May 28, 1896
THE tragedy of war casts a log shadow. More than thirty years removed from the last echo of our nation’s fratricidal strife, we stand again upon the verge, as it were, of that dark drama, and sorrow for the dead.
He that lacks time to mourn lacks time to mend.
Eternity mourns that. ‘Tis an ill cure
For life’s worst ills to have no time to feel them.
Where sorrow’s held intrusive and turned out,
There wisdom will not enter, nor true power,
Nor aught that dignifies humanity. 657
Again we pause to pay our tribute of respect to the thousands who yielded up their lives in the great struggle, and to contemplate with sadness and awe, the scenes which memory unveils or voice and pen depict, characteristic of the great crisis in which our national existence hung trembling in the balance.
Why the War Was Necessary.
That our country was involved in a great civil war which spread death and ruin far and wide and brought bereavement into almost every home, is a familiar fact to all within our national borders. But what was the meaning of the fearful sacrifice which is commemorated in the scenes and exercises of this day? Why was it necessary that our nation should experience the terrible convulsion of civil war? The answer cannot be better given than in the words of the man who, during that terrible period, stood at the nation’s head, and which were spoken by him upon that battle field where the climax of the struggle had been reached. We refer to President Lincoln’s speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg national cemetery, Nov. 19, 1863. Mr. Lincoln said:—
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forward on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Recognition of Human Rights, the Issue.
The might issue had been raised whether “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” should continue or should “perish from the earth;” and the fearful sacrifice of life, the waste of blood and treasure, the suffering and misery and ruin, came in order that this Government might be preserved. And what is “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” that it should be preserved at such cost? Ah, it is that form of government, and the only form, which recognizes the rights of the people. It is government built upon the divine principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence,—that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Such was this Government in theory; and if it had been such in reality, the terrible scenes of the civil war would never have been enacted.
“Or war! begot in pride and luxury,
The child of malice and revengeful hate;
Thou impious good, and good impiety!
Thou art the foul refiner of a State,
Unjust scourge of men’s iniquity,
Sharp easier of corruptions desperate!”
Governmental Sanction of Human Slavery.
Our Government sanctioned, even in its fundamental law, a most glaring denial of that principle of equal individual rights upon which it professed to be based. The system of negro slavery had been planted in our land and had flourished until it had become too firmly fixed to be voluntarily given up. And when at length the Supreme Court of the United States, in the famous, or rather infamous, Dred Scott decision, gave its sanction to this iniquitous system by which man in the image of God was deprived of his God-given rights and treated as if he were a beast, the woe upon this nation was sealed. God could not longer tolerate such injustice to his creatures made in his own image; and the prophetic words of Thomas Jefferson, who foresaw that the time would come when our rights would revive or expire in a convulsion, 658 were fulfilled. The convulsion came, and the rights of the negro were revived. And with them, in a sense, our own rights revived; for the rights of one race of men are but the common rights of all mankind.
A New Effort to Overthrow Our Government.
But attempts to overthrow this Government have not been abandoned. What could not be directly accomplished by force of arms, is now sought by a more peaceful, but more subtle and dangerous means. A party has arisen in our nation, hostile to that conception of government set forth in the memorable address of President Lincoln, and which aims at nothing less than the overthrow of that ideal and the establishment of a theocratic government in its stead. A new slavery now threatens not one portion of the people merely, but all classes,—a slavery which would take away freedom of conscience, and bind about the soul the chains of religious despotism. This party have laid siege to our National Congress, and intend to prosecute the siege until Congress capitulates, and enacts for them such legislation as will place all “Christian” institutions and usages “upon an undeniable legal basis in the fundamental law of the land.” And they have succeeded in drawing to their aid almost the entire religious forces of the land. They demand that the National Constitution shall be so amended as to recognize Jesus Christ as the Ruler of nations, and his will as being of supreme authority in civil affairs. Under such a constitution American citizens of every class would inevitably become the victims of legislation which seeks to bind the conscience, regulating it by congressional action. “The individual conscience,” it is said, “must yield to the conscience of the whole people, which is over him, and should be over him.” 659
Danger That the Effort Will Succeed.
Such is the doctrine of the party which is seeking to enslave the individual conscience; and its zeal and persistence, and the number and influences of those whom they have drawn to their support, combined with the general apathy of the people toward the issue involved, make the danger of their success exceedingly great. And when they do succeed, this “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” will have perished as certainly as though it had gone down in the shock of civil war. For their theocratic government and our popular government are utterly at variance with each other, the former demanding that our civil codes shall include the “revealed will of Jesus Christ,” and denying that human governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Our Present Duty.
But to preserve this Government upon those principles of justice which have made it the world-wide champion of human rights, this nation drained the cup of woe and humiliation, and unnumbered thousands of her chosen sons poured out their blood upon the field of battle; and that blood now cries to us from the ground, that we who live to-day should dedicate ourselves to the great cause of human freedom; that we should guard with ceaseless vigilance the liberties secured to us by the wisdom and privations of the noble founders of our Republic; and that as we with gratitude remember our nation’s dead, we each for himself “highly revolve” that our life service shall be freely given to the end that men may enjoy genuine religious liberty, and that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”