On Labor Not Laurels

America cannot live on past glory alone. The work of a nation has never yet been done. 

‘Right forever on the scaffold, 

Wrong forever on the throne, 

But that scaffold sways the future, 

And behind the dark unknown

Standeth God within the shadow,

Keeping watch above his own.’¹ 

That the Pilgrims braved exile in a wilderness across the sea; that the Thirteen Colonies endured the sacrifices of a seven years’ revolutionary war; that the men of the North poured out their blood to preserve the Union, all the gleaming pages of our history, give us no title to luxurious ease, no freedom from conflict, no assurance of an effortless existence. 

‘Lo, all the pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.’² 

The Coolidges receiving a veteran of ’61 at Plymouth Notch. Photo credit: Leslie Jones Collection.

We must have the resolution now to dare and do; we must have the spirit now to overcome, which inspired the men who followed [John] Carver, Washington, and Lincoln. Of course we look to the past for inspiration, but inspiration is not enough. We must have action. Action can come only from ourselves; society, government, and state, call it what you will, cannot act; our only strength, our only security, lies in the individual. 

American institutions are builded on that foundation. That is the meaning of self-government, the worth and the responsibility of the individual. In that America has put all her trust. If that fail, democracy fails, freedom is a delusion and slavery must prevail. 

We have come to the time when we must prove ourselves. The great crisis is at hand. Had Washington, or Lincoln, or McKinley failed, the torch of liberty would have been dimmed but not extinguished. Failure now means the night of despotism, it means that another Caesar is to rule, another Praetorian Guard will sell the purple to the highest bidder. 

Vercingetorex throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar by Lionel Noel Royer, 1899

But we are not to fail. The individual is responding. Ten millions of our youth have enrolled. Evasion is almost negligible. The wealth of the Nation has volunteered. All the material and men for war are forthcoming. 

In recognition of what you have done, of what you are ready to dare, of that last full measure of devotion you are offering to your country, I have been given the privilege of presenting to you this guidon, donated by one of your Lowell citizens. It is presented not to your commanding officer, not to some worthy color bearer, but to every individual of your Battery B. Take it. Bear it for America, for Truth and Freedom, ‘Truth coming from whatsoever source and Freedom knowing no bounds but those which Truth has set.’ 

— Lieutenant Governor Calvin Coolidge, on the presentation of a silk guidon to Battery B, 2nd Field Artillery, at Lowell, Massachusetts, June 15, 1917. 

 

D-Day (June 6, 1944) remained almost twenty-seven years in the future but Coolidge reminds us, looking ahead to some of the most intense fighting of the Great War, that our freedom can end when we cease to fight for it. May we not forget. 

¹ “The Present Crisis” by James Russell Lowell, 1845; The poem opens with the lines:

‘When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast 
Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west,         
And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb 
To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime        
Of a century bursts full-blossomed on the thorny stem of Time.’               

² “Recessional” by Rudyard Kipling, 1897

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