Nonfiction > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. XI. Miscellanies
XVI. Harvard Commemoration Speech
July 21, 1865

                      “‘Old classmate, say
Do you remember our Commencement Day?
Were we such boys as these at twenty?’ Nay,
God called them to a nobler task than ours,
And gave them holier thoughts and manlier powers,—
This is the day of fruits and not of flowers!
These ‘boys’ we talk about like ancient sages
Are the same men we read of in old pages—
The bronze recast of dead heroic ages!
We grudge them not, our dearest, bravest, best,—
Let but the quarrel’s issue stand confest:
’T is Earth’s old slave-God battling for his crown
And Freedom fighting with her visor down.”

  “MANY loved Truth, and lavished life’s best oil
  Amid the dust of books to find her,
Content at last, for guerdon of their toil,
  With the cast mantle she hath left behind her.
    Many in sad faith sought for her,
    Many with crossed hands sighed for her;
    But these, our brothers, fought for her,
    At life’s dear peril wrought for her,
    So loved her that they died for her,
    Tasting the raptured fleetness
    Of her divine completeness:
      Their higher instinct knew
Those love her best who to themselves are true,
And what they dare to dream of, dare to do;
    They followed her and found her
    Where all may hope to find,
Not in the ashes of the burnt-out mind,
But beautiful, with danger’s sweetness round her.
    Where faith made whole with deed
    Breathes its awakening breath
    Into the lifeless creed,
    They saw her plumed and mailed,
    With sweet, stern face unveiled,
And all-repaying eyes, look proud on them in death.”
LOWELL, Commemoration Ode.    

MR. CHAIRMAN, AND GENTLEMEN: 1 With whatever opinion we come here, I think it is not in man to see, without a feeling of pride and pleasure, a tried soldier, the armed defender of the right. I think that in these last years all opinions have been affected by the magnificent and stupendous spectacle which Divine Providence has offered us of the energies that slept in the children of this country,—that slept and have awakened. I see thankfully those that are here, but dim eyes in vain explore for some who are not.
  The old Greek Heraclitus said, “War is the Father of all things.” He said it, no doubt, as science, but we of this day can repeat it as political and social truth. War passes the power of all chemical solvents, breaking up the old adhesions, and allowing the atoms of society to take a new order. It is not the Government, but the War, that has appointed the good generals, sifted out the pedants, put in the new and vigorous blood. The War has lifted many other people besides Grant and Sherman into their true places. Even Divine Providence, we may say, always seems to work after a certain military necessity. Every nation punishes the General who is not victorious. It is a rule in games of chance that the cards beat all the players, and revolutions disconcert and outwit all the insurgents.  2
  The revolutions carry their own points, sometimes to the ruin of those who set them on foot. The proof that war also is within the highest right, is a marked benefactor in the hands of the Divine Providence, is its morale. The war gave back integrity to this erring and immoral nation. It charged with power, peaceful, amiable men, to whose life war and discord were abhorrent. What an infusion of character went out from this and other colleges! What an infusion of character down to the ranks! The experience has been uniform that it is the gentle soul that makes the firm hero after all. It is easy to recall the mood in which our young men, snatched from every peaceful pursuit, went to the war. Many of them had never handled a gun. They said, “It is not in me to resist. I go because I must. It is a duty which I shall never forgive myself if I decline. I do not know that I can make a soldier. I may be very clumsy. Perhaps I shall be timid; but you can rely on me. Only one thing is certain, I can well die, but I cannot afford to misbehave.”  3
  In fact the infusion of culture and tender humanity from these scholars and idealists who went to the war in their own despite—God knows they had no fury for killing their old friends and countrymen—had its signal and lasting effect. It was found that enthusiasm was a more potent ally than science and munitions of war without it. “It is a principle of war,” said Napoleon, “that when you can use the thunderbolt you must prefer it to the cannon.” Enthusiasm was the thunderbolt. Here in this little Massachusetts, in smaller Rhode Island, in this little nest of New England republics it flamed out when the guilty gun was aimed at Sumter.  4
  Mr. Chairman, standing here in Harvard College, the parent of all the colleges; in Massachusetts, the parent of all the North; when I consider her influence on the country as a principal planter of the Western States, and now, by her teachers, preachers, journalists and books, as well as by traffic and production, the diffuser of religious, literary and political opinion;—and when I see how irresistible the convictions of Massachusetts are in these swarming populations,—I think the little state bigger than I knew. When her blood is up, she has a fist big enough to knock down an empire. And her blood was roused. Scholars changed the black coat for the blue. A single company in the Forty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment contained thirty-five sons of Harvard. You all know as well as I the story of these dedicated men, who knew well on what duty they went,—whose fathers and mothers said of each slaughtered son, “We gave him up when he enlisted.” One mother said, when her son was offered the command of the first negro regiment, “If he accepts it, I shall be as proud as if I had heard that he was shot.” 2These men, thus tender, thus high-bred, thus peaceable, were always in the front and always employed. They might say, with their forefathers the old Norse Vikings, “We sung the mass of lances from morning until evening.” And in how many cases it chanced, when the hero had fallen, they who came by night to his funeral, on the morrow returned to the war-path to show his slayers the way to death!  5
  Ah! young brothers, all honor and gratitude to you,—you, manly defenders, Liberty’s and Humanity’s bodyguard! We shall not again disparage America, now that we have seen what men it will bear. We see—we thank you for it—a new era, worth to mankind all the treasure and all the lives it has cost; yes, worth to the world the lives of all this generation of American men, if they had been demanded. 3  6
Note 1. It was a proud and sad, and yet a joyful day, when Harvard welcomed back those of her sons who had survived the war. All who could come were there, from boys to middle-aged men, from private soldier to general, some strong and brown, and others worn and sick and maimed, but all on that day proud and happy. The names of the ninety-three of Harvard’s sons who had fallen in the war were inscribed on six tablets and placed where all could see.
  In the church, where then the college exercises were held, the venerable ex-president, Dr. Walker, read the Scriptures, Rev. Phillips Brooks offered prayer, a hymn by Robert Lowell was sung, and the address was made by the Rev. George Putnam. In the afternoon the alumni, civic and military, with their guests, were marshalled by Colonel Henry Lee into a great pavilion behind Harvard Hall, where they dined. Hon. Charles G. Loring presided; Governor Andrew, General Meade, General Devens and other distinguished soldiers spoke, and poems by Dr. Holmes and Mrs. Julia Ward Howe were read. The president of the day called on Mr. Emerson as representative of the poets and scholars whose thoughts had been an inspiration to Harvard’s sons in the field. [back]
Note 2. This was the mother of Robert Gould Shaw, who lost his life a few months later, leading his dusky soldiers up the slopes of Fort Wagner. It was in his honor that Mr. Emerson wrote in the “Voluntaries,”—
    Stainless soldier on the walls,
Knowing this,—and knows no more,—
Whoever fights, whoever falls,
Justice conquers evermore,
Justice after as before,—
And he who battles on her side,
God, though he were ten times slain,
Crowns him victor glorified,
Victor over death and pain.
Note 3.
  “O Beautiful! my Country! ours once more!
*        *        *        *        *
What words divine of lover or of poet
Could tell our love and make thee know it,
Among the Nations bright beyond compare?
  What were our lives without thee?
    What all our lives to save thee?
    We reck not what we gave thee;
    We will not dare to doubt thee,
But ask whatever else, and we will dare!”
Lowell, “Commemoration Ode.”    

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