The World’s Famous Orations.
America: III. (1861–1905). 1906.
George William Curtis
His Oration at Concord
This ancient town with its neighbors who share its glory, has never failed fitly to commemorate this great day of its history. Fifty years ago, while some soldiers of the Concord fight were yet living—twenty-five years ago, while still a few venerable survivors lingered—with prayer and eloquence and song you renewed the pious vow. But the last living link with the Revolution has long been broken. Great events and a mightier struggle have absorbed our own generation. Yet we who stand here to-day have a sympathy with the men at the old North Bridge which those who preceded us here at earlier celebrations could not know. With them war was a name and a tradition. So swift and vast had been the change and the development of the country that the revolutionary clash of arms was already vague and unreal, and Concord and Lexington seemed to them almost as remote and historic as Arbela and Sempach. When they assembled to celebrate this day they saw a little group of tottering forms, eyes from which the light was fading, arms nerveless and withered, thin white hairs that fluttered in the wind—they saw a few venerable relics of a vanished age, whose pride was that before living memory they had been minute-men of American Independence.
But with us how changed! War is no longer a tradition half romantic and obscure. It has ravaged how many of our homes! it has wrung how many of the hearts before me! North and South, we know the pang. Our common liberty is consecrated by a common sorrow. We do not count around us a few feeble veterans of the contest, but are girt with a cloud of witnesses. We are surrounded everywhere by multitudes in the vigor of their prime—behold them here to-day sharing in these pious and peaceful rites, the honored citizens, legislators, magistrates—yes, the chief magistrate of the Republic—whose glory it is that they were minute-men of American liberty and union. These men of to-day interpret to us with resistless eloquence the men and the times we commemorate. Now, if never before, we understand the Revolution. Now we know the secret of those old hearts and homes. We can measure the sacrifice, the courage, the devotion, for we have seen them all. Green hills of Concord, broad fields of Middlesex, that heard the voice of Hancock and of Adams, you heard also the call of Lincoln and of Andrew, and your Ladd and Whitney, your Prescott and Ripley and Melvin, have revealed to us more truly the Davis and the Buttrick, the Hosmer and the Parker, of a hundred years ago.
At the end of a century we can see the work as our fathers could not; we can see that then the final movement began of a process long and unconsciously preparing, which was to intrust liberty to new forms and institutions that seemed full of happy promise for mankind. And now for nearly a century what was formerly called the experiment of a representative republic of imperial extent and power has been tried. Has it fulfilled the hopes of its founders and the just expectations of mankind? I have already glanced at its early and fortunate conditions, and we know how vast and splendid were its early growth and development. Our material statistics soon dazzled the world. Europe no longer sneered but gazed in wonder, waiting and watching. Our population doubled every fifteen years, and our wealth every ten years. Every little stream among the hills turned a mill; and the great inland seas, bound by the genius of Clinton to the ocean, became the highway of boundless commerce, the path of unprecedented empire. Our farms were the granary of other lands. Our cotton fields made England rich. Still we chased the whale in the Pacific Ocean and took fish in the tumbling seas of Labrador. We hung our friendly lights along thousands of miles of coast to tempt the trade of every clime; and wherever, on the dim rim of the globe there was a harbor, it was white with American sails. Meanwhile at home the political foreboding of federalism had died away, and its very wail seemed a tribute to the pacific glories of the land.
The government was felt to be but a hand of protection and blessing; labor was fully employed; capital was secured; the army was a jest; enterprise was pushing through the Alleghanies, grasping and settling the El Dorado of the prairies, and still braving the wilderness, reached out toward the Rocky Mountains, and reversing the voyages of Columbus, rediscovered the Old World from the New. America was the Benjamin of nations, the best beloved of heaven, and the starry flag of the United States flashed a line of celestial light around the world, the harbinger of freedom, peace, and prosperity.
Think, for instance, of the change wrought by foreign immigration, with all its necessary consequences. In the State of Massachusetts to-day the number of citizens of foreign birth who have no traditional association with the story of Concord and Lexington is larger than the entire population of the State on the day of battle. The first fifty years after the battle brought to the whole country fewer immigrants than are now living in Massachusetts alone. At the end of that half century, when Mr. Everett stood here, less than three hundred thousand foreign immigrants had come to this country; but in the fifty years that have since elapsed, that immigration has been more than nine millions of persons. The aggregate population in the last fifty years has advanced somewhat more than threefold, the foreign immigration more than thirtyfold, so that now immigrants and the children of immigrants are a quarter of the whole population.
This enormous influx of foreigners has added an immense ignorance and entire unfamiliarity with republican ideas and habits to the voting class. It has brought other political traditions, other languages and other religious faiths. It has introduced powerful and organized influences not friendly to the republican principle of freedom of thought and action. It is to the change produced by immigration that we owe the first serious questioning of the public school system, which was the nursery of the early republic, and which is to-day the palladium of free popular government.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not lamenting even in thought the boundless hospitality of America. I do not forget that the whole European race came hither but yesterday, and has been domesticated here not yet three hundred years. I am not insensible of the proud claim of America to be the refuge of the oppressed of every clime; nor do I doubt in her maturity, her power, if duly directed, to assimilate whole nations, if need be, as in her infancy she achieved her independence, and in her prime maintained her unity. But if she has been the hope of the world, and is so still, it is because she has understood both the conditions and the perils of freedom, and watches carefully the changing conditions under which republican liberty is to be maintained. She will still welcome to her ample bosom all who choose to be called her children. But if she is to remain the mother of liberty, it will not be the result of those craven counsels whose type is the ostrich burying his head in the sand, but of that wise and heroic statesmanship whose symbol is her own heaven-soaring eagle, gazing undazzled even at the spots upon the sun.
Again, within the century steam has enormously expanded the national domain, and every added mile is an added strain to our system. The marvelous ease of communication both by rail and telegraph tends to obliterate conservative local lines and to make a fatal centralization more possible. The telegraph, which instantly echoes the central command at the remotest point, becomes both a facility and a temptation to exercise command, while below upon the rail the armed blow swiftly follows the word that flies along the wire. Steam concentrates population in cities. But when the government was formed the people were strictly rural, and there were but six cities with eight thousand inhabitants or more. In 1790 only one-thirtieth of the population lived in cities, in 1870 more than one-fifth. Steam destroys the natural difficulties of communication; but those very difficulties are barriers against invasion, and protect the independence of each little community, the true foundation of our free republican system. In New England the characteristic village and local life of the last century perishes in the age of steam. Meanwhile the enormous accumulation of capital engaged in great enterprises, with unscrupulous greed of power, constantly tends to make itself felt in corruption of the Press which molds public opinion, and of the Legislature which makes the laws.
But the most formidable problem for popular government which the opening of our second century presents, springs from a source which was unsuspected a hundred years ago, and which the orators of fifty years since forbore to name. This was the system of slave labor which vanished in civil war. But slavery had not been the fatal evil that it was, if with its abolition its consequences had disappeared. It holds us still in mortmain. Its dead hand is strong, as its living power was terrible. Emancipation has left the Republic exposed to a new and extraordinary trial of the principles and practises of free government. A civilization resting upon slavery, as formerly in part of the country, however polished and ornate, is necessarily aristocratic and hostile to republican equality, while the exigencies of such a society forbid that universal education which is indispensable to wise popular government. When war emancipates the slaves and makes them equal citizens, the ignorance and venality which are the fatal legacies of slavery to the subject-class, whether white or black, and the natural alienation of the master-class, which alone has political knowledge and experience, with all the secret conspiracies, the reckless corruption, the political knavery, springing naturally from such a situation, and ending often in menacing disorder that seems to invite the military interference and supervision of the government—all this accumulation of difficulty and danger lays a strain along the very fiber of free institutions.
These are some of the more obvious changes in the conditions under which the Republic is to be maintained. I mention them merely; but every wise patriot sees and ponders them. Does he therefore despond? Heaven forbid! When was there ever an auspicious day for humanity that was not one of doubt and of conflict? The robust moral manhood of America confronts the future with steadfast faith and indomitable will, raising the old battle-cry of the race for larger liberty and surer law. It sees clouds, indeed, as Sam Adams saw them when this day dawned. But with him it sees through and through them, and with him thanks God for the glorious morning. There is, indeed, a fashion of skepticism of American principles even among some Americans, but it is one of the oldest and worst fashions in our history. There is a cynicism which fondly fancies that in its beginning the American Republic moved proudly toward the future with all the splendid assurances of the Persian Xerxes descending on the shores of Greece, but that it sits to-day among shattered hopes, like Xerxes above his ships at Salamis.
And when was this golden age? Was it when John Adams appealed from the baseness of his own time to the greater candor and patriotism of this? Was it when Fisher Ames mourned over lost America like Rachel for her children, and would not be comforted? Was it when William Wirt said that he sought in vain for a man fit for the presidency or for great responsibility? Was it when Chancellor Livingston saw only a threatening future because Congress was so feeble? Was it when we ourselves saw the industry, the commerce, the society, the church, the courts, the statesmanship, the conscience of America seemingly prostrate under the foot of slavery? Was this the golden age of these sentimental sighs, this the region behind the north wind of these reproachful regrets? And is it the young nation which with prayer and faith, with untiring devotion and unconquerable will, has lifted its bruised and broken body from beneath that crushing heel, whose future is distrusted?
Nay, this very cynicism is one of the foes that we must meet and conquer. Remember, fellow citizens, that the impulse of republican government, given a century ago at the old North Bridge, has shaken every government in the world, but has been itself wholly unshaken by them. It has made monarchy impossible in France. It has freed the Russian serfs. It has united Germany against ecclesiastical despotism. It has flashed into the night of Spain. It has emancipated Italy and discrowned the pope as king. In England, repealing the disabilities of Catholic and Hebrew, it forecasts the separation of Church and State, and step by step transforms monarchy into another form of republic.
And here at home, how glorious its story! In a tremendous war between men of the same blood—men who recognize and respect each other’s valor—we have proved what was always doubted: the prodigious power, endurance and resources of a republic; and in emancipating an eighth of the population we have at last gained the full opportunity of the republican principle. Sir, it is the signal felicity of this occasion that on the one hundredth anniversary of the first battle of the war of American independence, I may salute you, who led to victory the citizen soldiers of American liberty, as the first elected president of the free Republic of the United States. Fortunate man! to whom God has given the priceless boon of associating your name with that triumph of freedom which will presently bind the East and the West, the North and the South, in a closer and more perfect union for the establishment of justice and the security of the blessings of liberty than these States have ever known.
Fellow citizens, that union is the lofty task which this hallowed day and this sacred spot impose upon us. And what cloud of doubt so dark hangs over us as that which lowered above the Colonies when the troops of the king marched into the town, and the men of Middlesex resolved to pass the bridge? With their faith and their will we shall win their victory. No royal governor, indeed, sits in you stately capital, no hostile fleet for many a year has vexed the waters of our coasts, nor is any army but our own ever likely to tread our soil. Not such are our enemies to-day. They do not come proudly stepping to the drum-beat, with bayonets flashing in the morning sun.
But wherever party spirit shall strain the ancient guarantees of freedom, or bigotry and ignorance shall lay their fatal hands upon education, or the arrogance of caste shall strike at equal rights, or corruption shall poison the very springs of national life, there, minute-men of liberty, are your Lexington Green and Concord Bridge, and as you love your country and your kind, and would have your children rise up and call you blessed, spare not the enemy! Over the hills, out of the earth, down from the clouds, pour in resistless might. Fire from every rock and tree, from door and window, from hearthstone and chamber; hang upon his flank and rear from noon to sunset, and so through a land blazing with holy indignation hurl the hordes of ignorance and corruption and injustice back, back, in utter defeat and ruin.