Franklin D. Roosevelt

Address at George Rogers Clark Memorial, Vincennes, Ind.

June 14, 1936

Governor McNutt, Governor Horner, my friends of Indiana:

Events of history take on their due proportions only when viewed in the light of time. With every passing year the capture of Vincennes, more than a century and a half ago when the Thirteen Colonies were seeking their independence, assumes greater and more permanent significance.

I come, as you know, from the Valley of the Hudson; and the first grave danger, as the War of the Revolution progressed, lay in the effort of the British, with their Indian allies, to drive a wedge from Canada through the Valley of Lake Champlain and the Valley of the Mohawk, to meet the British frigates from the City of New York at the head of navigation on the Hudson River. If this important offensive in the year 1777 had been successful,

New England would have been cut off from the States lying south of New York, and by holding the line of the Hudson River the British, without much doubt, could have conquered first one half and then the other half of the divided Colonies. That was our first great crisis.

The defeat and surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga became recognized as the definite turning point of the military operations of the Revolution.

But there was another great danger. Danger lay thereafter not in the immediate defeat of the Colonies, but rather in their inability to maintain themselves and grow after their independence had been won. The records of history show that the British planned a definite hemming-in process, whereby the new Nation would be strictly limited in area and in activity to the territory lying south of Canada and east of the Allegheny Mountains. Toward this end they conducted military operations on an important scale west of the Alleghenies, with the purpose, which was at first successful, of driving back eastward across the mountains all those Americans who, before the Revolution, had crossed into what is now Ohio and Michigan and Indiana and Illinois and Kentucky and Tennessee.

In that year, 1778, the picture of this Western country was dark indeed. The English held all the region northwest of the Ohio, and their Indian allies were burning cabins and driving fleeing families back across the mountains south of the river. Indeed there were only three forts that remained in all of Kentucky, and their fall seemed inevitable.

In that moment, against the dark background, rose the young Virginian, George Rogers Clark. Out of despair and destruction he brought concerted action. With a flash of genius, the twenty-six-year-old leader conceived a campaign— a brilliant masterpiece of military strategy. Working with the good-will of the French settlers through these States, and overawing the Indians by what perhaps we can call sheer bravado, he swept through to Kaskaskia and other towns of the Illinois country.

But the menace of the regular British forces remained. Colonel Henry Hamilton, the British Commander of the Northwest, had come down from Detroit. He seized and fortified Vincennes. Fort Sackville, where we stand today, as long as it remained uncaptured, made Clark's position untenable. His desperate resolution to save his men and the Northwest by a mid-winter march and an attack by riflemen on a fort manned by the King's own regiment and equipped with cannon marked the heroic measure of the man.

It is worth repeating the story that the famous winter march began at Kaskaskia with a religious service. To Father Pierre Gibault, and to Colonel Francis Vigo, a patriot of Italian birth, next to Clark himself, the United States is indebted for the saving of the Northwest Territory. And it was in the little log church, predecessor of yonder Church of Saint Francis Xavier, that Colonel Hamilton surrendered Vincennes to George Rogers Clark.

It is not a coincidence that this service in dedication of a noble monument takes place on a Sunday morning. Governor McNutt and I, aware of the historic relationship of religion to this campaign of the Revolution, and to the later Ordinance of 1787, have understood and felt the appropriateness of today.

Clark had declared at Kaskaskia before he began his famous march, that all religions would be tolerated in America. Eight years later the Ordinance of 1787, which established the territory northwest of the Ohio River, provided that "no person demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or for religious sentiments in the said territory."

And the Ordinance went on to declare further that "religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." It seems to me that one hundred and forty-nine years later the people' of the United States, in every part thereof, could reiterate and continue to strive for the principle that religion, morality and knowledge are necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.

Today religion is still free within our borders; it must ever remain so.

Today morality means the same thing as it meant in the days of George Rogers Clark, though we must needs apply it to many, many situations of which George Rogers Clark never dreamt. In his day among the pioneers there were jumpers of land claims; there were those who sought to swindle their neighbors, even though they were all poor in this world's goods and lived in sparsely settled communities. Today among our teeming millions there are still those who by dishonorable means seek to obtain the possessions of their unwary neighbors. Our modern civilization must constantly protect itself against moral defectives whose objectives are the same, but whose methods are more subtle than those of their prototypes of a century and a half ago. We do not change our form of free government when we arm ourselves with new weapons against new devices of crime and cupidity.

Today, as in 1787, we have knowledge; but it is a vastly wider knowledge.

During the past week I have traveled through many States; and as I have looked out in the daylight hours upon the countryside of Tennessee and Alabama and Arkansas and Texas and Oklahoma, I have tried to visualize what that countryside looked like a short century and a half ago. All of it was primeval forest or untilled prairie, inhabited by an exceedingly small population of nomadic Indian tribes. It was untouched by the civilization of the white man.

In most of this vast territory, as here a little farther north in the Middle West, Nature gave her bounteous gifts to the new settlers, and for many long years these gifts were received by them without thought of the future. Here was an instance where the knowledge of the day was as yet insufficient to see the dangers that lay ahead.

Who, for example, even among the second and third generations of the settlers of this virgin land, gave heed to the future results that attended the cutting of the timber which denuded the greater part of the watersheds?

Who, among them, gave thought to the tragic extermination of the wild life which formed the principal article of food of the pioneers?

Who among them had ever heard the term "submarginal land" or worried about what would happen when the original soil played out or ran off to the ocean?

Who among them were concerned if the market price for livestock for the moment justified the overgrazing of pastures, or a temporary boom in the price of cotton or corn tempted men to forget that rotation of crops was a farming maxim as far back as the days of ancient Babylon?

Who among them regarded floods as preventable?

Who among them thought of the use of coal, or oil, or gas, or falling water as the means of turning their wheels and lighting their homes?

Who among them visualized the day when the sun would be darkened as far east as the waters of the Atlantic by great clouds of topsoil borne by the wind from what used to be grassy and apparently imperishable prairies?

Because man did not have our knowledge in those older days, he wounded Nature and Nature has taken offense. It is the task of us, the living, to restore to Nature many of the riches we have taken from her in order that she may smile once more upon those who come after us.

George Rogers Clark did battle against the tomahawk and the rifle. He saved for us the fair land that lay between the mountains and the Father of Waters. His task is not done. Though we fight with weapons unknown to him, it is still our duty to continue the saving of this fair land. May the Americans who, a century and a half from now, celebrate at this spot the three hundredth anniversary of the heroism of Clark and his men, think kindly of us for the part we are taking today in preserving the Nation of the United States.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Address at George Rogers Clark Memorial, Vincennes, Ind. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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