Banquet to the Honorable Carl Schurz/Speech of the Honorable William H. Fleming
“THE STATESMAN IN RECONSTRUCTION.”
SPEECH OF THE HONORABLE WILLIAM H. FLEMING, MEMBER OF CONGRESS FROM GEORGIA.
Mr. Chairman: “When the mariner has been tossed for many days in thick weather, and on an unknown sea, he naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm, the earliest glance of the sun to take his latitude and ascertain how far the elements have driven him from his true course.”
Borrowing a suggestion from these memorable words of Mr. Webster, we may aptly say that when a long and eventful voyage has been made, and the stately vessel rides at anchor in the peaceful harbor, it is natural that those who admire its strength and symmetry should come together in friendly fashion and talk over the incidents of the voyage—how at times the sunlight glistened on the prow, and favoring winds filled the spreading sails; and how again the darkness lowered and the storm burst in fury and the lightning flashed through the rigging and the billows swept over the deck, and how through it all the goodly ship moved on in its course, undismayed, unharmed, the pride of its crew and the admiration of other craft.
And so to-night we are gathered here to contemplate in reminiscent mood the career of one who has spent much of his life on the stormy sea of politics, and now, having reached the Psalmist's limit of three score years and ten, is walking “thoughtful on the silent, solemn shore” of that other and vaster “ocean he must sail so soon.”
There is no finer quality of intellect than that which enables a man to brush aside all irrelevant matters and go straight to wise conclusions. There is no better element of character than that which, amidst the play and counter-play of the passions, makes it possible for a man to seize upon truth and to hold on to it, even when to do so may alienate old friends and create new enemies. Intellectual honesty and moral courage are the twin children of truth and faith. [Applause.] The capacity to hold the sensibilities in subjection to the intellect and the will, and to pass judgment calmly upon facts as they exist, ought to be an object of sincere desire by every man who seeks or accepts the responsities of helping to guide the fortunes of a popular government, where passion and prejudice, in the very nature of things, so often becloud the course of wisdom and justice.
In 1866, when sectional hate was at fever heat, Mr. Schurz was appointed by President Johnson as a Special Commissioner to examine into the conditions at the South, and to report his findings and opinions. A recent perusal of that report, more than thirty years after it was written, leaves no doubt on my own mind that, while, the writer was necessarily imbued with ideas in conflict with those generally entertained by as of the South, yet he was honestly seeking for the truth — if haply he might find it. [Applause.] In that hour, when the people of the South were undergoing a travail of soul in “bitterness, not far removed from death,” and when popular passion at the North, still more enraged by the foul assassination of President Lincoln, who would have been the South's best friend, [applause,] was sweeping pliant demagogues before it like leaves before the wind—even in that hour, this cool-headed, philosophic statesman, with his fine-fibered German brain, sought to learn the facts, to trace cause and effect, to measure the action and re-action of sectional and racial prejudice, and to put new forces into operation that seemed to him at the time to give promise of the best results.
What would have been the very best course for a wise and high-minded statesmanship to pursue in dealing with the terrible situation at the South, consequent upon the war and emancipation, will, perhaps, always remain a mooted question—certainly we will not attempt to settle it on this occasion. Suffice it now to say that Mr. Schurz did not shrink from the logical results of the war. He fully endorsed them to the extent of establishing and protecting a new system of free labor in lieu of the old system of slave labor. That much he boldly contended for. Yet he did not forget, but seemed willing and pleased to remember that the former masters were human as well as the new made freedmen. [Applause.] He held both classes entitled to fair consideration in any governmental scheme for the pacification and upbuilding of that devastated section of our common country.
One of the peculiar hardships of the reconstruction period in the South was that political disabilities were imposed on hundreds and thousands of our public men, best in brain and heart, who, in former years, had been the counsellors and leaders of our people. So that, with an enlarged suffrage of ignorance on the one hand, and a restricted availability of intelligence on the other, the political and social conditions in the Southern States were fast becoming unendurable.
At this juncture of affairs, Mr. Schurz was one of those who dared to speak kindly and magnanimous words, at least, to the extent of removing the political disabilities of all our citizens. The first general amnesty declaration made by a national party after the war was that embodied in the platform of the Democrats in 1868, and my information is, that this provision was written by Mr. Schurz. [Applause.] [Here the Chairman's gavel fell, on expiration of ten minutes.] May I ask unanimous consent to proceed two minutes. [Cries of “yes.”]
In 1872, when a member of the United States Senate, he delivered a speech before that body in favor of general amnesty, which, for elegance of style, cogency of reasoning, keen insight into the motives and spring of human action, and persuasive appeal to the nobler sentiments of his hearers, stands out in marked contrast to much of the coarse and brutal haranguing of that period. I read this extract from that speech:
“I do not, indeed, indulge in the delusion that this act alone will remedy all the evils which we now deplore. No, it will not; but it will be a powerful appeal to the very best instincts and impulses of human nature; it will, like, a warm ray of sunshine in spring time, quicken and call to light the germs of good intention wherever they exist; it will give new courage, confidence and inspiration to the well-disposed; it will weaken the power of the mischievous, by stripping of their pretext, and exposing in their nakedness, the wicked designs they still may cherish; it will light anew the beneficent glow of fraternal feeling and of national spirit; for, sir, your good sense, as well as your heart, must tell you that when this is truly a people of citizens equal in their political rights, it will then be easier to make it also a people of brothers.” [Great applause.]
These were noble words, creditable alike to the head and the heart of the Senator, when they were uttered, and truly prophetic in the light of recent events, which have proved to a doubting world that the Northern man and the Southern man are one under the flag of the Union, [great applause,] and can never be whipped except by one another. [Applause.]
Being in advance of the public opinion of his day, it was natural that Mr. Schurz should be severely criticized. Changing his party affiliations as he did, it was inevitable that he should be roundly abused. Had he lived in the palmy days of Greece, I think he would have been called a high-minded statesman. Living as he did in a transition stage of American politics, he was called a “Mugwump,” [laughter and applause,] a name given in derision but worn in honor; a name applied to a class of men, many of whom, at least, are both high-minded and independent; a class of men who will yet have many a glorious opportunity to serve their country by throwing their votes into the wavering balance according to the dictates of patriotism, giving the victory to that one of the contending parties whose principles are most consonant with the public welfare, and whose candidates are the bravest and the cleanest. [Applause.]
In conclusion, permit me to express the hope, that the distinguished gentleman, in whose honor we have met to-night, may live many years yet, to charm his friends and to serve his country. [Great applause and cheers.]