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Friends and Fellow Citizens:

If anything like pride or self-gratulation were permissible or pardonable in any man, on an occasion like this, I might be excused for entertaining some such feeling in view of the invitation to appear here as your orator today. In your estimation and mine, and in the estimation of loyal men generally, especially in the loyal north, the annual memorial occasions have a deep and sacred significance. They stand as a sign of something real, valuable and important. He who is deemed worthy to participate in them, be he ever so humble and his part ever so limited, may well enough feel himself exalted. It is more than ribbons, or stars, or garters. It makes a man as one of the American people, a man among men, a full partaker of the rights, duties, privileges, and immunities of American citizenship – a citizenship having a grander future than that of any other country in the world.

While the prominent position you have assigned me today confers higher honor and greater distinction than any promised by the circumstances of my earlier life, and while I consented to come here, only after a severe controversy with my distrust and my sense of my inability to bring forward anything outside the beaten track of memorial addresses, and while to gather up in due form the noble sentiments, thought and aspirations suggested by this memorial anniversary, and to give them appropriate voice and expression, is a task to which men far abler than myself might feel unequal, I am nevertheless, for many reasons, very glad to be here, and to bear the honorable part to which you have been pleased to call me.

Fellow citizens, I congratulate myself, and I congratulate you, upon the fact, that amid all the prosperity and glory in which you stand, and notwithstanding all the changes wrought in the externals of your city, I find here in Rochester today, the same enlightened, liberal, and independent spirit by which it was distinguished forty years ago.

While indulging in reminiscences, and while I am, perhaps, speaking to many of a new generation, I may say that the best twenty-five years of my life were spent in Rochester. Friendships were formed during that residence among you which even the iron hand of time cannot break. Common pleasures have their union, and they are strong, but common pains and suffering have bonds of fellowship even stronger and more lasting. Those that bind me here are of the latter class. I was with you and suffered with you, in the hour of danger and profound anxiety; and a common suffering has made us friends. I was with you when a great national affliction and the stern logic of events made your cause mine, and mine yours, and it was here that for the first time, I had the happiness to feel myself under the protection of the national flag.

Fellow citizens — Though I have not in the past participated with you personally, upon occasions like this, my peculiar experience, together with that common interest and common memory which makes this day sacred to us all, have united me in spirit with you on all memorial occasions.

No people in the United States, so far as I know, perform the rights and ceremonies which belong to this day, more scrupulously, appropriately, and impressively, than do the people of Rochester; and from my recollection of your experience with the clouds, darkness and blood attending the war, when gloom filled your homes and sorrow sat at your hearthstones, no people have better reason to perform these rites and ceremonies than have you, the people of Rochester.

The patriotism this day honors found not its birth but its expression in that momentous struggle. It was seen that the accumulation of wealth, and the ease and luxury such accumulation brought, had not destroyed the heroic spirit of the days that tried men’s souls. I see even now to hear and feel the effects of the sights and sounds of that dreadful period. I see the flags from the windows and housetops fluttering in the breeze. I see and hear the steady tramp of armed men in blue uniforms through all your streets. I see the recruiting sergeant with drum and fife, with banner and badge, calling for men, young men and strong, to go to the front and fill up the gaps made by rebel powder and pestilence. I hear the piercing sound of trumpets that told us plainly that peace had taken its flight from our borders; that our country was divided and involved in the turmoils of a terrible war.

What Rochester was at the beginning of that war, that Rochester was during the war, and at the end of the war – as an eye witness I am here to say that, though there were croakers here as anywhere else – where, during all that momentous struggle the courage of Rochester never quailed; her mind never doubted; her enthusiasm never cooled, her purse never closed, her arm never wearied.

The fact to which we today invite the attention of loyal, patriotic men, in every part of our common country, is that we are still upon duty, and that we have not forgot our patriot dead.

We call attention to the fact that within the sacred enclosure of Mt. Hope, a place well named, and well suited to the solemn purpose to which it is devoted, a ground hallowed by affection, adorned by art, beautified by wealth, skill and industry, coupled with the holiest memories; where strong men go to meditate, and widows and orphans go to weep, we have met to strew flowers, with lavish, loving, loyal hands, upon the green graves of our young men, who, in the hour of national peril, went forth and nobly gave their lives, all that men can give, to save their country from dismemberment and ruin.

Does any man question the right or propriety of this annual ceremony? Can any man who loves his country advise its discontinuance? Is there anywhere another altar better than this, around which the nation can meet each year to renew its national vows and manifest its loyal devotion to the principles of our free government? Is there any eminence from which we can better survey the past, the present, the future? For my part I know of no other such day. There is none other so abundant in suggestions and themes of immediate national interests as this day.

In saying this, I am not unaware that the world is full of anachronisms; empty forms and superstitions, kept above ground and upon exhibition by hollow, heartless unthinking custom; things that wear the appearance of life while destitute of its power and which have little or no relation the the generations now living.

I am not unaware of this fact, but am also aware that the time may come when this National Decoration Day, which means so much to us, shall share the fate of other great days. Having answered the end of its ordination, it will fade and vanish, and it will be given to some other day more nearly allied with the wants and events of another age. So let it be. Everything is beautiful in its season. Let not the smoke survive the candle.

When an institution has answered the end for which it was created, it should follow the order of nature, and disappear. Here as elsewhere there is no pause, no stopping place. There have been many plans and policies proposed in the interests of what is called conversation, but the combined wisdom of all the ages has not yet devised any means to guard and guarantee the world against mutations in human society, or revolutions in human government.

The law of change is everywhere vindicated. What has happened once may happen again. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, and we may console ourselves in the thought that, whatever may the immediate or distant future; whatever may hallow another day, and make it great in the eyes of the American people; for the present at least, there is no national holiday which contains so much for the head and heart of our day and generation as does this Decoration Day. We may say of it, as Daniel Webster once said of Bunker Hill Monument: “It looks, it speaks, it acts.” It recalls to use the emphasis of the roar of a thousand cannon, the scenes and incidents of a tremendous war. It is full of lessons of wisdom, courage, and patriotism. It may, as I have said, lose its hold on the attention of the people, and cease to be observed; but the broad and manly sentiment of which it is born, and by which it is sustained, will live, flourish and bear similar fruit, forever.

Which good and evil, loyalty and treason, liberty and slavery, remain opposite and irreconcilable, and shall contend, as they must contend, for ascendancy in the world, their respective forces will adopt opposite emblems and tokens.

Fellow citizens: Two very conflicting sentiments and policies have been express and espoused in respect to our duty toward the people lately in rebellion.

One of these would treat and regard the Southern people precisely as they would regard and treat them had they been always loyal and true to the government. It is said that this cruel war is over, and the rebels have repented their folly, and have accepted in good faith the results of the war, and that now we should forget and forgive the past, and turn our attention entirely to the future. Even that moral and intellectual giant in the councils of the nation, the late Charles Sumner, would have had all our battle flags banished from view, and nothing left to tell that there had ever been trouble in our national family. Much in the same line were the sentiments of the late Horace Greely, Gerrit Smith, Chief Justice Chase and other eminent men.

Opposed to this view of our national duty it is held that the rebellion is suppressed but not conquered; that its spirit is still abroad and only waits the chance to reassert itself in acts of flagrant disloyalty.

Though the doctrine of forgiveness and forgetfulness has been adopted by many of the noblest and most intelligent men of the country, men for whole I have the highest respect, I am wholly unable to accept it, to the extent to which it is asserted. I certainly cannot accept it to the extent of abandoning the observance of Decoration Day. If rebellion was wrong and loyalty was right; if slavery was wrong and emancipation was right, we are rightfully here today.

We are not here, however, to fan the flames of sectional animosity, or to revive the malign sentiments which naturally sprang up in the wrath and fire of a bloody conflict. We are not here to remember the causes, the incidents, and the results of the late rebellion. We come around this national altar, one day in each year, to pay our grateful homage to the memory of brave men, to express and emphasize, by speech and pageantry, our reverence for the great qualities of enlightened and exalted human nature, which in every land, are the stay and salvation of the race; the qualities without which the states would perish, society dissolve, progress become impossible, and mankind sink back into a howling wilderness of barbarism.

In a word, we are here to reassert and to reproclaim our admiration for the patriotic zeal, the stern fortitude, the noble sacrifice, the unflinching determination, the quenchless enthusiasm, the high and measureless courage with which loyal men, true to the Republic in the hour of supreme peril, dashed themselves against a wanton, wicked and gigantic rebellion, and suppressed it beyond the power to rise again.

The motto that tells us to speak naught but good of the dead, does not apply here. Death has no power to change moral qualities. What was bad before the war, and during the war, has not been made good since the war. Besides, though the rebellion is dead, though slavery is dead, both rebellion and slavery have left behind influences which will remain with us, it may be, for generations to come.

Rapid indeed is the march of time. We are already fast getting away from the days of rebellion and slavery. Men are already losing adequate comprehension of the stupendous wickedness of both. The generations coming after us who shall look only into our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, for a knowledge of our character as a nation, will find it hard to believe that a part of the people professing to believe in the principles of great charters of liberty could fall from their high estate, reject the creed of their fathers, become traitors to their country, and wage cruel and unrelenting war upon their loyal brothers during four long years, for no other purpose in the world than to propagate, maintain and perpetuate a system of slavery the most cruel and savage and debasing upon which the sun ever looked down.

Many disguises have been assumed by the South in regard to that war. It has been said that it was fighting for independence, but the South was already a sharer in the national independence. It has been said that the South was fighting for liberty; but the South was already a sharer in the national liberty. It has been said that the south was fighting for the right to govern itself, but the South had already the ballot and the right to govern itself. What more could it want? What more did it want?

If we would know the answers to these inquiries we have only to read the utterances of Alexander H. Stephens, the Vice President of the Southern Confederacy, the clearest headed statesman on that side of the question.

From him we shall learn that the great and all commanding object for which the South withdrew from the Senate to the field, appealed from the deliberations of reason to the arbitrament of sword, from debate to bayonets; from the ballot to the battlefield, was to found and erect a government based upon the idea of a privileged class; of inequality of natural rights, and of the rightfulness of slavery.

Most of the rebellions and uprisings in the history of nations have been for freedom, and not for slavery. They have found their mainsprings and power among the lowly. But here was a rebellion, not for freedom, but for slavery; not to break fetters, but to forge them; not to secure the blessings of liberty, but to bind with chains millions of the human race. It came not from the low, but from the high; not from the plebeian, but from the patrician; not from the oppressed, but from the oppressor.

For this, and only this, we lost millions of treasure and rivers of blood. for this, and for only this, the beautiful South was made desolate; the nation weighed down under a debt heavier than a mountain of gold, and half a million of our sons and brothers swept into bloody graves.

Fellow citizens: I am not indifferent to the claims of a generous forgetfulness, but whatever else I may forget, I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery; between those who fought to save the Republic and those who fought to destroy it.

We are sometimes asked, “What was gained by the suppression of this slave-holding rebellion?” And whether it is worth what it cost? It had perhaps, better be asked, what we should have lost had we failed to suppress the Rebellion? In what condition would this country be with the lower half of the Mississippi in the hands of a foreign and hostile power? Who could paint the horrors of the wars and incursions which would have reddened the line running east and west, separating two governments, one based upon Liberty and Equality, and the other upon slavery and race inferiority? Would not the raw edges of such a line be always chafing and bleeding? Heavy as has been the cost of war, would not a heavier one have fallen upon the country had the war failed?

Fellow Citizens: You lament, I lament, we all lament the war forced upon us by the propagandists of slavery and caste. Your hearts ache in the contemplation of its dreadful hardships and horrors; for war here, as elsewhere, was a vast and terrible calamity.

But to estimate properly what was lost and what was gained, a more comprehensive generalization than present space will permit is required.

If the existence of society is more than the lives of individual men; if all history proves that no great addition has ever been made to the liberties of mankind, except through war; if the progress of the human race has been disputed by force and it has only succeeded by opposing force with force; if nations are most effectively taught righteousness by affliction and suffering; if the eternal laws of rectitude are essential to the preservation of happiness and perfection of the human race; if there is anything in the world worth living for, fight for, or dying for, the suppression of our rebellion by force was not only a thing right and proper in itself, but an immense and immeasurable gain to our country and world.

Had that rebellion succeeded with all of its malign purposes, what then would have become of our grand example of free institutions. Of what value then would have been our government of the people by the people and for the people? What ray of light would have been left above the horizon, to kindle the first hope of the toiling millions in Europe? Every despot in the old world would have seen in our manifest instability of government a new and powerful argument in favor of despotic power.

A failure to suppress this rebellion would not only have lost us prestige abroad, but it would have entailed upon us intolerable and innumerable troubles at home. Successful wickedness is contagious and repeats itself. Jefferson Davis and his Rebellion being successful would have prepared the way for other rebels and traitors. Instead of one rival and hostile Confederacy in that case, this great country would have been in time divided, torn and rent into numerous petty states, each warring upon and devouring the substance of the other. So this great war of ours may have save us many wars.

It is said that we might have lived in peace with the so-called Confederate States of America.

To my mind such peace would have been impossible. If we could have lived in peace in separations, as contended, separation itself would have been impossible. If we could not live in peace when we were citizens of the same country, under the same flag, participating in the same government, with the same powerful national motives for cultivating friendly and fraternal relations, it is not reasonable to suppose that peace and amity would have sprung up between us under separate governments, based upon diametrically opposite principles.

To us the suppression of the rebellion means peace, nationality, liberty and progress. It means the everlasting exclusion from the entire borders of the Republic, of that system of barbarism which gave birth to the Rebellion; a system which branded our Declaration of Independence as a lie, our civilization as a sham, our religion as a mocker; and made our name a byword and a hissing among all the civilized nations of the earth.

In a speech delivered recently in the city of New Orleans, Mr. Jefferson Davis made the following statement:

“As for me — I speak only for myself — our cause was so just, so sacred, that had I known all that has come to pass, had I known what was to be inflicted upon me, all that my country was to suffer, all that our posterity was to endure, I would do it over and over again.” 1From a speech given on April 25, 1882.

When we see sentiments like these emanating from southern men and rapturously applauded by admiring assemblies of the people we may well enough keep in mind the principles and benefits which we sought to sustain, in our contest with that slave-holding rebellion.

But what of the emancipated class? How stands the case with them today? Has liberty been a blessing or a curse? Has their freedom been a credit or a calamity to them? I admit that on the surface there are some reasons for asking these questions; but plainly enough they are superficial reasons and are derived from shallow and imperfect reflection.

Unquestionably the condition of the freedman is not what it ought to be, but the cause of their affliction is not to be found in their present freedom, but in their former slavery. It does not belong to the present, but to the past. They were emancipated under unfavorable conditions. They were literally turned loose hungry and naked, to the open sky. They had neither home, friends, nor money. Such was their destitution at the start that their enemies consoled themselves with the thought that hunger and exposure would soon thin them out, and possibly destroy them altogether. Those who now carp at their destitution, and speak of them with contempt, should judge them leniently, and measure their progress, not from the heights to which they may in time attain, but from the depths from which they have come. They have perished neither from cold nor hunger, and from the last United States census we learn that their increase is ten percent greater than that of the native white population of the South.

Twenty five years ago no child of these people was allowed to attend school and learn to read; now there are two hundred thousand of these children attending school. The time would fail me to tell the various efforts now being made to improve the condition of the emancipated class, and to place them within the range of an equal chance in the race of life, and to tell you how the opportunities now afforded them are embraced, appreciated and improved.

As most of you know, my whole life has been devoted to the work of abolishing slavery and to the further work of making a favorable impression for the colored people on the minds of the American people when freedom came to the enslaved in the sudden and startling manner in which it did come. I was oppressed with serious doubts and fears that they might in some way in the intoxication of their new freedom, damage their cause and invite destruction. The transition from slavery to freedom, from political degradation to political equality, from abject dependence to personal responsibility and self reliance, is seldom made without suffering. What has happened in the West Indies; what has happened in Russia, was naturally expected to happen here. But happily for us the trouble here has not been so great as in either of the countries named.

For one, I am not so much surprised by the short-coming of the emancipated race, as by their successes, I do not despair, no man should despair of a people whom neither slavery nor freedom can kill. No man should despair of a race that, in the face of a prejudice and hate more active, intense, and bitter, than ever assailed California Chinamen, border Indians, or Russian Jew, has rises from the ashes of utter destruction, and increased its number ten per cent beyond that of people in the most favored conditions.

On an occasion like this it should not be forgotten that these emancipated people who are often so harshly criticized, were the only friends the loyal nation had in the south during the war.

They were eyes to our blind, legs to our lame, guides to our wounded and escaping prisoners, and often supplied to our generals information which prevented the slaughter of thousands. It should also not be forgotten that when permitted to do so, they enrolled themselves as soldiers of the Republic, and did their duty like brave men. They did not suppress your rebellion, but they did help you suppress it.

Fellow Citizens: My sympathies are not limited by my relation to any race. I can take no part in persecuting any variety of the Human family. Whether in Russia, Germany or California, my sympathy is with the oppressed, be he Chinaman, or Hebrew.

I have no sympathy with that narrow selfish motive of economy which assumes that every crumb of bread which goes into the mouths of one class, is so much taken from the other class; and hence, I cannot join with those who would drive the Chinaman from our borders.

Fellow Citizens, in conclusion, I would bring you back to what I consider a grand and sacred local duty, and that is, the erection here in Rochester of some monument of bronze, marble or granite, which shall commemorate to after coming generations, the unfaltering courage, the unswerving fidelity, the heroic self-sacrifice of your sons and brothers, during the late war.

Rochester is a luminous point in Western New York, and is seen alike by the lakes and by the ocean. It is fit and proper that she should have a monument to the virtues developed in her in the momentous crisis where in was involved the life and death, the salvation and destruction of the Republic. This monument, symmetrical and beautiful, would be a just tribute to the dead, and a noble inspiration to the living. It would stand before your people mute, but eloquent, a sacred object around which your children and your children’s children could rally and draw high inspiration of patriotism and self-sacrifice by studying the deeds of their fathers, which saved their country to peace, to union, and to liberty.

Note: The entirety of the text was typed out by me. Any mistakes are my own. This is, as far as I can tell, the first time this speech has been rendered in plain text. My source is here – photos of typewritten pages transcribed from handwritten and corrected pages.

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