Remarks at the Banquet for Justice John Marshall Harlan at the New Willard Hotel
Mr. Chairman and gentlemen:
It is a peculiar privilege to be here to-night as one of those gathered to do homage to a career which has honored America. It is difficult to say certain of the truths which must need be said without being guilty of truisms in saying them. It is not an idle boast of this country when we speak of the court upon which Mr. Justice Harlan sits as the most illustrious and important court in all the civilized world. It is not merely our own people who say that—it is the verdict of other nations as well.
Mr. Justice Harlan has served for a quarter of a century on that court. During that time he has exercised an influence over the judicial statesmanship of the country of a kind such as is possible only under our own form of government. For the judges of the Supreme Court of the land must be not only great jurists, but they must be great constructive statesmen. And the truth of what I say is illustrated by every study of American statesmanship, for in not one serious study of American political life will it be possible to omit the immense part played by the Supreme Court in the creation, not merely the modification, of the great policies through and by means of which the country has moved on to its present position.
Thrice fortunate is the court when it has as one of its members a man who has played a great part in other spheres of our composite national life. Mr. Justice Harlan came from Kentucky, a State in which the patriotism of the people was put to so peculiarly a severe test in the Civil War. In the States of the further North it was easy for the man to make up his mind on which side he would unsheathe his sword. In the States of the further South it was equally easy. In Kentucky the task was a difficult one. I remember, Mr. Justice, being told by a Kentuckian, who was a stanch /friend of yours and one of the greatest lawyers and most patriotic citizens whom this country had —John Mason Brown—that he came back from a trip from the West as a young man of twenty-one, just at the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, just after Sumter had been fired upon, and his mother brought down to him the sword that his father had carried in the Mexican War, and said to him:
"My son, this is the sword your father carried. I hope you will draw it on the side that defends the flag for which your father fought, but, for one side or the other, draw it you must."
In any audience in any State of the Union, take it as far north as you wish, I can appeal with confidence to the people I address when I say that next to the homage we pay to the men who proved the truth of their endeavor as they battled in the blue uniform is the homage we pay to the men who, with equal sincerity, with equal devotion to the right, as it was given them to see the right, wore the gray. And none pay that tribute of regard so frankly as those who themselves wore the blue in battle.
And having said that, I am sure that none of my friends who fought in the Confederate service will misunderstand me or will grudge what I am about to say when I say that the greatest debt owed by this country to any set of men is owed by it to those men of the so-called border States—the men who in statesmanship followed Clay and the Crittendens and the Blairs; the men who as soldiers fought on the same side with Thomas and Farragut, the men who were for the Union, without regard to whether their immediate associates were for it or not. In New York, in Massachusetts, in Illinois, in Iowa, the men who stood for the Union went with the stream. In parts of Kentucky, of Virginia, of Missouri, they stemmed the torrent. And, gentlemen, I am half a Southerner myself. Two of my uncles fought in the Confederate Navy. One of them served under the father-in-law of Vice-Governor Luke Wright, of the Philippine Islands. And so I think I have the right to say that, knowing the Southern people as I do, I would heartily advocate fighting twice as hard as you fought from 1861 to 1865 for the privilege of staying in the same Union with them.
The man to be a great statesman on the bench of the Supreme Court must have many qualities, and fortunate are we that this evening we can point to Justice Harlan as embodying them. A good citizen must be a good citizen in peace and in war. He must have the decent and orderly virtues, and he must have the essential manliness for the lack of which no good intention can atone. It will be a bad thing for the nation if ever we grow as a nation to submit to the suppression of efficiency and morality, if we ever grow t° accept the belief that we are to have two camps, in one of which will be grouped the men who mean well, but who don't do things, and in the other the men who do things, but who do not mean well.
The art of successful self-government is not an easy art for people or for individuals. It comes to our people here as the inheritance of ages of effort. It can be thrown away; it can be unlearned very easily, and it surely will be unlearned if we forget the vital need not merely of preaching, but of practicing both sets of virtues—if we forget the vital need of having the average citizen not only a good man, but a man.
It is a fine thing to have on the Supreme Court a man who dared venture all for the great prize of death in battle when the country called for him, and a man who, after the war was closed, did not content himself with living an ignoble life on the plea that he had done so well it was not necessary to do more, but who continued to do his duty as a citizen all the better because he had done it as a soldier; the man who remembered that duty done, to be of practical use, must serve not as an excuse for not doing further duty, but as an incentive, as a spur, to make him feel ashamed that his present or future should fall short of his past.
So, Judge Harlan, I greet you personally, sir. I wish to express my own personal debt to you for your influence, for your example, but I wish far more, speaking as the representative of all our people, to express the infinite sense of obligation we have to you for having shown by your life what the type of fearless American citizenship should be.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at the Banquet for Justice John Marshall Harlan at the New Willard Hotel Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343544