Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 5) online

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every noble interpretation of liberty has fought its way
to supremacy in the face of hindrance, detraction, perse-
cution, and death, and conclude that this has been acci-
dental, or contrary to the will of God. We cannot escape
the deduction that the world has been purposely con-
structed, not as a harmonious machine, but as a vast
realm of experience, where effort and struggle, trouble
and sorrow, are appointed as the necessary educators of
the race ; and this, not through the malevolence, but the
benignity of the Creator.

" There is a simple and central law which governs this
matter," says a scientific writer; "and that is this: every
definite action is conditioned upon a definite resistance,
and is impossible without it. We are only able to walk,
because the earth resists the foot, and are unable to
tread the air and water, because they deny the foot the
opposition which it requires. The bird and the steamer
are hindered by air and water, which presses upwards,



downwards, laterally, and in all directions. But the bird
with its wings, and the steamer with its paddle, apply
themselves to this hindrance to their progress and over-
come it. So, were not their motion obstructed, progress
would be impossible.

" The same law governs not actions only, but all defi-
nite effects whatever. If the air did not resist the vibra-
tions of a resonant object, and strive to preserve its own
form, the sound-waves could not be created and propa-
gated. If the tympanum of the ear did not resist those
waves of sound, it would not transmit their suggestiveness
to the brain. If any given object does not resist the sun's
rays, in other words reflect them, it will not be visible.
These instances might be multiplied ad libitum, since there
is literally no exception to the law. Some resistance is
indispensable, although this is by no means alone indis-
pensable, nor are all modes and kinds of resistance of
equal value."

Is it not possible, then, that the hindrances which arrest
our progress, and the obstacles that lie broadly in our
path, are the divinest agents of help which our Creator
could give us ? And that " man is better cared for when
he is not cared for too much ? " The painful struggles to
overcome and remove them develop in us strength, cour-
age, self-reliance, and heroism. They are the hammer
and chisel that release the statue from the imprisoning
marble, the plow and the harrow that break up the soil,
and mellow it for the reception of the seed that shall yield
an abundant harvest. Perfection lies that way.

It is not difficult to see what makes our earthly life a
battle. When a child is ushered into the world, he is
born ignorant of everything. His health and happiness
depend on his obedience to the laws of nature, of which
he knows nothing, and of which he can know nothing for
months and years. Some one with knowledge and ex-
perience protects him, at first, from violating laws which
would injure or destroy him, and slowly he learns to care
for himself. By putting his hand in the fire, he learns
that fire burns. By tumbling downstairs in a heap, he
takes his first lesson in gravitation, and learns to descend
the stairway in an orderly fashion, in safety. It is only
through stumbling and bruising and constant physical



injury that he becomes acquainted with the simplest ma-,
terial laws, and learns to obey them. He enters on a
scene of more or less conflict as soon as he is born. To
acquire any considerable self-knowledge and self-control,
to understand the social environment into which he is
born, with its civil, industrial, and economic laws, only
intensifies the struggle, and lifts the campaign to a higher

Not only is the child ignorant of himself at birth, but
he is entrusted to the care of parents and guardians who
are wofully lacking in the same kind of knowledge. He
does not come into the world with a bill of items that
state his mental and moral make-up. If we could know
in advance what were his mental and moral qualities, in
what direction he was richly endowed, and in what he
was weak, in what part of his nature he needed to be
fortified, and in what to be restrained, we might be wiser
in our educational training. But in our ignorance we
put one in the shop whom nature intended for the studio,
and force another through college whose tastes would
have taken him to the farm and cattle-ranch, and so
poorly equip both for the battle of life. [Applause.]
We load them down with a mass of crude misinformation,
which they unlearn before they have attained their ma-
jority, and throw away as useless impedimenta.

The newly-born child is not an original creature, as we
sometimes assume ; he is not the first of a series. Instead
of this, he is one of a long series that reaches far back
into a pre-historic antiquity, and there are in him heredi-
tary tendencies, which have come down to him from pro-
genitors of whom he never heard. And as by a general
law of heredity, " the inheritance of traits of character is
persistent in proportion to the length of time they have
been inherited," it is easy to account for the facts, that
in members of the same family, there reappear incon-
gruities of physique and of mentality, generation after
generation, which it is not easy to eradicate. Dr. Oliver
Wendell Holmes says that "our bodies are vehicles in
which our ancestors ride." And he might have included
our souls in this statement, without fear of contradiction.

Sometimes the child is born with a body which is only
" organized disease," It is the result of the vicious lives



of his predecessors, and will hamper him in all the
struggles of life. Another comes into life a wailing
bundle of feebleness. He is constitutionally tired from
the beginning, and the battle is sure to go against him.
Others are children of vice and crime. They were mort-
gaged to the devil before they were born, and will become
the determined foes of society, unless the wise and philan-
thropic can accomplish their early regeneration. Others
are born with defective physiques. They lack the sense
of vision which no oculist can ever give them. Or, they
are denied the sense of hearing and are deaf alike to the
tones of joy or sorrow, to the language of love or hate.
Or, nature has withheld from them powers of locomotion
and they swing through life painfully, on crutches, or are
wheeled in invalid chairs.

"The problem of life is indeed hard to solve," said
Harriet Martineau, the foremost literary Englishwoman
of the century now closing, " when out of five senses one
is endowed with but two." She spoke from experience,
for she was defrauded of the senses of taste, smell, and
hearing, and, in addition, was an invalid all her life. And
yet, so indomitable was the royal soul imprisoned in this
defective and distempered body, that she overcame all
obstacles, and came off victorious in her wrestling with
herself, and an adverse fate, that would have crushed a
less heroic spirit. She became a benefactor to society
one of the leaders of her age and not only identified her-
self actively with all movements for the public welfare,
but at her death left nearly one hundred and fifty volumes
on the shelves of the booksellers, every one of which she
had written to help the world, and through every one of
which there runs a high moral purpose.

During the late Civil War a man did not become a
soldier of the United States army by simply entering his
name in the book of the recruiting office. That only sig-
nified his willingness to serve his country. He was then
conducted to the office of the examining surgeon, where
he passed through a most rigorous inspection. If he was
defective in vision, had lost front teeth and could not bite
off the end of a cartridge, a right thumb and could not
cover the vent-hole of a cannon, if he was color-blind,
and could not distinguish the colors of flags, uniforms,



and signal lights; if his heart was weak, or his lungs
lacked soundness, that he .could not keep up on the
march; if, indeed, there was any discoverable unhealth
in his physical organization, he was rejected by the in-
specting officer, and could not don the blue of the Union
Army. Only those whose physiques showed health, and
promised a continuity of physical force, were mustered
into the service. For the warfare was to be severe and
* protracted, and would tax the strongest and most endur-
ing. But of the countless host who are drafted into the
battle of life, from which there is no discharge until
death, fully one-half are badly equipped for the struggle
by the shabby bodies into which they are born. And
for that, we must ever remember, they are not to blame.
,,[ Applause.]

The fact that we are obliged to provide for our physical
needs, and for those who are dependent on us, makes of
life a perpetual struggle. Nature has not dealt with us as
with her brute children. For them, in the habitat to
which they are native, there is food, water, clothing, and
shelter. Everything is provided for them. But with us
nature has dealt otherwise. She has given us light for
our eyes, air for our lungs, earth from which to win food,
clothing and shelter, and water for our thirst. Every-
thing else that we need, or wish we must win by the
hardest effort. As civilization has progressed, we have
lost two of our natural rights, possession of land and
water, and must pay the price demanded for them. And
if men by business combination could take possession of
air and light, we should lose those also, and be allowed
only as much air to breathe, and light for our eyes, as
we were able to pay for. [Applause.]

In our battle for physical existence there are times
when the elements of nature seemed arrayed against us.
The farmer plows and harrows his fields, and with bounti-
ful hand sows his carefully selected seed, and prophesies
a harvest. But the clouds withhold their rain, the
heavens become brass, and the earth iron, and a fierce
drought parches the soil of a whole kingdom, and burns
the growing grain to stubble, and there is a famine.
The accidental upsetting of a lamp starts a tiny fire.
Combustibles feed it, winds fan it, and it becomes a roar-


ing conflagration, in which granite and iron melt like
lead, a city is consumed by the devouring flames, and
hundreds of thousands are rendered homeless and help-
less. We launch our proud ship into which have gone
the strength of oak, the tenacity of iron, and the skilful
workmanship of honorable men. We give to its trans-
portation an argosy of wealth, and to its passengers we
gaily toss a " good-bye," confident of their speedy arrival
at their destination. But days pass by, then weeks and
months, and no message reaches us from this traveler of
the sea, and its fate is a matter of conjecture alone.
Some iceberg of the North has crushed it, or it has suc-
cumbed to the fury of the tempest, or some unrevealed
weakness of construction has betrayed it to ruin in mid-
ocean. Volcanoes and earthquakes, cyclones, storms,
and tempests, how helpless we are when overtaken by
their wrath, and how heedless they are of human suffering.

When we enter the world of trade and commerce, the
business world, to use the vernacular of the day, we find
the battle of life raging intensely. The fierce competi-
tion that leads one man to tread down others that he may
rise on their ruin, the financial panics, which recur de-
cade after decade, of whose cause and cure the wisest and
shrewdest are ignorant, the business dishonesty, which
at times threatens to make dishonesty and business inter-
changeable terms, the insane and vulgar greed for riches
that actuates corporations, monopolies, trusts, and other
like organizations, whose tendency is to deprive the wage-
earner of a fair share of the wealth that he helps create,
that their gains may be larger and increase more rapidly,
all these, and many other practices which obtain in the
money-making world, embitter the struggle for existence,
and render the failure of the majority inevitable. [Ap-

Only two or three weeks ago two men in the town of
my residence committed suicide on the same day, and for
the same reason, the battle went sore against them, and
they could not continue the hopeless conflict longer.
One had been discharged from a position that he had held
for twenty-seven years, to make room for a younger
man. The other had been out of employment for months,
and there seemed no need of him, and no place for him


in any workshop. Both were about fifty years of age,
both had families that loved them, both had always been
temperate and industrious men, and yet neither of them
left money enough to pay his funeral expenses.

To my thinking, the business civilization of the day is
antagonistic to Christianity. The essential principle of
the Christian religion requires individuals, and the aggre-
gations of individuals we call nations, to do as they would
be done by. It proclaims the duty of strength to assist
weakness; that wealth should lend a hand to the helping
of poverty; that prosperity should take care of misfor-
tune. "The Golden Rule," said a college president, in a
recent baccalaureate address, " is fundamental to all right
relations. Applied to the adjustment of the serious
problems of America, they could be settled in five min-
utes." Christianity has extended itself very widely in
intellectual directions. It has incorporated itself in
creeds, and churches, but the time has not yet come when
nations are molded by it.

It is yet to conquer the realm of trade and commerce,
and to readjust all the relations of man with man, on the
basis of human brotherhood. It will not then be possible
for a million or more of men, with hungry wives and
children, to beg for work, which will be refused them by
millionaire employers, living in luxury. We shall not
read of women and children starving and freezing in the
midst of our nation's abundance, nor of daily suicides in
our great cities, because of homelessness, lack of friends,
inability to obtain work, and utter despair of any change
for the better. Our papers will not drip as now with the
foul accounts of business frauds and betrayal of trusts,
with reports of defalcations and embezzlements, and the
dishonesty of trusted officials. Armenians will not be
hunted like " partridges on the mountains," and tortured
and slaughtered by Moslem hate, while all the civilized
world stands idly looking on. [Applause.] It will then
be possible for an inferior race to live comfortably amid
dominant Anglo-Saxon people, with no danger of being
enslaved or destroyed by them.

There is another factor that enters into the battle of
life. No matter how large or small the community in
which we live, a city, a town, a village, or a hamlet,


there are public questions always coming to the front,
which challenge our interest. It may be a small evil that
is likely to grow to a nuisance, and must be nipped in the
bud. Or it may be a matter of town sanitation, a ques-
tion of drainage and sewerage, the problem of a pure
water supply, town lighting, or good roads, or the duty of
providing for public school education, with all the weighty
consideration connected with this question. If we have
any public spirit in us, and we are comparatively value-
less if we are indifferent to the public welfare, we are
compelled to throw our influence on the right side of the
discussions that decide the action of the community. If
it be a question of public morals, and the town is threat-
ened with the establishment of legalized liquor saloons,
gambling resorts, or other public places of immorality,
there is a peremptory call to all who stand for a higher
civilization to enter the lists against these moral pest-
houses. No fiercer battle rages in the world than that
now in progress between the friends and foes of a loftier
standard of municipal and national life. [Applause.]

There are few of us whose inmost souls are not the
arena of a life-long conflict, known only to ourselves and
God. Passion and appetite, which should be the driving
wheels of the human creature, struggle for mastery of
him. Selfishness, that asks all for itself; anger, that leaps
like a tiger from the jungle, with words of fury and deeds
of savagery; envy and hate, that burn out the soul and
poison the life ; revenge, that like a sleuth-hound, follows
the track of those who have injured us; sensuality, that
converts the beautiful body into a charnel house, full of
inconceivable horrors, how these plunge us into unrest
and sorrow, and abase us in our own estimation! [Ap-
plause.] We never recount to others the story of our
conflicts with ourself. No one hears the self-reproaches
we heap on our own weakness and cowardice, nor sees
the tears we shed over the humiliation of our defeat. All
through youth and middle life the struggle continues.
Happy are we when the prolonged conflict ends in self-
conquest, and we are masters of ourselves. Then have
we indeed learned the lesson of life, and been taught
" how divine a thing it is to suffer and be strong."

We do not live many years in the world before we un-



derstand that every one is anchored shoulders deep in
trouble and care. There is almost no exception to the
statement. If, on a superficial acquaintance we think we
have discovered that impossible personage who " has
never had an ungratified wish " and " never known a sor-
row," we are by and by undeceived; for there comes a
day when the shining veil that has masked him is rent, and
we behold him buffeting his way against head winds, and
bearing heavy burdens, in common with the universal
humanity. One would think that this knowledge would
incline us to a general kindliness of spirit, and a large
tolerance for each other's peculiarities ; that instead of
dealing out denunciation upon the blundering and erring,
we should be pitiful, and lend a helping hand to those
who come in our way, weak, stumbling and ready to
perish. There is too much intentional wounding of our
comrades in life. Many who are in the main charitable
are yet sharp, brusque, and quick to blame one who comes
to grief. Henry Ward Beecher used to say they were
like " the bee that goes head-foremost into a flower for
honey, but is always sure to carry a sting thrust out for
the pleasure of wounding."

I remember, during the war, going in an ambulance
some twenty miles to visit field hospitals. It was not
long after the battle of Murfreesboro, and a division of
the army that had encamped in the neighborhood, was
soon to break camp for a march in the direction of my
own route. I was ordered to move with it for safety, as
guerillas were reported very numerous along the way.
We kept beside the straggling column, that was not com-
pelled to march with exactness, but traveled as was most
comfortable. As we moved along I observed the profan-
ity of the men. Their speech was so interlarded with
oaths as to render it almost unintelligible. When the
chaplain rode to my ambulance he said, " How terribly
these men swear! When they meet the enemy they are
in search of, there will be a battle. Think how unpre-
pared they are to die ! " At first I sympathized with the
remark ; and I wondered if I was not manifesting a quix-
otic spirit, in leaving my home and pursuits for these
rough scenes of disorder, amid coarse and foul-mouthed



But the day grew hot, and the dust became intolerable.
The men began to drop, one after another, in a state of
exhaustion. The ambulances picked them up till they
were filled. Then here and there an officer would dis-
mount, and the fallen soldier would be lifted to his seat,
with a stronger comrade behind in charge of him. When
nothing else could be done, the feeble fellows were left in
the shade of a clump of trees, or in " the shadow of a
great rock in a weary land," with canteens of water, and
supplies of rations and healthy men to care for them, who
were to bring them on to the bivouac for the night, when
the torrid day had grown cooler, and the wilted men had
rallied. Not a man was left behind on the march to die.
Not once did the officers regard the fallen soldiers with
indifference, and command the marching column to leave
them where they fell. And when we were bestowed in
our tents for the night, and the drum had beat the tattoo
for retiring, I heard the soldiers who had been detailed to
the service of their weaker comrades as they came into
camp, bringing them with them.

All the while these men, to whom so much care was
given, were good for nothing for soldiering purposes, and
the officers and many of the rank and file knew it. If
their physical condition had been understood by the ex-
amining surgeon, they would not have been mustered
into the army. Their future could easily be predicted.
They would be permanent fixtures in the hospital after a
little time, a care to doctors and attendants, an expense
to the government, dying slowly, or discharged and sent
home to their kindred and friends. And yet the brotherly
feeling that prevailed in the ranks forbade their being
left on the march uncared for. And I said to the chap-
lain : " These men in the army, rough fellows though they
be, are better than we who remain at home, and never
defile our lips with coarseness and profanity. We con-
tinually tread down the people who are weak, and because
they cannot keep step with those who are strong, we hold
them in contempt, and think them unworthy of assistance.
But see the rough tenderness with which these soldiers
treat the feeblest and most worthless of their number."

When you travel in Switzerland, in the neighborhood



of the high mountains, you will sometimes come across a
group of people in the valley, who are intently observing
some object through a powerful glass. On inquiry, you
will learn that a company of tourists, with guides, are
making the ascent of Mount Blanc. You take your place
amidst the sight-seers. And while you watch the group
slowly making their perilous way along the dizzy heights,
two or three lose their footing, drop suddenly out of
sight, and are gone. Your heart stops its beating ; you
are sure they have fallen to a horrible death, down the
steep, jagged rocks into the inaccessible depths below.
You look again. No, they are not lost; one is restored
to his place in the long line of climbers, and slowly the
others struggle up into view, and cautiously they resume
their upward march. What is the explanation?

Before they came to the dangerous places they tied
themselves together with strong ropes, both the tourists
and the guides, and braced themselves at every step with
their steel-pointed alpen-stocks, which they planted firmly
in the frozen snow and ice. Those who dropped down
behind the treacherous ridges were held by the strength
of their companions on either side, who, firmly braced,
arrested their descent into the horrors below, and drew
them back into line, in safety. So it is in life. Many a
one is saved from ruin by the wise and strong love of the
friends who retain their hold upon him, and halt him in
his downward plunge. They will not allow him to de-
stroy himself, but will gradually win him back to their
own safe vantage ground. And if he shall fall again,
they will again interpose for his redemption, not twice
only, but again and again, as often as his stumbling feet
may require. Alas, for him who has neither friend nor
lover, and who is struggling for the mastery! For hu-
man nature requires so much mothering, and is so de-
pendent on love and sympathy, that he must be of the
divinest calibre who wins in the conflict of life, with none
to be glad of his victory, and none who would sorrow
over his defeat.

As much as we criticise the world, there is a vast
amount of good in it. The transition from barbarous to
civilized life has been made very gradually, by slow
ascents of progress, through thousands of years. Every



advance of the race in the mastery of the material world
has been accompanied by a corresponding development
of intellectual power, and the conquest of man by him-
self. Then came a comprehension of right and wrong,
and a moral standard was uplifted, which has been im-
measurably advanced during the last century. It has
come at last to include the golden rule, which is as funda-

Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 31 of 38)