William Howard Taft

Address at the Unveiling of the Memorial to Dr. Benjamin F. Stephenson, Founder of the Grand Army of the Republic

July 03, 1909

Mr. Chairman; My Fellow Citizens:

We are met to dedicate a memorial to a Union soldier who served four years as a surgeon in the Civil War, and who also builded an institution by which there should be united in the bonds of fellowship all the sweet association, all the deep lesson of loyalty, and all the pride of patriotism that such a civil war as that could arouse in millions of hearts. When men at the formative period in life—from 18 to 22—are associated in any work, whether it be in college, in society, in church, or otherwise, they carry with them afterward the fondest memories and associations for each other because they have passed through a common mold. But how much greater must be the sweet association and the bond of union between men who for four years passed through the dangers of the Civil War; those who survived thinking of the tender memories of those who gave up their lives for their country; those surviving carrying with them the sweet association, the stories of courage, and tales full of humor and of pathos. I can conceive no bond of union stronger than that which unites the men who fought from '61 to '65 in the Grand Army; and it was to the credit of the founder of the Grand Army of the Republic that he saw the solid basis upon which such a structure as that great society could be erected.

You will recollect that there were prophets of evil with respect to the fate of the United States after the war should cease, after the end should be accomplished for which the North was fighting, and it was said that the aggregation of a million men in arms threatened our free institutions. They recalled that the Pretorian Guard of Rome was an instrument in furthering the ambition of those who would suppress free institutions and who were to assume despotic power. But all those prophecies faded into nothingness. The men who composed that million were men in favor of free institutions, who had fought for them, and did not intend to sacrifice them to anything else. There was no man with the ambition to improve that army as an instrument of despotism even if it had been willing to furnish itself as such; and so it was the marvel of other countries that this great body of organized force, than which there never was a stronger or better-disciplined army, faded out and disappeared into the paths of peace, preserving nothing but the sweet memory and association they had formed during the war and the consciousness that they had in their own hearts of having rendered that greatest service, to wit: the preservation of their country.

Stephenson organized this Grand Army of the Republic to preserve the essence of that army in its finest characteristic, in its democracy and in its patriotism. Far be it from me to criticize in the slightest such organizations as the Cincinnati and the Loyal Legion. They are great organizations, and those who belong to them may well have pride in them. But the Grand Army of the Republic knows no limitation but service to the Government in the Civil War; and therefore it is that Congress, recognizing the usefulness of such an organization in preserving patriotism, in maintaining it in its intensity during those years when commercial greed seemed to make many people forget it, properly contributed $10,000 to this memorial and recognized the Grand Army of the Republic as an institution which may well have national gratitude and national recognition. More than that, the Grand Army of the Republic is most useful in this: it represents the concentrated opinion of the men who fought in the war to preserve the Union, and it therefore may give authoritative expression, which no other body and no other part of the people can give, to that forgetfulness of the bitterness of the strife which existed during the four years of the war. I am glad to say that, while that bitterness may in a few instances obtain, you will never find it to exist between the men who actually exposed their lives on one side and the men who exposed their lives on the other. The union of the two sections has been molded strongly and more strongly by those meetings which ought to be encouraged between the blue and the gray to occur as often as possible. Even within my recollection on occasions like this and on Memorial Day and on Fourths of July I have seen the ranks of the Grand Army thinned. I know there are many who by jaunty step and by keeping their hats on are able to deceive the people as to their age; but the fact is, that those ranks are thinning from day to day; perhaps a hundred a day are going to their long home. It is fitting that such an association, which in the course of the next generation will pass away, should have such an enduring monument as this to testify not only to the patriotic service that they rendered during the war, but also to the service to the country that they have rendered by their holding high loyalty and patriotism since the war to the present day.

Mr. Commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, inasmuch as Congress contributed to this monument and provided for its erection, I am here officially to accept at your hands, on behalf of the Government of the United States, this fitting memorial of fraternity, charity, and loyalty.

William Howard Taft, Address at the Unveiling of the Memorial to Dr. Benjamin F. Stephenson, Founder of the Grand Army of the Republic Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365237

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