a higher and happier plane of civilization, and placed the American people where they never were before, in a position where they could consistently and effectively preach liberty to all the nations of the world.
The 16th of April, the anniversary of this great act of the nation, strangely and erroneously enough has been considered simply as the colored man's day only. The business of consecrating and preserving its memory has been, by common consent, relegated to him exclusively. But, in this, our fellow citizens have been more generous to us than just to themselves. Colored men have very little more reason to hallow this day than have white men. If it brought freedom to us, it brought peace and safety to them, and hence they may well enough unite in this and similar celebrations, and regard the day as theirs as well as ours.
No truth taught by our national history is more evident than this, that while slavery dominated the southern half of the Republic, and free institutions prevailed in the northern half, peace and harmony between the two sections were utterly and forever impossible. No man can serve two masters, and the attempt of our Government to do this was a stupendous failure.
The union between liberty and slavery was a marriage without love, a house divided against itself; a couple unequally yoked together, held together by external force, not by moral cohesion; it brought happiness to neither, and misery to both.
Like any other embodiment of social and material interest peculiar to a given community, slavery generated its own sentiments, its own morals, manners, and religion; and begot a character in all around it in favor of its own existence.
In nearly everything indigenous and peculiar to society in the two sections, they were as separate and distinct as are any two nations on the globe. The longer they were thus linked together in the bonds of outward union, the more palpable became their points of difference, and the more passionate became their hostility to each other. Liberty became more and more the glory of the North, and slavery more and more the idol of the South. Not even the bonds of Christian fellowship were strong enough to hold together the churches of the two sections.
In view of this settled and growing antagonism, only one of three courses was opened to the nation: The first was to make the country all slaves, the second was to make it all free, and the third was to divide the Union, and let each section set up a government of its own the one based upon the system of slavery, and the other based upon the principles of the Declaration of American Independence.
Thanks to the wisdom, loyalty, patriotism, courage, and statesmanship developed by the crisis, the nation rejected equally the idea of making the country all slaves, and permitting two separate nations, with hostile civilizations, side by side, with a chafing, bloody border between them, but chose to give us one country, one citizenship, and one liberty for all the people, and hence we are here this evening. There was never any physical reason for the dissolution of the Union. The geographical and topographical conditions of the country all served to unite rather than to divide the two sections. It was moral not physical dynamite that blew the two sections asunder.
We are told by the poet that:
"Lands intersected by a narrow frith, abhor each other;
Mountains interposed make enemies of nations
Which else, like kindred drops, had mingled into one."
But in this case there were neither friths nor mountains to separate the South from the North, or to make our Southern brethren hate the people of the North. The moral cause of trouble in the system of slavery being now removed, peace and harmony are possible, and, I doubt not, these blessings, though long delayed, will finally come.
In calling attention to the event which makes this day precious we honor ourselves, and honor the noble and brave men who brought it about. We render our humble tribute of gratitude today, not only to those whose valor and whose blood on the battlefield brought freedom to the American slave; not only to the great generals who led our armies, but to our great statesmen as well who framed our laws; and not to these only, but also to the noble army of men and women which preceded both statesmen and warriors in the cause of emancipation, and made these warriors and statesmen possible. Neither would our gratitude forget those who supplemented the great act of emancipation by carrying the blessings of education to the benighted South, thus preparing the liberated freedman for the duties of citizenship.
I need not stop here to call the roll of any of these classes. The nation knows the debt it owes them, and will never forget them. We have but to mention the honored name of Abraham Lincoln in the Presidential chair, of Ulysses S. Grant in the field, at whose bedside a grateful nation now stands mute in sympathy and sad expectation; of William Lloyd Garrison in the columns of the Liberator, of Wendell Phillips on the rostrum, of Charles Sumner in the Senate, to cause a host of noble men and women to start up and pass in review before us.
But I drop this brief reference to the history and personnel of the anti-slavery movement, and will speak of matters nearer our times and equally pertinent to this occasion. Those who abolished slavery did their work, and did it well. They served their day and generation with wisdom, courage, and fortitude, and are an example to this and coming generations. They bravely upheld the principles of liberty and justice, and it will go well with this nation and with us if we in our time, and if those who are to come after us in theirs, shall adhere to and uphold these same principles with equal zeal, courage, fidelity, and fortitude. One generation cannot safely rest on the achievements of another, and ought not so to rest.
Hitherto there has been little Variety in the thoughts, resolutions, and addresses presented for consideration on occasions similar to this. Each celebration has been almost a facsimile of its predecessors. The speeches have been little more than echoes of those made before, because the conditions of their utterances have been so uniform, and all one way. today, however, conditions are changed, or appear to be changed. We do not stand where we stood one year ago. We are confronted by a new Administration. The term of twenty-four years of steady, unbroken, successful Republican rule is ended. The great Republican party that carried the country safely through the late war against the rebellion, emancipated the slave, saved the Union, reconstructed the government of the Southern States, enfranchised the freedmen, raised the national credit, improved the currency, decreased the national debt, and did more for the honor, prosperity, and glory of the American people than was ever done before in the same length of time by any party in any country under similar circumstances, has been defeated, humiliated, and driven from place and power.
For the first time since the chains fell from the limbs of the slaves of the District of Columbia; for the first time since slaves were raised from chattels to men; for the first time since they were clothed with the dignity of American citizenship they find themselves under the rule of a political party which steadily opposed their every step from bondage to freedom, and this fact may well enough give a peculiar coloring to the thoughts and feelings with which this anniversary of emancipation is celebrated.
The great question of the hour respects the true significance of this change in the national front. What does it portend? How will it affect our relations to the people and government of this country? How was this stupendous change brought about, and, in point of fact, it may be asked with some propriety if there has really been any serious change made in our condition by this change in the relations of parties?
To the eye of the colored man the change, or apparent change, in the political situation is very marked, and wears a very sinister aspect. He has so long been accustomed to think the Republican party the sheet-anchor of his liberty, the star of all his hopes, that he can see nought but ill in the ascendancy of the Democratic party. He addresses it much as did Hamlet his father's ghost:
"Tell why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements; why the sepulcher.
Wherein we saw thee quietly inured,
Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws to cast thee up again.
What may this mean, that thou, dead corpse,
Again in complete steel, revisit'st thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous, and we, poor fools of nature,
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?"
It is, perhaps, too early to determine the full significance of the return of the Democratic party to power, or to tell just how that return to power came about. One thing must be admitted, and that is that the power and vitality of the Democratic party have been vastly underrated. It has indulged in vices and crimes enough to have killed a dozen ordinary parties, and yet it lives. At times it has really seemed to be dead. Some said it had died by opposing the war for the Union, but it was not so. We thought the life had gone out of it when it took our late friend, Horace Greely, for its candidate for the Presidency and adopted a Republican platform, but it was not so.
It was the same old party in a new dress, and time has shown that it was as full of life and power as ever. The fact is, it was never either honestly dead or securely buried. Even when it slept it had one eye open, and saw better with that one eye than did the Republican party with its two. Our mistakes concerning it have been made abundantly clear by the late election and the dazzling splendor of the recent inauguration.
We thought the Democratic party dead when it was alive, and the Republican party alive and strong when it was half dead. Long continuance in power had developed rival ambitions, personal animosities, factional combinations in the Republican party that were fatal to its success and even endangered its life.
One great lesson taught by Republican defeat is familiar to all. It is the folly of relying upon past good behavior for present success. Parties, like men, must act in the living present or fail. It is not what they have done or left undone in the past that turns the scale, but what they are doing, and mean to do now. The result shows that neither the past good conduct of the Republican party nor the past bad conduct of the Democratic party has had much to do with the late election.
Americans have too little memory for good or bad political conduct. The people have said in the late election, "We care nothing for your past; but what is your present character and work?" And in rendering judgment they have said, "We see little ground for preferring one to the other."
But, fellow citizens, it is consoling to think that this change in the political front justly implies no real change for the worse in the moral convictions of the American people. On the great questions that divided the parties during the periods of war and reconstruction there has been no change whatever. Upon all the great measures of justice, liberty, and civilization, originated and carried through Congress by the Republican party, I believe the heart of the nation to be still safe and sound. If the measures then in controversy between the parties were now submitted to the American people, I fully believe they would sustain them one and all by an overwhelming vote.
The trouble was that the Republican party in the late campaign forgot for the moment its high mission as the party of great moral ideas, and sought victory on grounds far below its ordinary level. It made national pelf more important and prominent than national purity. It made the body more important than the soul; national prosperity more important than national justice. There was no square issue made up between the parties. One talked in favor of the tariff and the other did not talk against it. Both together beat the air and raised a dust, confused counsel, blinded the voters, and rendered victory a thing of chance rather than a thing of choice.
The Republican party was not more surprised by defeat than the Democratic party was astonished by victory. Twelve hundred votes would have changed the result; so that nothing for the future can be safely predicted upon the election either way. It does not imply that the Democratic party is in power to stay, or that the Republican party is out of power to stay, or that new parties are to arise and take the place of the old.
While it was painfully evident that the Republican party, during the late canvass, had little or nothing to say against the outrages committed upon the newly enfranchised people of the South, it was equally plain that the Democratic party had nothing to say in defense of these outrages. Yet it is not strange, in view of the history of the two parties, that much alarm was felt by colored people all over the South when they first learned that the great Republican party was defeated and that the Democratic party was soon to administer the National Government.
Ignorant as the colored people of the South have been, and may still be, about other matters of national importance, they have always been intelligent enough as to the character and relations of political parties. They have never been mistaken as to the historical difference between the party which gave them liberty and the party which sought to continue their enslavement. They had known the Democratic party long and well and only as the party of the old master class. They naturally held the triumph of that party as a victory of the old master class. In the panic of the moment they saw in it a possible attempt to rehabilitate the old order of government in the South, in which they would be greatly oppressed if not enslaved.
In the joy and exultation of the old master class over the defeat of the Republican party, and over the return of the old Democratic party to power, they read what they thought their doom.
Jealous of their newly gained liberty, as well they might be, feeling themselves in peril and left naked to their enemies, their fears amounted to agony. But, thanks to the kind assurances promptly given by the President-elect and by other Democrats in high places, this alarm was transient, and has now given way in some measure to a feeling of confidence and security.
How long this feeling of confidence and security will last, however, will depend upon the future policy of the present administration. The inaugural address of President Cleveland was all that any friend of liberty and justice could reasonably ask for the freedmen. It was a frank and manly avowal worthy of the occasion. It accepted their citizenship as a fact settled beyond debate, and as a subject which ought to attract attention only with a view to the improvement of their character and their better qualification by education for the duties and responsibilities of citizens of the Republic.
No better words have dropped from the east portico of the Capitol since the inauguration days of Abraham Lincoln and Gen. Grant. I believe they were sincerely spoken, but whether the President will be able to administer the government in the light of those liberal sentiments is an open question. The one-man power in our government is very great, but the power of a party may be greater. The President is not the autocrat, but the executive of the nation.
But, happily, the executive is yet a power, and may be able to obtain the support of the coordinate branches of the government in so plain a duty as protecting the rights of the colored citizens, with those of all other citizens of the Republic. For one, though Republican I am, and have been, and ever expect to be, though I did what I could to elect James G. Blaine as President of the United States, I am disposed to trust President Cleveland. By his words, as well as by his oath of office, solemnly subscribed to before uncounted thousands of American citizens, lie is held and firmly bound to execute the Constitution of the United States in the fullness of its spirit and in the completeness of its letter, and thus far he has shown no disposition to shrink from that duty.
The Southern question is evidently the most difficult question with which President Cleveland will have to deal. Hard as it may be to manage his party on the civil service question, where he has only to deal with hungry and thirsty office seekers, nineteen out of every twenty of whom he must necessarily offend by failing to find desirable places for them, he will find it incomparably harder to meet that party's wishes in dealing with the Southern question. There are several methods of disposing of this Southern question open to him, and there are lions in the way, whichever method he may adopt.
First: He may adopt a policy of total indifference. He may shut his eyes to the fact that in all of the Gulf States political rights of colored citizens are literally stamped out; that the Constitution which he has solemnly sworn to support and enforce is under the feet of the mob; that in those States there is no such thing as a fair election and an honest count. He may utterly refuse to interfere by word or deed for the enforcement of the Constitution and for the protection of the ballot, and let the Southern question drift whithersoever it will, to a port of safety or to a rock of disaster. He will probably be counseled to pursue the course of President Hayes, but I hope he will refuse to follow it. The reasons which supported that policy do not exist in the case of a Democratic President. Mr. Hayes made a virtue of necessity. He had fair warning that not a dollar or a dime would be voted by a Democratic Congress if the army were kept in the South. The cry of the country was against what was called bayonet rule.
Secondly: The President may pursue a temporizing policy; keep the word of promise to the ear and break it to the heart, a halfhearted, neither hot nor cold, a good Lord and good devil policy. He may try to avoid giving offence to any, and thus succeed in pleasing none; a policy which no man or party can pursue without inviting and earning the scorn and contempt of all honest men and of all honest parties.
Thirdly: He may decide to accept the Mississippi plan of conducting elections at the South; encourage violence and crime; elevate to office the men whose hands are reddest with innocent blood; force the negroes out of Southern politics by the shotgun and the bulldozer's whip; cheat them out of the elective franchise; suppress the Republican vote; kill off their white Republican leaders, and keep the South solid; and keep its one hundred and fifty-three electoral votes obtained thus by force, fraud, and red-handed violence ready to be cast for a Democratic candidate in 1888. This might be acceptable to a certain class of Democrats at the South, but the Democrats of the North would abhor and denounce it as a bloody and hell-black policy. It would hurl the party from power in spite of the solid South, and keep it out of power another four and twenty years.
Fourthly: He may sustain a policy of absolute fidelity to all the requirements of the Constitution as it is, and, as John Adams said of the Declaration of Independence, he may bravely say to the South and to the nation: "Sink or swim, survive or perish, I am for the Constitution in all its parts! I will be true to my oath, and I will, to the best of my ability, and to the fullest extent of my power, defend, protect, and maintain the rights of all citizens, without regard to race or color."
There can be no doubt as to which of these methods of treating the Southern question is the most honest and safe one. There may be many wrong ways for individuals or nations to pursue, but there is but one right way, and it remains to be seen if this is the one the present administration will adopt and pursue. Left to the promptings of his own heart and his own view of his constitutional duties, and to his own sense of the requirements of consistency, and even expediency, I firmly believe that President Cleveland would do his utmost to protect and defend the constitutional rights of all classes of citizens. But he is not left to himself, and may adopt a different policy.
One thing seems plain, which it is well for all parties to know and consider. It is this: There are 7,000,000 of colored citizens now in this Republic. They stand between the two great parties the Republican party and the Democratic party and whichever of these two parties shall be most just and true to these 7,000,000 may safely count upon a long lease of power in this Republic. It is not their votes alone that will tell. There is deep down among the people of this country a love of justice and fair play, and that fact will tell. It is now as it was in the time of war, and it will be so in all time. The party which takes the negro on its side will triumph. The world moves, and the conditions of success and failure have changed.
Formerly, devotion to slavery was the condition upon which the success of the Democratic party was based. But time and events have swept away this abhorred condition. Liberty, not slavery, is now the autocrat of the Republic. Neither politics nor religion can succeed in the future by pandering to the prejudices arising out of slavery.
Let the great Democratic party realize this fact, and shape its policy in accordance with it; let it do justice to the negro, and it will certainly succeed itself in power four years hence, and long years after.
If, on the contrary, it forgets the nation's progress, falls back into its old ruts, and seeks success on the old conditions; if it forgets that slavery has now become an anachronism, a superstition of the past, having no proper relation to the age and body of our times, it will be ignominiously driven from place and power four years hence, and no arm can, or ought to, save it.
"There is a tide in the affairs of men, which,
Taken at the flood, leads on to fortune."
This tide is now rising at the feet of President Cleveland and his administration, and, as I have said, it remains to be seen if it will be wisely taken at the flood. Depend upon it, if the Democratic party does not avail itself of the colored man's support the Republican party certainly will. That party is still the colored man's party, and it will be all the more likely to consider the claims of the colored man, in view of its late defeat, and the causes by which that defeat was brought about.
Twelve hundred more colored votes in the State of New York would have saved that party from defeat. Unless the ballot is protected better than heretofore the Augusta speech of the Hon. James G. Elaine, delivered after the election, will be the keynote of the Republican campaign four years hence. There is only one way to prevent the success of the Republican party if that issue is permitted to be raised. The Northern people were sound for free soil; sound for free speech; sound for the Union; sound for reconstruction in other days, and they will be sound for justice and liberty and a free ballot to the newly enfranchised citizens when that issue shall be fairly presented as a living issue between the two contending parties.
The great mistake made by the leaders of the Republican party during the late canvass was the failure to recognize the facts now stated, and their refusal to act upon them. They had become tired of the old issues and wanted new ones. They made their appeal to the pocket of the nation, and not to the heart of the nation. They attended to the mint, anise, and cumin of politics, but omitted the weightier matters of the law judgment, mercy, and faith. They were loud for the protection of things, but silent for the protection of men. These things they ought to have done, and not left the other undone.
The idea that righteousness exalteth a nation, and that sin is a reproach to any people, was, for a time, lost sight of. The all engrossing thought of the campaign was a judicious, discriminating protective tariff. The great thing was protection to the wool of Ohio; to the iron of Pennsylvania, and to American manufacturers generally. Little was said, thought, or felt about national integrity, the importance of maintaining good faith with the freedmen or the Indian, or the protection of the constitutional rights of American citizens, except where such rights were in no danger.
The great thing to be protected was American industry against competition with the pauper labor of Europe not protection of the starving labor of the South. The body of the nation was everything; the soul of the nation was nothing. It did not appear from the campaign speeches that it was important to protect and preserve both, or that the body was not more dependent upon bread for life than was the soul dependent upon truth, justice, benevolence, and good faith for health and life. In the absence of these, the soul of the nation starves, sickens, and dies. It may not fall at once upon the withdrawal of these, but persistent injustice will, in the end, do its certain work of moral destruction. No nation, no party, no man can live long and flourish on falsehood, deceit, injustice, and broken pledges.
Loyalty will perish where protection and good faith are denied and withheld, and nothing other than this should be expected, either by a party, a man, or by a government. On the other hand, where good faith is maintained, where justice is upheld, where truth and right prevail, the government will be like the wise man's house in Scripture the winds may blow, the rains may descend, the flood may come and beat upon it, but it will stand, because it is founded upon the solid rock of principle. I speak this, not only for the Republican party, but for all parties.
Though I am a party man, to me parties are valuable only as they subserve the ends of good government. When they persistently violate the fundamental rights of the humblest and weakest in the land, I scout them, despise them, and leave them.
We boast of our riches, power, and glory as a nation, and we have reason to do so. But what is prosperity, what is power, what is national glory, when national honor, national good faith, and national protection to the rights of our citizens are denied? Of what avail is citizenship and the elective franchise where a whole people are deliberately abandoned to anarchy by the Government under which they live, and told they must protect themselves from violence as best they may, for, practically, this is just what the American Government has said to the colored and white Republican voters of the South during the last eight years.
Minister Lowell was accused of not protecting the rights of Irish-Americans in England, and our ships are just now ordered to Panama to look after the interests of American citizens in Central America. This is all right, but when and where have our army and navy gone to protect the rights of American citizens at home? To say, "I am a Roman citizen!" could once arrest the bloody scourge and cause the brutal tyrant to turn pale. But who cares now for the citizenship of any American Republican, black or white, in Mississippi or South Carolina?
Oh Yes! We are rich and powerful. But we should remember that the whole vast volume of human history is dotted all along with the wrecks of nations which have perished amid wealth, luxury, and splendor. What doth it profit a nation to gain the whole world if it shall lose its own soul?
Henry Clay, in 1839, made an elaborate defense of the right to hold property in man. Two hundred years of legislation has sanctioned and identified negro slaves as property. When warned by anti-slavery men of the dreadful consequences of perpetuating slavery, he said that that warning had been given fifty years before, and that it had been answered by fifty years of unexampled prosperity. His idea was that if slavery were a curse God would not allow a nation that upheld it to prosper. The argument was sophistical, but it contained a great truth after all, and time only was required to verify it. He forgot that God reigns in eternity; that space is sometimes given for repentance. He did not remember, as Jefferson did, that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep forever.
Had Mr. Clay lived to see, as we have seen, the union of his beloved country rent asunder at the center, and hostile armies composed of his beloved countrymen on the field of battle, amid dust, smoke, and fire, blowing each other to pieces from the cannon's mouth; had he seen five hundred thousand of the youth and flower of both sections of this land cut down by the sword and flung down into bloody graves; had he seen in the wake of this fratricidal war the smoldering ruins of noble towns and cities, and the nation staggering under a debt heavier than a mountain of gold; had he seen the sullen discontent and deadly hate which survived the war, and traced all these calamities and more, as he must do, to the existence of slavery, he would, in all the bitterness of his soul, have cursed the day when he poured out his eloquence in defense of that system which brought upon his country these accumulated horrors.
The lesson of this national experience is in place today, and it would be well for this nation to study and learn it. Look abroad! What rocks Europe today? What causes the Emperor of all the Russias to be uneasy on his pillow? What makes Austria tremble? Why does England start up frantically at midnight and search her premises? You know, and I know, that these countries have aggrieved classes among them who have just ground of complaint against their governments.
Now, fellow citizens, let me speak plainly. This is an age. When men go to and fro in the earth, and knowledge increases. Oppressed peoples all over the world are protesting with earthquake emphasis against all forms of injustice, some by one means and some by another. Examples, like certain diseases, are contagious. Railroads, steam navigation, electric wires, newspapers, and traveling emissaries are abroad. Can you be quite sure that the oppressed laborers in this country, white and colored, will not some day make common cause and learn some of the dangerous modes of protest against injustice adopted in other countries?
I deal in no threats, for myself or for any of my countrymen, and am only for peaceful methods; but I say to all oppressors, "Have a care how you goad and imbrute the colored man of the South!" He is weak, but not powerless. He is submissive to wrongs, but not insensible to his rights. He is hopeful, but not incapable of despair. He can endure, but even to him may come a time when he shall think endurance has ceased to be a virtue. All the world is a school, and in it one lesson is just now being taught in letters of fire and blood, and that is, the utter insecurity of life and property in the presence of an aggrieved class. This lesson can be learned by the ignorant as well as by the wise. Who could blame the negro if, when he is driven from the ballot-box, the jury-box, and the schoolhouse, denied equal rights on railroads and steamboats, called out of his bed at midnight and whipped by regulators, compelled to live in rags and wretchedness, and his wages kept back by fraud, denied a fair trial when accused of crime, he shall imitate the example of other oppressed classes and invokes some terrible explosive power as a means of bringing his oppressors to their senses, and making them respect the claims of justice? This would indeed be madness, but oppression will make even a wise man mad.
It should not be forgotten that the negro is not what he was twenty years ago. Kossuth once said that "bayonets think". The negro is beginning to think. Years ago a book had as little to say to him and had as little meaning for him as a brick. It was then a thing of darkness and silence. Now it is a thing of light and speech. Education, the sheet anchor of safety to society where liberty and justice are secure, is a dangerous thing to society in the presence of injustice and oppression.
I pursue this thought no further. A hint to the wise ought to be sufficient. Let not my words be construed as a menace, but taken as I mean them as a warning; not interpreted as inviting disaster, but considered as designed to avert disaster.
Fellow citizens, many things calculated to make us thoughtful have occurred since I addressed you on an occasion like this, two years ago; but nothing has occurred which ought to make us more thoughtful than the recent decision of the Supreme Court of the United States on the civil rights bill. That decision came upon the country like a clap of thunder from a clear sky. It came without warning. It was a surprise to enemies and a bitter disappointment to friends. Had the bench been composed of Democratic judges some such a decision might have come upon us without producing any very startling effect. But the fact was otherwise. This blow was dealt us in the house of our friends. The bench was composed of nine learned Republican judges, and of these nine honorable men only one came to our help, I mean Honorable Justice John M. Harlan. He stood up for the rights of colored citizens as those rights are defined by the fourteenth amendment of the Constitution of the United States. It was a magnificent spectacle, this grand representation of American justice standing alone, and the country will not soon forget it.
Without meaning any disrespect to the Supreme Court, or reflecting upon the purity of its motives, I must say here, as I have said elsewhere, and shall say many times over if my life is spared, that that decision is the most striking illustration I have ever seen of how it is possible to keep alive the letter of the law and at the same time stab its spirit to death. Portia strictly construed the law of Venice for mercy, and this rule of construction has the approval of all the ages, but the Supreme Court of the United States construed American law against the weak and in the interest of prejudice and brutality. Never before was made so clear the meaning of Paul's saying, "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life."
I am glad, and I know that you are glad, that there was one man on that bench who had the mind and heart to be as true to liberty in this its day as was the old Supreme Court of slavery in its day. While slavery existed all presumptions were made in its favor. The obvious intention of the law prevailed, but now the plain intention of the law has been strangled by the letter of the law.
The fourteenth amendment of the Constitution was plainly intended to secure equal rights to all citizens of the United States, without regard to race or color, and Congress was authorized to carry out this provision by appropriate legislation. But by this decision of the Supreme Court the fourteenth amendment has been slain in the house of its friends. I have no doubt that that decision contributed to the defeat of the Republican party in the late election. I repeat, that decision may well make colored men thoughtful.
Kentucky has done many evil things in her time, but she has also done many great and good things. She has recently given us a law by which equal educational advantages have been extended to colored children. Long ago she gave us James G. Birney, the first abolition candidate for the presidency of the United States; a former slaveholder, but one who emancipated his slaves on his own motion; a genuine gentleman of the old school, and one to be gratefully remembered by every friend of liberty in this country. She has given us Cassius M. Clay, the man who fought his way to freedom of speech on his native soil. She has given us John G. Fee, the earnest and devoted educator of the freedman. Nor is this all.
She has given us two of the largest hearts and broadest minds of which our country can boast; men who had the courage of their convictions, and who dared, at the peril of what men hold most dear, to be true to their convictions. These strong men one dead and the oilier living are Abraham Lincoln and John M. Harlan. Abraham Lincoln is already enshrined in the hearts of the American people, and Justice John M. Harlan will hold a place beside him in the hearts of his countrymen.
You remember the public meeting held in Lincoln Hall, and the free expression of opinion upon the unsoundness of the decision of the Supreme Court on the civil rights bill. You will also remember that the ablest and boldest word there spoken, was from the lips of Robert G. Ingersoll, a man everywhere spoken against as an infidel and a blasphemer. Well, my friends! Better be an infidel and a so-called blasphemer than a hypocrite who steals the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.
Infidel though Mr. Ingersoll may be called, he never turned his back upon his colored brothers, as did the evangelical Christians of this city on the occasion of the late visit of Mr. Moody. Of all the forms of negro hate in this world, save me from that one which clothes itself with the name of the loving Jesus, who, when on earth, especially identified himself with the lowest classes of suffering men, and the proof given of his Messiahship was that the poor had the Gospel preached unto them. The negro can go into the circus, the theatre, the cars, and can be admitted into the lectures of Mr. Ingersoll, but cannot go into an Evangelical Christian meeting.
I do not forget that on the occasion of the civil rights meeting I have mentioned, one evangelical clergyman, a real man of God, gave to the gospel trumpet a certain sound. The religion of Dr. John E. Rankin, like the love of his Redeemer, is not bounded by race or color, but takes in the whole human family. No truer man than he ever ascended a Washington pulpit.
In conclusion let me say one word more of the soul of the nation and of the importance of keeping it sensitive and responsive to the claims of truth, justice, liberty, and progress. In speaking of the soul of the nation I deal in no cant phraseology. I speak of that mysterious, invisible, impalpable something which underlies the life alike of individuals and of nations, and determines their character and destiny.
It is the soul that makes a nation great or small, noble or ignoble, weak or strong. It is the soul that exalts it to happiness, or sinks it to misery. While it modifies and shapes all physical conditions.
It is itself superior to all such conditions. It is the spiritual side of humanity. Fire cannot burn it, water cannot quench it. Though occult and impalpable, it is just as real as granite or iron. The laws of its life are spiritual, not carnal, and it must conform to these laws or it starves and dies. The outward semblance of it may survive for a time, just as ancient temples and old cathedrals may stand long after the spirit that inspired them has vanished. But they, too, will moulder to ruin and vanish. The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous; for upon these conditions depend the life of its life.
A few years ago, a terrible and desolating fire swept over the proud young city of Chicago, and left her architectural splendors in ashes. In a few hours her "cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces" and solemn temples crumbled to dust, and were scattered to the four winds of heaven, so that no man could find them, but there remained the invisible soul of a great people, full of energy, enterprise, and faith, and hence, out of the ashes and hollow desolation, a grander Chicago than the one destroyed arose as if by magic.
"What constitutes a state?
Not high raised battlements, or labored mound,
Thick walls or moated gate;
Not cities proud, with spires and turrets crowned;
Not bays and broad armed ports,
Where, laughing at the storm, rich navies ride.
No, men; high-minded men!
With power as far above dull brutes endued,
In forest, brake, or den,
As beasts excel cold rocks and brambles rude;
Men who their duties know,
But know their rights, and knowing, dare maintain."