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Two Great Americans

( Originally Published 1912 )



The memory of the just is blessed.—Hebrew Proverb.

The human mind can apprehend and enjoy an abstract principle, but its greatest admiration is reserved for a principle when it assumes a concrete form. We all love to see force in action. One may learn something of the power of the sun from a book of natural philosophy. Its attraction and heat and light may be stated in terms of mathematics. But one is much more impressed by the power of the sun when he sees it actually at work driving away the snow and ice, changing a frigid to a temperate zone, covering the earth with grass, clothing the naked trees with a robe of green, drawing harvests up out of the darkness, and painting the flowers in brilliant colors. From a book the truth may be learned that each beam of white light is woven of seven primary hues; but the truth, thus learned, seems pale and unreal when, on a summer evening, we see these colors all unraveled by falling rain-drops and drawn across a dark background of storm-cloud.

Thus a principle of justice or liberty or love comes with increased power of attraction when it is seen passing from philosophy into life. The moral sentiment may exist in the universe as something superior to places and times and persons; and yet it is much more real and vital when it manifests itself in some special form. Christ did not create this sentiment. He illustrated it. He was religion teaching by a personal example. It is so with all the good and great lives passed on our earth. They are the emblazonment of a principle.

In itself the month of February is not a favorite. It only serves to fill a place in the procession of months and all are glad when it is gone. It becomes tolerable only when we recall that it is the shortest of all the months and its lengthening days contain a faint promise that spring and summer are slowly advancing to meet us. Yet, because this month contains the birth-days of two of the greatest men who have appeared on this continent, it can never be uninteresting to one who cares for human goodness and greatness. Washington was born on the twenty-second, Lincoln was born on the twelfth of February. These two days are able to transform the wintry deadness of this month into a tropical luxuriance and make it lie within the confines of perpetual summer. The memory of ardent and patriotic hearts will gladly supply an abundance of flowers which the snow-covered earth is powerless to furnish.

It is a little more than a hundred years since Washington left the earth and a little less than forty years since Lincoln followed him. Our nation is moving along through time without the personal presence of these two great souls and must continue thus to move. But, as far as possible, this and the coming generations should have a care that only their material forms are absent. Being dead, they should be still heard speaking to us all. Their devotion to the cause of human liberty, their faith in the triumph of justice, and their unconquerable courage in the midst of seeming defeat should be carried into every department of our social and national life.

Like religion, patriotism should have its sacraments of memory and its calendar of saints. Like a church, a nation is as much a sentiment as it is a corporation. It is as much a soul as it is a body. Its symbols are as necessary as its laws, Our nation, in its beginning, was not only a great political experiment, but it was also an exalted sentiment. It was a passion for human freedom. Those great men whose birth fell upon two February days were conspicuous illustrations of this noble sentiment. To the abstract principle of political liberty, they added a great personal devotion. To the wisdom which could plan for human freedom, they added faith in its ultimate victory. What they saw with their minds, they loved with their hearts; and what they saw and loved, without asking the consent of any party, they dared do. Thus much of the true grandeur of our country, in its beginning and in the middle period of its career, is due to two great hearts, one of which beat amid the Virginia forests, the other on the Illinois prairies. Not upon these two alone does it rest, for there were many who were animated by the same spirit. But these are mentioned because among all the multitude, on mountain and prairie, whose hearts have beaten for human liberty and for a form of government in which the political rights of all are equal, the throbs of these two hearts can be most clearly heard.

Born in Virginia, an orphan at the age of twelve, receiving only the elements of an education, with a natural fondness for mathematics, at the age of sixteen Washington was appointed surveyor of the immense estate of Lord Fairfax. At nineteen, with a view to active service against the French, he was appointed adjutant of the Virginia militia with the rank of major. A year later he was made commander of one of the four military districts into which the province had been divided. He made hazardous expeditions through the wilderness into Pennsylvania. Later he took part in the ill-starred campaign of Braddock. Through the seven years war he bore himself with distingushed bravery and, at its close, retired to his estate to live for the next fifteen years a peaceful life'. Then came the war with England. Early in its progress called to take command of the Continental army, for eight years he met all the trials and discouragements of that dark period. Often defeated, he was never conquered. Surrounded by jealousies, he seems to have been superior to them. Confronted by many and great difficulties, his courage and his faith in the cause he had made dearer than his life never forsook him. At the close of the war twice made president of the new Federation, refusing a third term, making the famous farewell address, every word of which breathing the most exalted sentiments became a fitting crown to a most illustrious career, he returned to Mount Vernon. There, after two years of repose in 1799, came a deeper repose.

"So sleep the brave who sink to rest
With all their country's wishes blest."

Of our second hero even less of detail need be given. Born in Kentucky of Virginia parents who, as he said, belonged to the second families, Lincoln made his way from the rudest and most unpromising conditions by the path of hardship and toil to the place where, if ever a crown belongs to mortals, it might have been most fittingly placed on his forehead. He may be seen learning to read by the blaze of a pine knot in a Kentucky cabin, as woodman, flatboatman, farmer, clerk in a country store, lawyer, congressman, president. With a wit and irony which can hardly be matched, he possessed a heart capable of unutterable sadness. Dauntless as a lion, he had the tenderness of a savior. An unconquerable foe of wrong, he was patient like a God. Who, having once looked into his grave, lofty face when in repose, seamed by care, shadowed by fate, with deep fathomless eyes as if containing an unrevealed meaning, can ever forget it? Gaunt and angular as a mountain, yet with a delicacy of sentiment and the ability to discern motives and all the subtle operations of the human spirit. Ungainly, but with the rare power of attracting all men toward him. A partisan, but always able to see the other side of things and could state his adversary's position better than could he himself. Uneducated in the schools, but knowing well that for which schools exist, namely, to refine the intellect and purify the heart so that they may read and understand the great ethical laws and obey them as a revelation of the Most High. Like a fire-bell in the night, he roused his countrymen from their sleep by his speech against the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Waiting until the hour had fully come, enduring the taunts of the impetuous friends of freedom, daring the vengeance of its enemies, he proclaimed liberty to the slave. A Republican, he had no leanings toward empire. With-out a touch of courtly fashion, his simple, free, unadorned manner made the pomp of emperors seem ridiculous. Devoid of the artificial graces of speech, yet by his own natural methods he went straight to the heart of things and thus reached heights of eloquence which cannot be surpassed. At Gettysburg his few sentences made the ornate address of the orator who preceded him seem pale and unreal by comparison, and they have become a part of the classics of our English speech. Strong, fearless, patient he kept his hand on the helm of the Republic; and, when, like a bruised and battered ship, it emerged from the awful storm in which for four years it had struggled, and when the port was almost reached, he was suddenly summoned elsewhere. Abraham Lincoln! while memory lasts can we forget him ? Nay! Can a hundred ages dim the lustre of his fame ?

Around the great names of former ages clusters much that is legendary. Whether King Arthur was a historical or mythical person is difficult to determine. How many of the reported exploits of Hercules, of Moses, of Ulysses, of the Cid, of Richard, of Bayard are fact, how many fiction, no one knows. It is not so with our two American heroes. They came to earth within the clear historic period. What future ages may do with their names we cannot tell. But, as for us, we are sure that they stand for real men. They actually did the great deeds accredited to them. Neither one of them is very far away. Some of us here have seen the living form of Lincoln and the fathers of some of us, while it was yet warm, might have clasped the hand of Washington. For no one of us is the time so far away, when these forms were upon the earth, that it cannot easily be recalled. It does not require an unusual power of imagination to make present the scenes among which they lived and acted and died. We can see the young Virginia surveyor in the woods; we can hear the birds singing in the trees above him and the leaves rustling under his feet. We can see the young soldier in battle at Fort Necessity and guiding the slowly moving column over the mountains toward Fort Duquesne. A few years later we can see him under the elm at Cambridge. Then Dorchester Heights, Long Island, Trenton, Monmouth, Valley Forge, and York Town pass before the mind. Or we can hear the axe of Lincoln ringing in the forest. We can see the humble home to which he returned at night-fall. We can see him take the timid little dog in his arms and carry him through the stream in which ice was floating as the family was moving to Indiana. We can see him reading law and then practicing in the villages of Illinois. Later he is seen at the Nation's Capital doing such work as few men have ever done. We can hear his quaint which made great truths seem greater. Then we can hear the cries of indignation and the sobs of grief which rose from the sea and from lands beyond the sea when his great heart suddenly ceased its beating.

But this is not all, Not only may these pictures of time be recalled by imagination for its delight, but they should be loved by the heart for its profit. The sacred meaning they contain should become manfest to every young and old citizen of our country. Not only should our two great Americans not be forgotten, but the animating spirit of their lives should not be permitted to fade from sight. To some, their forms, once so vital, have become only cold and motionless statues. It cannot be to the credit of any if the sentiments of human liberty and human justice for which they lived and died should become mere historic abstractions with no power to mould the genius and shape the destiny of our nation. It is often said that persons die, but principles live. It is to be hoped that we are not about to prove that this saying is sometimes false. Looking upon the events of these years there is something to awaken the fear that the principles upon which our nation was founded and which they and many other noble men gave their lives to establish and maintain have gone down into the grave with Washington and Lincoln.

The trying test of thé famous man is, for what did he live ? Had he some aim outside of himself ? Did he seek to astound the world or to save it? Did he care for a triumph of right or triumph of self ? Thus tried, many of the great names, from Alexander to Napoleon, lose a part of their brightness. It is not so with Washington and Lincoln. Each one was commanded by something larger than self interest. In the darkest days of the revolution the private ambition of the commander was buried beneath an abiding devotion to the cause. When an officer wrote to him suggesting that, in case independence were secured, they must appoint him king, Washington wrote to the young man that he must never again speak to him of such a thing. When discontent arose in the French war concerning rank and pay Major Washington said he would serve as a private without pay. Coming to Valley Forge, Baron Steuben wondered what held the army together. It was the moral power of an idea illustrated in the leader. The devotion, the singleness of aim, the love of Lincoln for justice is known to every one who knew him. In him every one who suffered had a friend. After a great battle he was found weeping. His tears were not the mortification over defeat, but sorrow over the many dead on the battle field and the desolate homes all over the North and South. In the days of the revolution and of laying the foundations of the Republic there were those whose fame was tarnished by self interest. Charles Lee was a gallant soldier, but he fought for personal glory. Gates could lead an army, but his personal jealousy was excessive. Arnold was brave, but he loved himself more than liberty. Burr was brilliant, but he had a fatal ambition. It was not otherwise in the middle years of our national history. There were men in the North and South who loved human freedom, but who loved more their own interests. The desire of being president blinded the eyes of more than one statesman to our national sin. But those whom we celebrate to-day were mastered by patriotism. If at any time the sirens were heard singing their seductive songs of power, of self glory, of imperialism, it was only for a moment. They were soon silenced by a nobler strain chanted by the angels of liberty and justice and human rights. Washington gave his life to found a nation without a king; Lincoln gave his to maintain a nation without a slave.

But of what value is it to recite the virtues of these noble men ? Is it merely to spend an hour in admiring them ? To be able to admire nobility of character is indeed worth something to a man; but admiration is not enough. Admiration should be followed by imitation. The only worthy way to praise our two great men is by endeavoring to carry our Republic along the great paths which they marked out for it. To praise Washington for founding a Re-public and then imitate old world Empires, to praise Lincoln for his devotion to human freedom and then take away the unforfeited rights of human beings and maintain an army to govern a foreign people against their will, is the height of irony. If it were not so pitiful, it would be ridiculous.

When Sir Gawain returned to the king from his search for Lancelot, to whom the diamond was due, and reported that he had given it to Elaine, deeming courtesy of more importance than duty, he met rebuke.

"The seldom frowning king frowned, and replied,
Too courteous truly! You shall go no more
On quest of mine, seeing that you forget
Obedience is the courtesy due to kings."

We may all profit by that rebuke. The courtesy due to these men is obedience to the principles en-throned in their lives. On their birth-days we should study deeply that which constitutes the true glory of our nation. The clamors of national and class interests should be silenced by the deep, solemn music of human welfare. They should be sacramental days for our country. On them we should vow new allegiance to the principles upon which our nation was founded and which alone gave it a reason for being instituted among the nations of the earth. Jesus once said: If ye love me keep my commandments. Thus, if we love our two great Patriots, we should love that for which they lived and died.

Standing near their birthdays, we may recall the many things which must meet in forming a noble nation. There is the land itself with all its diversified scenery of mountain and valley, of forest and plain. Over its area must be homes in city and village and country. There must be laws and education and religion. Thither must come art and science and literature and a thousand forms of industry. But this is not all. Into the hearts of its few or many millions must come a love of justice and liberty. The passion for righteousness and human welfare must equal the passion for political power and commercial supremacy. When all these are present a nation is truly glorious.

Since the days when Washington, and even when Lincoln was on earth, our country has changed. Its population has increased by many millions. Its wealth has been multiplied many times. Many new states have been added to the union. Art and science and literature and education have become wide-spread. The only uncertainty is concerning the increase of morals. There are those who fear that the nation's conscience is not as tender and noble as in former years. In the conduct of public affairs there seems to be a lack of disinterested patriotism. Surveying the whole field of active politics we are not rewarded with the sight of a single statesman who would not suffer much by comparison with Washington or Lincoln. It is painfully evident that, in the desire to rival the old world nations in acquiring territory for the sake of commerce, the law of simple justice and human liberty has been pushed aside. Much is being said concerning the constitution following the flag; concerning trade following the flag. This is all well in its place. But this must not be allowed to eclipse everything else. Unless human liberty follows the flag it ceases to be the symbol of the Republic founded by our fathers and maintained by their toil and blood. Used as an emblem of conquest and injustice and broken promises and national greed it ceases to be a badge of honor and becomes a badge of shame. It is then no longer a glorious flag; it is only a damnable rag.

Lest it become this we do well to recall those men in our nation's history who cared more for our country's honor than for its wealth and exalted human liberty above power and conquest. Their almost spotless honor, their self-denial, their devotion to the rights of mankind, and their trust in God make them a standing example of the kind of citizenship needed in a Republic. We need many more like them. A few will not do. There should be many whose minds are not dazzled by wealth or office or conquest. Men who will "highly resolve that government of the people, for the people, by the people shall not perish from the earth;" men whose patriotism is one with religion; men who will decree that, wherever it goes, the flag shall be, not only a sign of power, but of benevolence, of good will to all mankind, of a religion which Christ died to establish,—the only religion able to bless and save our world.

May the great God send many such patriots who will guide our beloved country in safety through all the perils which beset it; who will redeem it from all dishonor; who will make its future worthy of its past!

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