Remarks at the Centennial Exercises in the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church
Let me first express the appreciation that all of us feel to Professor McMaster for his exceedingly interesting address; and the address showed why he can justly claim to be the historian of the people of the United States, for what he has told us was what the people did, not merely what the outward forms and observances were, but what the life of the people was a century ago. And, Mr. Justice, I think that the recital has left in the minds of all of us the feeling that while we revere our ancestors, we are not wholly discontented that we live in the present day.
To each generation comes its allotted task; and no generation is to be excused for failure to perform that task. No generation can claim as an excuse for such failure the fact that it is not guilty of the sins of the preceding generation. It was a surprise to me, I suppose it was a surprise to many of us, to realize that a hundred years ago, in the days of the fathers, the lot of the poor debtor was so hard. It seems incredible to us now that there should have been such callousness to the undeserved human suffering then. I hope sincerely that a century hence it will seem equally incredible to the American of that generation that there should be corruption and venality in public life. We can divide, and must divide, on party lines as regards certain questions; as regards the deepest, as regards the vital questions, we can not afford to divide, and I have the right to challenge the best effort of every American worthy of the name to putting down by every means in his power corruption in private life, and above all corruption in public life. And, remember, you, the people of this government by the people, that while the public servant, the legislator, the executive officer, the judge, are not to be excused if they fall short of their duty, yet that doing their duty can not avail unless you do yours. In the last resort we have to depend upon the jury drawn from the people to convict the scoundrel who has tainted our public life; and unless that jury does its duty, unless it is backed by the public sentiment of the people, all the work of legislator, of executive officer, of judicial officer, is for naught.
Mr. Justice, a man would be a poor citizen of this country if he could sit in Abraham Lincoln's pew and not feel the solemn sense of the associations borne in upon him; and I wish to thank the people of this church for that reverence for the historic past, for the sense of historic continuity, which has made them keep this pew unchanged. I hope it will remain unchanged in this church as long as our country endures. We have not too many monuments of the past; let us keep every little bit of association with that which is highest and best of the past as a reminder to us, equally of what we owe to those who have gone before and of how we should show our appreciation. This evening I sit in this pew of Abraham Lincoln's, together with Abraham Lincoln's private secretary, who, for my good fortune, now serves as Secretary of State in my Cabinet.
If ever there lived a President who during his term of service needed all of the consolation and of the strength that he could draw from the unseen powers above him, it was Abraham Lincoln, who worked and suffered for the people, and when he had lived for them to good end gave his life at the end. If ever there was a man who practically applied what was taught in our churches, it was Abraham Lincoln. The other day I was re-reading—on the suggestion of Mr. Hay—a little speech not often quoted of his, yet which seems to me one of the most remarkable that he ever made; delivered right after his re-election, I think, to a body of serenaders who had come, if my memory is correct, from Maryland, and called for an address from him from the White House. It is extraordinary to read that speech, and to realize that the man who made it had just come successfully through a great political contest in which he felt that so much was at stake for the Nation that he had no time to think whether or not anything was at stake for him self. The speech is devoid of the least shade of bitterness. There is not a word of unseemly triumph over those who have been defeated. There is not a word of glorification of himself, or in any improper sense of his party. There is an earnest appeal, now that the election is over, now that the civic strife has been completed, for all decent men who love the country to join together in service to the country; and in the speech he uses a thoroughly Lincoln--like phrase when he says "I have not willingly planted a thorn in the breast of any man," thus trying to make clear that he has nothing to say against any opponent, no bitter ness toward any opponent; that all he wishes is that those who opposed him should join with those who favored him in working toward a common end. In reading his works and addresses, one is struck by the fact that as he went higher and higher all personal bitterness seemed to die out of him. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates one can still catch now and then a note of personal antagonism; the man was in the arena, and as the blows were given and taken you can see that now and then he had a feeling against his antagonist. When he became President and faced the crisis that he had to face, from that time on I do not think that you can find an expression, a speech, a word of Lincoln's, written or spoken, in which bitterness is shown to any man. His devotion to the cause was so great that he neither could nor would have feeling against any individual.
In closing, Mr. Justice, in thanking you of this church, the church so closely kindred to my own Dutch Reformed Church, in thanking you for asking me here, let me say how peculiarly glad I am that in the chair sits one man, a Justice of the Supreme Court, and that I could be escorted here by another man, who has just severed his connection with one of the highest places in the United States Army, both of whom you, Justice Harlan, and you, General Breckenridge—had enjoyed the wonderful privilege of proving by their deeds the faith that was in them in the days that tried men's souls; both of whom did their part in holding up the hands of mighty Lincoln, and both of whom were born in the State of Lincoln's birth.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at the Centennial Exercises in the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343703