My Fellow Countrymen: Our republic has reached a halting place in the grand march of nations, where the wheels of time seem for a moment to stop ere they commence again to turn in the perpetual circuit of the centuries. We pause this day in our journey as a nation to look back upon the past and gird ourselves anew for still further upward progress.
Shall we glance at the heroic age of New England, the eventful story of the Puritans? They were indeed burning and shining lights amid persecution, sealing with their lives their faith in an over-ruling God. At Delfthaven they knelt on the seashore, commending themselves with fervent prayer to the protection of heaven: friends, home, native land, they left behind them forever, and encountered the dangers of unknown seas in search of a place where they might worship the living God according to the dictates of conscience.
We admire the firm faith in which they met the horrors of Indian warfare, the privations of cold, disease and death, “lamenting that they did not live to see the glories of the faithful.” The story of the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock, of heroes more noble than Greek or Roman, of conflicts more sublime and victories more important than any recorded in history —is it not written in our hearts? And do we not contemplate this day with affectionate remembrance the debt of gratitude we owe to the men and women who laid so broad and deep the foundations of civic and religious liberty?
This day, the joyful shout “America is free!” spreads from state to state, from city to city, from house to house, till the whole land rings with the glad voice, and echo upon echo comes back from every mountain and hill-side, “America is free!” On our mountains and on the great plains of the West, forty millions of voices unite in sending from the shores of the Atlantic to those of the Pacific the songs of freedom. Shady groves resound with the merry voices of innocent children. Busy streets are filled with throngs of freemen. Eloquence portrays with glowing tongue and burning lips those struggles and triumphs in which the nation was born, and to-day stands forth a mighty one in the great family of governments. The early dawn was ushered in with ringing of bells and every demonstration of joy. It is celebrated by every class, society and organization, by civic processions, floral gatherings, orations, military reviews, each and all with the joy and enthusiasm which Americans only can feel. The going down of the sun will be the signal for the gathering of thousands upon thousands to close the festivities of the day amid the blazing of rockets and the glittering of fireworks, rivaling the stars in splendor and beauty.
We to-day look back through a period of one hundred years upon the men in congress assembled who proclaimed thirteen infant colonies a free and independent nation. Lexington, and Concord, and Bunker Hill had demonstrated that men could fight, and men could die in defence of liberty. The illustrious men who composed that memorable congress, in support of the Declaration of Independence ; “pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honors”—their all. Lives and fortunes were sacrificed in its defence but not honor.
Scarcely three millions of people were scattered along the Atlantic coast from New Hampshire to Georgia—a narrow fringe of settlements hardly extending beyond the Alleghenies; while beyond the vast expanse of this mighty continent was an unknown wilderness—the abode of savages ready to press down upon the unguarded settlements with the arrow and tomahawk. Through seven long years war raged throughout the land. Men of the same blood and language faced each other in hostile array.
But darkness and doubts at length passed away, and day dawned upon the long night of the revolution. The roll of musketry and the clash of arms were hushed. To-day we have become a nation of forty-four millions. Westward the star of empire has taken its way, till cities mighty and influential have risen, flourishing on either seaboard and on the vast plains through which the “Fathers of “Waters ” cuts his way from the Great Lakes of the North to the Gulf that washes our Southern borders. “The busy town, the rural cottage, the lowing herd, the cheerful hearth, the village school, the rising spire, the solemn bell, the voice of prayer, and the hymn of praise, brighten and adorn American life and privileges.”
What mighty changes have these one hundred years witnessed! The seed of liberty sown by our fathers has germinated and flourished even in the monarchies of Europe. Napoleon made all tremble with his hostile legions. Forty centuries looked down on his conquering armies from the pyramids of Egypt. France, the scene of so many revolutions, has become enrolled in the list of republics. Other nations, catching the shouts of freemen, have compelled the loosening of the reins of power. Thrones that have stood firmly for ages have been made to tremble upon their foundations. Austria, the land of tyranny and oppression, has compelled her emperor to abdicate. The Pope, whose election was hailed by the whole civilized world as the harbinger of a better administration, was hardly seated upon his throne before he fled in disguise from his pontifical halls, and St. Peter’s and the Vatican resounded with the triumphal shouts of an awakened nation. Hungary struggled for independence as a nation, and practically achieved it, so that to-day it lives under laws enacted by its own parliament, and accepts the emperor of Austria as king. Russia has emancipated her serfs and taken vast strides in her progress as a nation. China is no longer a walled nation, shut Up from the rest of the world. With Japan she has opened her gates to the commerce of the world, and civilization has began to loosen the scales from the eyes of hundreds of millions of people in these two nations, whose origin as well as their knowledge is the arts and sciences, is lost in the dim ages of antiquity.
On the Western Continent we have in the war of 1812-15 asserted our right against England to travel the highways of the seas unmolested. The Saxons have conquered and dismembered Mexico. The most gigantic rebellion the world ever saw has been suppressed, and with it fell the institution of slavery. That foul blot upon the otherwise fair face of our constitution, less than a score of years ago seemed firmly and irreversibly fastened upon the body politic. So steadily was it entrenched behind constitutional guaranties that there seemed no way by which it could be cured; and hence it was endured. But God in his mysterious providence permitted those whose rights were thus protected by constitutional guaranties, to make war upon the government which protected them, and in the fratricidal struggle the shackles fell from the limbs of every slave. To-day the sun does not shine in all this mighty republic upon a single bondman. The same constitution and the same laws alike declare the equality of all men before the law without reference to previous condition of servitude, race or color.
In the physical world, the progress in the arts and sciences has surpassed any conception which we were able to form. California outshines the wealth of India. We traverse the ocean in ships propelled by steam. The vast expanse of our land is covered by a network of iron rails reaching out in every direction. The hourly rate of speed has increased from five miles to thirty, and even to sixty. The world has been girdled with the electric wire. It reposes in safety on the bed of the great deep. On the wings of the lightning it conveys from land to land and shore to shore every moment the intelligence of man’s thoughts and man’s actions. Each new year has opened up some new improvement or discovery in the world of inventions, which time fails me even to enumerate. And who shall say that a century hence the historian of that day will not be called upon to record the further discovery of wonders far surpassing any conception which we are able to form?
I should hardly be excused if I failed to mention our advance as a nation in the cause of education, but a glance only must suffice.
The men who settled New England had been schooled in adversity. They had a true estimate of human greatness and human power. They knew that knowledge is power. As fast as the forest was cleared the school was established. With the establishment of the common school system have come self reliance, intelligence, enterprise, till our sails whiten every sea, our commerce extends to the most distant ports, our fabrics complete successful with those of more favored lands; our glorious Union itself has withstood the assaults of foes without, and traitors within, and stands immovably founded upon the intelligence and wisdom of the people. Caesar was the hero of three hundred battles, the conqueror of three millions of people, one million of whom he slew in battle. But long after the influence of his deeds shall have ceased to be felt, will the wisdom of our fathers, through the schools and colleges of our land, move the unnumbered masses that shall come after us.
The foundation of prosperity is in an enlightened community. An ignorant people, though inheriting the most favored land on earth, soon sinks into insignificance. Our extended seacoast invites commerce with every clime. Our fertile valleys and prairies bring forth the fruits of the earth in rich abundance. Her numerous waterfalls and rivers have been harnessed to wheels that turn thousands and tens of thousands of spindles. Cities have sprung up like exhalations under the magic touch of the magician’s wand, and the hum of machinery rises out of the midst of a thrifty, industrious and happy people. The majestic plains and rivers of the West have collected adventurers from every part of the world. The country to-day exhibits to other nations the unexampled rise and prosperity of a free, self-governed and educated people. To the wisdom of our fathers we are indebted for this rich legacy. With what care should we cherish our institutions of learning, that those who come after us may have reason to bless their fathers as we bless ours .
Happily our fathers did not attempt the union of the church and state. It was no mercenary motive that led them to leave old England’s shores. Theirs was a strong and enduring love of God, a perfect faith in his promises; accordingly they hesitated not to sever the ties of kindred and nation, to find in the unbroken wilderness of New England a place to worship God “according to the dictates of their own consciences.” It does not excite our wonder, but our admiration—that every infant settlement had its sanctuary—the ten thousand church spires reaching upward toward heaven point with unerring accuracy to the source of our prosperity as a nation. Centuries to come will approve and applaud our fathers who worshipped in square pews, and the ministers who preached with subduing power from high pulpits.
Such was the first century of the Republic. It has been one of struggle, but one of prosperity. Upon us and our children devolves the privilege and duty of carrying the nation forward to still greater prosperity. Shall we be behind our fathers in declaring for intelligence as against ignorance; for honesty and ability in our rulers; and for religion against irreligion? Our backward look should be but an inspiration to future progress. As we stand to-day, in the presence of the fathers of the republic, may we receive, as men receive fife from God, the inspiration which animated them to do and to die.
“Thanks he to God alone
That our whole land is one.
As at her birth!
Echo the grand refrain,
From rocky peak to main,
That rent is every chain,
From south to north.”