The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson - by R.W. Emerson Institute, Jim Manley, Director -

XVI Harvard Commeroration Speech

JULY 21, 1865

” ‘ Old classmate, say
Do you remember our Commencement Day ?
Were we such boys as these at twenty ? ‘ Nay,
God called them to a nobler task than ours,
And gave them holier thoughts and manlier powers, –
This is the day of fruits and not of flowers!
These boys ‘ we talk about like ancient sages
Are the same men we read of in old pages –
The bronze recast of dead heroic ages!
We grudge them not, our dearest, bravest, best, –
Let but the quarrel’s issue stand contest:
‘T is Earth’s old slave-God battling for his crown
And Freedom fighting with her visor down.”

MANY loved Truth, and lavished life’s best oil
Amid the dust of books to find her,
Content at last, for guerdon of their toil,
With the cast mantle she hath left behind her.
Many in sad faith sought for her,
Many with crossed hands sighed for her;
But these, our brothers, fought for her,
At life’s dear peril wrought for her,
So loved her that they died for her,
Tasting the raptured fleetness
Of her divine completeness:
Their higher instinct knew
Those love her best who to themselves are true,
And what they dare to dream of, dare to do;
They followed her and found her
Where all may hope to find,
Not in the ashes of the burnt-out mind,
But beautiful, with danger’s sweetness round her.
Where faith made whole with deed
Breathes its awakening breath
Into the lifeless creed,
They saw her plumed and mailed,
With sweet, stern face unveiled,
And all-repaying eyes, look proud on them in death.” LOWELL, Commemoration Ode.


MR. CHAIRMAN, AND GENTLEMEN : With whatever opinion we come here, I think it is not in man to see, without a feeling of pride and pleasure, a tried soldier, the armed defender of the right. I think that in these last years all opinions have been affected by the magnificent and stupendous spectacle which Divine Providence has offered us of the energies that slept in the children of this country, – that slept and have awakened. 1 see thankfully those that are here, but dim eyes in vain explore for some who are not.

The old Greek Heraclitus said, ” War is the Father of all things.” He said it, no doubt, as science, but we of this day can repeat it as political and social truth. War passes the power of all chemical solvents, breaking up the old adhesions, and allowing the atoms of society to take a new order. It is not the Government, but the War, that has appointed the good generals, sifted out the pedants, put in the new and vigorous blood. The War has lifted many other people besides Grant and Sherman into their true places. Even Divine Providence, we may say, always seems to work after a certain military necessity. Every nation punishes the General who is not victorious. It is a rule in games of chance that the cards beat all the players, and revolutions disconcert and outwit all the insurgents.

The revolutions carry their own points, some-times to the ruin of those who set them on foot. The proof that war also is within the highest right, is a marked benefactor in the hands of the Divine Providence, is its morale. The war gave back integrity to this erring and immoral nation. I t charged with power, peaceful, amiable men, to whose life war and discord were abhorrent. What an infusion of character went out from this and other colleges ! What an infusion of character down to the ranks ! The experience has been uniform that it is the gentle soul that makes the firm hero after all. It is easy to recall the mood in which our young men, snatched from every peaceful pursuit, went to the war. Many of them had never handled a gun. They said, ” It is not in me to resist. I go because I must. It is a duty which I shall never forgive myself if I decline. I do not know that I can make a soldier. I may bevery clumsy. Perhaps I shall be timid ; but you can rely on me. Only one thing is certain, I can well die, but I cannot afford to misbehave.”

In fact the infusion of culture and tender humanity from these scholars and idealists who went to the war in their own despite – God knows they had no fury for killing their old friends and countrymen – had its signal and lasting effect. It was found that enthusiasm was a more potent ally than science and munitions of war without it. ” It is a principle of war,” said Napoleon, ” that when you can use the thunderbolt. you must prefer it to the can-non.” Enthusiasm was the thunderbolt. Here in this little Massachusetts, in smaller Rhode Island, in this little nest of New England re-publics it flamed out when the guilty gun was aimed at Sumter.

Mr. Chairman, standing here in Harvard College, the parent of all the colleges ; in Massachusetts, the parent of all the North ; when I consider her influence on the country as a principal planter of the Western States, and now, by her teachers, preachers, journalists and books, as well as by traffic and production, the diffuser of religious, literary and political opinion ;-and when I see how irresistible the convictions of Massachusetts are in these swarming populations, – I think the little state bigger than I knew. When her blood is up, she has a fist big enough to knock down an empire. And her blood was roused. Scholars changed the black coat for the blue. A single company in the Forty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment contained thirty-five sons of Harvard. You all know as well as I the story of these dedicated men, who knew well on what duty they went, – whose fathers and mothers said of each slaughtered son, ” We gave him up when he enlisted.” One mother said, when her son was offered the command of the first negro regiment, ” If he accepts it, I shall be as proud as if I had heard that he was shot.” 1 These men, thus ten-der, thus high-bred, thus peaceable, were always in the front and always employed. Thev might say, with their forefathers the old Norse Vikings, ” We sung the mass of lances from morning until evening.” And in how many cases it chanced, when the hero had fallen, they who came by night to his funeral, on the morrow returned to the war-path to show his slayers the way to death !

Ah ! young brothers, all honor and gratitude to you, – you, manly defenders, Liberty’s and Humanity’s bodyguard ! We shall not again disparage America, now that we have seen what men it will bear. We see – we thank you for it – a new era, worth to mankind all the treasure and all the lives it has cost ; yes, worth to the world the lives of all this generation of American men, if they had been demanded.1

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson