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The Pilgrims.1

Mr. President: History tells us that the Pilgrims at this season of the year 1622 were very hungry, almost starving; but certainly their descendants must be far more insatiable than they then were, if, after all the noble things they have heard to-day, they can ask for more. It seems to me we are in the condition of that man whom Oliver Wendell Holmes describes in one of his lectures. You remember he says the lyceum-lecturers held a meeting, and found, as a matter of universal experience, that at a certain period in every lecture a man went out, and each one assigned a different reason for it. One thought it was business, another the heat, and a third fancied it was some offensive sentiment uttered by the speaker. But Holmes, being a physician, performed an autopsy, and found the man's brain was full. [Loud laughter and applause.] Now, Sir, I certainly think I may claim that reason for sitting down. After that eloquent and profound oration, and all we have listened to since, surely our brains must be full.

Why, who can do anything but repeat what we have heard? Do you not remember, Sir, when we were little boys, and followed the martial music, our steps keeping [229] time, street after street, till we came to some broad way that our fears or our mothers forbade us to enter; and when the music turned away, our tiny feet kept time long afterwards? Can we get away from the spell which took possession of us in yonder church? I can only think in that channel. Who can get his mind away from the deep resounding march with which the speaker carried us from century to century, and held up the torch, and pointed out the significance of each age? All we can do is to utter some little reflection,--something suggested by that train of thought.

How true it is that the Puritans originated no new truth! How true it is, also, Mr. President, that it is not truth which agitates the world! Plato in the groves of the Academy sounded on and on to the utmost depth of philosophy, but Athens was quiet. Calling around him the choicest minds of Greece, he pointed out the worthlessness of their altars and the sham of public life, but Athens was quiet,--it was all speculation. When Socrates walked the streets of Athens, and, questioning everyday life, struck the altar till the faith of the passer-by faltered, it came close to action, and immediately they gave him hemlock, for the city was turned upside down. I might find a better illustration in the streets of Jerusalem. What the Puritans gave the world was not thought, but action. Europe had ideas, but she was letting “I dare not wait upon I would,” like the cat in the adage. The Puritans, with native pluck, launched out into the deep sea. Men, who called themselves thinkers, had been creeping along the Mediterranean, from headland to headland, in their timidity, the Pilgrims launched boldly out into the Atlantic, and trusted God. [Loud applause.] That is the claim they have upon posterity. It was

Action that made them what they were.

No, they did not originate anything, but they planted: [230] and the answer to all criticism upon them is to be--the oak. [Cheers.] The Edinburgh Reviewer takes up that acorn, the good ship Mayflower, and says, “I do not see stalwart branches, I do not see a broad tree here.” Mr. President, we are to show it to him. The glory of the fathers is the children. Mr. Winthrop says the pens of the Puritans are their best defence. No, the Winthrops of to-day are to be the best defence of the Winthrops of 1630; they are to write that defence in the broad, legible steps of a life whose polar star is Duty, whose goal is Liberty, and whose staff is Justice. [Enthusiastic applause.] The glory of men is often, not what they actually produce, so much as what they enable others to do. My Lord Bacon, as he takes his proud march down the centuries, may lay one hand on the telegraph and the other on the steamboat, and say, “These are mine, for I taught you to invent.” And the Puritan, wherever he finds a free altar, free lips, ay, and a free family, may say, “These are mine!” No matter for the stain of bigotry which rests upon his memory, since he taught us these.

I think, Mr. President, that the error in judging of the Puritans has been that which the oration of to-day sets right. We are to regard them in posse, not in esse,--in the possibilities which were wrapped up in that day, 1620, not in what poor human bodies actually produced at that time. Men look back upon the Carvers and Bradfords of 1620, and seem to think, if they existed in 1855, they would be clad in the same garments, and walking in the same identical manner and round that they did in 1620. It is a mistake. The Pilgrims of 1620 would be, in 1855, not in Plymouth, but in Kansas. [Loud cheers.] Solomon's Temple, they tell us, had the best system of lightning-rods ever invented,--he anticipated Franklin. Do you suppose, if Solomon lived now, he would stop at lightning-conductors? No, he would have telegraphs without [231] wires, able to send messages both ways at the same time, and where only he who sent and he who received should know what the messages were.

Do you suppose that, if Elder Brewster could come up from his grave to-day, he would be contented with the Congregational Church and the five points of Calvin? No, Sir; he would add to his creed the Maine Liquor Law, the Underground Railroad, and the thousand Sharpe's Rifles, addressed “Kansas,” and labelled “Books.” [Enthusiastic and long-continued applause.] My idea is, if he took his staff in his hand and went off to exchange pulpits, you might hear of him at the Music Hall of Boston [where Rev. Theodore Parker preaches] and the Plymouth Church at Brooklyn [Rev. Henry Ward Beecher's]. [Renewed applause.]

We should bear in mind development when we criticise the Pilgrims,--where they would be to-day. Indeed, to be as good as our fathers, we must be better. Imitation is not discipleship. When some one sent a cracked plate to China to have a set made, every piece in the new set had a crack in it. The copies of 1620 and 1787 you commonly see have the crack, and very large, too. Thee and thou, a stationary hat, bad grammar and worse manners, with an ugly coat, are not George Fox in 1855. You will recognize him in any one who rises from the lap of artificial life, flings away its softness, and startles you with the sight of a man. Neither do I acknowledge, Sir, the right of Plymouth to the whole rock. No, the rock underlies all America; it only crops out here. [Cheers.] It has cropped out a great many times in our history. You may recognize it always. Old Putnam stood upon it at Bunker Hill, when he said to the Yankee boys, “Don't fire till you see the whites of their eyes.” Ingraham had it for ballast when he put his little sloop between two Austrian frigates, and threatened to blow them out of the water, if they did not [232] respect the broad eagle of the United States, in the case of Koszta. Jefferson had it for a writing-desk when he drafted the Declaration of Independence and the “Statute of religious liberty” for Virginia. Lovejoy rested his musket upon it when they would not let him print at Alton, and he said, “Death or free speech!” I recognized the clink of it to-day, when the apostle of the “Higher law” came to lay his garland of everlasting — none has better right than he-upon the monument of the Pilgrims. [Enthusiastic cheering.] He says he is not a descendant of the Pilgrims. That is a mistake. There is a pedigree of the body and a pedigree of the mind. [Applause.] He knows so much about the Mayflower, that, as they say in the West, I know he was “thar.” [Laughter and applause.] Ay, Sir, the rock cropped out again. Garrison had it for an imposing-stone when he looked in the faces of seventeen millions of angry men and printed his sublime pledge, “I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard.” [Great cheering.]

Sir, you say you are going to raise a monument to the Pilgrims. I know where I would place it, if I had a vote. I should place one corner-stone on the rock, and the other on that level spot where fifty of the one hundred were buried before the winter was over. In that touching, eloquent, terrific picture of what the Pilgrims passed through, rather than submit to compromise, which the orator sketched for us to-day, he omitted to mention that one half of their number went down into the grave; but the remainder closed up shoulder to shoulder, as firm, unflinching, hopeful as ever. Yes, death rather than the compromise of Elizabeth. [Loud applause.] I would write on their monument two mottoes: one, “The right is more than our country!” and over the graves of the fifty, “Death, rather than compromise!” Mr. President, I detest that word. It is so dangerous, I would not [233] nave it even in matters of expediency. As the Irishman said in Jefferson's day, when the “true-blue” Democrats took him from the emigrant ship, naturalized him at once, then hurried to the ballot-box, urging him to vote the true Democratic, government ticket, “The government! I never knew a government which was not the devil. Give me the opposition!” [Laughter.] The very word is misleading,--out with it! I would never have a compromise for anything.

My friend, Governor Boutwell, says the Puritans had no taste in architecture. I remember the first vote passed after they landed; it was, that each man build his own house. [Cheers.] I am for having each man build his own mental house now, without having too much uniformity in the architecture, and, at any rate, keeping clear of compromises and smothering phrases, and all shams and delusions.

What did the Pilgrims do? Why, Sir, it was a great question at that day which course to take. Cromwell and Hampden stood on one side, Carver and Bradford on the other. Which would best reform the English government, staying at home or going away? History answers which effected the most. Which has struck the heaviest blows at the English aristocracy, the efforts of those who stood nearest, or the sight and example of America, as she loomed up in gigantic proportions? Mr. President, they say that Michael Angelo once entered a palace at Rome where Raphael was ornamenting the ceiling, and as Angelo walked round, he saw that all the figures were too small for the room. Stopping a moment, he sketched on one side an immense head proportioned to the chamber; and when his friends asked him why, his reply was, “I criticise by creation, not by finding fault.” Carver and Bradford did so. They came across the water, created a great model state, and bade England take [234] warning. The Edinburgh Reviewer may be seen running up and down the sides of the Pilgrims, and taking their measure,--where does he get his yardstick? He gets it from the very institutions they made for him. [Applause.] He would never have known how to criticise, if their creations had not taught him.

Mr. President, I have already detained you much longer than I would. Surely to-day the Puritans have received their fit interpreter. We know them. Their great principles we are to carry with us; that one idea, persistency,--that was their polar star, and it is the key to all their success. They never lost sight of it. They sometimes talked for Buncombe; they did it when they professed allegiance to Elizabeth. Our fathers did it when they professed allegiance to George III.,--it was only for Buncombe! [Laughter.] But, concealed under the velvet phrase, there was the stern Puritan muscle, which held on to individual right.

The Puritans believed that institutions were made for man. Europe established a civilization, which, like that of Greece, made the state everything, the man nothing. The man was made for the institutions; the man was made for the clothes. The Puritans said, “No, let us go out and make clothes for the man; let us make institutions for men!” That is the radical principle, it seems to me, which runs through all their history. You could not beguile them with the voice of the charmer, “charm he never so wisely” ; but down through all the weary years of colonial history to the period of the Revolution, the Puritan pulse beat in unquailing, never-faltering allegiance to this principle of the sacredness of man. Let us hold on to it; it is to be our salvation.

Mr. President, the toast to which you called upon me to respond says our fathers have secured prosperity and peace. Yes, “secured” it. It is not here; we have not [235] yet got it, but we shall have it. It is all “secured,” for they planted so wisely, it will come. They planted their oak or pine tree in the broad lines of New England, and gave it room to grow. Their great care was, that it should grow, no matter at what cost. Goethe says, that, if you plant an oak in a flower-vase, either the oak must wither or the vase crack: some men go for saving the vase. Too many now-a-days have that anxiety: the Puritans would have let it crack. So say I. If there is anything that cannot bear free thought, let it crack. There is a class among us so conservative, that they are afraid the roof will come down if you sweep off the cobwebs. As Douglass Jerrold says, “They can never fully relish the new moon, out of respect for that venerable institution, the old one.” [Great merriment and applause.]

Why, Sir, the first constitution ever made was framed in the Mayflower. It was a very good constitution, parent of all that have been made since,--a goodly family, some bad and some good. The parent was laid aside on the shelf the moment the progress of things required it. I hope none of the children have grown so strong that they can prevent the same event befalling themselves when necessity requires. Hold on to that idea with true New England persistency,--the sacredness of individual man,--and everything else will evolve from it. The Phillipses, Mr. President, did not come from Plymouth; they made their longest stay at Andover. Let me tell you an Andover story. One day, a man went into a store there, and began telling about a fire. “There had never been such a fire,” he said, “in the county of Essex. A man going by Deacon Pettingill's barn saw an owl on the ridge-pole. He fired at the owl, and the wadding some how or other, getting into the shingles, set the hay on fire, and it was all destroyed,--ten tons of hay, six head of cattle, the finest horse in the country,” &c. The [236] Deacon was nearly crazed by it. The men in the store began exclaiming and commenting upon it. “What a loss!” says one. “Why, the Deacon will well-nigh break down under it,” says another. And so they went on, speculating one after another, and the conversation drifted on in all sorts of conjectures. At last, a quiet man, who sat spitting in the fire, looked up, and asked, “Did he hit the owl?” [Tumultuous applause.] That man was made for the sturdy reformer, of one idea, whom Mr. Seward described.

No matter what the name of the thing be; no matter what the sounding phrase is, what tub be thrown to the whale, always ask the politician and the divine, “Did he hit that owl?” Is liberty safe? Is man sacred? They say, Sir, I am a fanatic, and so I am. But, Sir, none of us have yet risen high enough. Afar off, I see Carver and Bradford, and I mean to get up to them. [Loud cheers.]

1 speech at the dinner of the Pilgrim Society, in Plymouth, December 21, 1855, in response to the following toast:--

the Pilgrim fathers,--their fidelity, amid hardships and perils, to truth and duty, has secured to their descendants prosperity and peace.

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