Remarks at the Unveiling of the Statue of General Henry W. Slocum in Brooklyn, New York City
Mr. Mayor, Mr. Commissioners, and you, my fellow citizens, and, above all, you who took part in the great war in which the man whose statue is raised to-day won for himself and his country renown and honor:
The day before yesterday I listened to a sermon in which the preacher, dwelling upon the exercises to be held throughout the Union to-day, preached on the text which commemorates the altar raised by command of Moses to commemorate the victory gained by the children of Israel over the wild tribes of the desert who sought to bar their march toward the promised land, wherein Amalek came out and Israel fought all day, and while Aaron and Hur upheld the hands of Moses until, as night fell, the sun went down on the Israelites and they raised an altar to Jehovah, to Jehovah who stood as the exponent of the principle for which Israel warred; they raised it to the principle of righteousness, which alone can justify any war or any struggle, and Mr Mayor, that is the thought that you developed in the excellent address to which we have just listened, that we meet to-day to commemorate the great victory, the triumph of the cause of union and liberty; not primarily because it was a victory, but because it was a victory for righteousness and the peace and the liberty and the eternal spiritual welfare of mankind.
I see before me here men who won high honor serving as comrades in arms of Gen. Slocum, and I know that there exist in the Union no men who will appreciate more the fact that now forty years after the war, the crowning triumph of what they did is to be found in the fact that we have a genuine reunited country, a country in which the man who wore the blue stretches out the hand of loyal friendship to his erstwhile foe, his now devoted friend and fellow-countryman, the man who wore the gray.
A short while ago I passed through the great State of Texas Wherever I stopped in that great State I was greeted by representatives of the Grand Army marching side by side with or intermingled with men clad in the gray uniform that showed that they had fought in the armies of the Confederacy, men who had tested one another's worth on the stricken fields, men who knew each that the other had been ready when the hour of supreme appeal came to show his worth by his endeavors, and men who now leave to their children and their children's children as a heritage of honor forever the memory of the great deeds done alike by those who fought under Grant and by those who fought under Lee, for we, because of the very fact that the Union triumphed, now have the right to feel a like pride in the valor and devotion of those who valiantly fought against the stars in their courses and those who finally saw their efforts, their sufferings crowned by triumph.
Think of it, my fellow-countrymen! Think of what a thrice-blessed fortune has been ours, that the greatest war that the nineteenth century saw after the close of the Napoleonic struggles should have left, not as most wars inevitably do and must leave, memories of bitterness, dishonor, and shame to offset the memories of glory, memories which make the men on one side hang their heads, but should have left to the victors and vanquished alike, after the temporary soreness is over, the same right to feel the proudest satisfaction in the fact that the Union was saved and the greatest pride in the honor, the gallantry, the devotion to the right as each side had given it the light to see the right, done alike by those who overcame as victors and those who finally went down to defeat.
I congratulate the people of Brooklyn, not primarily upon raising this statue, because that they ought to do, but upon the opportunity, upon the chance of having it to raise. I congratulate them upon the good fortune of having the fellow-citizen who in war and in peace alike served the people so well as to make it their duty, not so much to him as to themselves, to erect the statue that it might serve as a lesson for the generations to come. And, my fellow-citizens, I am sure we all realize the peculiar appropriateness of having the statue of Gen. Slocum received on behalf of the city of New York by its chief magistrate, whose father was Gen. Slocum's illustrious colleague.
Surely there is need for me to say but little in emphasis of what has been set forth before I began to speak as to the prime significance of Gen. Slocum's career. He was a great soldier, a most gallant and able commander. Once the war was over, he turned as whole-heartedly to the pursuits of peace as he bad during the war turned to the strife of arms. Gen. Slocum was one of those men on whose career we can dwell in its entirety. We do not have to dwell with emphasis on part of it because we don't care to speak of another part. We are able to point to Gen. Slocum as the type of what a decent American citizen should be, as a man who was an example in his family life, an example in his business relations, honest and upright public servant, no less than a fearless and able soldier.
Now, I want all you people to remember the two sides of the lesson taught by Gen. Slocum's life. A successful war for unrighteousness is the most dreadful of all things; it is the thing that sets back more than aught else the course of civilization. But no people worth preserving ever existed nor will exist that was not able to fight if the need arose, and so with the individual. The man who possesses great ability and great courage unaccompanied by the moral sense, a courage and ability unguided by the stern purpose to do what is just and upright, that man is rendered by the fact of having the courage and the ability only so much the greater menace to the community in which he unfortunately dwells. We cannot afford as a people ever to forget for one moment that ability, far-sightedness, iron resolution, perseverance, willingness to do and dare are qualities to be admired only if they are put at the service of the right, at the service of decency and of justice. The man who possesses those qualities and does not shape his course by a fundamental and unwavering moral principle is a menace to each and all of us, and thrice foolish, thrice wicked is the other man who condones his moral shortcomings because of his intellectual or physical strength and prowess. That is one side.
The other side is that no amount of good intention, no amount of sweetness in life, no amount of appreciation of decency avails in the least in the rough work of the world as we find it unless back of the honesty of purpose, back of the decency of life and thought lies the power that makes a man a man. It is true of the individual and it is true of the nation. It is to the last degree desirable. I will put it stronger than that, it is absolutely essential that this nation, if it is to hold the position in the future that it has held in the past, must act not only within, but without its own borders in a spirit of justice and of large generosity toward all other peoples. We owe an obligation to our selves, we owe those obligations to all mankind. More and more as we increase in strength I hope to see a corresponding increase in the sober sense of responsibility which shall prevent us either injuring or insulting any other people. You may notice that I said "insulting" as well as "injuring." If there is one quality sometimes shown among us which is not commendable it is a habit of speaking loosely about foreign powers, foreign races. You do not need, any of you, to be told that in private life you will resent an insult quite as much as an injury, and our public writers need to steadily keep before their minds the thought that no possible good can come to us by speaking offensively of any one else, and trouble may come.
The surest way for a nation to invite disaster is to be opulent, aggressive, and unarmed. Now, we are opulent, and I hope we will remain so. I trust that we shall never be aggressive unless aggression is not merely justified, but demanded. Demanded either by our own self respect, or by the interests of mankind; and, finally, remember that to be aggressive above all, to be aggressive in speech and not be armed, invites not merely disaster, but the contempt of mankind.
Brooklyn not only furnished valiant soldiers to the Civil War, but it furnished in times of peace a most excellent Secretary of the Navy to the United States in the person of Gen. Tracy. If our navy is good enough, we have a long career of peace before us. And the only likelihood of trouble ever coming to us as a nation will arise if we let our navy become too small or inefficient. A first-class navy—first-class in point of size, above all first-class in point of efficiency of the individual units acting as units and in combination—is the surest and the cheapest guarantee of peace, and I should think that any man looking at what is happening and has happened abroad and in our own history during the past two years, must be indeed blind if he cannot read that lesson clearly.
And Gen. Slocum did his first great public service when the crisis called not primarily for the softer and milder, but for the sterner and harder virtues; and we cannot afford in this day of material luxury, in this day when civilization tends to make life easy, we cannot afford to ignore those hard and stern virtues. In the workaday world as it is, not only in war, but in private life and in public life alike, a man has to have the strength of fiber or he cannot put into effect even the best of his efforts, and he cannot afford to let the generation that is coming on grow up with the feeling that any quality will serve as a substitute for the old and essential quality of manliness in a man and womanliness in a woman. Much, very much, has been done in this country by education.
No one can overstate the debt that this country is under to the educators; but in taking advantage of all the improved methods let us not forget that there are certain qualities which are not new, which are eternal because they are eternally true, and the failure to develop which will cause a loss which cannot be offset by any merely intellectual and mental gain.
A sound body is a first-class thing, a sound mind is an even better thing, but the thing that counts for most in the individual as in the nation is the character, the sum of those qualities which make a man a good man and a woman a good woman. And you men of the Civil War, you men to whom this country owes more than to any others, no matter how great the services of those others may be, because to you this country owes its life, you won the place you did, you won for this country its salvation, because you had in you those qualities which in their aggregate we know by the name of character, the qualities which made you put material gains, material well being, not merely below, but insignificant as compared to things that were greater when the crisis called for showing your manhood.
You went to the war leaving those behind who could make more money, who could rise in the world, but carrying with you in your hearts the honor and the future of a mighty nation. You had, in the first place, the right spirit, and then you had the quality of making that spirit evident in the time of need. If you had not had patriotism, devotion to the country and the flag you could have done nothing. You could not have done much more if your patriotism, your devotion to the flag had not been backed up by a willingness to stay put in battle.
You showed in times that tried men souls what this country has a right to expect from its sons. You had the supreme good fortune of testing your manhood in one of the two great crises of the nation's history, the great crisis in which the nation was born in the days of 1776, and the no less great crisis in which the nation was saved by the men of 1861. You have left us not merely a reunited country, but you have left us the glorious heritage of the memory of the exploits, of the qualities by which the country was left reunited.
Our days have fallen, for our good fortune, in times of peace. We have not had to show the qualities that you showed in the dark years that closed in the sunburst of Appomattox, but if we are to leave undimmed to our children the heritage that you left to us, we must show in peace, and should the need ever arise in war also the qualities that you showed, the qualities that make it now the pleasantest of all tasks for a public servant who appreciates the greatness of America to come on an occasion like this and see the people of a great city dedicate a monument in honor of a great citizen, who, at every point of his career, illustrated what the name American should be when it is used in the sense of its highest, its deepest, and its best significance.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at the Unveiling of the Statue of General Henry W. Slocum in Brooklyn, New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343602