On Memory, Trust, and Liberty

Memorial exercises are for the quick not for the dead. It is that we who are living may show that we propose to cherish the high ideals of those who have died, rather than live false to the welfare of their country, that we are gathered here today, or this gathering were in vain. It is not to boast of victory. It is not to lament for defeat. It is not to mourn for the departed. It is to fit ourselves the better for that task which is our heritage that we have taken this hour to contemplate the mighty deeds of the past. It is to prepare ourselves for the duties of the present that we study the actions of great men and mark out the great events of history. 

As Abraham Lincoln said upon the consecrated field of Gettysburg:

‘It is for us the living rather to be dedicated…to the unfinished work which they who fought…have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be…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.’ 

Words immortal, inspired. We do need an increased devotion, we do need a higher resolution, to preserve and to advance those institutions which the fathers secured for us at the price of so much treasure and the sacrifice of so much blood. 

The Battle of Gettysburg by Paul Philippoteaux (1883)

A fitting memorial to the nation’s dead – what shall it mean to us? Is it a mere rehearsal of the carnage of war? Is it only to glory in the deeds of valor? Is it to be only a schedule of battles, of standards, of field-pieces lost and won? Brute force contending with brute force and all for the spoils of conflict? 

No, these might be the chronicles of the lowest savages – the experience of the beasts of the field, – unworthy of the thought of a Christian nation. No, unless the men of ’61 who ‘read a fiery summons writ in rows of burnished steel’ read therein a call righteousness, unless they went forth under the banner of truth, to ‘front a lie in arms,’ unless they were contending for the eternal principles of justice between man and man, the fire of our enthusiastic devotion turns to ashes, and we should not on each recurring year set aside a day to do them reverence. 

Scene from the Great Reunion at Gettysburg the year before Coolidge’s speech. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

Passing over then the great names of our civil war, its mighty armies, its deeds of heroic sacrifice and devotion which marked the armies of the North and South alike, passing over the entire glorious history of the conflict, let us see wherein the Union cause fits into the world progress, and what some of the lessons are which we can draw from its contemplation. Through the centuries the old world had worked out the great problems of religion and philosophy. 

The Greek mind had grasped and solved the problems of the natural universe. They knew that nature was the tool of mankind. Greek philosophy had revealed something of the dignity of man. The power of even a slave to know truth — this attested his divinity. The Roman Empire finally became monotheistic and Christianity sat on its throne. Augustine and his followers grappled with the problem of evil. The great Protestant Reformation gave to man to theory of justification by faith. These relations man to nature and to creation having been thought out men began to study the relation of man to man. It was just at this time when the seed of the Reformation began to grow that the old world turned its thought to the discovery and settlement of the new world. An earth cry, so significantly stated by Edward Everett Hale, went up for a new land in which to work out the sublime scheme of justice between man and man. 

‘Give me white paper! 

This which you use is black and rough with smears

Of sweat and grime and fraud and blood and tears, 

Crossed with the story of men’s sins and fears, 

Of battle and of famine all these years, 

When all God’s children had forgot their birth, 

And drudged and fought and died like beasts of earth.’ 

Bronze statue of the American poet Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909), erected in Boston in 1913, also the year prior to Senator Coolidge’s address. Photo credit: Boston Literary District.

‘Give me white paper! 

One storm-trained seaman listened to the word; 

What no man saw he saw; he heard what no man heard. 

In answer he compelled the sea 

To eager men to tell 

The secret she had kept so well! 

Left blood and guilt and tyranny behind, — 

Sailing still West the hidden shore to find; 

For all mankind that unstained scroll unfurled, 

Where God might write anew the story of the World.’ 

The clean paper, on which it must be, is to be worked out to its logical conclusion the fundamental teaching of the Christian religion which had been overlooked for centuries, to be restated revived by the Reformation, is America. When men once began to realize that they were brothers through the fatherhood of the Almighty, joint heirs to an everlasting life, each bearing within himself a divinity capable of communion with the Deity, it was then man began to realize his true dignity and grandeur. When once he began to say ‘I am the keeper of my life, I am the master of my soul’ he knew what freedom was. The sons of God could never be the slaves of men. The divine right of princes went down before the divine right of the people and democracy stood divinely justified. This is the true testing of America, justice between man and man — freedom. It is this which hallows the graves of those who fell from Bull Run to Appomattox. As slavery was the underlying cause, if not the immediate provocation of the Civil War, they died to make men free – realizing to the full the highest scriptural measure of devotion ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ They have given freedom both political and industrial. They have emancipated and enriched and ennobled and enfranchised service. They have rescued man from every thraldom save himself, they have given him liberty. 

Another scene from the Great Reunion of 1913 at Gettysburg. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

But man must not forget that liberty lays on him every duty. There is no freedom but the freedom to do right. That is the note of warning which we must sound with the paean of victory. We, the sons of the Puritans, the nation founded on the Declaration of Independence stand only fifty years from legal human slavery. Scarcely more than fifty years ago it is more than probable the Congress and the people would have made slavery nation wide had it not been for the provisions of the Federal Constitution. Must we not remember, we who boast of self-government, we who rely on the rule of the people, that men are sometimes hasty in their judgment, that safety requires time for deliberation, that out Constitutional guarantees must be preserved. The achievements of the Civil War were not complete without the crowning events of the constitutional guarantees of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth Articles of Amendment. 

Trusting the people is vain, if we only trust them to be pleased with flattery. The only trust that is worthy of the name, the true deep respect that realizes the worth and dignity of man demands that he be told the truth. Don’t treat men as they are, treat them as they ought to be. We need a broader, firmer, deeper faith in the people. A faith that men desire to do right, that the nation is founded upon a righteousness which will endure, a reconsecrated faith that the final approval of the people is given not to demagogues slavishly pandering to their selfishness, merchandizing with the clamor of the hour, but to real statesmanship ministering to their welfare representing their deep, silent, abiding convictions. 

Snapshot from the processions in New York City, May 30, 1912. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

Statutes must appeal to more than material welfare. Wages won’t satisfy, be they never so large. Nor houses, no lands, no coupons though they fall thick as the leaves of autumn. Man has a spiritual nature. Touch it, as the slavery question touched it and it must respond as the magnet responds to the pole. To that nature, not to selfishness, let the institutions and laws of the nation appeal. 

Recognize the true, the immortal worth and dignity of man. Let the foundation principles of this Union forever proclaim to her humblest citizen, performing the most menial task, the recognition of his manhood, the recognition that all men are peers, the humblest with the most exalted, the recognition that all work is glorified. Such is the path to equality before the law. Such is the foundation of liberty under the law. Such is the sublime revelation of man’s relation to man.

— Senator Calvin Coolidge, Address at Longmeadow, May 30, 1914

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