Mr. President, Ladies And Gentlemen,—I know very well what I am expected to say, I know what is the proper and conventional story to tell you. I know that the emblematic bird must be plucked to-day in your very presence until he looks like a Thanksgiving turkey on the morning of that inevitable Thursday in November. I know as well as tongue can tell that nothing less than filling the air about you with his Centennial plumes will satisfy your patriotic demands. Nothing less than the veritable “Old Abe” himself, fluttering and screaming in your faces, will fully come up to the requirements of this occasion. But there are two insuperable reasons that stand in my way. In the first place, the glorious old “.War Eagle of the Eighth Wis. Vol.,” is at this moment playing a star engagement at Philadelphia, where he is flapping his broad wings in the face of the world; and in the second place, in the division of labor for this day, the centennialism has been handed over to the silver-tongued lawyers and orators who are to follow me, and quiet themes have been assigned the schoolmasters.
I have always thought that great occasions are never wanting to those who are equal to them, and that fame and honor and the abiding confidence of the country wait upon the man who proves himself equal to every occasion.
I still believe in that doctrine, and on the other hand, I see the oblivion that shall hide the man who speaks on this occasion, and this day, the day of all other days, the occasion of all occasions that have seen the light in this country for a hundred years.
But where is the man who can utter the thought of this supreme moment? Who shall fitly speak the word Columbia has waited a century to hear?
It is not you, my friends and fellow-citizens, who alone participate in these exercises; the living heroes of the past, whom we call dead, are coming up from every part of the land and world, to make an unseen audience into whose listening ears the words of every speaker must fall this day.
I consider myself fortunate in the theme assigned me. The last great thought of the world is popular education. The ripe fruit of the wisdom of all the ages is the enlightenment and consequent elevation of the masses.
To have discovered the grand laws of the stellar universe and marked out the paths of the planets, to have, invented movable type, to have solved the riddle of the circulation of the blood, to have tamed the lightning, and turned steam into a beast of burden, to have invented poetry and song, and developed art, were mighty things for mighty men to do, but to have discovered that the divine use of all these was for the education and refinement of the toiling millions, was the mightiest service of all. Knowledge is not only power, it is hope, it is consolation; but the wisdom of its application to the advancement of the common people, is the chiefest treasure of all time.
The ultimate effects of the education of the people, no man can foretell. The gift of prophesy is gone with the lost arts, and therefore I only propose to notice a few results already achieved, and point out what seem to me a few of its chief tendencies. I shall not attempt a history of the idea. I take the district school as a perfectly familiar and accepted fact. I take education by the State as a conceded reality. I shall not try to show how it falls short of a true ideal, nor shall I discuss the means and methods for improvement. I wish to discover, if I can, some reasons for being better satisfied with the past, better contented with the present, and more hopeful for the future.
In the growth of civilization, from time to time, have arisen great enterprises, enormous needs which no private means however freely contributed, were able to achieve, and their attainment has rightfully been among the true functions of government, and the education of the masses is the last great labor of that kind.
It seems to me that the idea of popular education is the outgrowth of the great truth, that, after providing for the support of life, the chief aim of mankind should be spiritual and intellectual culture, and some day we shall all defend education by the State on this high ground.
What is the effect of the enlightenment of the masses in the Old World as far as already felt?
Why, sir, you know and the world knows that it is fast making kings and emperors mere figure-heads; the scepter is rapidly becoming as hollow and brittle as a bamboo walking-stick, and the lack of it puts a nation into the condition of Spain, with its enlightened leaders whom the people cannot follow; or into that of poor old Turkey, where an enlightened and progressive government is unable to keep step with the century because of the ignorant prejudice and degrading superstition of the people.
It was once supposed that he who made the songs of a people was mightier than he who made their laws.
Thirty-six years ago this very summer, the hard-cider and log cabin songs carried “Old Tippecanoe and Tyler too” into the Presidential chair, but where is the imbecile who supposes that could be repeated this summer? Just imagine, if you can, the people of to-day swept along and consumed by the fire of such a purely emotional awakening. Since that time, the school-master has been abroad in the land, and the appeal this summer is to our understanding, and not to our emotions. The political speaker, now, who carries his points and wins our votes, must give us reasons, not sentiments; he must give us logic, not emotion; he must give us facts, not mere fancies; in a word, he must convince our judgments and not simply inflame our passions and prejudices. The influence of popular education, therefore, is to enable the people to do their own thinking.
I know very well that certain would-be philosophers stoutly maintain that the idea of the people’s thinking for themselves is the merest moonshine and nonsense. They declare that you can’t talk with a man ten minutes without knowing what papers he reads and what church he attends, and so can tell who furnishes him his religious and who his political opinions.
In the first place the assertion is only the shadow, ten feet high, of a truth, and a shadow may be cast on a wall ten feet high by a jumping-jack as well as by a man, and though a man has intelligence enough to make him read the papers and go to church, and although he agrees with both his editor and his pastor to-day, it by no means follows that he will not disagree with one or both tomorrow, and for reasons he can state quite as cogently as either of them.
And here let me say that the newspaper of to-day is itself a reality, because the people have been to school, and for the same reason we shall never have imposed upon us a State religion.
To educate the people is to make the state a servant, it is to make the government an employ, and loyalty to the flag becomes fealty to yourselves. To educate the people is to abolish caste. In the district school the problem of race-influence, which is not in the books, is being solved unconsciously, while others of less importance that are in them occupy the thoughts of the scholars.
To educate all is to make each secure. The true relations of mine and thine are appreciated only by an enlightened people. The reign of brute force goes out with ignorance, and the benign reign of law comes in with intelligence. What we put into our schools we shall willingly enjoy in our government. If the men and women who go into the common schools shall teach by precept and example that which gives probity of individual character, there can be only one result to the nation.
The tendency of popular education is to enable the people to know a patriot from a demagogue, a statesman from a mere politician. I think even now we are beginning to discriminate between the master of political questions and the mere juggler with party issues. I am glad to say to you that it appears very much as though the people can tell, even now, the man who can devise and run governmental organisms from the “Boss” who can simply invent and run party machines.
To educate the populace is to make the civilization more complex, and like the animal organism, the more complex the higher. To educate a people is to increase their power of enjoyment, and therefore to increase their wants. What could Shakespeare be to a Modoc, Raphael to a Patagonian, or Beethoven to a Fiji Islander?
Do you say that prisons and poor-houses have multiplied with the increase of schools? You forget that where there are no schools, the beggars and lepers throng the streets, and the thieves and robbers lie in wait for you at every turn. The stimulus to care for the one, and restrain the other class, is the outgrowth of enlightened sympathy on the one hand, and of intelligent justice on the other.
To educate the people is not to make the college man less, but the common man more; it is to level up, and not down.
The effect is not to cheapen culture, but to elevate our standards; it does not impoverish the few, but enriches the many; it only prevents the mountain peaks from appearing so lofty by the mighty uplifting of the foot-hills.
And, finally, my friends, it seems to me that any element in the social and civil economy of a nation, that produces such results and tendencies as I have hinted at, is not only worthy of exaltation and glorification on her hundredth birthday, but on all her birthdays to the end of time.