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THE FAITH OF AN AMERICAN
I THANK you, Mr. President; and, my friends, no words can express the pleasure I take in this welcome, nor my sense of the honor you have done me. I greet the Society at the beginning of its career; and it is a great happiness to find myself asked to link with the occasion the memory of a man who was to me, and still is, one of the masters of my life. I want to tell you how it was that Wendell Phillips came to be, in my eyes, the ideal American. Do you realize what it was to be a boy in the days of the Civil War? Almost my first clear memory is of the family table when one of my elder brothers burst in at the door, crying out, “They have fired on Sumter!” So deeply was that scene imprinted on my eyes that I can still see how every one looked. A few days later a tall tree from the old family woodlot lay stripped of its branches in the yard, like a mast our flag-pole; and from it the flag floated through the war. The young soldiers were camped on the common where I played, opposite the house; and when they went off to war, my father made them the farewell speech. I can see, as if it were yesterday, the reading of the evening newspaper after their first battle, for one son of the house, a cousin, was with them; and I can see the letter which two years later brought the message of his death. I picked lint, as every one did, for the wounded after Gettysburg. My earliest literary treasure, which was the file of my Sunday-school paper, I sent off to the army for soldiers' reading; I suppose it was my dearest possession. I remember the early April dawn when I was waked by the bells ringing for Lee's surrender, and the darker morning of Lincoln's death. I recall that the boy who told me the news was seated on the arm of a wheel-barrow; and as I ran home, frightened and awed, I saw men crying in the street and heard women weeping in the houses, and while I was telling my tale, the bells began to toll.
Four years passed thus. I was but a child, but I shared the emotion of a nation. I do not think one can overestimate the power of such an experience to permeate and, as it were, drench the soul; and I believe it gave moral depth to my nature, and lodged the principle of devotion to great causes in the very beatings of my heart. I was born at once, from the first flash of my intelligence, into the world of ideas; my first emotions were exercised in a nation's pulses; high instincts put forth in my breast. I was but one of thousands. I do not wish to appear singular, or to exaggerate; this is merely what it was to be a boy in those days; but child though I was, I feel that I cannot exaggerate the passion that was poured along my veins in boyhood; and, as the commotion of the strife slowly subsided in the stormy measures of the period of reconstruction, my growing youth was still fed on great and impersonal issues of the large world. I was a school-boy, but I knew more about Negro Rights than Latin grammar, Santo Domingo better than the Peloponnesus; and the Franco-Prussian War, which broke out in my last school-year, was more
to me than the entire outlines of ancient and modern history. Public interests had become the habit of my mind; and the present life was always more interesting to me than my studies.
My first recollection of hearing Wendell Phillips is from my college days, though of course he was always one of my heroes, and I may have heard him before, for we were an anti-slavery family. A gentleman of uncommon distinction in look and bearing, talking in an uncommonly conversational manner without raising his voice, and with nothing very much to say — that was the impression, almost disconcerting to an admirer; one was tempted to wish he would wake up and show his mettle; but you listened. Then the first thing you noticed was that people were taking up their hats; he was done. There was no sense that time had passed. He bound me with a spell. I cannot describe his oratory. I have heard many others make addresses; I never heard any other man speak. I measure the intensity of the impression he made upon me by the fact that, while I have very little of what is called power of visualization in memory, there are certain sentences of his which, as I have been lately reading his speeches, bring the whole man before me. I hear his intonations, I see his attitude, as if his voice were still sounding in my ears and his form standing before my eyes. "Despotism looks down into the poor man's cradle, and knows it can crush resistance and curb ill-will. Democracy sees the ballot in that baby-hand; stand above the cradle, you felt that, in comparison with that "baby-hand,” the scepters of monarchs were as dust in the balances of power. “If these things are so, the boy is born who will write the ‘Decline and Fall
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of the American Republic', ..." I thought that boy was sitting by me in the next seat. There was such vividness in his eloquence. And, in the old phrase, persuasion sat upon his lips. You believed what he said while he spoke. I remember a friend of mine in Lincoln, Nebraska, a gold Democrat, who was his host, relating to me in illustration of this the effect of Phillips's private talk: “Why, Woodberry,” he said, “ it was two
“ days before I got back to my right senses on the currency question.” I heard him seldom; but hearing him thus at intervals and at a distance, as I ripened to years of manhood, not suddenly nor with any intention of my own the spell deepened in me; and unconsciously, as it were, the patriotic passion that had consecrated my boyhood rose up and swore allegiance to this master example of a civic life. Then was my sense and feeling of his magnetic power; then was, perhaps, the temperamental sympathy that has since made me, as you know, a past-master in heresies; but, more than this, there was the craving of the human heart for a living personality from which to draw strength in its faith, and of all the leaders of that time he alone was to me a living person; only from him did I have that touch which is, from generation to generation, the laying on of the hands of life.
I came to feel him yet more near. I met him once or twice. The first time was in my brother's store. He spent two summers at Beverly, during which I was for the most part away. He used to come up for his mail, and would step into the store to read his letters and talk for an hour or so every morning; and so he became for us, in a way, a household memory; and he left two mementoes of himself, illustrating two sides of his nature — one, a portrait of John Brown, the other a
Greek terracotta mask of a woman's face, from Charles Sumner's collection, as beautiful an example as I ever Sometimes a child — he spoke to all the children
on the street — would come in for his autograph; and he wrote, as was his well-known custom, the words, "Peace, if possible; but justice at any rate.” These are memories of his age. There was another Phillips, of whom I will speak later. This was the Phillips that I knew - an old gray man, simple, kindly, serene; a gentleman in every line of his fine features, in every motion, in every fiber; a type never to be forgotten by eyes that saw him. At a little distance he might have been taken for some old farmer, especially with his great overcoat. It was thus he looked at Arnold's lecture when he spoke some after-words of truth about Emer
In the streets of Boston, toward the end, he seemed a somewhat lonely figure, I used to think. I remember Nora Perry, the poetess, who knew him well, telling me of his meeting her once there and asking where she was going. "To see a friend,” she replied. “Ah, he said, you remind me of the Frenchman who received the same answer, and said, 'Take me along. I never saw one.?” Phillips had friends, and I have known some of them who have enriched my impression of him as a personality; but in early life he had few, and a man, though he have many friends, may sometimes feel like that.
Of course I do not mean to pronounce any eulogy of Wendell Phillips, or to review that career - one of the most dramatic in the annals of American biography - though it tempts my pen. Others, whose lips are more skilled than mine in public encomium, will do that to-night before great audiences; the present leaders